January 10, 2013
Chuck Hagel Is Mainstream, Except Where It Counts
I suppose this will not come as a huge surprise, but Belgravia Dispatch is delighted that President Obama has officially nominated Chuck Hagel to serve as his Secretary of Defense. I agree with much that Tom Friedman had written in his Christmas Day column entitled "Give Chuck a Chance", albeit with one caveat. Friedman had written: “(s)o, yes, Hagel is out of the mainstream. That is exactly why his voice would be valuable right now. President Obama will still make all the final calls, but let him do so after having heard all the alternatives.”[emphasis added]
Posturing aside, I do not understand how Hagel can be out of the “mainstream”, unless one means the suffocating clutches of supine group-think that have eviscerated much of the foreign policy class. I believe skepticism about a military adventure in Iran is eminently “mainstream”. Indeed, I would go further, and would think that fuller consideration of a “containment” doctrine vis-à-vis Iran should be “mainstream” too—if ultimately diplomacy and sanctions were to run aground, only leaving potentially less desirable military options, and as done with arch-foes in the past of far greater geopolitical strength than Iran (even if the President has ostensibly removed this policy option from the table). I believe skepticism about unilateral Iran sanctions—as compared to the multilateral variety that Hagel more typically has supported—is “mainstream” and indeed, far more intelligent, as unilateral sanctions can be avoided with ease and so have materially less bite.
I believe looking to aggressively haircut the, yes, “bloated” Pentagon budget is “mainstream”, especially in this era of mammoth deficits and looming austerity. I believe suggesting we might wish to dialogue (and/or suggest our allies do so) with increasingly prominent Islamist groups—whether the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or its close cousin Hamas in Gaza, as “mainstream” as—like it or not—one is sometimes better positioned negotiating with hostile entities (as we might well do, for instance, with the Taliban in Afghanistan, or we did with Iran over Afghanistan issues post 9/11, among many other examples), indeed not least, to explore potential fissures and divisions within such movements, as well as to help bolster the security posture of our allies via such dialogues, whether sitting in Kabul or, for that matter, Tel Aviv.
I also think it “mainstream” (if not within the halls of our Congress, alas) to not willy-nilly sign off on every letter and/or resolution that is the effective equivalent—in terms of real value add—as name-calling in the school playground, as opposed to being more focused on more constructive policy-making initiatives (or, as Hagel put it to Aaron David Miller: “AIPAC comes knocking with a pro-Israel letter, and ‘then you’ll get 80 to 90 senators on it. I don’t think I’ve ever signed one of the letters.’ When someone would accuse him of not being pro-Israel because he didn’t sign the letter, Hagel told me [Miller] he responds: “I didn’t sign the letter because it was a stupid letter.")
Finally, I believe it “mainstream” to have questioned the wisdom not only of the Iraq surge, but also of the Afghanistan one, neither of which in my view merited the expenditure in blood and treasure, all things considered.
There has also been the matter of an unfortunate comment Mr. Hagel made about a decade and a half ago about a homosexual individual up for an Ambassadorial nomination, one James Hormel. Prominent gay voices like Andrew Sullivan and Steve Clemons have provided further context there, and I would defer to their views and acceptance of Mr. Hagel’s apology.
Additionally, Mr. Hagel had the misfortune of describing AIPAC as a “Jewish lobby”. The “Israeli lobby” is the preferred locution, as there are non-Jews who make up part of the lobby. Fair enough, although I am puzzled by comments like Senator John McCain’s, for instance: "There's no such thing as a Jewish lobby…There's an Armenian lobby, there's not a Jewish lobby. There's an Israeli lobby. It's called AIPAC, very influential.” So there are no non-Armenians who perhaps out of pro-Christian sentiment favor Armenian-related causes and assist John McCain’s self-described “Armenian lobby”? Or, inversely, regarding Turkish-Americans, there are no non-Turkish background U.S. nationals whom might be part of that particular lobby? And none of those Armenians and/or Turkish-Americans might have different views than ‘their’ lobbies, as we’ve heard critics of Mr. Hagel’s phraseology protest about his reference to a “Jewish lobby”? And what of the Taiwanese-American lobby, or the Polish-American lobby, or say the Cuban-American lobby? Adopting such usages, I suppose Israeli-American lobby—rather than, say, Jewish-American, might be best in class verbiage here, all told? But, really, we are all dancing on the head of a pin some respecting such nomenclature, aren’t we? Perhaps Mr. Hagel might better have said to Aaron David Miller something like: “certain segments of the American Jewish community strongly support AIPAC, along with non-Jewish allies of theirs to include notably some Christian evangelicals, and collectively they have a good deal of influence in Washington, but not dissimilarly than other powerful lobbies like the NRA, so that their influence is probably overstated by some, and understated by others, but regardless, I take my cues on Middle East policy from my head and gut in the context of what I think best serves the U.S. national interest, as I see it, but with due regard to balancing the interests of various allies, and the overall regional situation, but…” Well, you get my point, no? Rather a mouthful. I think J-Street puts it pretty well stating: “Smear a Bagel, not Chuck Hagel”. So let’s be clear: I do not think there is an anti-Semitic bone in Chuck Hagel’s body, and with all due respect to august bodies like the Council on Foreign Relations, I am chagrined they see fit to publish such crudely baiting fare (it should be beneath the Council to publish such material: “(p)erhaps there are answers, and perhaps Mr. Hagel actually has no problem with ‘the Jews’ ").
Regardless, I am sure Mr. Hagel will have more than ample opportunity to clarify his particular phraseology on this point, given that the specter of poor Mr. Hagel’s nomination has left us with the predictable spectacles of soi disant foreign policy notables like Lindsay Graham opining his nomination is an “in your face” selection while parroting Friedman stating: “(q)uite frankly, Chuck Hagel is out of the mainstream of thinking I believe on most issues regarding foreign policy…” (“quite frankly” typically a dead give-away inanities are about to spew to score political points, as here, regurgitation of the laughable talking point that Hagel is somehow a “fringe” player, not to be trusted with the levers of power at the Pentagon). Graham went on to say, incredibly, that Hagel would be the “most antagonistic secretary of Defense toward the state of Israel in our nation’s history”. Really? What about President Truman’s Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, who argued against the partition of Palestine? Ironically, for advocating such positions and stating: "...no group in this country should be permitted to influence our policy to the point it could endanger our national security”, Forrestal got what we might call a precursor to the ‘Hagel treatment’, to the extent that the U.S. Ambassador to Israel James G. McDonald wrote in 1951 describing the attacks on Forrestal as "unjustifiable", "persistent and venomous" and "among the ugliest example of the willingness of politicians and publicists to use the vilest means - in the name of patriotism - to destroy self-sacrificing and devoted public servants.” Le plus ca change.
But I digress. Mr. Friedman, apparently unwittingly, will have supplied varied Congressional ignoramuses with their sound-bites for the nomination fight. Out of the mainstream! Why? Because he's an Israel-hater! A Hezbollah lover! But Hagel is solid enough to beat back this clap-trap amidst the soap-box theater, and I suspect he will grind it through. Indeed, such handicapping is likely one reason why AIPAC has apparently decided to sit this one out, but also I suspect, senior, reasonable and intelligent AIPAC personnel must well realize that Mr. Hagel has voted for some approximately USD 40 billion of aid to Israel over the years, is staunchly committed to its security, and will not disavow the special relationship with Israel, if perhaps not treating is as a quasi-exclusive one as much as some of his predecessors. Put simply, Hagel believes in an Israeli state living peacefully side by side with a Palestinian one in the future, as opposed to careening from conflict to conflict every 5-10 years, and in a highly unsettled region. Shouldn’t we all have that as our goal?
Yes, I realize with the very real security considerations posed by Iran’s nuclear program there is some discomfort about Hagel’s views on aspects of Iran policy. Indeed, if one were to cut out all the noise and imminent Washington burlesque, this is likeliest where genuine policy differences should be aired most vigorously in the confirmation hearings. Hagel, to be sure, has seen war very up close and personal. He doubtless ascribes some to the school of thought, as Winston Churchill aptly put it: “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war”, certainly more than some of our arm-chair quarterbacks who likely never gave much of a toss for the grunts on the ground risking their lives on misguided crusades (in sharp distinction to Hagel who will pay special heed to the needs of active personnel and veterans). But Hagel is not some pacifist, anti-war activist. He has voted to support use of force, on various occasions. But regarding Iran, and as he put it in an excellent speech on Iran policy:
The United States needs to weigh very carefully its actions regarding Iran. In a hazy, hair-triggered environment, careless rhetoric and military movements that one side may believe are required to demonstrate resolve and strength…can be misinterpreted as preparations for military options. The risk of inadvertent conflict because of miscalculation is great. The United States must be cautious and wise not to follow the same destructive path on Iran as we did on Iraq. We blundered into Iraq because of flawed intelligence, flawed assumptions, flawed judgments, and questionable intentions. The United States must find a new regional diplomatic strategy to deal with Iran that integrates our regional allies, military power and economic leverage.
I must confess I find nothing particularly objectionable in such thinking whatsoever, but by all means, let the distinguished Senators have at it and robustly discuss substantive differences on Iran policy, or the Pentagon budget, or the rise of China’s Navy, or myriad other topics—but not cheaply tar this public servant with suggestive smears.
All this said, it is true that Hagel is sometimes “out of the mainstream.” He was out of the “mainstream” to have earned two “Purple Hearts” serving in Vietnam (see too this story about the reportedly unique fact that Hagel and his brother served in the very same infantry squad, and quite literally saved each other’s lives). Few of his critics have performed in uniform with such valor, indeed many of them have not even served at all. It speaks to real courage. And it is similarly out of the mainstream to have the backbone, conviction and spine to stand apart from the crowd some and sometimes call out the BS, which Hagel’s occasionally blunt style has not infrequently allowed. Good on him, and good luck to him and the Administration navigating the confirmation process through to a successful confirmation vote. At the end of the day, I think smart money says Hagel will get the job, as he most assuredly deserves and is qualified for, and given the campaign against him consists more of thinly veiled canards than hard facts. These United States will survive. Israel will survive. Indeed, I think the security posture of both will be enhanced by Hagel’s stewardship of the Pentagon. And, speaking of, we will have a Secretary of Defense who, as Ryan Crocker put it aptly, “would run the Defense Department; it would not run him”, which as we all know, is no small feat.
January 04, 2013
The Sandy Hook School Massacre
I was reminded after the horrific schoolhouse massacre in Connecticut late last year of a passage in Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. Beyond the sheer carnage, perhaps it was too heartrending aspects of the aftermath such as the moving footage of one of the bereaved fathers emotionally paying tribute to his lost daughter, or that another of the slain six year olds was herself slated to play an angel in the town's annual Christmas pageant. Given such poignant details and regardless of whether one is particularly faithful, the passage where the 'elder'* Zosima provides comfort to a woman who has just lost her three year old son seems somewhat apropos. Important to note, Dostoevsky and his wife Anna Grigorievna had just suffered a very similar loss (their own three year old), so that the passage is somewhat autobiographical. The excerpt is below, from Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky's transcendent translation (at pp. 49-50):
“Listen, mother,” said the elder. “Once, long ago, a great saint saw a mother in church, weeping just as you are over her child, whom the Lord had also called to him. ‘Do you not know,’ the saint said to her, ‘how bold these infants are before the throne of God? No one is bolder in the Kingdom of Heaven: Lord, you granted us life, they say to God, and just as we beheld it, you took it back from us. And they beg and plead so boldly that the Lord immediately puts them in the ranks of the angels. And therefore,’ said the saint, ‘you, too, woman, rejoice and do not weep. Your infant, too, now abides with the Lord in the host of his angels.’ That is what a saint said to a weeping woman in ancient times. he was a great saint and would not have hold her a lie. Therefore you, too, mother, know that your infant, too, surely now stands before the throne of the Lord, rejoicing and being glad, and praying to God for you. Weep, then, but also rejoice.”
Dostoevsky returns to the theme in other parts of the book, for instance (at p. 292):
God restores Job again, gives him wealth anew; once more many years pass, and he has new children, different ones, and he loves them--Oh Lord, one thinks, "but how could he so love those new ones, when his former children are no more, when he has lost them? Remembering them, was it possible for him to be fully happy, as he had been before, with the new ones, however dear they might be to him? But it is possible, it is possible: the old grief, by a great mystey of human life, gradually passes into quiet, tender joy; instead of young, ebullient blood comes a mild, serene old age: I bless the sun's rising each day and my heart sings to it as before, but now I love its setting even more, its long slanting rays, and with them quiet, mild, tender memories, dear images from the whole of a long and blessed life--and over all is God's truth, moving, reconciling, all-forgiving!”
Indeed, the very novel's dedication (to this wife Anna) reads: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit" (John 12:24).
During episodes such as these, I prefer to turn to such perspectives than those of abysmal hacks carping on about Rupert Murdoch's pro-gun regulation tweets, as they merrily turn against their former patrons amidst the internecine shrieks. Anyone who denies the epidemic of gun violence is a national issue of utmost import requiring multi-faceted solutions (yes, to include greater regulation as part of the overall approach, and not just talk of armed guards and 'concealed carry' as supposed panaceas) does not merit much, if any, serious attention.
* The concept of the 'elder' might have been partly inspired by Paissy Velichkovsky, the so-called 'father of the Russian elders.' Related, and as one of the end-notes to the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation also states: "Dostoevsky owned a copy of the 1854 edition of Velichkovsky's translation of the homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian, a seventh-century monk...St. Isaac, whose spiritual influence has been very great, seems also to have influenced Dostoevsky's elder Zosima."
** The Dostoevsky's deceased child was also named Alexei. Additionally, as another end-note clarifies: "St. Alexis, a Greek anchorite who died around 412 A.D., is much loved in Russia, where he is known as "Alexei, the man of God." And, of course, the book's protagonist is named Alexei (Alyosha) Karamazov, and is on occasion referred to as a "man of God" by the author.
September 12, 2012
The Romney Campaign's Smallness
The Romney campaign has certainly not distinguished itself over the past 24-48 hours with respect to commenting on Middle East policy issues. Consider the following two episodes:
1) As reported in the New York Times, after the latest fracas between Obama and Netanyahu, a Romney advisor states:
Mr. Romney had no immediate comment about Mr. Netanyahu’s challenge to Mr. Obama, and one of his informal advisers on the Middle East said, “It’s probably better at this point to let Netanyahu make the point because it’s more powerful that way.” The adviser said he was not authorized to speak on the record. [my emphasis]
So let’s get this straight. First, no one is willing to comment on the record. Second, they double down on this cowardly posture by stating it is better to let a foreign leader beat up on the United States’ current sitting President than the campaign itself. That it's more "powerful that way"? Quite classy. A few decades back, this would have been unthinkable. Forget about politics stopping at the water’s edge, this is an opposition party essentially openly siding with a foreign leader's world view on one of the leading geopolitical issues of the day.
2) Next, there is the tragedy of the events in Benghazi (and Cairo), which given the death of Ambassador Stevens and his colleagues, I will refrain from commenting on the deep ironies thereto with respect to our recent misadventure in Libya. Of course no such dignity from the Romney campaign, who lept on some Tweets from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo to contend that the Obama Administration’s first reaction was one of, you guessed it, weak-kneed appeasement and sympathy with the enemy (and on the anniversary of 9/11 to boot!).
Apparently some of the offending tweets were as follows:
We condemn the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims— US Embassy Cairo (@USEmbassyCairo) September 11, 2012
This morning's condemnation (issued before protest began) still stands. As does our condemnation of unjustified breach of the Embassy.
How horrific, and really, isn’t this execrable filmmaker (one Sam Bacile) also worthy of a condemnation or two amidst all the fall-out from his disgustingly moronic, self-indulgent “documentary”?
The US Embassy in Cairo went on to Tweet:
Of course we condemn breaches of our compound, we're the ones actually living through this.
Sorry, but neither breaches of our compound or angry messages will dissuade us from defending freedom of speech AND criticizing bigotry.
Nice reminders that those Tweeting from Cairo are actually on the ground dealing with the aftermath, and that denigrating, bigoted trash helped set off this conflagration, although, of course, there is zero excuse for resorting to such violence and attacking U.S. government interests as a result.
Meantime, here’s what the President himself said, rather than whomever is running the Tweeting out of Cairo (not incapably, in my view):
I strongly condemn the outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, which took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. Right now, the American people have the families of those we lost in our thoughts and prayers. They exemplified America’s commitment to freedom, justice, and partnership with nations and people around the globe, and stand in stark contrast to those who callously took their lives.
I’ll let the statement speak for itself.
Amidst all this, Romney, who couldn’t even embargo his statement until 9/11 had passed (and might have summoned a tad more elegance if he’d over-nighted it & realized the first sitting U.S. Ambassador since 1979 had died), reels out this statement : “It's disgraceful that the Obama Administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”
No, what’s disgraceful are these two episodes highlighted above. But it’s OK, it makes Romney and his team look desperately small. More please.
September 11, 2012
Hit the Road, Niall
In the annals of partisan hackery few pieces of late have been as ridden with inaccuracies, half-truths and flawed logic as Niall Ferguson's August piece in Newsweek, certainly one that brimmed with as much cocksureness and self-contentedness so as to verge on the solipsistic (Mr. Ferguson accuses President Obama of having a “solipsistic narrative” but he might be better served to look in the mirror). Ferguson assures us he was a “good loser four years ago” with respect to his ill-fated support of John McCain, but this time, “fired up,” he wants the Romney-Ryan ticket “badly to win”. In this misguided “fired up” zeal, Tina Brown provided him the perfect middlebrow forum in which to embarrass himself, and rather “badly”, I dare say. The misrepresentations (I am being generous) crossed with subsequent nakedly transparent and disingenuous CYA with respect to distorted contentions that health-care reform costs were accretive to the federal deficit have been amply documented, here (Paul Krugman), here (Ezra Klein ) and here (Matthew O’Brien). I have occasionally wondered since the article’s publication whether Newsweek had deigned to issue a correction, but was dubious enough given Newsweek’s pedestrianism to not waste my time checking, nor I’d wagered would Niall bother to, of late in defiant crouch, ostensibly above the whimsical niceties of eating some humble pie when caught with his hands in a partisan spin cookie jar large enough to make even the rotund grotesqueries of an El Rushbo-type blush.
But let us not further detain ourselves with the crude arithmetical rigging of isolating in a vacuum costs of the insurance-coverage provisions of The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (that dastardly Obamacare, always good for a rabble-rouse or two) deployed to help score rhetorical points in furtherance of Ferguson’s charmingly school-boy bromance with Paul Ryan (of which more below) as there is so much more in his piece that merits rebuttal. Let’s start with a point where I actually agree with Niall, where he writes, “[I]t is five years since the financial crisis began, but the central problems—excessive financial concentration and excessive financial leverage—have not been addressed.” True, Dodd-Frank is something of a travesty (for one, the regulators will ultimately almost inevitably be outsmarted by the banks), and what was required was a dismantling of the large banks and a resurrection of Glass-Steagall (as even Sandy Weill recently advocated for, in a wondrous chutzpah-on-steroids cogitation on CNBC) but a small question for Niall: does he remotely believe that Mitt Romney—who if nothing else has dutifully signaled he will be every bit the willing handmaiden and apparatchik to Wall Street—would even begin to consider such dramatic moves? Of course not, you can be certain. Indeed, the only major candidate in the Republican field who indicated he might so countenance (that is, if I can recall the surreal burlesque of the Republican imbeciles trotted out during the primary season, candidly it’s all a bit of a haze) was one Jon Hunstman. Rather, Romney would strip out whatever small teeth might survive Dodd-Frank’s ‘comment period’ (e.g., whatever the legions of lawyers for the bulge-bracket banks couldn’t excise from, say, the already tottering and embarrassingly diluted Volcker Rule), in the supposed furtherance of removing policy uncertainty, regulatory headwinds and such, so that “business confidence” would miraculously reappear on the corporate budgeting and investment scene. Were it only so easy, and were it even remotely possible that a Romney-Ryan ticket would pursue such policies! As for Niall’s whine regarding levered-up banks, at least Obama is supportive of the enhanced Basel III regime, and again I ask: would Romney impose stricter leverage requirements than Basel III legislates on the likes of Morgan Stanley or JP Morgan? If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you, keeping in mind Romney’s assiduous Manhattan money-raising, in the very precincts most moan-heavy and aggrieved by the cruel slights of Basel.
But Mr. Ferguson was just getting started, saving his ‘deep think’ for the latter part of the piece. He ponderously—and, I’m afraid, emptily--proclaims to the masses from Cambridge: “The failures of leadership on economic and fiscal policy over the past four years have had geopolitical consequences…For me the President’s greatest failure has been not to think through the implications of these challenges to American power”. If one were hoping for an intelligent critique of the President’s foreign policy (a policy that is certainly not flawless, but nonetheless materially under-rated), their hopes would have been cruelly dashed, alas, with readers instead subjected to a sophomoric world view that seems to cross neo-Victorian nostalgia with Risk (meaning Hasbro’s board game, not strategic risk mitigation). Mr. Ferguson’s attempted targets range from Obama’s Asia “pivot”, to his Cairo speech, on to his analysis of Obama’s (non)-interventions in Iran, Tunisia (!), Egypt, Libya (leading from behind, etc) and Syria, before ending his foreign policy musings ruing the erosion of nation-building in favor of drone-strikes. Let us take each briefly in turn.
While I myself had expressed some skepticism about Obama’s Asia pivot, to include deployment of Marines in Australia, this basing decision did not come in a vacuum, but rather was accompanied by other roughly contemporaneous policy moves, including an intrepid re-invigoration of relations with Myanmar, support signaled to key allies regarding territorial disputes with China, and more. While I think our policy vis-à-vis China is rife with possible room for mutual miscalculation and distrust (see this excellent piece for more), I certainly do not think Romney’s empty China-bashing a superior approach, nor have I seen a smidgen of any indication that a Romney Administration would out-perform Obama’s on China policy. So while I can certainly agree PRC policy needs to be ameliorated, rationalized and above all better communicated and ‘socialized’ with our diplomatic counterparts in Beijing (whomever is in the Oval Office next January), I cannot for the life of me see how assorted China chest-thumping by Romneyites would help the situation any. If I’m missing something here beyond yelping "currency manipulator" and “Day 1” and “cheater” to pander a few votes from the Panda-phobes (even discounting for political silly season), Ferguson should step up and tell us what dramatic value-add Romney will bring to the table on PRC policy. I see none whatsoever, whatever derisive poo-pooing Niall chooses to dish out with respect to the so-called “pivot”, which incidentally, at very least signals to the international community we are not hell-bent on more deeply enmeshing ourselves in pointless nation-building in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.
Ferguson than sees fit to remonstrate Obama for his Cairo speech, which he describes as an “especially clumsy bid to ingratiate himself on what proved to be the eve of a regional revolution”. Per Niall’s caricature, Mousavi’s Green Movement was a direct harbinger of Cairo to come, and basically Obama was asleep at the wheel, uttering sweet nothings at Al-Azhar. Sorry, but this is claptrap. As I explained here, Egypt exploded after Tunisia, with any direct causation to Iran debatable at best. Beyond this, and far more important than academic debates around causation, to have waded forcefully into the Iranian situation would have had precisely the opposite impact that we’d have wished for, as I laid out at the time in some detail here. Now, while it is true our somewhat ad hoc policy of ‘differentiation’ in our responses to the Arab Spring (over-deference to Saudi Arabian views on Bahrain, for instance, versus at the other extreme Bernard-Henri Levy worthy Libya-jingo, albeit only from ‘behind’, to the disappointment of the post-Trotskyites at the Weekly Standard) has not exactly overwhelmed with its strategic coherence, the recycled ‘bomb Iran’ incantations of post-McCain Republicans are not terribly confidence inspiring either. To stress, absent blow-hards making the rounds at venues like Morning Joe assuring they’d have a panacea-like solution to Syria, I’ve seen precious little (well, nothing) by way of intelligent policy prescriptions emitting from the Romney campaign when it comes to Middle East policy, whether the Arab Spring, the Arab-Israeli peace process (to the extent they even believe in said process, rather than perennially genuflecting to the Likud Wing of the Israeli polity), or even a more intelligent approach to Afghanistan, let alone Syria. As for the Cairo speech, while it may annoy Niall that a refutation of the excesses of neo-conservatism was well needed at that juncture, particularly those conflating Islam as the next ‘ism’ requiring American opposition (in a manner erroneously akin to communism and fascism), the reality is the speech, while mostly inconsequential to date given admittedly little tangible policy follow-on, at least accomplished signaling an olive branch was being proffered the Islamic world after the crude excesses of the prior Administration.
Yet, when it comes to Niall’s foreign policy musings, it is best to keep the biggest doozy for last. Ferguson writes (when criticizing the drone program, not mind you because of the highly worrisome so-called collateral damage, but evidently mostly because “the real crime is that the assassination program destroys potentially crucial intelligence”: “(W)hat that means in practice is the abandonment not only of Iraq but soon of Afghanistan too. Understandably, the men and women who have served there wonder what exactly their sacrifice is for, if any notion that we are nation building has been quietly dumped. Only when both countries sink back into civil war will we realize the real price of Obama’s foreign policy.” Oh, I see: a crude trotting out of the stabbed in the back myth, this time of the good rulers sitting in Baghdad and Kabul, whom of course are only wishing that we’d keep 100,000-200,000 plus troops in each theater for another decade or two, per Niall’s risibly unmoored fantasy. This is particularly so as here we are dealing with a supposed Ryan fan and austerity adherent! Is Niall aware of our almost $800 billion military budget, and the material sub-components of said sum represented by these increasingly quixotic foreign adventures borne of over-reactions to 9/11 (understandable at the time, but have we learned nothing)? No matter, of course, as the security situation in each country deteriorates moving forward, it will be Obama’s fault, not that we should have never engaged in such unabashed nation-building adventurism in the first place.
Sad too, and worthy of at least a mention given Ferguson’s prominence on Harvard’s faculty, is that in his castigation of Obama’s drone campaign and the like, nary a mention is made of the Bush torture policy that Obama—if not as effectively as I’d have liked, moved to course correct away from--except evidently, to rue the current dearth of intelligence-gathering opportunities (read: resuscitating so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques", known in plain English as torture). After all, it’s one thing to have flubbed closing Guantanamo as did Obama, it’s another to cheer-lead doubling it as Romney did as a candidate in 2008, to quote: “You said the person is going to be in Guantanamo. I'm glad they're at Guantanamo. I don't want them on our soil. I want them in Guantanamo where they don't get the access to lawyers they get when they're on our soil. I don't want them in our prisons. I want them there. Some people have said we ought to close Guantanamo. My view is, we ought to double Guantanamo." Impressive Niall, that you’ve thrown in your lot with a phony panderer who would throw such red meat to a party yelling for the brown-skins to be denied the rights of habeas corpus enshrined in the Magna Carta almost a millennia ago. Good show, mate. Who gives a damn about Enlightenment values and the abolition of torture being on par with abolishment of slavery in its importance to any civilized nation?
Incidentally, it is amusing to read in Ferguson’s piece this spot of befuddlement: “(R)emarkably the president polls relatively strongly on national security”. It wouldn’t be so remarkable if Ferguson snapped out of his empire-nostalgia reverie and intuited the American people are tired, profoundly tired, of these absurd military adventures overseas. Also, of course, there is one word which doesn’t appear in Niall’s long Newsweek hack-fest, and that is Osama bin Laden (I might note in passing as I’m writing this on 9/11/12, Obama’s directives as Commander-in-Chief allow this New Yorker to commemorate the first anniversary of this tragedy with bin Laden actually dead).
Ferguson’s embarrassing piece ends with a barely concealed man-crush on Paul Ryan (the aforementioned bromance) where he gushes: “I first met Paul Ryan in April 2010. I had been invited to a dinner in Washington where the U.S. fiscal crisis was going to be the topic of discussion… Ryan blew me away. I have wanted to see him in the White House ever since.” Let's keep such breathless enthusiam a tad tempered, no? As the sentient conservative (whom these days can perhaps be counted on a hand or two) David Stockman put it in a must-read piece, one that cuts through the miasma of bullshit and spin with crushing efficacy with respect to Ryan, and much else besides:
Paul D. Ryan is the most articulate and intellectually imposing Republican of the moment, but that doesn’t alter the fact that this earnest congressman from Wisconsin is preaching the same empty conservative sermon. Thirty years of Republican apostasy — a once grand party’s embrace of the welfare state, the warfare state and the Wall Street-coddling bailout state — have crippled the engines of capitalism and buried us in debt. Mr. Ryan’s sonorous campaign rhetoric about shrinking Big Government and giving tax cuts to “job creators” (read: the top 2 percent) will do nothing to reverse the nation’s economic decline and arrest its fiscal collapse…
Spot on, to the word. And here’s the bottom line. Beyond the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of attack ads that will carpet bomb the swing states over the next fifty or so days, the broad middle of the polity smells that no real leadership or even truly persuasive alternative fiscal direction is on tap with the Republicans. Barring externalities like massive Euro-zone contagion, a material Middle East conflagration, or serious bungles during the debates by the President, I believe Obama is going to win this thing, even if it will be very close, to be sure. But Niall’s “choice between les Etats Unis and the Republic of the Battle Hymn” is a mockery. Are their disappointments with Obama? You betcha. Lofty rhetoric was too rarely complemented by real execution. The jobs crisis required more hands-on spade-work and sense of urgency by the White House. Yes, the Afghanistan “seminar” was protracted, and the sausage-making emitted at the end cynical (a misguided surge only to tee up a withdrawal?). And Wall Street deserved tougher treatment than it got, even if many of the extraordinary Government actions initiated during the Bush 43 Administration were arguably necessitated given the gravity of a looming depression on the near horizon. But, and be that as it may, Obama, contra Ferguson’s juvenilia, is not “psych[ed]…out” by Ryan, whatever that means. Was their a frisson or two of excitement with Romney’s pick, rather than a deathly dull Portman or Pawlenty? Sure. Ryan, with the benefit of a decade or so more years, and rather a lot more gravitas, on the top of a ticket? Just maybe. But Ryan psyching Obama out today under a flip-flopping, politically-challenged Romney as the GOP’s standard-bearer? No way (the only candidate whom might have troubled Obama a bit, assuming he had more resonance with voters, would have been Jon Huntsman).
Of course, I may be proven wrong. We'll know soon enough. Meantime, Ferguson, apparently unchastened, is just getting warmed up. Recently I espied him on Bloomberg TV suggesting he’d never seen more hot air than at the Democratic Convention (perhaps he's depressed by the healthy post-Convention bounce the Democrats got, in contrast to the rather underwhelming spectacle that was Tampa). As Bill Clinton might say, Niall’s got a lot of “brass” to so contend, given the amount of hot air and spittle shoveled through Newsweek's pages with this embarrassing effort. I'm afraid I will not be reading him with much respect moving forward after this nakedly partisan screed, and I suspect I am not alone.
May 26, 2012
Gaddis' Kennan Biography: Preliminary Musings
I have been meaning to discuss John Lewis Gaddis' biography of George Kennan here (George F. Kennan: An American Life), but as often have been unable to find the time. In the meantime, however, I wanted to highlight what I thought was the most judicious review I've seen to date (by Frank Costigliola, an academic who also edits Kennan's diaries). Costigliola's review appeared in the NYRB towards the end of 2011. While Gaddis' work has almost universally been praised as "magisterial" in its treatment of Kennan's life (make no mistake, it is an impressive biography, which rightfully earned Gaddis a Pulitzer) I do tend to agree with Costigliola that in parts his depiction of Kennan is "ultimately clipped and flattened." Touching on this, Costigliola writes:
The older man once described to Gaddis his habit, going back to childhood, of picking up on seemingly disassociated sights, sounds, and other stimuli and then bringing them together with other elements in his experience to fashion a concept or a connection uniquely his own. Throughout his life he had “read all sorts of mystery and beauty and other things into landscapes and places, and also into music.” He sensed what most other people could not. “Every city that I went to had not only a different atmosphere but a different sort of music and intonation to it…. I was immensely sensitive and responsive to differences in the atmosphere of places.”
I hope and plan to give Gaddis' biography a fuller analysis here at some point in the coming months, but simply wished to post sooner that I am sympathetic to Costigliola's concern as per the above.
On a related (if somewhat tangential) note, recently reading Kennan's Sketches From a Life (a compilation of various of his diary entries) I found this depiction of a large Communist demonstration he ran into walking around Hamburg during his first full-time foreign service posting in 1927 noteworthy. Kennan writes:
Yesterday was a rainy Sunday. I walked down to the post-office in the morning and ran into a huge Communist demonstration--thousands and thousands of people standing in the drizzling rain before the Dammtor Station, with their red flags and arm-bands, listening to soap-box orators, singing the Internationale, marching around behind sickly fife and drum organizations, buying propaganda literature and Sacco-Vanzetti post-cards.
While this snippet arguably explains why a Joe Alsop would describe George Kennan as "an almost too-sensitive man", it nonetheless neatly encapsulated for me similar musings having witnessed, for instance, various Occupy Wall Street gatherings. After all, at a time where unemployment levels among youth in major European countries like Spain are in the vicinity of 50%, austerity risks radicalizing a new lost generation, where geopolitical risk looms large through the Middle East, and where in the United States populist fires may re-ignite more forcefully given still highly significant economic head-winds amidst an uneven, quasi-recovery, that we are still being subjected to dreary moans from acolytes of systemically dangerous too big to fail/bail/manage etc. bulge brackets about Basel III, the Volcker Rule, and Dodd-Frank--this in the midst of such aforementioned major historic forces at play and old demons possibly being unleashed--well, it is indeed tempting to cherish some form of idealism given such a steady cacaphony of corporatized idiocy.
March 14, 2012
The Folly of Afghanistan
It has been rather an eventful week in Afghanistan. The senseless massacre of villagers perpetrated by a U.S. serviceman. The security incident that occurred near Leon Panetta's plane. The skittish spectacle of having U.S. troops disarm before hearing their own Defense Secretary speak. All this on the heels of the Koran-burning debacle, among many other such troublesome episodes. The confluence of these events is richly symbolic, if we needed any reminding, of an increasingly futile and failed war effort (I say futile as why have 100,000 men in theater to engage in a fantastically unrealistic nation-building effort amidst a Pashtun population who largely detest our presence, simply to ferret out perhaps 50-100 residual al-Qaeda operatives, and with their leader already felled long ago in Abbottabad?).
Meantime, our 'exit strategy' is to negotiate with those we initially pledged to decimate (that is, if they accept our entreaties to do so). To provide 'Government in a Box' to desperately backwards hamlets (many of whose inhabitants have never even heard of 9/11 and have little to no understanding why the U.S. is there). To train and equip an Afghan Army to supposedly restore order to precincts where, more often than not, said Army would risk being largely distrusted, loathed even. To play COIN (another tiresome Washington cottage industry where one regales about the Brits in Old Malaya), while the sitting Government in Kabul wants us to retrench from close-in villages to remote, larger bases. To sing the praises of 'hearts and minds', while gunning down young girls and burning Korans (we will likely see more such episodes given the epidemic of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as this piece helps elucidate, and given the repeated churning of troops chattel-like for serial tours). To speak unconvincingly of better aligning interests with Pakistan when Islamabad views Afghanistan--as it perenially has--as a vital, 'rear theater' in its power struggle with India, so that it will to varying degrees always allow for sanctuaries for Taliban and/or related interests. All this while we bankroll a massively corrupted client in a country mired in nepotism, narcotics and virtually never-ending conflict well before we arrived on the scene, and with approximately 2,000 U.S. soldiers dead, thousands more injured, $500 billion squandered, not to speak of allied losses and the devastasting Afghan toll.
As George Will noted a while back, at the time of the McChrystal going-ons:
It is difficult, and perhaps unwise, to suppress this thought: McChrystal's disrespectful flippancies, and the chorus of equally disdainful comments from the unpleasant subordinates he has chosen to have around him, emanate from the toxic conditions that result when the military's can-do culture collides with a cannot-be-done assignment. In this toxicity, Afghanistan is Vietnam redux [emphasis added].
Visting this year's Armory Show on a recent weekend here in New York, I stumbled on the below embedded photograph (taken in Afghanistan by the talented photographer Tim Hetherington, who subsequently died in Libya during a mortar attack in Misrata). The photograph apparently captures more the aftermath of a 'birthday hazing', as this site explains, rather than depicting the direct result of combat trauma or such. Yet it still powerfully evokes the lunacy of this conflict.
With Osama bin Laden dead, it is high time to declare victory and come home. Anthony Cordesman has recently written that we could accomplish this by an "exit by denial", an "honest exit", or what he describes as the biggest challenge, a "real transition plan", that could last until 2020. A 20 year war! Mr. Cordesman follows these matters far more closely than me, and I well respect his opinions, but I sense deep down he doesn't believe such a plan truly realizable. This seems to suggest the more honorable, realistic option is the so-called 'honest exit', I would argue. As Cordesman describes it:
We deal with the human consequences of these actions and ensure that those Afghans who worked with us are safe. We provide at least enough money and support so that, if there is a chance that the Afghan government and forces can survive with a far lower level of resources, they have at least that much support. We try to work with Pakistan, China, Russia, the Central Asian states, and even Iran to do as much as possible to limit the role of the Taliban and other insurgents, protect the non-Pashtun areas in the north and the large numbers of urban and other northern Pashtuns, and give Kabul a meaningful role. These efforts may well fail, but they at least offer the Afghans some chance.
After ten plus long years, it is clear that is about the best we are going to achieve, so let us get on with it. A smidgen of honest self-reckoning demands it, if only we can manage to cease deluding ourselves. But to admit we have been essentially dishonest about Afghanistan these many years given the near zero prospects of success--whether as result of the accumulated, mammoth delusions or the steady aggregation of more deliberate lies--would appear too exuberant an act of unvarnished honesty than we have seemed capable of late. Nor does a policy-making apparatus ridden by stop-gap measures, self-delusion, cynical detachment, or worse, help. Alas, we are instead likely to trundle along for a couple more years (and this only if Obama is re-elected, as the Republican alternatives are even worse), as more innocent lives are shattered, more billions squandered, all the while as our elites mostly disinterestingly shrug, and the mass public similarly issues a collective yawn. Perhaps this is the kind of society Teddy Roosevelt had in mind when he said: "Of all forms of tyranny the least attractive and the most vulgar is the tyranny of mere wealth, the tyranny of a plutocracy." After all, policy choices this stupendously poor, with so little care for the collosal carnage, epic waste, lives torn asunder, strategic incoherence and fundamental futility of the mission--all the while as the war drums keep bleating on beckoning towards new theaters, and amidst a backdrop of abhorrent indifference by far too many of us--collectively reveal a society scandalously flawed.
UPDATE: Related to above, this article is well worth reading too.
February 26, 2012
The Syria Conundrum
Almost a year ago in this space, I wrote regarding the unfolding situation in Syria:
It is impossible to predict with certainty, but I cannot see a turning back now or restoration of calm. The genie of increasingly insistent protests seems out of the bottle, and one now wonders whether Bashar is ultimately willing to kill, not scores, but thousands, in a desperate gambit to cow his populace, a terrible eventuality that will only lead to the regime's ultimate demise regardless…given promises of reform…are proving instead horrifying rivulets of blood on the streets of myriad cities, towns and villages through Syria, it seems highly likely protests will gain in size, breadth and insistency, shortly spreading to the downtowns of Aleppo and Damascus.
Fast forward a year and we see the apple does not fall far from the tree, when it comes to the Assad family. While subduing the insurrection to date has not been conducted with quite the same singular, brutish decisiveness his father (or, more particularly, his uncle Rifaat al-Assad) had manifested in the full-bore, scorched earth campaign that was 1982 Hama, the incremental escalation and toll is ratcheting up mercilessly to equal these historical horrors on an aggregated basis. In particular, the increasingly incessant shelling of districts like Babr Amr in Homs (not to mention the deprivations visited on forlorn towns like Idlib and Dara’a)—with zero regard for the many scores of civilians felled weekly—showcases tactics in equal measure cowardly and repulsive in the extreme.
The stench of death rising daily from Homs is an indelible black mark on Bashar, and were there even a smidgen of legitimacy left the regime could pretend to enjoy, this increasingly crude campaign has extinguished any semblance of same. One must add to this gory list documented use of torture (including against children), use of fragmentation mortar devices without warning, mass executions, among other horrific fare documented in a recent U.N. report. Indeed, it is manifestly clear that despite rosy optics around his ophthalmologist background, his attractive British-born JP Morgan alumnus wife, and such Knightsbridge style trappings—the man has now been nakedly revealed to be nothing more than a mass-murdering thug--happy to visit such horrors on his own people, no less--in a manner which already warrants war crime charges. Given these grim realities, we are facing an onslaught of elite opinion that ‘something must be done’ to remedy the increasingly intolerable situation. This past Friday, we had three opinion pieces splashed prominently across each of the New York Times (Anne-Marie Slaughter), Wall Street Journal (Fouad Ajami) and the Financial Times (Emile Nakhleh). Unsurprisingly, the best of the lot is Nakhleh’s (the FT consistently has a far higher caliber of opinion writing than either of its two other main competitors), but I want to touch on each in turn.
Anne-Marie Slaughter’s effort, I’m afraid, was the sloppiest, almost offering up something of a parody respecting the over-reaching ‘liberal hawk’ wing’s more excited exertions. Perhaps emboldened by the relative ‘ease’ of the Libyan campaign (see her indecently hasty post-Libya ‘victory lap’ in the FT last August, indecent given post-Gaddafi Libya’s many ongoing travails, some of them sketched out here), Slaughter offers up a chaotically concocted brew of ‘kitchen sink’ policy recommendations. These generally military policy prescriptions (worth noting, Slaughter is not a military expert) most prominently include the creation of “no-kill zones” (near the Turkish, Lebanese and Jordanian borders, no mention of the Iraqi or Israeli ones, unsurprisingly), said zones to be managed by ‘already active civilian committees’, but requiring countries “like Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan” to arm opposition soldiers with “anti-tank, counter-sniper and portable antiaircraft weapons”. Slaughter then adds special forces to the mix, to be inserted from Qatar, Turkey and “possibly Britain and France” (Slaughter, I suspect speculating about Turkey, writes: “some may be there already”, regardless, the countries listed will doubtless be gratified by her volunteering their services). We are advised these special forces will allow opposition troops “to cordon off population centers and rid them of snipers."
Said Special Forces now hard at work in the alleyways of Aleppo and the Damascene suburbs, Homs and Hama, or the 'no kill zone' committees now perched on the Jordanian, Lebanese and Turkish frontiers (never mind King Abdullah, regardless of whether he inherited any of the ‘pluck’ of father, would likely not agree to this action—given how lucky he has been to date to avoid an uprising in his own back-yard--he may well have other priorities just now; as for Lebanon, you can imagine how a ‘no-kill zone’ there could instead rapidly transform into another “kill zone” instead, alas), the “no-kill zones” would then expand, almost as if by osmosis-like magic (recall for Slaughter these zones are meant to have as “absolute priority” simply “public safety and humanitarian aid”, not serve as spear-head for offensive moves). All this would simply require “intelligence focused on tank and aircraft movements, the placement of artillery batteries and communications lines among Syrian forces”. In turn this will, per her telling, allow for the weakening of pro-government forces so they agree truces on a regional, and then national basis.
In case anything should get out of hand (say revanchist killings by Sunnis of Alawi, to take an obvious example) Slaughter casually avers: “revenge attacks will not be tolerated” (by whom, the Gulf States that would ostensibly be bank-rolling the effort? Cameron and Sarkozy? The Turks? Others? And how would this punitive, behavioral ‘claw-back’ type mechanism get enforced?). With all due respect, might she have a better peek at Libya since her triumphant FT piece of last summer where the ‘hard-hearted’ realists were remonstrated, not only for their callousness, but also their piddling policy chops and lack of requisite intestinal fortitude? And if all the above weren’t enough, Slaughter treats us too to rather racy talk of “remotely piloted helicopters” (for delivery of “either” cargo or weapons, and for good measure, “to attack Syrian air defenses”). Little discussed is the sophistication of Syrian air defenses, which the Russians (and Soviets before them) have assisted Damascus with for decades now. There is also talk of the ‘leasing’ of drones (something akin to Hertz meets Northrop?), just in case the one’s Ankara already has on tap aren’t quite enough for the task at hand (Ms. Slaughter should be reminded Turkey's current drone capabilities are middling at best).
I provide all this color not to gratuitously take pot-shots at Ms. Slaughter, who is doubtless a competent, well regarded policy practitioner. But she simply cannot have it both ways. She introduces her op-ed saying “simply arming the opposition, in many ways the easiest option, would bring about exactly the scenario the world would fear most: a proxy war that would spill into Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan and fracture Syria along sectarian lines… [and] could allow Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups to gain a foothold in Syria and perhaps gain access to chemical and biological weapons.” Does Ms. Slaughter genuinely believe that her veritable cornucopia of military recommendations, ‘no kill zones’ on at least three borders of the Syrian Arab Republic, Special Forces inserted, drone strikes, helicopter sorties, and all the rest of it, somehow provides a more coherent road-map to a peaceful post-Assad Syria characterized by multi-sectarian harmony and stability than, say, a more conventional ‘train and equip’ effort? Or is it all a rather elaborate attempt to package up something that superficially sounds credible and doesn't involve dreadful sounding things like 'boots on the ground' (at least ours)? After all, were one to strip out all the noise, and besides the laudable humanitarian goals behind the no-kill zones (though good luck to an inhabitant of say, Babr Amr, getting there, more immediately let’s be focused on ensuring the ICRC can access the most beleaguered areas, no?), these zones per Slaughter’s plan are really meant in the main to allow for the very thing she warns could allow for unpleasant policy outcomes, that is, they are focused on allowing for the arming of the opposition to help expand the territorial remit of the ‘no kill’ zones. So let us at least be clear that essentially we would be embarking on an armed conflict with Syria, with the buck needing to stop somewhere beyond Doha if matters started heading south.
Mr. Ajami’s WSJ op-ed, meantime, reads like the typically lyrical musings he regularly dishes out to the (I suspect far too credulous) readership of the Wall Street Journal. And in case this tidy Journal venue isn’t enough, Ajami has a regular seat around Anderson Cooper’s table, where in sagacious tones he plays wizened dispenser of prophetic apercus (too often dutifully lapped up by the anchor), which have a common theme: Obama is a weak declinist, presiding over America’s Great Abdication, the Arab Street more than anything else is befuddled by Obama’s manifold weakness (“[in] a battered Syria, a desperate people await America’s help and puzzle of its leader’s passivity”), instead we should man up and charge the ramparts (though not sending the Marines via frigates into the Alawite heartlands of Latakia, Ajami reassures), rather than “frighten ourselves with phantoms of our own making.” Along the way Ajami treats us to misleading bromides about how it is Assad who has created the possible Islamist radicals in his mix (dispatching them to Iraq to fight the American Crusaders with a “promise of pardon”, we are told, with little to no evidence to speak of), essentially suggesting were radicalized Sunnis to get a tad rowdy amidst an escalating Syrian civil war, Assad would simply be getting his just desserts via such merited blow-back. After all this titillating foreplay, and with the anti-Barack aspersions having gotten the Journal’s editors in animated tizzy, when it comes to concrete policy recommendations, Ajami volunteers relatively thin gruel: take advantage of a demoralized Syrian Army via training, weapons, and “safe havens”, while recognizing the Syrian National Council as Syria’s rightful leaders (little discussed are the schisms within the SNC and how they do not necessarily represent all minority groups within Syria, not to mention other factors to include suspicions by various domestic players of nefarious intent by outsiders attempting to wield influence with the SNC, depending, Turkish, Saudi, and/or Western influences, among others). While portions of these recommendations, as I will touch on below, are not all wholly objectionable, they are certainly no panacea, or even close.
It is Emile Nakhleh’s op-ed however which is the most persuasive, not only because he dispenses with Ajami’s Obama as Appeaser claptrap, or Slaughter’s Qatari forces parachuting into Homs, but also more because he makes a very fundamental point which I have agreed with since at least last April. The pillar of his argument is that this regime is doomed, already resigned to the dust-bin of history. The longer the denouement, the bloodier it will prove. So why not act now? To be frank, I agree, but with many reservations. These include:
1) Unlike with Libya, the opposition do not yet control territorially contiguous areas of operations, making any effort to assist them far more complicated;
2) Syria’s strategic location in the Levant involves far more complex regional dynamics (again, as contrasted with Libya), implicating at minimum its immediate neighbors of Lebanon, Turkey (particularly with respect to Kurdish areas of Syria emboldened amidst the chaos to pursue irredentist claims), Iraq, Israel and, lest we forget, Jordan (heretofore a reasonably stable, reliable ally amidst the Arab Spring despite widespread dissatisfaction among its Palestinian majority with the Hashemite throne);
3) The relationship between Syrian opposition outside the country and inside is still tenuous and patchy, at best, so that attempts to recognize the Syrian National Council do not guarantee a positive, ‘bankable’ spill-over impact in-country given this still evident lack of cohesion;
4) Related to “3”, even the external opposition itself is far more divided than Libya’s was (at least at the conception of the Libyan uprising), largely a function of Syria’s more complex ethnic and sectarian make-up, and the same issues with lack of cohesiveness applies to the so-called Free Syrian Army within Syria (they are more simply a series of localized militias, if the local opposition itself generally has a more unified agenda, namely, for Bashar to be ejected from power, but then what, regarding preservation of consistent goals?);
5) Assad’s Army is larger than Gaddafi’s, and he will unfortunately also likely retain more loyalist units until the bitter end;
6) Assad enjoys large stock-piles of perilous chemical weaponry, we can suspect if his own skin is on the line in an existential end-game he may well employ same (once a war criminal it is a slippery slope of cascading horrors, and he has already well proved his despicableness), and/or there are risk presented by whom may gain control of these stock-piles were the regime to chaotically implode;
7) The prospects of revanchist violence and horrors are at least equal to Libya, but given the crazy quilt-work of villages, town and cities where such internecine horrors would unfold, could prove far bloodier;
8) The possibility that Lebanon were pulled into the mire of a full-bore Syrian civil war is very high, and the prospects of border instability will also greatly concern Amman and Tel Aviv (there are also Iraqi issues that would concern, not only Iran, but also elements of the Shi’a leadership in Baghdad);
9) The Russians have proven so dismal in their naked-self interest (historic client state relationship, arms contracts, the naval base in Tartous, etc) that one would have to be concerned about possible retaliatory machinations in the broader neighborhood if they over-step to defend their client; and
10) Turkey’s role cannot be seen as simply that of a Good Samaritan, while they are arguably the key player in the entire equation (of which more below) they will have critical interests regarding Kurdish minorities among other priorities that may not wholly gel with those of Washington, or those of the (rather juvenilely named conclave) ‘Friends of Syria’.
There could easily be another ten reasons besides (notably the unclear mandate emerging from the recent, inaugural Friends of Syria meeting and various divisions thereto, as well as more details around the Free Syrian Army’s highly inchoate bearing touched on above) but this list provides at least some of the main cautionary factors to keep in mind as we attempt to address this extremely complicated and combustible situation.
Ultimately, however, I believe the Assad regime has crossed various red-lines and the international community must become more proactive in its approach. To me, in the main, this largely rests with the Turks. I say this as I don’t believe ‘safe havens’ can credibly be erected on either the Lebanese or Jordanian borders (putting aside Iraq’s), for reasons alluded to above, at least not as of today. This leaves Turkey, and Nakhleh is right to point to the example of northern Iraq in 1991. The Arab League must work closely with Ankara to assure that Turkey would be willing to maintain and supply the zone (funded by the Arab League, particularly the Gulf States), and as Nakhleh says, if Syrian forces cross a further red-line and “violate the sanctuary” (assuming it were credible to create one after discussion with Turks), select members-states of the Friends of Syria could then move to arm the opposition (depending on Assad’s posture and actions as these pressures mount, timing and scope of the arming of opposition forces could be re-appraised on an ongoing basis). The Turks may be resigned to needing such a buffer zone regardless given internally displaced and refugee flows increasing in the coming weeks and months. The internationalization of the conflict in this more limited fashion could actually prove more realistic while at the same time ramping up the pressure on Assad. Importantly, there would also need to be reasonably concrete, pre-agreed protocols in place to restore full-fledged sovereignty over the entirety of Syria's territory at a later point, perhaps guaranteed by a concert of powers in collaborative manner with Ankara.
Meantime, and putting aside China and Iran (the former I believe will conclude they may have over-stepped with the UNSC veto so downplay next moves, the latter are more constrained given no direct border with Syria and major issues at home given the ever brewing nuclear imbroglio), Obama must better work with Putin to persuade him that his client in Damascus is doomed, and that the Arab League (and/or Friends of Syria) and Ankara’s move to establish a ‘safe haven’ in the north is but another death knell in his coffin. Russia should be given assurances around its naval base in a post-Assad Syria, and other inducements, with the aim of Moscow goading Assad to relinquish his seat of power on a more expedited basis (perhaps in return for safe passage out of Syria, though the growing war crimes dossier should optimally not allow for same). This Russia reach-out is not meant to necessarily constitute an attempt to resuscitate a UNSC mandate, though we should not necessarily give up on same, but the above actions would likely instead need to be taken under the aegis of the Arab League, Friends of Syria, or under duress (and sub-optimally) a smaller grouping of Gulf States, alongside Turkey too, and with some ‘blessing’ from interested Western powers. Meantime, we can fully expect Assad--esyping both the risk of greater international pressure, but also deep divisions on the specifics around precise approaches--attempting to stave off the specter of more concerted international efforts via largely meaningless gestures like intermittent ICRC access, reducing the intensity/pace of shelling, or the latest sham ‘referendum’ on constitutional reforms underway as I write this, and other such fare. Yet the regime has already crossed the rubicon, its true character revealed, and there is no going back, as we can be quite sure atrocities will continue moving forward.
Speaking of such atrocities, the name Ibrahim Qashoush may not be familiar to many readers, but this amateur poet found his voice during the uprising as this embedded YouTube attests.
Reportedly, in revenge, the regime not only killed him, but with sadistic savagery tore out his vocal chords and dumped his mutilated corpse in the Orontes River which flows through Hama’s ancient, and beautiful, water-wheels. This malice painfully showcases the character of this increasingly odious regime. The Arab Awakening is about many things, from disgust with endemic corruption, limited prospects characterized by chronic unemployment, and much more, but it is certainly also about revulsion at the grotesquely brazen totalitarian thuggery of episodes like these.
The U.S. has tried to navigate on a country-by-country basis its reaction to these inspiring, wide-spread uprisings, attempting to calibrate its approach to no one’s true satisfaction (including I suspect, the Administration’s, if they are being honest with themselves). But these are immensely complicated problems, none more than Syria. For instance, listen carefully to the YouTube embedded above, including the passing comments made about America in this spirited, revolutionary anthem. Recall too, after the hundreds of thousands of fatalities in Iraq (civilian and military), after the trillions spent there by the United States, all this blood and treasure expended, the Government in Baghdad is not even quite sure of its wherewithal security-wise to host an Arab League summit in late March. Let us show some humility and dispense with the farcical notion that Libya changed everything (particularly here given no NATO airpower is being contemplated), and recall the disaster that was Iraq, while keeping too a wary eye on the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.
Having better acknowledged this will not be easy, and that it is not that we fear only phantoms, like fretful cowards per Ajami’s caricature, but rather have very legitimate concerns. We cannot know the precise consequences that lie ahead in Syria, but if some combination of the Arab League, Friends of Syria and notably Turkey are willing to create and subsidize a territorial enclave in Syria’s north (optimally with UNSC support at a later date, even with some abstentions), this should be the beginning of better internationalizing the Syrian situation, elevating the status of the SNC and opposition forces, ratcheting up the pressure on the regime, and hopefully allowing for more defections amidst the majority Sunni conscript army on the heels of this greater international involvement. But let us cast a calibrated die with modest expectations, and with utmost sobriety. The situation in the Levant is littered with unknowns, unknowns that have not remotely been convincingly answered by the intonations that ‘something be done’. And yet, something must. This is the conundrum that Syria today presents the international community.
January 18, 2012
Brzezinski on Execution of the Asia "Pivot"
I push him further on Obama. Shortly before our lunch, the president returned from Australia where he announced plans to deploy 2,500 Marines there to shore up alliances in Asia. This is exactly the kind of move that baffles Brzezinski. What’s wrong, I ask, with Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia? Doesn’t it make sense to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and shift attention to the rising east?
A good question. By the way, I have been very much wanting to post on the Republican primaries as well as an update on OWS (particularly Bloomberg's eviction action). I hope to have more soon.
December 04, 2011
Donilon's Missing Word
Perhaps it is because I am writing this from Beijing, but I found it odd that this Tom Donilon (President Obama’s National Security Advisor) op-ed in a recent FT entitled “America is back in the Pacific and will uphold the rules” has not a single explicit mention of the People’s Republic of China (“PRC”) and/or the word “China” (save embedded within the obligatory reference to the South China Sea). Odd because really the entire piece reads rather like a thinly veiled warning shot to the PRC that the U.S. still ‘means business’ in the Asia Pacific region, will not ratchet down its security presence/umbrella there and will uphold “the rules” (Donilon is referring here to ‘free and fair’ trade, IP protections, “level playing fields” for businesses and, of course, “market-driven currencies”, but one wonders, whom precisely sets all these variegated rules, by what specific authority and for whom?).
The Obama Administration should be genuinely lauded for beginning to more convincingly re-calibrate its foreign policy to focus on critical going forward strategic theaters like the Asia-Pacific region, if it is still painfully bogged down in diminishing return side-shows like Afghanistan. Nonetheless, the quite striking omission of any concrete mention of the PRC struck me as arguably awkward and disingenuous in an op-ed which could well be construed by some--notably some PRC governmental constituencies--as risking enunciating something of a neo-containment strategy, if U.S. policy-makers would doubtless protest it is anything but.
Regardless, and beyond the broad merits of the policy sketched out in Donilon’s op-ed, what real strategic muscle is being brought to bear then? While laden with a decent amount of symbolism, the “rotational deployment” of U.S. Marines to Australia does strike one as a tad gimmicky (we are advised the basing is meant to “contribute to the security of sea lines)”. Still, Donilon speaks of the Australian deployment as only the “first manifestation” of a “future defense posture” in the region. Per Donilon, this will reportedly lead towards a “presence that is more broadly distributed, more flexible and more sustainable.” But nothing much more is said on this score in his piece, whether purposefully or otherwise I am not sure.
There was also a related pronunciamento by the President speaking in Canberra recently announcing the “strategic decision” that any looming defense cuts will cause “no diminution” of U.S. “military presence or capabilities” in Asia. Sounds good, but a skeptic could be forgiven pondering this in rather a more dubious context, say recalling Erskine Bowle’s recent pithy quip about U.S. defense commitments to Taiwan in the context of needing to borrow money from Beijing to deliver on such rather ambitious security pledges. (Incidentally, one also wonders ever more about the continued true relevancy of NATO, particularly in the context of this strategic re-balancing, note Donilon elsewhere in the op-ed has the obligatory reference to “renewed” ties respecting NATO, perhaps so that no European chancelleries become alarmed the alliance might get unduly short shrift amidst this Asia ‘pivot’).
Mr. Donilon closes his piece by stating that “each of our nations” (of which more below) will be more “secure and prosperous”, if only his prescriptions (or perhaps he means those of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, of which China is quite conspicuously not a member) are dutifully followed. While the “nations” remain unspecified I suspect quite a few in Beijing would beg to differ. Indeed, Donilon’s op-ed has caused something of a mini-kerfuffle here, if more rhetorically than substantively, but nonetheless with talk of renewed Cold War sentiments being unduly fanned, the Australians denying they are looking at a trilateral defense pact with the U.S. and India, and such type hand-wringing fare. Perhaps it is better instead to more forthrightly and candidly explore and deflect mutual areas of possible conciliation and contention, rather than engage in such an obvious omission in an otherwise well-written op-ed which appears to bury the real ‘lede’ disingenuously enough that it risks unduly stoking suspicion? (If the thinking was the Chinese would prefer they not be mentioned more directly as the 800-pound gorilla and bogey-man in Donilon’s equation, I would counter they are far too smart for this).
It is true China of late has flexed her muscles a bit too exuberantly given in part its very strong economy (albeit slowing some of late, see recent PMI data etc.), for instance over-playing her hand at times with various swash-buckling respecting territorial disputes directed at neighbors like Vietnam, the Philippines or Japan. These miscalculations probably were further spurred on by heightened confidence--in some quarters perhaps even incipient triumphalism--given the 2008 financial crisis and the body-blows it delivered “the mystique of Western economic prowess” with China “no longer [feeling] constrained by the sense of apprenticeship to Western technology and institutions” (as Henry Kissinger put it in his recent book On China). Indeed, some youthful student segments and/or PRC nationalist elements might even have begun to intuit deeper shifts in the distribution of power in the international system, creating an atmosphere rife with desire for regional aggrandizement, one more easily realizable absent the presence of a pesky U.S. security architecture.
Such variables certainly argue for an ‘Asia-pivot’ posture for U.S. policy, and the Administration has handled same with some aplomb. Still, the U.S. should be careful not to commit similar-type ‘overreach’ errors in return, even while we laud the Administration’s renewed strategic focus on Asia (Hillary Clinton’s recent trip to Myanmar neatly dove-tailing here too, further burnishing the theme that the gross Bush 43 era neglect is being at least partially redressed). After all, while it is fashionable of late to raise the specter of an indomitably rising China, Ezra Vogel in his recently published, excellent biography of Deng Xiaoping reminds us of the mammoth challenges that will continue to confront the PRC leadership moving forward, including (as quoted from Vogel’s pp. 711-713): 1) providing universal social security and health care; 2) redefining and managing the boundaries of freedom; 3) containing corruption; 4) preserving the environment; and 5) maintaining the government’s legitimacy to rule.
Perhaps really this is what Donilon was trying to intimate, as his op-ed concludes: “By strengthening the international rules that must be the foundation of our shared future—and by ensuring governments abide by these rules—each of our nations will be more secure and more prosperous [emphasis added]. It is hard not to conclude that—even if Donilon leaves it unstated—the “each” Washington must be most concerned about is ultimately the U.S. and PRC, reinvigorated defense arrangements with an Australia apart, or diplomatic entrees in Yangon, and so on (though I of course in no way mean to downplay the critical import of countries like Japan and South Korea to regional stability as well). Perhaps better to be more open about the critical import of same, lest through miscommunication and burgeoning mistrust competing 'spheres of influence' trump attempts at fostering more promising avenues aimed at better institutionalizing joint consultation, which might also have the benefit of lessening the often louder, more hawkish voices in both Washington and Beijing. This is particularly true as the surreal political silly season gathers apace with the Presidential election in the United States heating up (aside from the relative sanity of Obama and Jon Hunstman), while keeping in mind too looming PRC leadership transitions. Particularly during such periods of flux (not to mention the grave sovereign debt crisis in Europe) it is even more important to ensure mitigating as best as possible breakdowns in communication respecting each parties basic intentions.
UPDATE: A couple items related to the above. First, it seems like I am not alone in some of my above concerns. From a Bloomberg piece:
"President Barack Obama’s administration has sought to enhance the U.S.’s stature in Asia this year, an initiative Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has described as a “pivot” toward the region after a decade of American focus on war in the Middle East. As part of the approach, the administration is seeking a free-trade agreement with Pacific nations including Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore, and last month enhanced its security ties with Australia.
There is nothing magical about an investor poll, of course, but it is nonetheless indicative of a reasonably informed group's prognostications on the matter.
Second, another Bloomberg story, w/ coverage of a trip to Beijing by a US Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy. Note she needed to publicly assure her Chinese hosts: "We assured General Ma and his delegation that the U.S. does not seek to contain China, we do not view China as an adversary." She also characterized the discussions as "very candid," which is likely diplomatic-code for quite spirited indeed, doubtless. As for General Ma, he stated: "the fact that the consultations took place as scheduled shows that both countries are sincere about maintaining military exchanges", suggesting there may have been quite a bit of discussion regarding calling off the meeting in advance of the U.S. visit, at least within certain PRC circles.
October 19, 2011
Occasioned by the recent mini-flurry of blogging activity below, I thought providing a brief update about the future of this site might be merited. I have been remiss in doing so for far too long and meaning to apologize to any regular visitors. As most of you have probably concluded, varied commitments have conspired these past several years allowing virtually no time to post here. These factors include family, professional development obligations, and perhaps more than anything, an exceptionally demanding work and travel schedule.
Indeed, given the dearth of fresh content posted on-line here, one might even on occasion have fairly asked whether the site was worth keeping up. The answer is that despite the aforementioned timing constraints set to continue going forward--as a dedicated observer of global public policy and numerous media sources--and to the extent I may have content worth sharing with a wider readership in the future, I will continue to post when able (while also exploring other alternatives to share content as well).
In the meantime, I again ask for forbearance respecting the highly irregular nature of posting to this ‘blog’, or perhaps better stated, a cyber-forum for occasional pieces, assorted shout-outs, or, of late, even amateur photography! I thank you for your continued interest, and suspect even in the context of the epochal events of the last decade (9/11, the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, the financial crisis and Great Recession, etc.) we will, whether good or bad, also have a steady fare of major going forward events to grapple with in this new decade.
October 13, 2011
OWS: October 13th, 10:53 PM
October 08, 2011
Occupy Wall Street: An Early Assessment
I stumbled on the initial Occupy Wall Street protest by accident back on its first day of September 17th walking through the financial district in lower Manhattan. While the group seemed quite inchoate and far smaller than the 20,000 thousand or so initially advertised, I’d been intrigued by the solidarity Occupy Wall Street had expressed with protest movements in Spain or even revolutionary episodes such as the pivotal events in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the early days of the Arab Awakening. I overheard that day some bemused onlookers who may have been low-level financial sector workers mockingly saying--‘so, this is it?’—but could not help thinking I would be hearing more about Occupy Wall Street in coming weeks. Indeed, I’d long suspected the financial crisis, policy foibles, chronic unemployment, and general corruption of our politics would sooner or later fuel a measure of social unrest in this country as it has elsewhere. We are not immune to a deadening of hope fused with deep-seated suspicion of having been essentially swindled via policy decisions resulting from a politics that is largely broken and denies a sense of genuine progress and possibility. Almost immediately after espying this nascent protest movement I left for a three week business trip to Asia before returning to New York only yesterday, where incidentally, I was asked on several occasions overseas about the growing movement.
From afar in East Asia, I noticed Occupy Wall Street has done several things right, some a result of sheer luck (read: police over-reactions), others manifesting a measure of tactical skill. A couple of the initial pepper spray incidents went viral on YouTube, one showing very young women screaming hysterically while penned—or is the term for this ‘kettled’?—by bright orange police mesh. Here the ‘luck’ of brute force helped create outsize publicity by a media that had mostly ignored the going-ons up to that point. After all, it cannot help looking like a failure of our society when generally hapless young women are being sprayed in or near their faces by male police officers twice their age simply about behavior surrounding access to public places. These could be our own daughters, after all, and it offends basic sensibility (see the footage here). Another key moment in the growing tide of the movement was the incident of mass arrests in and around the Brooklyn Bridge (again, footage available here for those who are curious), partly a result of the confusion among some of the protesters (to be sure, perhaps a convenient confusion) about whether or not they had been granted access to the vehicular lanes rather than merely the pedestrian pathway on the bridge. Regardless of the merits, mass arrests on the order of some 700 or so individuals on an iconic New York landmark will engender healthy international headlines, boosting the nascent protest movement’s profile very significantly, with this event likely having constituted the break-out.
Then, of course, there is Zuccotti Park (which Occupy Wall Street have renamed Liberty Plaza, note Zuccotti Park's original name was Liberty Plaza Park), where the protesters have erected a steadily growing encampment, showing a canny resourcefulness, despite limitations on rights to pitch tents and such, as well as been denied access to more iconic locations such as the near-by actual Wall Street itself. Critically, the protesters have intuited from the get-go that they need to physically inhabit some patch of space literally around the clock, otherwise police will likely sweep in and deny them access, without the public relations boon of a forced deportation. The ‘occupy’ part is mission-critical to the branding of Occupy Wall Street, speaking to its passionate indignation, commitment and wherewithal to maintain a 24/7 presence, and its echoes to recent revolutionary episodes such as Tahrir Square as touched on above. Regardless their presence is being increasingly felt beyond Zuccotti Park, including their forays up towards Washington and Union Squares (intelligent tactically to garner more publicity, while testing how much the authorities will aim to restrict their movements) and of course the fact that the group has metastasized with outcroppings in Boston, San Francisco, Chicago among many other locales reportedly nearing at this writing some 1,000. Also, and not unlike Egypt, the use of social media is playing a major reinforcing role leveraging the efforts of those physically on the ground.
Some of Occupy Wall Street’s more recent tactics (or at least the actions of some associated with the movement) are probably the most controversial to date—leading to almost Bull Connor type imagery of harshly swinging nightsticks (I link some of the relevant footage here)—given some protesters reportedly are attempting to rush police barricades in coordinated fashion to gain access to sites they have been prohibited from to date, say, Wall Street or the New York Stock Exchange (“NYSE”). The protesters should tread carefully here, and not overplay their hand, but why, one wonders, cannot a protest movement at least have intermittent access to such ‘sensitive’ locations, say the site of the first Presidential inauguration in this nation’s history, framed by George Washington’s impressive statue there, just across from the NYSE? Mayor Bloomberg of course has a town to run (ironically he is perhaps one of the only men competent enough in the entire country to help us through the dysfunctional political breakdown stoking these very protests via a credible third party bid) and there is always a premium to allow commerce to remain unfettered in this greatest of American cities, but one smells at least incipient whiffs of fear that, who knows, perhaps a more strategic location could be staked out and ‘occupied’, and so what then? Would a more violent eviction be required? What if the numbers grow exponentially? How many arrests could occur? What if more and more protesters replaced those arrested, indignant at the revolving mass arrests? Could blood spill? At very least one senses an increasing queasiness lurking in the back-drop among those happy to preserve the status quo. Where is this heading?
Indeed, with Occupy Wall Street, I believe some minded to be more wedded to the status quo may be more rattled than they have been to date by the Tea Party (which in its aim to minimize Government's role has an agenda often convenient to Wall Street's current mood). This is because they are directing their ire squarely towards the real elites of the country, rather than their mostly paid up for marionettes sitting in Washington. These elites are seen to have benefited from emergency large-scale existential rescues (all necessary exigencies to avoid a second Great Depression, our titular leaders would have it, and remind us often, including with respect to the precise manner by which the benevolence was proffered), with little accountability, genuine gratitude or fundamental change emitting from the financial sector post the Government's ministrations. Nor is the point whether TARP has been profitable or not, as some astoundingly shallow journalists have suggested, even if it could arguably be construed as something of a wash to the American taxpayer. Lest we forget, the TARP windfall (given the fungible nature of cash) also served to better allow for convenient de-levering on the Government’s dime (of course in part this was the point), the occasional strategic acquisition, and hundreds of millions for lobbying, advertisements and campaign contributions. With no convincing tracking of TARP funds, similar to the opaqueness around the Federal Reserve’s policy decisions whether with respect to repeated bouts of money-printing, or the Fed’s unprecedentedly generous emergency lending operations, one cannot help feeling something has become well rotten in Denmark. Given this backdrop, Occupy Wall Street, cleverly, is squarely aiming its attentions at the realer powers behind the supposed throne, that is, where the money is.
Beyond this, they are likely smarter and with more idealistic energy than their Tea Party analogues. Ranging from younger near anarchists to older protesters with almost Eisenhowerian politics (repulsed by income disparities reminiscent of the 'robber baron' era) they are a disparate bunch, to be sure. Part of what brings them together shares certain common elements, I'd suggest, such as the majority of the population wallowing in dire economic straits amidst a materially shrinking middle class, chronically elevated unemployment, career prospects for youth that have to be described as dangerously poor at present (all the while as college tuition sky-rockets), not to mention seemingly endless, vast pools of wasted monies on fundamentally flawed wars of choice, and to top it off, the perceived injustices of TARP and such banker-welfare largesse. Speaking to several of these protesters today, I met MBA students who cannot find jobs (one even told me his GPA at business school, a respectable 3.2) and law students in a similar predicament. As money gets wasted in epic fashion overseas for desperately flawed ‘provincial reconstruction teams’ in Iraq and risible ‘Government-in-a-Box’ initiatives in Afghanistan, these kids are staring at mountains of debt and an equally daunting lack of viable employment prospects (the MBA student was underemployed working as a barista at Starbucks). So there are intelligent faces and voices in these crowds—not just aimless rabble-rousers out for a rise—and I can sense this movement becoming more contagious (for instance, I detected among several of the more junior police officers perhaps some degree of sympathy for the protesters). To some extent, after all, these are our young screaming out in need, meriting not kettling and reprimands, but job prospects and dignity.
All this, incidentally, is rather a sad development for the Obama Administration. When Obama inherited a nation in deep crisis in November of 2008, with his race alone a historic pivot that inspired legions, I suspected then many hungered for true transformational change, something evocative of a Teddy Roosevelt domestically crossed with a transformational Mandela type figure on foreign policy. He largely squandered this opportunity, though I will certainly allow for the complexities of governing. Still, with respect to domestic policy, "change" means something beyond just issuing cheap populist rhetorical pot-shots about ‘fat cat bankers’ but rather cutting to the nub of the real issues (hint: not a diluted Volcker Rule--itself a half-way house short of more dramatic steps like resurrecting Glass-Steagall--and/or a politics-infused, mostly theatrical Buffett tax, and perhaps breaking up some of the larger banks that still remain too big to fail, indeed are now even bigger post-ingesting the spoils of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and Wachovia). As for international affairs, many in the country hungered for bolder progress than simply constraining the excesses of the neo-con wing and preventing the outrageous adventurism that would have accompanied a McCain Administration (though make no mistake, this was critical, and Obama does deserve due credit at least for this), but real "change", such as fulfillment of the pledge to shutter Guantanamo, pursuing serious investigations respecting how torture became acceptable Government policy, not allowing the Arab-Israeli peace process to ingloriously decay into near nothingness, or more than anything, cutting more forcefully our failed experiments in nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq.
None of this having occurred, we are hearing a plaintive cry similar to that echoing amidst the Arab Awakening, that is to say: “Enough!” (not too dissimilar, really, from Occupy Wall Street's chant: "We Are The 99%!"). I mean, how can it be, after the most severe financial crisis since the Great Depression, involving very large doses of financial chicanery indeed, that nothing really of substance vis-a-vis legally actionable import came of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (who even remembers its name, in sharp contrast to Pecora)? Or that the ‘too big to fail’ issue has now only been aggravated further? Or that the CEOs of many of these banks could not even today explain to their own shareholders what products twenty-something employees are peddling, or indeed trading, not necessarily just the SocGen and UBS follies which speak more to criminal activity by specific perpetrators (albeit with likely gross negligence by higher-ups) but respecting complex derivative products that I would bet large swaths of varied C-Suites have nary a clue about (to Paul Volcker’s appropriately sardonic point about financial innovation and the ATM being its apogee). Is it any wonder people believe some of the banks are still too large to be effectively managed, still pose systemic risk, and still require more disciplined regulation than what will doubtless prove a materially watered-down Volcker rule (not to mention Dodd-Frank), given the President is apparently more focused on money-raising in Manhattan than laudable use of his bully pulpit a la Roosevelt?
The point is not that all bankers are evil. They’re not, far from it. However, they do need to be better steered away from their own worst instincts on occasion, putting it somewhat mildly. This is particularly so given a dearth of true leadership amidst too many precincts within the financial community. Unfortunately, the face of Wall Street’s leadership has appeared too mercenary and obsessed with maximization of profits above all else (such as their bloated proprietary operations), too often forgetting banking is essentially a sell-side business where client interests must always be kept uppermost in mind. We have lost our golden age of ‘advisory’ investment bankers, represented by men such as Felix Rohatyn of Lazard Freres. Bankers like Rohatyn--beyond tours of civic duty like helping stave off New York City's bankruptcy in the 70's and serving as Ambassador to France--were always highly attentive to the needs and desires of their clients, remembering that theirs was first and foremost an advisory business and such trust and focus was sacrosanct. (It is also perhaps worth noting that, with the United States having been enmeshed in the longest war in its history in Afghanistan, and with young Americans dying a decade on for no viable strategic aim, few if any among our plutocratic classes deign to waste the merest breath on such topics. This possible factor in the breakdown in respect for our elite financial institutions--really a dearth of public leadership save when they have skin in the game--should not be forgotten either, supposed great men should comment on the great events of the day, after all, but rather they seem far too small, myopically focused on 'league tables', or perhaps more, the vagaries of carried interest taxation levels or Basel III capital requirements).
While I will readily confess I find it odd as something of a Burkean that I am sympathetic to these protesters, they are not looking to trot out the guillotines, in the main (although I did spot a "Behead the Fed" sign!), but rather, they have smelled the radicalism of the blows dealt the integrity of a representative democratic system poised by the almost unfettered oligarch-like behavior among too many elites wholly disconnected from, yes, the 99% they speak of. They are acting to secure conservative aims of re-balancing a society that is becoming dangerously unmoored and increasingly bent asunder. They want accountability and dignity and prospects. Their leaders have failed them. So they have taken to the street to lead themselves. It will not be easy in the months ahead (the encroachments of winter alone will prove a big test), but they have started something that has real potential, and should be lauded for it, and indeed urged to carry on. If so, they may accomplish something, even possibly something historic. In this goal, in my view, they should not immediately fall prey to pressure that they must issue some long laundry list of ‘demands’ that might risk ideologically ring-fencing them some and/or stealing the spontaneity of their movement, while resisting too close associations with old-line standard-bearers of the left like the unions. They have created something quite new on the American political scene, and should stoke it during these early days in a manner strictly of their choosing.
April 22, 2011
The Syrian Leadership's Shame
Unfortunately little time for detailed commentary, but watching this YouTube video (via Al Jazeera's 'Syria Live Blog') of protests in Homs earlier today, we clearly see that Bashar al-Assad's credibility is eroding with immense rapidity. This is what happens, after all, when you order your security forces to kill your own civilians. Bashar has been heard to infer he will not be another Ben Ali or Mubarak. But is he planning a Gaddafi type strategy instead? This is not 1982 in Hama and regardless Tom Friedman's 'Hama Rules' are being re-written before our eyes. And while this YouTube is less graphic than others circulating on the Internets, the brutishness of the security crackdown and desperation of those attempting to assist the wounded is nonetheless arresting (and damning to the regime). It is impossible to predict with certainty, but I cannot see a turning back now or restoration of calm. The genie of increasingly insistent protests seems out of the bottle, and one now wonders whether Bashar is ultimately willing to kill, not scores, but thousands, in a desperate gambit to cow his populace, a terrible eventuality that will only lead to the regime's ultimate demise regardless, in my view.
There is the below video too, shot in the town of Deir-ez-Zor, where Basel al-Assad (Bashar's late brother, and Hafez al-Assad's favored son) statue is being burned. The rage (and accompanying profanity) are palpable. A Syrian student has Tweeted that "Syria is running out of statues". The real live leaders may not be far behind, as I suspect their days are increasingly numbered. While speculative, but certainly given the promises of reform (for which we've been waiting ten years plus, incidentally) are proving instead horrifying rivulets of blood on the streets of myriad cities, towns and villages through Syria, it seems highly likely protests will gain in size, breadth and insistency, shortly spreading to the downtowns of Aleppo and Damascus. In short, we are witnessing a tremendously incendiary situation, especially keeping in mind Syria's complex ethnic and sectarian make-up (Sunni, Alawi, Druze, Christian, Kurds, etc). Unfortunately too, it is hard to imagine a denouement as (relatively) peaceful as what we witnessed in Tahrir Square several months back in Egypt. As Anthony Shadid reports a Syrian protestor stating: "There is no more fear. No more fear...We either want to die or to remove him. Death has become something ordinary.” It did not have to be so, but it is now with dozens across the country felled today. This is not Syria's shame, as its people courageously take to the streets to reclaim their most basic dignities, but it is most assuredly her leadership's.
April 03, 2011
Missing: A Grand Strategy for the Middle East
The relatively little-noticed recent Senate testimony of Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns (the third highest ranking official in the State Department, now slated for the number two slot, Deputy Secretary of State, a rarity for a career diplomat, even of his exceptional caliber) represents perhaps the most comprehensive statement of the United States’ view of the dramatic revolutionary events roiling the Middle East. Burns closes his testimony with an arresting statement:
“…this is one of those moments that come along only very rarely in the course of human events. It is full of historic opportunities, and some very large pitfalls, for people in the Middle East, and for the United States. It is a moment which demands our attention and our energy, and as much creativity and initiative as we and our partners around the world can generate.”
Doubtless most readers would agree with his assessment, however, what tangible policy recommendations does Mr. Burns—on behalf of the Obama Administration--really provide us in his testimony (and this, as mentioned, the most thorough seen to date)? Burns sketches out four core priorities: 1) support for peaceful democratic change; 2) buttressing economic stabilization/modernization; 3) active pursuit of comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace; and 4) advancing our “huge and enduring stake in regional security” (interestingly, Burns’ highlights here not only the usual suspects—combating terrorism, staving off Iran’s nuclear program, seeing through Iraq’s transition—but also “strengthening ties to the GCC States”, of which more below).
I will take each of these four key tenets of Burns’ strategy in turn--but given the veritable whirlwind racing through the region daily-- it is the first I wish to focus on most here. Keeping in mind that this testimony was on March 17th (a couple weeks is a long time these days!), we can ferret out some differentiating factors Burns attempts to sketch among various countries impacted by the sweep of events. Burns begins by grouping together Egypt and Tunisia, the post-revolutionary states as it were, stating we have a “deep stake in stable transitions”, lending particular import to Egypt which he (rightly) describes as the “traditional bellwether for the Middle East” and thus “vitally important” to the region and ourselves. By way of concrete recommendations, he speaks of support to “civil society voices”, related, supporting “thoughtful sequencing” of the constitutional referendum and election process to ensure the “time and space” necessary for real political choices to take root, an acknowledgment and cooperative nod to the Egyptian military’s “valuable role” in “overseeing the transition process” (albeit with a cautionary note that we will “hold” the military to its commitment to “genuine reform”), and last positive noises made about the private sector’s role. While all this seems to make a good deal of sense, the reader is left to ponder how the United States would react to events such as a withering of civil society components in favor of a more stolid Islamist ascendancy, or the military stifling real reform as balanced against a “stable transition”, and so on. Put differently, we might almost describe this as a ‘wait and see’ strategy, if in fairness it seems at least more than one of let’s ‘hope for the best’, as well Burns is very careful to issue cautionary warnings to counterbalance those tempted by blind optimism.
Next, Burns lumps together in his next designated grouping Bahrain and Yemen. Somewhat delicately, Burns alludes to “witnessing escalating protests” (some might less charitably say disingenuously, Bahraini security forces killings in and around the Pearl Roundabout began as early as February, more than a month before Burns’ testimony, and the same applies to Yemen) however all that is mustered here is that we will “continue to press vigorously for serious political reform” and “productive dialogue” between governments and the opposition. Since this testimony, Shi’a Bahrainis have seen little by way of productive dialogue, unless Saudi tank turrets count, and Yemenis have witnessed savage killings in the streets of Sanaa with at least forty-five dead a day or two after Burns’ testimony. Burns as a highly gifted diplomat with long experience of the region is certainly alive to the subtleties of the issues at play here, for instance, quite purposefully messaging to the Sunni leadership of Bahrain that the situation is not simply about restoration of “law and order” at whatever cost, given the deepening sectarian divides that would result and “only lead to decreased security over the long term.” However one cannot help feeling we are seeing events in Bahrain and Yemen mostly through the lens of possible Iranian adventurism (regarding the former) and al-Qaeda risks if the state becomes even more of a failed one (the latter). This may be an acceptable realist stance, all told (especially, say, given the 5th Fleet’s presence in Bahrain, Saudi and U.S. concerns about contagion impacts into eastern Saudi with its tremendous oil reserves, and so on), but it strikes me as every bit as reactive as the posture described above regarding Egypt and Tunisia, if unfortunately more morally dubious.
Next Burns speaks of countries “working to stay ahead of the wave of popular protests”, here he lists Morocco and Jordan (perhaps “trying” may have been a more apropos opener here). We are advised both Kings are pursuing “significant reform initiatives”, and that “timely reform is the best possible antidote to subsequent upheaval.” Quite true, but as for the U.S role here? The United States will “emphasize the importance of taking reform seriously now as a way of creating positive avenues of citizen engagement and avoiding sharp conflicts later on.” Rather thin gruel, but better than nothing, I suppose.
And, last if not least, as they say, Burns speaks of the “sad and violent” case of Libya, where we “support the courageous Libyans who have risen up to regain their rights” (it might be noted, this ostensibly runs directly contra Burns’ very first policy tenet, namely to support “peaceful democratic change", albeit the savage primitivism of Qaddafi must be taken into account, of course). Burns, back on the 17th, spoke of “moving as rapidly as we can in New York to see if we can get additional authorization for the international community to look at a broad range of actions”, that very night, UNSC 1973 was approved at Turtle Bay, and we have been involved in a highly significant military (kinetic, is it?) action since.
Were one to try to espy some ‘grand strategy’ amidst this mini-gaggle of country groupings and policy recommendations, one might well end up flailing with respect to uncovering any disciplined strategy that convinces an overarching policy direction has yet been staked out. No no-fly and/or no-drive zones have been proffered in Yemen or Bahrain, looming challenges like Syria and possibly Lebanon are left unspoken, Egypt and Tunisia are mostly ‘wait and see’, and we are likely not doing particularly much new, really, in terms of Morocco and Jordan. This is not a criticism, per se, some world events in scope and velocity overtake any policy-making apparatus, and I would certainly happily acknowledge that this is one of those times. Also, a ‘less is more’ strategy might be advisable (ex-Libya, that is!), were we even able to command more influence, itself frankly a dubious proposition.
Libya, understandably given the blood and treasure now at risk and/or being expended, has garnered the most ink. We are told our mission has already been accomplished, as a ‘no-fly zone’ is already largely in effect (Obama, taking an early victory lap in his recent Libya speech (less substantive than Burns' testimony, in the main, and this apart from the obligatory politicking therein) declared somewhat presumptively, and in quite professorial mien: “(t)o summarize, then: in just one month, the United States has worked with our international partners to mobilize a broad coalition, secure an international mandate to protect civilians, stop an advancing army, prevent a massacre, and establish a No Fly Zone with our allies and partners.” Splendid, and Nicolas and David will take it from here, bien sur! We shall see. Looming challenges beckon, including certainly without limitation, rebels hitting civilians (we will retaliate against them too, it has been proclaimed, given we apparently worship at the altar of a quite highly selective humanitarianism!), the “flickers” of al-Qaeda amidst the rebels, which may prove more like bona fide sub-components of certain rebel elements, or still, NATO warplanes erroneously hitting rebels, as reportedly a couple days back, and so on).
Look, I think I understand—if not approve of--Obama’s ultimate decision to involve ourselves in this operation and perform something of an extremely rapid-fire about-face in the process, and where we have seen the liberal hawk wing resurrect itself in the counsels of power. But as someone who worked in the Balkans, I have taken the Benghazi as looming Srebrenica analogies in candor with a grain of salt (Srebrenica a particularly grisly culmination of a multi-year ethnic cleansing campaign by Bosnian Serb forces significantly backed up by the JNA military from rump Yugoslavia, with Qadaffi perhaps not on the cusp of actually consummating some massive massacre in Benghazi--rather than say threatening same to cow the populace of this almost one million strong city--contra the conventional wisdom in various quarters same was definitively and nobly staved off), however admittedly I am not privy to any intelligence, and Qaddafi’s ‘house to house’ rhetoric was indeed highly noxious and alarming, particularly given his oft-brutish background. There is also apparently a school of thought, apart from the potential humanitarian calamity, that to allow Benghazi to have fallen would have been tantamount to inviting other Middle Eastern rulers to run roughshod over their people, particularly given Libya’s newfangled ‘strategic’ position between Egypt and Tunisia. But to date whatever robust action we are in the midst of in Libya has not dissuaded other Governments such as Bahrain, Yemen and now Syria from resorting to force. There is also the no small matter—as alluded to above--of whom these rebels really are, ultimately, and what their manifold agendas may ultimately be, as well as questions surrounding the territorial integrity of the Libyan state, and what the West might (or might not) do were say Tripoli turned into a raging 1975 style Beirut scenario, or Qaddafi continued to rule over a truncated statelet, among other possible scenarios (there is also the no small matter of 'mission creep', but that would need to be the subject of a wholly separate post).
For now, we hope for the best, I take it, with a dash of jingo fervor in the Potomac air (even Defense Secretary Gates, heretofore ostensibly the paramount Libya intervention skeptic, advised on a recent Sunday gab-fest that, were he Qaddafi, “I wouldn’t be hanging any new pictures if I were him.” Nice sound-bite, if it speaks more to regime change than a mere no-fly zone, and one almost suspects poor Mr. Gates felt compelled to turn up the rhetoric a notch or so). Frankly, flicking the pages of the Wall Street Journal a couple days back, and seeing a front-pager on the return to vogue of subprime bonds and an op-ed by John McCain and Joe Lieberman making the usual points about Libya (we are all Benghazians now, before substitute Tbilisians, Baghdadis, Teheran's residents and so on, but never, say, the residents of Ramallah!) I had a distressing sense of déjà vu. Little has changed, really, since the worst financial crisis since the ‘30s and arguably the largest foreign policy blunder in contemporary U.S. foreign policy (Iraq). This despite the passions engendered by the Obama candidacy, where instead of deeply transformative fare, what can be said is at least his victory prevented the wild excesses of a McCain-Palin odyssey (for Odyssey Dawn—where do they pick these fantastically lame monikers?--substitute deepest Alaskan night).
Turning back to Burns’ testimony, he stresses as the second of his four strategy prongs economic stabilization, which is indeed critical, but all the varied initiatives trotted out (Enterprise Funds, OPIC, Global Entrepreneurship Programs) don’t amount to a fraction of TARP, say, or certainly a Marshall Fund. Regardless, as we are all painfully aware, the United States is not hugely aid disbursement-rich of late (putting it gently), so not suited for impressive shows of economic patronage hither dither. Perhaps more realistically in terms of tangible return on investment, Burns rightly speaks of “trade liberalization initiatives, ideally in cooperation with the EU”, as well as the Qualified Industrial Zone (“QIZ”) program (duty free entry for some Egyptian products into the US)—as other promising prongs of economic initiatives we might pursue--however, this is all ultimately quite unconvincing fare in terms of jump-starting truly meaningful economic growth in a country with the staggering needs of, for instance, an Egypt. This is not meant as a criticism but rather a reality check given our resource constraints and the gigantic needs, particularly in the context of the demographic boom of millions of young Arabs under the age of thirty hungering for productive work, dignity and a sense of a tangible future, like the Tunisian fruit vendor whose attempted self-immolation helped unleash these world-historical events.
Third, Burns speaks of the Arab-Israeli peace process and the imperative thereto, and I have little friendly to say, frankly. We have been at best lackluster in truly prodding the parties to make meaningful progress here, and this portion of the testimony reads more as if we should simply be grateful it was even included, lest the ‘peace process’ be ingloriously and wholly rubbished in the proverbial dustbin. So yes, we can certainly agree, as Burns puts it, that: “the status quo between Arabs and Israelis is no more sustainable than the sclerotic political systems that have crumbled in recent months. Neither Israel’s future as a secure Jewish, democratic state nor the legitimate aspirations of Palestinians can be secured without a negotiated two-state solution.” And yet, what truly is being done, where’s the beef results-wise regarding the “day-in-and-day-out” efforts Burns says we are making? Further, even in this section ostensibly about resuscitating the Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese peace process tracks (the last two even more moribund than the first), Burns seems to be almost as anxious about at least salvaging the current position, highlighting, and I quote again: “We are committed to ensuring that political changes on Israel's borders do not create new dangers for Israel and the region, and we welcome the Egyptian leadership's rapid and repeated reaffirmation of its international treaty obligations.” Translation: the aforementioned references to the Egyptian military respecting its “valuable role” certainly extend to preservation of the Camp David Accords, another “bellwether”, so to speak, likely above many other priorities indeed, and one Foggy Bottom it would appear is not wholly sanguine about (sadly likely rightly, in the middle-term march of history, and if Israeli irredentism persists).
Last Burns turns to our “huge and enduring stake in regional stability”, yet somewhat disappointingly, this section is almost entirely about, you guessed it, Iran (little to nothing is said about even the other regional security priorities he mentions, say “strengthening ties to the GCC states,” though given the indignities of Bahrain perhaps better less said, or still, anti-terror priorities) in favor of something of a boilerplate vituperation respecting Iran: “the truth is that nowhere in the region is the disconnect between rulers and ruled any greater than it is in Iran. The hypocrisy for Iran’s leaders to profess their enthusiasm for democratic changes in the Arab world while systematically denying them to their own people is clear to all, including Iranian citizens.” This is arguably true, but not a slam-dunk statement in terms of its prima facie persuasiveness (why, what about Libya!), and regardless, in the context of the overall testimony reads a bit more like the obligatory jeremiad towards the evil Mullahs than particularly cogent analysis (though it doubtless provided the Hill coteries ‘on message’ comfort), whilst too betraying a measure of self-defensiveness given how much of an assist we’ve provided the Iranians by displacing their foes on both their eastern and western borders. Burns then goes on (in arguably overly self-congratulatory manner) to laud the Administration’s tactical successes in sharpening Iran sanctions (no disrespect meant to former Undersecretary Stuart Levey’s efforts), yet to what truly tangible, successful end to date? And left unsaid, what impact on regional security say a Sunni-run military Government would have in Syria, or an intractably divided Libya, or a Yemen that descends into greater ‘failed state’ status, or even—given all the airtime devoted to Iran—what the Administration makes of its supposed possible proxy-involvements in Bahrain, say?
So I would agree with soon to be Deputy Secretary Burns that we are living through “moments that come along only very rarely in the course of human events” and that they present both “historic opportunities” and “some very large pitfalls.” I hope he will be able to marshal his position as Secretary Clinton’s Number 2 to deepen our thinking on these critical matters, as I am not sure we have our bearings wholly in place, to include paying enough attention to the possible "pitfalls". This is not Europe 1989, or 1848 for that matter, sadly we are not dealing with post-Enlightenment societies, so the challenges are likely to be even more persistent, certainly than 1989’s largely peaceful denouement. And so, to borrow Burns’ phrase, what shall we do if “the peaceful, homegrown, non-ideological movement surging out of Tahrir Square” doesn’t simply “offer a powerful repudiation of al-Qaeda’s false narrative that violence and extremism are the only ways to effect change”, but metamorphoses into new directions, some of which prove hugely challenging for U.S. policy? And if “helping these countries’ reformers to achieve their goals is as important a challenge for American foreign policy as any we have faced since the end of the Cold War”, don’t we need to hear more than why Obama changed his mind over Libya as we navigate these treacherous waters, which the commentariat has almost solely been focused on? Burns is a veteran diplomat and is well alive to these questions and dangers, and I am sure much thought is being given to these cascading conundrums. But more needs be, and quite urgently. Fundamentally, how do we square our interventionist stance in Libya with our relative non-interventionism in the Bahrains and Yemens (putting aside the obligatory retort from Adminstration defenders that much work is occurring behind the scenes trying to forge a rapprochement between the Bahraini opposition and Sunni leadership, I believe a less than convincing talking point)? And is it time perhaps to retire at least somewhat the easy resort to the perennial Iranian bogey-man in favor of a more creative, recalibrated posture? And too, what contingency planning is afoot, if any, were Eastern Saudi to erupt, given the grave economic implications to the West?
More broadly, it is incumbent on this Administration to craft and enunciate a coherent and compelling narrative that couples our two overarching policy goals in the region and beyond namely, on the one hand, supporting the forces of democratic freedom (more carefully defined for starters, but here reference the ostensible rationale for a no-fly zone in Libya) and on the other hand, our less idealistic national security interests (say hedging our bets in Bahrain vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia and Iran with a strong bias towards the former). While there is a strong element of 'country-by-country differentiation' that is necessitated in case-by-case policy-making decisions during this tumultuous time, the overall policy nonetheless needs to be better rationalized within the framework of these two possibly competing policy goals. Put simply, the Administration has yet to define its overall policy coherently, and I am afraid this portion of Obama’s speech does not a convincing Obama Doctrine make:
"There will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and our values are. Sometimes, the course of history poses challenges that threaten our common humanity and our common security -– responding to natural disasters, for example; or preventing genocide and keeping the peace; ensuring regional security, and maintaining the flow of commerce. These may not be America’s problems alone, but they are important to us. They’re problems worth solving. And in these circumstances, we know that the United States, as the world’s most powerful nation, will often be called upon to help. In such cases, we should not be afraid to act -– but the burden of action should not be America’s alone. As we have in Libya, our task is instead to mobilize the international community for collective action. Because contrary to the claims of some, American leadership is not simply a matter of going it alone and bearing all of the burden ourselves. Real leadership creates the conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well; to work with allies and partners so that they bear their share of the burden and pay their share of the costs; and to see that the principles of justice and human dignity are upheld by all."
This is mostly feel good humanitarianism fused with multilateral bonhomie, not a grand strategy befitting the challenges before us (it is also factually misleading, as whatever Qadaffi might have pursued in Benghazi, a genocide was not in the offing, definitionally).
Later, Obama closes:
"I believe that this movement of change cannot be turned back, and that we must stand alongside those who believe in the same core principles that have guided us through many storms: our opposition to violence directed at one’s own people; our support for a set of universal rights, including the freedom for people to express themselves and choose their leaders; our support for governments that are ultimately responsive to the aspirations of the people."
Until we better enunciate our sometimes conflicting goals into an overarching framework (perhaps grand strategy is too laden and ambitious a phrase) such sentiments will be just that, risking mostly ringing hollow to far too many in the region and beyond, with accusations of hypocrisy--if often glibly and unfairly--lobbed in our direction as well.
February 02, 2011
Egypt's Popular Uprising
The post-Tunisia eruption of massive protests in Egypt has felt tectonic in scope and wide-reaching geopolitical implications. Not since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran has a Middle Eastern event galvanized with such magnitude the Arab Middle East and, indeed, the world. While the situation remains tremendously fluid, we do know that the self-immolation of an under-employed 26-year old Tunisian fruit and vegetable vendor has helped set off historic events of immense consequence. Now aided by hindsight, we can almost hear the collective wail of despair and frustration that shook mass swaths of the populace in cities like Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and points beyond, namely, if relatively small Tunisia can rid herself of her ruler with such dispatch, surely the great, ancient nation of Egypt can accomplish the same?
And so the fuse of a spontaneous eruption against Mubarak was lit, with the fundamental drivers of course the increasingly sclerotic state of the Egyptian polity under his leadership, a demographic boom of youth fed up by chronic unemployment, corruption and cost of basic staples, as well as other currents of frustration to include some foreign policy-related grievances, all conspiring with the aforementioned national pride to set off this mighty conflagration.
The first victim this uprising has claimed is undoubtedly “tawrith”, or ‘inherited rule.’ Whether Gamal Mubarak is holed up somewhere in Egypt, or as far likelier and rumored in London, or indeed elsewhere, and despite his father’s reticence as of this hour to state unequivocally and publicly that his son will not stand in going forward elections, this is now a foregone conclusion. Country-by-country specifics differ, so this development is not necessarily a death knell say for Bashar Assad in Syria, but one can be well assured this development has been well noted, from Yemen to Syria, Libya to Jordan (with regard to this last, one sees implications even for monarchical systems, if somewhat more muted for the time being, and we might well include Saudi Arabia on this list while we're at it).
Beyond this, the long reign of Hosni Mubarak has effectively come to an end, with the only question as of this writing the timing of same, as well as whether this denouement will be able to occur without large-scale violence beyond that which we have witnessed so far. Will Mubarak’s departure be some eight months away, in so far-away September, in the context of the unbridled passions roiling great Egyptian metropolises such as Cairo? I highly doubt it, given the street’s incessant demands, depending: “the people want to depose Mubarak”, or “we will not leave, you should leave”, or more simply, “get out, get out”. It appears the genie is well out of the bottle and nothing less than an extremely high-profile defenestration I believe can quiet the passions unleashed.
However, one should not underestimate Mubarak, even if he looks increasingly tired, mournful, mummified even, now a thing of the past being bombarded by blaring megaphones, Facebook posts, and myriad Tweets in a brave New Middle East that is metamorphosing before our eyes in real time. His move to place Omar Suleiman as Vice President was important, not only in that it was his first appointment of a Vice President in memory (even if Suleiman is a loyalist, this implicitly signaled Gamal and tawrith were being sacrificed), but arguably more important, this was doubtless the result of urgent discussions with the military urging Mubarak to do same. The point, however, is that Mubarak is staying in the arena, and not in anyway yet signaling he is prepared to leave imminently.
Omar Suleiman, incidentally, is worthy of a few sentences here. I have seen depictions of him on the cable networks describing him as a “shadowy spymaster”, and such, a caricature which might get one’s inner Kremlinologist pulse aflutter, but is not a particularly apt description. More apropos, he is a bit sui generis in the Middle Eastern fabric, many nations in the region have relied on heavy-handed Interior Ministers over the years to tackle Islamists and ensure domestic ‘order’ in combating such threats (real, perceived, or manufactured), and Egypt of course has had its own cast of Interior Ministers over the years. Suleiman, however, ultimately oversaw not only this critical dossier as a kind of supra-Interior Minister, but also was the lynchpin and critical player in sensitive transnational discussions with players like the Israelis, Palestinians, and say Turks, particularly when major security issues/overlays were implicated (more so than the Foreign Ministry). In addition, of course, he played critical roles in his 'official' capacity dealing with intelligence issues. A very sophisticated player, he provides strategic comfort and a sense of continuity to key capitals, however alas, there is one major problem with all this: the street views him as little more than an alter ego to Mubarak (largely correctly) and he will not be ultimately acceptable to them as a successor (of which more below).
Regardless, a tacit agreement and coalescing around el Baredei seems afoot given the protesters likely intuit he is largely ‘acceptable’ to broad international constituencies, with his Nobel credentials and diplomatic demeanor (despite the tiffs with the US over Iraq that had the Boltons so peeved back in the day) and this also serves to facilitate the Muslim Brotherhood—at least to date—occupying and being satisfied with a more low-key profile. And if el Baraedi can act as a 'vessel' for various interests to merge towards a national unity government that minimizes the haunting specter of large-scale violence, he would have done a great service to his country indeed, particularly if the end result biases towards a convincingly democratic direction, rather than a new authoritarian situation, under whatever banner.
Given this back-drop, what is to be done? First, worth noting, I would say the Administration so far and generally should get high marks for its handling of this crisis. Emotions are running high, and sympathies during this historic pivot point are clearly on the side of the demonstrators, but to wholly throw Mubarak under the bus more forcefully than we have navigated to date I do not believe advisable, keeping in mind the context of a decades-long alliance (this assumes no Mubarak-authorized brutish, large-scale crackdown). Also the decision to dispatch Frank Wisner to Cairo (full disclosure: a close family friend), was an inspired one, not only because of his prior service as Ambassador to Egypt, but also given his overall diplomatic took-kit, which is highly impressive indeed (incidentally, and related to my post of a month or so ago, Wisner was Richard Holbrooke’s best friend). I would suggest the following actions as a matter of urgency:
1) Message in no uncertain terms that Government instigated provocations leading to greater violence as possible pretext for a crackdown could lead to a possible U.S. aid cut-off;
2) Request that Mubarak step down as very soon as possible more forcefully, however with assurances he be allowed to stay in Egypt, with the Army guaranteeing his security (important I think for the man’s own sense of his personal dignity in the context of his perceptions of long service to country);
3) Related, Hosni Mubarak makes an explicit, public statement that Gamal will not seek the Presidency going forward, a statement which would be echoed by his son in due course;
4) Have Suleiman take over the Presidency position, however expressly state this is for a transitory period through September, and that he himself will not run then, but is serving the nation during this delicate transition period given the highly grave challenges an Egyptian implosion or whole-scale breakdown in social cohesion would pose;
5) As further assurance Suleiman is viewed purely as a transitory figure, have key military actors form a coterie (read: not a junta) of spoke-persons through this period further highlighting Suleiman is more a vessel for the Army to ensure order, not that Suleiman is a new Pharaoh controlling the Army; and
6) Focus very intently on helping move towards a national unity type Government in September that includes all key political factions, not only Western-leading ‘reformists’, but also the Muslim Brotherhood (this must include on an urgent basis economic reforms, both emergency relief and more structural).
Last, a plea for humility. We have seen the usual suspects gripe and moan that ‘we should have supported Person X more’, or ‘Who Lost Egypt?’, or still, ‘See, Bush was Right!’, and so on. This is mostly clap-trap from journalistic, think-tank and other like-situated congeries busily settling old grudges and trotting out tired stereotyped narratives that, worth noting, tend to grossly overstate the impact the U.S. can or cannot really have amidst fast-moving historical currents. The bottom line is events underway in Egypt are epochal and manifestly of gigantic implication, bigger than any one Administration, or whether we prodded Mubarak the right amount on say the Ayman Nour issue a few years back (as Nour himself noted from jail during the entire Condoleezza Rice ‘will she, won’t she' saga: “I pay the price when [Rice] speaks [of me], and I pay the price when she doesn't”), and regardless, certainly bigger than increasingly discredited mastheads ascribing blame for perceived missteps, by say, a heartlessly overly 'realist' Obama.
The bottom line is that history is in the making, and it is being made by Egyptians, in the main, and more quickly than we likely realize now. Put simply, we have less power to influence events than some of us might hope, and more should reckon with this reality, as well somewhat related, the edict: 'first, do no harm'. Meantime, however, my 1-6 above are meant to distill some possible policy recommendations I think the US Government—via the President, Secretary of State, Frank Wisner, our Ambassador on the ground—among doubtless many others—should be assiduously pursuing, both in public and private fora, and with a real sense of urgency, if in calibrated manner given this is such a delicate period littered with varied mine-fields.
December 14, 2010
Richard Holbrooke: A Life in Diplomacy
I can almost picture the scene where, turning blush red, he would have very much been wanting to make just one last point to Hillary Clinton on the 7th Floor at the State Department, with her instead wisely ordering him into the elevator to get rushed to the hospital. A passionate and tireless advocate, he blocked and tackled to the very end, in service to his country.
Finally, and necessarily willing to negotiate with the likes of Slobodan Milosevic (whatever dishonor to his victims the moral quandary of negotiating with him posed was amply alleviated by the opportunity to spare perhaps many more lives looking forward), Holbrooke did what only he could do: push, corral, lecture, hector, harangue, strong-arm, charm, remonstrate, cajole, scream and, yes, generally 'bulldoze' men like Milosevic (needing to bring along Karadzic and Mladic), Franjo Tudgman (with his own maximalist Herzegovian Croats to deal with), and an indecisive and sometimes feuding Alija Izetbegovic and Haris Silajdzic. It was no mean feat, and I believe history will see this dogged and intrepid peacemaking as well more than a footnote, given the wider implications the conflict, if left to its own devices for longer, could well have had for wider European stability (like most deals, this one was imperfect for various stakeholders, and still contains to this day the seeds of future risks, but it was cobbled together with fierce energy and in a manner that has withstood a decade and a half plus).
June 29, 2010
"Growth Now" vs "Austerity Now"
PIMCO's Mohamed El-Erian, writing recently in the FT, attempts to bridge the divide between the two warrings camps:
The two sides are both right, and wrong. Their impasse will persist until both understand that the debate is incomplete. In particular their discussion takes too narrow an historical perspective, looking excessively to the past experience of industrial countries as opposed to also reflecting that of emerging economies.
I post this less for El-Erian's cogent observations generally, to include his apt recycling of "second generation structural reforms" in a non emerging-market context, more for his mention of "social frictions" to intensify in coming years. I suspect this is an issue that merits more attention than it has garnered to date, to include here in the U.S., as El-Erian suggests in his parenthetical.
June 25, 2010
The McChrystal Follies
Amidst the reams of commentary on the General McChrystal fiasco, I found this snippet from George Will worth noting:
It is difficult, and perhaps unwise, to suppress this thought: McChrystal's disrespectful flippancies, and the chorus of equally disdainful comments from the unpleasant subordinates he has chosen to have around him, emanate from the toxic conditions that result when the military's can-do culture collides with a cannot-be-done assignment. In this toxicity, Afghanistan is Vietnam redux.
I would echo Mr. Will's observation. In Afghanistan we are enmeshed in a strategic blunder on par or worse than the Iraq debacle (incidentally, for those who have declared the Mesopotamian morass a victory, here's some level-headed reportage worth a gander lest we delude ourselves Dubya (or Petraeus, about whom more below) erected a Babylonian utopia in Baghdad, Fallujah, Najaf, Basra, Kirkuk, and Mosul. As for Will's Vietnam analogy, we might beware the perils of too easy historical analogizing, but with the Afghan war nearing a decade, it's certainly not an unfair comparison. I would add the following commentary on the McChrystal episode, piggy-backing on Will's apercu:
• It is profoundly sad that it is only McChrystal and crew's sophomoric dishing (President Obama "uncomfortable and intimidated" amidst all the beribboned military brass, Vice President Joseph "Bite-Me" Biden, the "clown" at the NSC, Dick Holbrooke, he of the scatological E-mails not worth opening, Karl Eikenberry, merely covering his behind for the history books, and, bien sur, the so lame and "gay" French), which collectively conspired to belatedly cause a genuine kerfuffle over matters Afghanistan. This is what has the print commentariat and cable pygmies aflutter, not that young Americans are dying in increasingly large numbers for a futile misson devoid now of even a smidgen of strategic sense? A sad testament, to be sure, on a variety of levels not worth detaining the reader with here. Suffice it to say empires die during periods of such obscene myopia.
• Equally, if not more disheartening, are that McChrystal's 'legacy issues' (to use a phrase in vogue) are evidently less concerning to most than the aforementioned juvenile aspersions from a liquored up gaggle at a tourist-trap Irish pub in Paris. That it has taken a young free-lancer from Rolling Stone to help sketch out the fundamental futility of the Afghan mission is, among other things, rather an indictment of a journalistic class increasingly propagandistic (whether purposefully or through languorous cluelessness might make an interesting thesis topic). But beyond this, McChrystal's prior indiscretions are arguably even more serious, to include presiding over such penal exuberances as Camp Nama ("No Blood, No Foul"!), or say, the parsimonious amount of information doled out up-front around the Pat Tillman episode. Are we to be surprised by the entrenched contemptuousness and disdain of civilian authority surrounding this physically courageous, but profoundly flawed, General? But no, warning signs are ignored, and instead, such conduct paves the way for promotions these days, or alternatively, audible yawns among our titular arbiters of appropriate conduct.
• Obama had to fire McChrystal (Eliot Cohen, whom I rarely agree with it, put it well in the Journal recently), though for a moment I'll confess I had to wonder if Barack had more Adlai Stevenson than Harry Truman in him (albeit a decision not to relieve him of command of the Afghan adventure would inevitably have been cloaked in 'team of rivals' soi disant self-confidence). This said, while Obama will doubtless garner some points for "decisiveness" and such banalities now, so that we must steel ourselves for a mini-season of such articles (charitably at best a stretch, as the BP debacle, watered-down financial sector reform and 'Runaway General-out, Petraeus-In' hardly constitute Churchillian fare, Sangerian stenography and self-preservationist Rahmian boosterism apart).
• The season of COIN-on-steroids beckons, as the think-tank apparatchiks dutifully chronicle whether Petraeus can turn Marjah from "bleeding ulcer" to Hamiltonian hamlet, before charging Kandahar and enlightening locals how to better run their jirgas, with the civil procedure treatises parachuted in. Apologies for the sarcasm, but my point is this: the war in Afghanistan, already Obama's, is now exponentially so. Having now demoted the American architect of what passes for modern-day counter-insurgency theory ("Government-In-A-Box"!) , as well the storied 'surge' proponent from Iraq, from CENTCOM to the field (in actuality, however, it will be increasingly perceived as a promotion, with the war elevated in stature too, and per the Washington echo-chamber, the 'war on terror'--or whatever moniker du jour--largely in Petreaus' hands), the die has now been well cast for this ill-fated Afghan fiasco to drift along at least through Obama's first term. Put differently, with the gloried Petraeus at the helm, we're now all-in in Afghanistan. And for what, there are perhaps, per Leon Panetta, 50-100 al-Qaeda operatives in the entire country, even fewer perhaps, and we have 100,000 or so men nation-building there? (For thoughts on why I view the Afghanistan mission as devoid of real strategic purpose, see for instance here).
• I stumbled on this letter of George Kennan's while re-reading his excellent memoirs, as he passes through Iraq in June of 1944, I believe on his way to Moscow:
So much for the handicaps; what of the possibilities of service in Baghdad? A country in which man's selfishness and stupidity have ruined almost all natural productivity, where vegetation can survive only among the banks of the great rivers which traverse its deserts, where climate has become unfavorable to human health and vigor.
And imagine what this singular American diplomat would have made of Afghanistan, let alone Iraq, and coming out of our Great Recession (with a double-dip a real and present danger post the orgy of stimuli, bail-outs, so-called quantitative easing etc.)!
Moving beyond all the immediate events of last week, we are left to reckon with President Obama too. He said in his statement relieving General McChrystal something to the effect that war is bigger than one man, and he is right. So is the future of countries, polities, and empires. In the recent election, he defeated a Senatorial baron and fabled war hero as an African-American junior Senator fresh from a stint as a community organizer, an amazing feat for the history books, to be sure. Why? People were desperate for change, deep in their guts, after the catastrophic bungles wrought by George W. Bush. And yet, have we gotten said change? Do those who listened to his speech in Cairo still believe in it (assuming they ever did, though certainly there were some elevated expectations), a year or so out? Those who felt the 'moral Chernobyl' of Guantanamo required urgent closure of the detention facility? Those who hungered for financial reform that went after the root causes, such as shoddy underwriting and unmoored leverage, rather than the chaotic sausage-making emitting from Barney Frank's office? Or a bona fide restoration of the letter and spirit of habeas corpus, against the corrosive erosions of 'prolonged' detention, and so on.
Of course, Obama was dramatically, astoundingly even, better than the alternative, who'd have had us warring in Teheran and Tbilisi by now, with Sarah Palin regaling us with discourses about off-shore drilling job creation initiatives. But for some who held out the promise for more profound transformation, we are left with the underwhelming feeling, as Edward Luce put it a few weeks back in the FT, that a 'new and improved' stamp was simply affixed on the same fundamental narrative, no? A pity, for him, for the country, indeed, for the entire international community. Perhaps he is wiser than us, playing his cards and biding his time, being careful to secure a second term, and than wowing doubters with a more historic, transformative agenda. But I smell too much of a cautious, deferential institutionalist in him. In short, the man's story has been great, but the man may not be great himself.
After all, who serious can laud his approach to Afghanistan, with the almost dutifully subserviant default to a "surge", but one married to a supposed hard end-date for drawing-down, an awkwardly disjointed policy borne of a too long and divisive inter-agency review, with no one trusting the supposed end date for commencement of meaningful troop withdrawals regardless, especially with the ante upped with Petraeus now in. And if 'Government-In-A-Box' doesn't take root in Marjah and Kandahar (let alone the great one we have in Kabul, this one presumably specially gift-wrapped for us!), then what? Meantime, men are dying and our power is whittling away every day, as history increasingly occurs on other key stages far from this storied graveyard of empires where Obama, it seems, is essentially doubling-down, rather than seriously thinking of responsibly closing out this latest ill-fated chapter in American adventurism.
June 03, 2010
Blunders on the High Seas
Much ink has been spilt about the so-called flotilla fiasco these past days, a botched Israeli commando raid of the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara vessel in international waters transporting, depending on who you ask, committed Gandhi-like humanitarians, or per others, hardened al-Qaeda linked terrorists. Amidst the cacophony of YouTubes with yellow highlighted arrows emblazoned about, helpfully highlighting metal poles and “objects”, stun grenades and firebombs, or talk of ‘Khaibar’ chanting miscreants flush with a million Euros, as well myriad spent non-Israeli bullet cartridges allegedly causing manifold gunshot wounds, or per other (equally heated) retellings, something of a pre-planned massacre by beastly IDF goons simply for the sport of it, not too much is yet definitively clear save that tragic loss of life occurred in an illegal operation (or one of dubious legality at very best), so that the Israeli mission was undeniably a failure operationally, tactically, and strategically. Let us take each in turn, though it is the last which is most important.
Operationally, it’s largely no-brainer fare what went wrong, as various military experts have opined ad nauseam. Why was the intelligence about the ‘activists’ on board so sub-par, to include presuming a more docile reaction to airborne commandos crashing the party at an ignoble pre-dawn hour? What of the somewhat surreal tidbit about paintball rifles, as the FT reports typically “used to bruise and mark suspects for later arrest”, as if either of these crowd-dispersal techniques on a sea-borne vessel make any sense whatsoever? Instead, with the intelligence badly flawed from the get-go, and thus the operational capabilities required fundamentally misconstrued, it was all too easy for live ammunition to be too liberally employed in the initial chaos leading to fatalities (nine and counting, with regardless even one death too many for a boat full of non-combatants, which contra the always enterprising musings of Alan Derschowitz, where he says that the flotilla’s passengers “fit uncomfortably onto the continuum of civilianality that has come to characterize asymmetrical warfare”--I suspect instead most leading public international law authorities would ultimately conclude, 'continuums of civilianality' or not, that these individuals were not rendered bona fide combatants simply because the ship was attempting to break a blockade, and given the totality of the circumstances).
Short to mid-term tactically, the operation was similarly a blunder. I don’t necessarily disagree with many Israeli commentators who contend that the Mavi Marmara’s nautical intrusions were less about delivery of humanitarian aid, more about breaking the blockade (I am however fatigued by the sophomoric rhetoric emitting from Prime Minister Netanyahu that the Mavi Marmara wasn’t the "Love Boat", or the less sophomoric, and more crudely propagandistic fare, say, that the mostly Turks on board were hell bent on helping set up an “Iranian port”, the better for Ahmadi-Nejad to ship in the processed uranium). But here’s the rub, assuming the activists were more minded to break the blockade than anything else, the fact that Israel’s botched operation caused major loss of life and widespread international outrage will now only intensify further the international pressure to end this very same blockade. Already there is talk about modifying the extent of the blockade even in Washington, and the NYT reports the Israelis are “exploring new ways” of supplying Gaza. As Washington is ultimately Israel’s only die-hard friend--if a tad more halting one of late—this is hardly a surprise.
But it is the strategic failure however which depresses most, and for many reasons. First, and perhaps most important, the Israeli-Turkish relationship has deteriorated dramatically, even dangerously. I am reasonably confident that had the Israelis not immediately repatriated all the Turkish individuals in their custody Ankara might well have truly contemplated terminating diplomatic relations. That’s really rather stunning, when you think of it, given the longevity of these ties. Related, deepening defense cooperation is still at real risk looking forward depending on Israel’s next moves regarding the blockade (as is restoration of full Ambassadorial-level diplomatic ties). And of course you have Prime Minister Erdogan’s statements—which cannot be wholly discounted as fiery rhetoric in the aftermath of the emotional death of Turkish civilians—that “nothing will be the same” in the context of Turkish-Israeli relations. While one senses, at least as of this writing, that both parties have pulled back from the brink some, the situation is still fraught with real tension and the bilateral dynamics are highly problematic to say the least.
Second, this all comes at a highly sensitive time geopolitically in the region with Turkey having sought to broker (along with Brazil) a deal respecting Iran’s nuclear program (incidentally, I hope the subject of a separate post soon). These efforts, whatever their merits, and having been rebuffed rather too high-handedly (or, alternatively, in too rushed and defensive a manner?) in various quarters, will have as a result the Turks likely intensifying their reach out to the ‘East’, especially given Washington’s tepid reaction to date on the flotilla incident (certainly from Ankara’s vantage point, witness but a proposed U.S. observer for an Israeli-led investigation into this fiasco!). In short, and post the Iraq War with its materially negative implications respecting the US-Turkish relationship, it is fair to say Israel’s botched intervention on the high seas has only made the sledding all the harder respecting helping calibrate Turkey’s evolving role in the neighborhood better from Washington’s perspective.
Related, this ill-fated operation was a blunder too as it will only render more complicated Israel’s objectives respecting the sanctions end-game at the United Nations on the Iran dossier, doubtless making it easier for the assorted ministrations of Brasilia, Ankara (as well other emerging powers) to work on peeling away Beijing and Moscow’s support for anything emitting from Turtle Bay that might have had real teeth vis-à-vis Teheran (to the extent these capitals were really minded to ultimately sign on to a robust U.S. draft to begin with, a dubious proposition ultimately, nor am I a fan of sanctions for sanctions sake, ineffective as they typically are, whether of the ‘smart’ variety or otherwise, so that we should be more focused on long-term containment initiatives likely).
Third, this presents yet another set-back likely to the mostly moribund launch of so-called ‘proximity talks’ George Mitchell has been pursuing for so many long months, a thankless task if there ever was one (if an important one nonetheless, given no credible, more ambitious initiatives are underway). Any setbacks to these fledgling diplomatic initiatives provide a shot in the arm to Hamas, further make life difficult for whatever assorted Fatah moderates in Ramallah, while putting more pressure on Cairo, Amman and possibly Riyadh, to the benefit of Damascus and other less conciliatory players.
And last, while there are still other strategic setbacks besides, the continued de-legitimation of Israel among large swaths of global opinion coming out of the ’06 Lebanese conflict, the dismal Operation Cast Lead, the Goldstone Report, and now this latest debacle, is worth highlighting as well. I know, I know, everyone would be beating up on Tel Aviv anyway, we are told by those who are always at the ready to provide carte blanche style rationalizations for whatever conduct Israel might deem appropriate, and with whatever the consequences, but this seems too easy a retort, no?
Meantime the mood in Israel, in the main, seems to be one of mostly defiance and rallying around the flag. There are vehement criticisms about the operational missteps, but few question the tactical wisdom of the operation itself with respect to the preservation of the blockade, fewer still the strategic challenges the botched operation have raised to the forefront per the above. Yes, something has changed in the Israeli public’s mood these past years, a thriving polity known for its rancorous and hard-fought debates across the political spectrum, not least when it came to national security issues. The rancor is still there, to be sure, but save outlier parties like Meretz a broad Likud-Labor-Kadima consensus has apparently congealed, one with little patience for the niceties of world opinion, international law, persistent diplomacy, and painstaking alliance-building. This extends beyond the political class itself, as some roughly 95% of the Israeli public polled believed the vessel needed to be stopped, ostensibly come what may.
The reasons are many, I suspect. The long campaign of suicide bombings engendered much hatred of the 'other' amidst the Israeli public. The fact that rocket attacks continued from Gaza after Israel’s withdrawal frustrated keenly, ‘what more can we do’, many asked? And legendary figures from the Israeli national security firmament are no longer with us, most notably, Yitzhak Rabin, so that the nation likely feels somewhat unmoored with only more second-tier players available. And yet these very sources of frustration are evocative of a lack of self-reflection among too many Israelis, one fears. If you withdraw from Gaza, but after an election Hamas wins (like it or not) cut back on the amount of basic goods allowed in--and then even more so after the ejection of Fatah from the Strip--is it any wonder frustration will mount within Gaza helping fuel further bouts of violence, for instance?
As for the current crise du jour, less about the flotilla (as symptom) ultimately than the blockade (as cause), can Israelis not better appreciate that acting as self-appointed commissars authorized to calibrate the precise amount of food aid, medical supplies and other goods allowed into Gaza (with nutritional issues still arising nonetheless, and post-Cast Lead rebuilding efforts hugely stunted), with what types of specific goods per detailed lists of authorized and non-authorized fare, offends sensibilities, indeed mightily, and in many quarters? Or that the communal punishment of 1.5 million people, for the acts of an off-shoot group of the Muslim Brotherhood which also incidentally provides varied social services (and with which frankly the U.S.—or a proxy—should open channels too given their key position within the Palestinian polity), similarly perturbs many fair-minded persons? Or, still, that the constant discussion surrounding a single IDF soldier, one Gilad Shalit, while heartbreaking for him, his family, his unit and Army, and indeed perhaps too the Israeli nation more generally, is nonetheless perhaps discounted in ‘net’ import some by those looking at the plight of well over a million Palestinians by comparison (Netanyahu has listed this single soldier as one of three key variables weighing on Israel’s posture vis-à-vis the blockade)?
I could go on, but this mood of national testiness, dearth of self-reflection, default to non-conciliatory postures, and easy resort to militarism is proving ever more debilitating to Israel’s overall position and future in the region, and indeed globally. More than anything, the tactical obsession with eradicating enemies (as if one even could every last Hamas or Hezbollah adherent), rather than more seriously moving forward towards an overarching peace settlement with the Palestinians (as well the Syrians and Lebanese) is what strikes me as most short-sighted. What is needed is more strategic patience, realism and wisdom among Israel’s leaders, as reminiscent of the aforementioned Yitzhak Rabin. Mssrs. Netanyahu and Barak have not mustered same, alas, certainly not of late.
Last, however, we would be remiss not to mention Washington in all this, which has proven overly halting, passive and cautious in its approach to this issue, despite its ever growing costs as strategic liability to the United States. President Obama needs to become more personally involved in pointing the parties towards the final parameters of a convincing settlement, while playing ‘honest broker’ more forcefully, and in out-of-the- box fashion (yes, I know, he’s rather busy, and more seed-work is required by Clinton and Mitchell). This means bold acts (at least by our paltry standards) to shake up dynamics some, like having a vigorous international investigation into this incident with, who could imagine, Turkish and Israeli observers, say, rather than simply Israelis running the investigation with a token US observer who will be widely viewed by the world as a white-wash enabler, or moving to engage Hamas (likely indirectly via EU proxies at first), or still skipping over proximity talks in favor of the real thing, meaning direct talks under U.S. mediation (by exerting adult supervision and real pressure on the parties to get them to the proverbial table). Did we vote for change? Real change? Well, where is it, one too often wonders, across a variety of areas. Except, really, this isn't really revolutionary change, it's called basic, robust and slightly more risky and creative diplomacy, which this nation has employed in the past on occasion, if not too often in recent memory.
In short, and as often, another dismal episode emitting from the Middle East, lots of noise and protestations and shrieks resulting, and little by way of intelligent, concrete policy-making apparently in the offing from any governmental quarters (like, say, more forcefully sketching out in Quartet, UN and other international fora the key parameters that everyone is aware are needed for an overall peace deal, while pursuing outreach to portions of Hamas that would be willing to renounce violence on the basis of a meaningful peace settlement). This also begs questions regarding how a ribald, Tweeting (Palin-style), special interest-laden, and hugely dumbed-down cable news addled mass democracy manages to run a serious foreign policy, but that topic is perhaps better left for another day.
August 03, 2009
Lunch w/ the FT...
...last weekend, with Rory Stewart. I blog the lunch interview really for this snippet:
Since arriving at Harvard in June last year, he has been consultant to several members of Barack Obama’s administration, including Hillary Clinton, and is a member of Richard Holbrooke’s special committee for Afghanistan and Pakistan policy. “I do a lot of work with policymakers, but how much effect am I having?” he asks, pronging a mussel out of its shell.
Incidentally, Stewart had not unrelated thoughts in the LRB a month or so back.
About Belgravia Dispatch
Gregory Djerejian, an international lawyer and business executive, comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.
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