August 24, 2014
What Tom Friedman's Interview Revealed About Obama's Foreign Policy
In a recent interview with Tom Friedman (worth listening to in full) President Obama held forth for almost an hour on various foreign policy topics. Below I highlight a couple fascinating exchanges that I believe help illustrate some of Obama’s shortcomings as a foreign policy leader.
The first relates to Russia. Friedman, to his credit, prefaces the Russia discussion energetically making the case that post-Cold War NATO expansion was a terrible blunder (“we traded Russia for the Czech Navy", Friedman quips). Obama sits somewhat stoically through Friedman’s brief anti-NATO expansion soliloquy refusing to take the bait, at which point Friedman (almost slightly embarrassed) moves the conversation along stating that “it was before your [Obama’s] time...” Friedman then asks Obama point blank whether it’s time for urgent summitry among Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel and himself to provide Putin a “ladder” as they sort through the Ukraine crisis (see the 31:40 minute mark). Rather than respond to Friedman’s entreaty for urgent crisis diplomacy (read: statesmanship) Obama goes into a lengthy disquisition on his view of how the U.S.-Russian relationship has suffered, waxing a bit nostalgic about Medvedev’s Presidency and such (during Obama’s first term), Putin’s “almost Tsarist attitude” during his last campaign and how the Ukraine situation “caught [Putin] by surprise….this wasn’t some grand strategy” (as if that last really matters regarding the current state of play, perhaps better to leave to the historians, no?). Obama then goes on to say he believes Putin post-annexation of Crimea finds himself with a “smaller and smaller circle around him” with “fierce Russian nationalists having his ear." While Obama acknowledges Putin’s poll numbers are “very high”, he apparently attributes that to Putin and his media having “stirred Russians into a frenzy” so that finding an “off-ramp” for him is “more challenging.”
We can debate much of the above, which I personally find an overly simplistic narrative that is too convenient in painting Putin as the sole bad guy in this affair (as Henry Kissinger has written, “demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one"). But it is what comes next in the interview which I found most fascinating: Friedman asks Obama if a deal with Putin is still possible? Obama responds thusly: “a deal should be possible but one of the things I have discovered during the course of my Presidency is just because something makes sense doesn’t mean it actually happens.” O.K., fair enough, but mightn’t we ask why not? Might it sometimes be because Obama has a second (if not third)-tier foreign policy team, incapable of executing serious foreign policy beyond airy posturing a la Susan Rice, Samantha Power etc., or the hyper-kinetic travels of John Kerry that while impressive regarding ‘road warrior’ cred, often amount to disjointed, haphazard efforts devoid of follow-through, disciplined vision and finally, true strategic backdrop?
Still, Obama himself is a not unimpressive personage, clearly an intelligent man. Why could he not like prior Presidents who have effectively engaged with foes (see for instance Richard Nixon with the PRC or Ronald Reagan with the Soviets, putting aside whatever else we make of these two former Presidents) be more directly and personally engaged? As of today's writing, Angela Merkel has had 33 phone calls with Putin since the Crimea crisis. Obama? Just five. The point is not that myriad phone calls are a prerequisite to effective statesmanship, of course. But too often Obama appears a study in passivity when it comes to convincingly helping spear-head ambitious foreign policy initiatives, as if he’s tuned out some and has become a bit fatigued of the Presidency and the concomitant world stage it commands.
A bit earlier in the interview, Friedman asks a similar question when it come to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis (see the 28:45 minute mark). Friedman, very accurately, points out that often Tel Aviv and Ramallah have historically needed the “American President to play the heavy”, so they can go back to their respective constituencies and basically say, the White House needs us to play ball here, let’s step up and make the requested concessions. Again, as with the Russia crisis above, Friedman suggests POTUS himself needs to energetically wade in. Obama’s response? He states: “we have been doing that behind the scenes…I’ve had some pretty tense conversations with both sides throughout this process.” I’m afraid this is rather underwhelming fare, so that one fairly might conclude Obama simply does not want—or apparently cannot really envision—grasping the nettle with more alacrity. Sometimes you have to do more than “send John”, after all, no? What follows after (again, similarly to the Putin-fare recounted above) is another lengthy disquisition on Bibi’s poll numbers, Abu Mazen’s weakness, concluding (as Obama puts it, a bit tritely and lackadaisically for my taste, especially given the gravity of the crisis and daily carnage in Gaza): “you can lead folks to water, but they have to drink.” And so it goes, the “peace process” or even robust enough cease-fire efforts (as with true summitry towards defusing the Ukraine crisis) appear relegated to the proverbial backburner.
Near the end of the interview, Friedman asks Obama what his main take-away has been from the Presidency so far. Obama reflects at some length, and ends up discoursing on three take-aways. One is how too often bright-spots are being overlooked (he cites Africa, places like Chile and Peru, even—somewhat unconvincingly—his supposed Asia pivot and deepening relations in Asia-Pac). Take-away number two is a bit of a Libya post-mortem, shockingly, Obama apparently needed the Libya adventure to be reminded that when we intervene militarily there are “unintended consequences” and that it’s critical to ask: “do we have an answer for the day after” (one might have thought this lesson was well illustrated by his predecessor’s calamitous Iraq misadventure, but I suppose one needs to learn lessons more personally for them to better resonate). But it is perhaps Obama’s final take-away which is most revelatory. He waxes rhapsodic about the U.S., clearly believing (and later in the interview explicitly stating) that we are “exceptional”, before baldly stating that “things don’t run unless we’re there.”
Putting aside the merits of a somewhat saccharine-infused belief in American exceptionalism (see the end of the interview where he overly simplistically caricatures the PRC as pure-play free-riders, and at the 59:20 mark seems a bit teary-eyed even about American ‘exceptionalism’) let us pause and reflect on Obama’s contention that “things don’t run unless we’re there”. Perhaps true. The peace process pauses, maybe dies. The Ukraine conflagration grows, maybe even more dangerously explodes, depending on Merkel’s diplomacy, Kiev’s posture, and Putin’s ultimate responses. Coups don’t get called coups, caliphates get created, China sees containment rather than an innocuous pivot, with potentially profound consequences. Things don’t run unless we’re there. So be 'there', then!
It is very easy to take cheap pot-shots at Obama. We must recall the alternatives would have been tragically worse. Even within his own party, as Hillary Clinton’s recent comments to Jeffrey Goldberg make clear, breezy certitudes around play-pretend muscularity are meant to showcase greater foreign policy gravitas, but actually too often indicate precisely the opposite. Indeed, we should commend Obama his caution, his rationality, his use of scalpels rather than hammers. By this I mean that a period of American retrenchment was well needed—almost inevitable—after the gross excesses of the post 9/11 Bush years. But Obama’s tragedy is that he has not accompanied a period of American retrenchment, even decline, with strategic panache (for instance, Nixon and Kissinger’s opening to China on the heels of the disastrous Vietnam War). He does not seem appropriately seized of the possibilities his office affords. Perhaps he would benefit from better thought partners, Joe Biden and John Kerry might be decent enough men, but neither are true foreign policy visionaries. And regarding his National Security Advisor, the less said likely the better, save that personally I would immediately terminate her given what appears to be near zero value-add emitting from that office.
Finally, I suppose, Obama can either essentially ‘run out the clock’, or urgently re-boot his flagging foreign policy. If the Friedman interview is any indication, one cannot help fearing the former is likelier. It is not that Obama is not a good man with good intentions. But many expected more than decency and 'lesser evil' plaudits, hoping for a more transformative greatness. Shame on those of us who did, I suppose, and better to keep expectations better in check moving forward.
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July 07, 2014
The Peace Process Ends: Not With a Bang, But a Whimper
I read Barak Ravid’s excellent “peace process” post-mortem with a sense of deep dismay. In fairness, however, one might first note a modest cause for optimism and a preliminary caveat. Optimism, you say? Well, as far as it goes, there is at least a "Framework Document" now on the shelf (or in a Foggy Bottom safe). Perhaps, although I’m dubious, it won't just gather dust for years and effectively be relegated to the dust-bin. As for the caveat, Ravid's is but one journalist’s accounting, nor should one cheaply denigrate John Kerry, Martin Indyk and their respective staff's sweat equity invested into trying to get a deal across the line over nine months, especially in the context of arm-chair quarterbacking from afar.
And yet, what paucity of great power diplomatic imagination, verve and resolve is revealed in this reportage! More than anything, the negotiations were in the main solely with the Israeli-side. The Palestinians were effectively absent in the equation (more on this critical factor below). To boot, the U.S. was effectively ‘negotiating with itself’ in that we were merely gently pressuring the Israelis to claw-back positions that had largely already been successfully broached with predecessor Israeli Governments (see notably Camp David 2000 vintage + Taba, both post the Wye River Memorandum). Is this where the rather risible ‘honest broker’ descriptor has gotten us to, really?
Best I can make out, many months were squandered by such moments: ‘Pretty please, Israelis, may we have the ’67 lines + related swap(s) be the principle buttressing the negotiations?’ You mean, a cynic might say, the cornerstone ‘land for peace’ formulation that dates to U.N. Resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973)? This elemental principle—almost half a century old now--masquerades as some large concession! And, even here, Ravid’s reportage makes clear Netanyahu would not entertain details behind the principle—let alone pulling out maps to get into the potential nitty-gritty of precise borders and exchanges—but even broaching such discussions on a theoretical level.
Or, pretty please, Israelis, may we (after we effectively agreed on the Palestinian’s behalf to their having a demilitarized state and a continued Israeli military presence in the Jordan River Valley), may we also get your agreement that some international troops could stay behind as face-save ‘internationalization’ sop for the Palestinians? Please, on the U.S. tax-payers dime, doubtless? Would you terribly mind?
Or, pretty please, Israelis, can we perhaps not mention a “Jewish State” full–stop, but “nation-state of the Jewish people”? This will make minorities within ’48 Israel so much more comfortable, especially as Israel also reportedly agreed to emphasize that “the equality of rights of the minorities in Israel will not be infringed in any peace agreement.” And let us not concern ourselves too much with the painful symbolism this Jewish nation-state engenders for the Palestinians with regard to their effectively forsaking forever former ’48-era lands, especially in the context of the de minimis concessions offered up regarding ‘right of return’.
As for the Jerusalem issue, U.S. negotiators at least understood the language required would have Jerusalem described as capital of both states. Yet here Netanyahu would not budge an inch, save to possibly agree there was a “future aspiration in this regard, or a general sentence to the effect that it would not be possible to achieve a final agreement without resolving the Jerusalem issue.” But if the Palestinians are meant to effectively relinquish any meaningful right of return plus recognize Israel as "nation-state of the Jewish people", you can be assured the price of such compromises will be a modest portion of East Jerusalem (at minimum including some of the Muslim Holy sites) becoming the capital of Palestine. After all, it takes two to cut a deal.
All this is painful enough: that months of diplomatic capital were squandered on what should have been low-hanging fruit given legacy negotiations. But the kicker is that the Framework Document was essentially only being shown to one side, if you believe Ravid’s reporting! It points to the incestuousness of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, where as ever dutiful legal counsel, we sought to ‘dot I’s/cross T’s, tweak language to help Netanyahu with his hardliners (who get worse by the day)—but little to none of the time deigning to share the draft with the other side—save perhaps little verbal 'teasers' and such semi-disclosures. I don’t know about other readers with experience in either the public or private sectors negotiating deals—but from my experience it is unfathomable that you don’t show the other side the deal documentation; perhaps not necessarily every single iteration given tactical reasons--but none of the developing drafts for months and months?
It’s frankly almost emblematic of a caricatured ‘Orientalist’ bias, after the Western sophisticates have battened down the document in the hifalutin’ conference rooms, we’ll let those somewhat dim 'Middle Easterners' in on the document and patronizingly explain to them what miracles our exertions wrought on their behalf. Unsurprisingly, the Palestinian side was not impressed. As Ravid reports: “At this time, drafts of the document were being exchanged between Washington and Jerusalem on a daily basis. The Palestinians’ response, when they grasped what was going on, was that they were being duped. So great was their suspiciousness and so intense their frustration with the Americans that they lost interest in the process completely.”
The ‘peace process’ has become a phrase now almost of ribald derision in many quarters, a moniker for seemingly endless cycles of aimless discussion mired in its own rituals, positions, talking points, coteries of drafters and scriveners that come and go, like the seasons. And beyond this, the conventional wisdom has developed into a burgeoning sense that—with everything else afoot in MENA—does Israeli-Palestinian peace really even matter all that much? Deep down, however, true friends of Israel realize it very much does. The continued quashing of the dignity of an occupied people is eroding Israel’s national soul as heretofore soi disant enlightened democracy. Israel is descending into pre-Enlightenment brutishness day-by-day, month-by-month, year-by year. Like its enemies, it begins to wax rhapsodic about irredentist strategies, annexation of lands, ethnic cleansing, ‘eye-for-an-eye’ tactics (see the barbarism of teens slain on both sides this past week). Its basic legitimacy is inexorably compromised because of the original sin of the occupation.
Alas, Yigal Amir’s bullet constituted one of the most catastrophically effective political assassinations of modern times, bringing down arguably the greatest leader and peacemaker Israel had in Yitzhak Rabin. As ‘peacemaking fatigue’ sets in and the clock runs on, legalistic huddles around Framework documents that constitute but begrudging ‘pulling along’ on the most basic matters will not meaningfully resuscitate chances for a real peace. What is needed is a convincing leader of a great power (hello, Barack) to tell his client—politely but firmly—that its many untold billions upon billions of aid come with a small price, meaning, a modicum of respect for its patron.
Here instead, we are being played for fools, negotiating with ourselves for the privilege of trying to help a client who pays us too little heed back. Even the hapless Palestinians 'waiting for Godot' in Ramallah could not tolerate this theater of transparent chicanery this go around. A ‘process’ like this is indeed a mockery. What is required is an end to the tyranny of such incremental process obsession, instead tabling firmly before the counterparties what everyone knows are the broad parameters of a deal, and exerting real pressure (including suspension of material components of financial and military aid) until people get serious about inking the real deal (see too the levity around this time being ‘serious’ in Ravid’s reporting, an inauspicious harbinger that helped foretell the outcome).
What is this deal, you ask? It's quite simple: the Palestinians agree 1) Israel proper is the "nation-state of the Jewish people", and 2) that right of return will only mean refugees can one of: A) stay where they are or go to 3rd countries; B) 'repatriate' to the '67 lines' putative new Palestinian state or C) on a highly selective case-by-case 'humanitarian' basis have Israel in its sole discretion look at possible bona fide repatriation to '48 lands; 3) Jerusalem will be a shared capital of both Israel and Palestine (special arrangements around the Temple Mount); 4) Palestine will be broadly demilitarized (but generally control its airspace and have robust security forces) with a continued Israeli military presence in the Jordan River Valley and 'emergency access' protocols; 4) approximately 93-96% of '67 Occupied Territory will form the Palestinian nation-state (broadly contiguous), with land swaps to account for the most 'institutionalized' settlements which would be annexed by Israel (with concomitant swaps); and 5) assuming 80% of settlers now under Israeli ambit, the remainder would be relocated should they desire.
But my expectations are tremendously low for such a broadly fair, all things considered, resolution. How can they not be given past as prologue? But make no mistake, more than anything, this is Israel’s loss first and foremost. The Palestinians have nursed their wounds for decades. Their beleaguered polity—often hate-infected as it is--reflects their state of historic development and national narrative, one which showcases they’ve essentially stalled out. But Israel’s current trajectory is even worse, in that it’s heading backwards. It is one of history’s cruel ironies that so many so-called ‘friends of Israel’ are so blind to this. Indeed, how sad and meek that the United States, the power that subsidizes her Israeli client--cannot summon the requisite will to nudge Israel more firmly towards the imperative strategic objectives that must be seized if Israel is to stave off further de-legitimization and anti-democratic decay. The path to resolution is relatively clear, but a limping and ultimately ministerial 'process for process's sake' essentially ending by underwhelming 'whimper' is not a persuasive way forward or commensurate with convincing statecraft.
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June 22, 2014
The Horror: Iraq Class of '03 Mounts Rerun
In an orgy of public preening, the Iraq ‘Class of '03’ flooded print and television media post Mosul’s capture by ISIS forces in Iraq last week. If one had hoped for the merest dose of humility given the calamitous missteps this hearty band of adventurers had presided over, manifold disappointment was instead in the offing.
Here was Jerry Bremer--he of the Timberland boots dutifully donned for the neo-colonial rigors (and whose De-Ba’athification campaign was a signal contributing factor to the disaster that is today’s Iraq)--breezily stating: “I’m not in favor of sending combat forces into Iraq at the moment…but I can well imagine that we would have to have some troops on the ground [my emphasis].” Meantime, an uncommonly robust Erin Burnett interview had Mr. Bremer parroting electricity production statistics like an obstinate, defensive school-boy.
Elsewhere, Fouad Ajami, Hoover Institute lyricist and Paul Wolfowitz confrere, took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to remonstrate President Obama for having insufficiently expressed appreciation for the travails of Bush 43: “(n)or did he [Obama] possess the generosity of spirit to give his predecessors the credit they deserved for what they had done in that treacherous landscape.” Cursed ingrates! [Update: At the time of writing Sunday 22nd Hong Kong time, news of Mr. Ajami's death to cancer was not yet made public. B.D. extends condolences to his family.]
Still in the Journal, Dick Cheney along with chère fille Liz unfurled their Wyoming BB Gun to write: “(r)arely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many.” Alas, Mr. Cheney and his failed Senate candidate Wyoming carpet-bagger daughter were writing about the current President, not the predecessor dauphin that Tricky Dick V. 2 (first as tragedy, then farce…) had too often gamed as manipulative courtier. The Cheneys--after the obligatory Ronald Reagan quote—go on to conclude: “President Obama is on track to securing his legacy as the man who betrayed our past and squandered our freedom.”
This from the man who was critical in implementing torture as an instrument of American national security policy, a taboo akin to slavery and piracy that should be wholly banished from any respectable Enlightenment society. Cheney was once a talented man with an uncommon degree of Washington instincts and skill-sets, he is now a despicable blight best kept under tight supervision during his faux-brio infused hunting escapades.
But this was perhaps not quite the worst of it. As revelatory capstone, Paul Wolfowitz (indulged with an interview by Chuck Todd for reasons that mystify), took chutzpah to new extremes of execrable gall effectively stating that the U.S. people were too dim to comprehend ISIS was effectively al-Qaeda (incidentally, untrue), or to understand the convoluted vagaries of the Sunni-Shi’a conflict, and so on. Andrew Sullivan well noted the key and most mendacious verbiage: “We should say al Qaeda. ISIS sounds like some obscure thing; it’s even more obscure when you say Shia and Sunni … It means nothing to Americans whereas al Qaeda means everything to Americans”.
Yes, just like we should ‘settle’ on WMD for the ’03 vintage casus belli as this engendered the most support across the policy-making spectrum. Meantime Wolfowitz, for good measure en passant, essentially threw ‘ruthless little bastard’ Rummy (Richard Nixon’s spot-on descriptor, not mine) under the bus—intimating if he’d been the “architect” of the Iraq War--things would have gone quite swimmingly.
There are quite a few other examples (see Kristol et al.) but you get the noxious picture, this is a coterie that cannot muster the merest smidgen of shame, and Stephen Walt is instructive in explaining why they get to perennially subject us to this parade of recycled claptrap ad nauseam.
Of course, the facts that will be borne out by history are these: The Iraq War was an epic bungle premised on lies that cost ~$2 trillion, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, almost 5,000 U.S. fatalities, many hundreds more from the ‘coalition of the willing’ (such as it was), not to mention tens of thousands of horrific injuries and myriad PTSD legacy conditions.
Iraqi society was torn asunder, with De-Ba’athification and the disbanding of the Iraqi Army titanic errors. Let us not forget that despite legions of civil servants in the Ba'ath party with no blood on their hands, Bremer and Co. relied on Ahmad Chalabi (who argued that allowing Ba’athists to stay in power would be equivalent to “allowing Nazis into the German government after WWII”) to actually lead a large-scale, revanchist-style De-Ba’athification effort. While spiritedly sacking the Mesopotamian ‘Nazis’, Chalabi was sure to steer some large-scale reconstruction contracts to entities where he had interests. Just one more local schemer who played us for suckers.
Yes, yes, there was the much ballyhooed ‘surge’ and 'Anbar Awakening', where effectively Sunni tribes were paid-off to play nice and keep their Shi'a-facing powder-dry for another day. The reality is while violence materially abated amidst the surge there were many other factors at play beyond an uptick in U.S. forces, whether Moktada al-Sadr’s unilateral cease-fire (probably at the Iranian’s urging to hasten a U.S. exit), the ample ethnic cleansing which had already occurred in parts of Baghdad and beyond, or better use of intelligence for covert operations against radical terror groups operating at the time. Most important, the surge was meant to buy time to force broad-based, sustainable political conciliation, manifestly this failed, and not because Obama didn’t leave a gaggle of troops behind several years back.
A solution for Iraq will ultimately have to take root locally, likely via serial conflict exhaustion among varied parties, among other factors. There is also space for intrepid diplomacy trying to forge understandings among Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and others re: containing the spiraling crisis. But the solution does not reside with more ignorant American swashbuckling through Iraq. Been there, done that.
Nor with the empty incantations that a better Maliki (or Karzai in nearby Afghanistan) needs to take the reins. There is no Iraqi Mandela waiting in the wings, I'm afraid. And the torrent of Shi'a-Sunni tensions--as well as Kurdish tensions exemplified by Kirkuk--will not be solved by 300 military advisors, or indeed, 300,000. The solution is not Washington's to proffer, midwife or dictate. It is beyond our control, unless we plan a Korea-like troop presence for half a century. We don't, so let's stop playing pretend.
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March 06, 2014
An Epidemic of Putin Derangement Syndrome
Washington D.C., points beyond and assorted ‘elite opinion’ appear to be undergoing another period best described as a moronic inferno (if memory serves, an old Martin Amis phrase). The immediate cause of this epidemic of hysteria is of course Vladimir Putin’s incursion into Crimea. Mr. Putin’s actions have been compared to Adolf Hitler’s, with former Secretary of State, putative next Democratic President and dynastic doyenne Hillary Clinton peddling such comparisons (at a private fundraiser in California, of course!). Sharp—if somewhat Russophobe—voices like Zbigniew Brzezinski have made similarly hyperbolic statements--showcasing the perils of too breezy historical analogizing by even some of the brightest lights among us. It has come to the point that the Washington Post published yesterday something of a non-tongue-in-cheek primer, addressing whether dastardly Vladimir is or isn’t a “modern-day Hitler” (one positively squirms imagining impressionable imbeciles on The Hill reading such fare). And no, Crimea is not Sudetenland, nor even would potential incursions into southeastern Ukraine constitute something akin to Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939 (marching into Kiev—rather than exerting influence from more afar--would be a different matter, but this is not happening, nor is fanciful talk of the soi disant now newly imperiled Baltic States being invaded by Vlad the Impaler).
Subsequent to the Crimean incursion (sorry, Anschluss), Putin gave a press conference. This set-off another cacophony of mockery, piggy-backing on a phrase attributed to Angela Merkel (the meaning was probably materially distorted) that Putin was “in another world”. It was as if a madman were on the loose, and the entire planet in peril. Over at the New Republic, a hastily turned and chirpily self-assured piece of hackery poked fun at the presser. As this piece was linked to by arguably my favorite foreign affairs columnist—Gideon Rachman—I asked him via Twitter whether he was endorsing such ribald claptrap. No, Mr. Rachman advised, he doesn’t “endorse” anything (more than fair, imagine if all our links constituted endorsements, thus the near-universal and boilerplate RT ≠ endorsement caveat), but found it “an interesting take.” Well, indeed it was, to a fashion. Over at Strobe Talbott’s Twitter account—lest we forget, a former Deputy Secretary of State, Russia expert and head of an important ‘think-tank’--Mr. Talbott approvingly linked to a piece that contained this gem of hi-falutin’ fare: “perhaps, just to break the ice, Obama should solemnly promise Putin that he won’t have to have sex with a gay guy.” Impressive! Meanwhile, over at the New York Times, David Brooks weighed in on Putin’s horrific apostasy against the diktats of the West. “Putin Can’t Stop”, the piece was titled (not smoking pot, mind you), but evidently being on the cusp of becoming a “Russian ayatollah” potentially captured by a “messianic ideology” that “point(s) to a Russia that is a quasi-theocratic nationalist autocracy destined to play a culminating role on the world stage” (if that mélange sounds somewhat familiar, congrats, you’re old enough to remember the Bush 43 years kids).
This is not the time or place to re-hash the overarching bill of equities here. Any fair observer must have sympathy for the more moderate revolutionaries of Maidan struggling for national dignity, self-determination and, perhaps more than anything, less corruption. But, alas, we must also remember hard-scrabble inhabitants of places such as Kharkiv or Donetsk; let alone Sevastopol or Simferopol, many of whom place their primary kinship with Mother Russia. Indeed, it was certainly unfortunate that one of the first acts of the new Government in Kiev was to repeal a 2012 law recognizing Russian as an official regional language. Nor does it help that Svoboda party members hold posts in the new Government, including Chairman of the National Security Council Andriy Parubiy, who worth mentioning, has a deputy (Dmytro Yarosh) who is the chief of the extreme group Right Sector.
Irrespective of the above, some quick facts require highlighting as well: Russia has profound (yes, truly, profound) historical interests in Ukraine, especially Crimea and Southern and Eastern portions of the country. Our imbecilic zero-sum policy cheerleading Kiev pivoting wholly westward was bound to cause such trouble, even before the inglorious denouement with Yanukovych’s defenestration. Amidst the radicalization of Maidan and events constituting a de facto coup d’etat in Kiev from Moscow’s vantage point (Putin had likely already written off Yanukovynch but wanted a window of time to better protect Russian interests), I began to suspect that Putin would feel he had no choice but to intervene (as I Tweeted at the time, see my linked piece above).
And more facts which must be grappled with: the United States—and even Europe’s—interests in Ukraine are far less than Russia’s. The EU and U.S. will not wholly see eye-to-eye on all the policy choices in coming days. Nor does anyone in the West have the appetite to go to war over Ukraine. So we can hand-wring about the 21st Century and international boundaries and such (albeit with our standing to do so grievously harmed by the Dubya Administration’s rogue actions in Iraq) but the fact is Crimea was a part of Russia proper as recently as 1954 (not to mention has a majority—not minority mind you—Russian population). Much like Mikheil Saakashvili’s stupendously idiotic provocations in Georgia circa 2008, Putin felt compelled pursuant to his geo-strategic framework and interests to take action in Crimea, as he’d done in Abkhazia and South Ossetia a half decade before. These have all been quite calibrated actions, and perhaps literally without a shot being fired Putin has reclaimed Crimea for Russia.
Meantime he observes the spectacle of more NATO overflights in the Baltics, or whether the storied legacy G-7 members will deign to keep Russia in the Club, or lots of loose talk about sanctions that, deep down, none of the key powers involved really want to implement (let us see if countries like Spain and Italy—or even Germany, France and the UK—end up playing ball regarding executing truly robust sanctions). If Putin continues to see a spectacle of provocative incompetence (including NATO saber-rattling, particularly counter-productive as this is one of the key historical sensitivity points and ‘victor’s justice’ lietmotifs of the end of the Cold War, and also why influence on Ukraine's future is considered an existential issue by many in Moscow), he might be likelier to escalate. He doesn’t really care a whit about the G-8, or NATO overflights in Latvia. He might care some regarding Iran-style sanctions, but as above, these will be difficult to implement, will involve blow-back risk, as well the Russians will have ample options to circumvent them. The point is it is high time to cease this empty theater.
But, make no mistake, this is a perilous moment. Inhabitants of Donetsk might be the next to ‘call’ for help (whether genuine or fabricated, or likeliest, a combination of both). What is needed instead is treating Putin like an adult—with real interests—and de-escalating the situation by forcing compromises (real ones, not Potemkin ones) from the new authorities in Kiev too, not just from Moscow, regarding special arrangements and protections for Eastern Ukraine. Putin will respond better to such serious policy, rather than gratuitous insults and peevish half-measures that will not amount to much. The reality is—and it pains me to say this as the man is deeply corrupt and an autocrat—Putin is likeliest the most exacting leader--with the possible exception of Xi Jinping--on the world stage today. With a very weak hand given the secular decline in Russia’s fortunes, where he has seen key interests (Syria, Georgia, now Ukraine) and/or propaganda value at play (Edward Snowden) he has quite consistently outmaneuvered his opponents. We are witnessing the same now.
So no, Putin is not Hitler. He is not looking to exterminate a race, march into the Baltics and/or Eastern and Central Europe, or even retake all of Ukraine, and/or otherwise act like a genocidal maniac intent on taking over an entire Continent (incidentally, how insulting these comparisons to Hitler must be to Russian ears, given their immense sacrifices beating back Nazism, far greater than America’s in terms of loss of life). He is a quite able tactician protecting key interests when he has reached a limit of patience, in ’08 with Georgia, today with Crimea given the events in Kiev. The entire focus now needs to be focused on restraining Putin from entering Eastern Ukraine proper (forget about bona fide ‘observers’ in Crimea for now, that’s done!) to mitigate further room for miscalculation and gross bloodshed such an expansion of military action could engender. If Dr. Kissinger were younger, we might dare to hope we could nominate him for such a complex task. In his absence, retire the list-icles and schoolmarm remonstrations and let us get to the hard-work of interfacing with our opponent intelligently. The stakes are high, and President Obama—whatever you make of him too—must become directly involved even more, to include further dialogue at his level with Putin, and the new authorities in Kiev.
Given the schism that has plagued Ukraine for decades and longer (between its Catholic Ukrainian speaking West and its Orthodox Russian-speaking East) federalization and/or de-centralization schemes may ultimately need to be implemented to forge a sustainable solution, as well perhaps ultimately securing an explicit commitment that Ukraine (no part of it) will ever join NATO. Maximalist incantations that Ukraine will chose all aspects of its national destiny and enjoy unfettered dominion over every square inch of its erstwhile territory, given the above realities, are simply pretense. Reality matters in geopolitics, as does pursuing policy in pursuit of a coherent end-game, not as a clanging tantrum.
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March 03, 2014
What To Do--And Not Do--About Ukraine
“Yet, Kievan Russia, like the golden days of childhood, was never dimmed in the memory of the Russian nation. In the pure fountain of her literary works anyone who wills can quench his religious thirst; in her venerable authors he can find his guide through the complexities of the modern world. Kievan Christianity has the same value for the Russian religious mind as Pushkin for the artistic sense: that of a standard, a golden measure, a royal way.”
“The problem of the origin of the first Russian state, that of Kiev, is exceedingly complex and controversial.”
“Without Ukraine, Russia can remain an empire, but it cannot remain Russia.”
--Title of a recent article in Russkoye Obozreniye, a Russian periodical.
Few could be unmoved by the revolutionary spectacle of Maidan Square these past weeks. The desire for national dignity was palpable, and the protestors courageous. Too many paid for this courage with their blood. And yet, revolutions are never orderly, nor the equities ever as simple as many might prefer. And, as we are witnessing with the Arab Spring, they often have painful, and unforeseen, denouements.
Related, one need not be a Putin apologist to recognize some salient facts: 1) the Maidan movement included ultra-nationalists and even neo-fascists, 2) the Yanukovych transition deal was crudely scuppered leaving the Russian side caught unawares and looking flat-footed (never appreciated by Vladimir Putin); and 3) this was followed by deeply provocative measures by the new Government in Kiev to move to extinguish Russian minority language rights. More assertiveness was surely on tap, as the mood was manifestly one of triumphalism.
This all occurred in the backdrop of a still painful chapter in post-Soviet history with Russia in continued secular decline, a former superpower having suffered deep humiliation through the post-Gorbachev era. In particular, NATO’s relentless Eastern expansion has been a deeply provocative, perennial leitmotif for Moscow. Additionally, Putin has felt double-crossed when he has recently cooperated with the West (see Libya), and now here again, when the Yankovych deal was ingloriously pulled: no European or North American chancelleries rose to defend the integrity of the deal, not deigning to restrain the hyper-nationalist mood one whit. From Moscow, it felt like a coup d’etat engineered to deny Russia any meaningful role in post-revolutionary Ukraine, including areas of deeply legitimate interest such as Eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
Given this backdrop, as well as the massive import Ukraine holds in Russian national, religious, and cultural narratives—as the above quotes I hope help illustrate—I was increasingly queasy in the past days that Putin was going to await the end of the Sochi Olympics and look to protect Russia’s interests in Ukraine militarily (as I tweeted at the time). So he did. For the time being, one might hope having created ‘facts on the ground’ in Crimea, he will simply stop there and use this reality as leverage to force a more conciliatory posture from Kiev regarding Russia’s other interests in Ukraine. However, I am highly concerned that Putin may calculate he needs to enter Eastern Ukraine as well, which will then materially enhance the (already high) chances of sparking a horrific civil war.
Amidst this inflammatory cauldron, a chorus has arisen among the Washington DC cottage industry of bien pensants that something be done. No less a foreign policy authority than Marco Rubio has regaled us with eight steps to Ukraine policy glory, of which at least six are either deeply flawed or will have no impact or most often, both. In more high-brow quarters, personages such as Ivo Daalder and Nicholas Burns pound the mantle about NATO coming to the rescue (just solidarity-wise mind you, not sending in the cavalry per se), which will only aggravate matters further vis-à-vis Moscow.
Indeed, the incredible cacophony that Obama faces (throw the bum out of the G-8, freeze assets, restrict travel, apply harsh sanctions, even, train and equip the Ukrainian Army, send in flotillas to the Black Sea, or hell, cut off the Dardanelles!) is almost comical in its desperate desire to do something, anything, to not look like wimps, preserve ‘credibility’ and/or avoid another Sudetenland ‘Munich moment’, and so on. But amidst all this sturm und drang that we be mightily Churchillian, we must grapple with some basic realities: 1) The West has no real appetite for a military slugfest with Russia over Ukraine (and while Ukraine could go it alone, perhaps even valiantly, they will not ultimately prevail in any military contest); 2) the U.S. and EU do not always see eye-to-eye on matters Ukraine (putting it nicely, remember the charming bon mot from our Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, Victoria ‘fuck the EU’ Nuland?); and most fundamentally 3) Ukraine matters to Moscow exponentially more than it does to any Western power.
None of these factors advantage the West in the looming showdown over Ukraine, quite the contrary, they all run to the benefit of Putin. And if we play pretend we’re tough—and double down with sanctions and eviction from the G-8 and freezing transit and accounts and all the rest of it—you can be assured the chances of Putin calling our bluff and invading Eastern Ukraine full-bore will increase materially. Putin after all is not a donkey, and the brandishing of ‘sticks’ will not cow him, but rather in my view further embolden him, even if in a fit of pique and indignation that could involve miscalculation. Put differently, Putin is not an inconsequential figure, he must be engaged with, not wholly ostracized.
So, what is to be done, sit back, pass the popcorn, and see Vladimir do whatever he damn well pleases? No, of course not, but—and I cannot stress this enough—most policymaking should now be focused not on hectoring and ‘punishing Putin’ (all escalatory, generally mindlessly so) but rather moves aimed at showing we respect Russia’s legitimate interests with a view towards de-escalating the situation.
In this, Germany has a special role to play as go-between given her historical relationships with key regional powers like Ukraine, Poland and, of course, Russia. In coordinated fashion, key capitals like Berlin need to ensure Ukraine ratchets down the rhetoric with Moscow, of course no small feat given the emotion unleashed by the Crimean incursion (today’s comments from Kiev that it will “never give up” Crimea are not helpful). Indeed, further aid to Ukraine should likely be made conditional on ensuring minority rights in Eastern and Southern Ukraine are better respected, and critically, that no preemptive military activity by Kiev in those areas take place.
Beyond this regarding more Moscow-facing policy, we cannot breezily assume OSCE monitors or the like will prove a speedy panacea allowing for Putin to vacate Crimea (reportedly one idea making the rounds). This is a deeply unrealistic goal, as Putin understandably is suspicious organizations like the OSCE are beholden to their (majority) political masters in Western capitals, and thus overly in cahoots with the new regime in Kiev. For now, the focus must be--as with Kiev from the other side--to pursue productive diplomatic channels that help persuade Putin to stand-back from the precipice regarding a military option in Eastern/Southern Ukraine.
In short, by moving to soften the tone and policy in Kiev, better respecting Russia’s historic interests (please let us retire talk of NATO Membership Action Plans and such), offering honest broker type conflict resolution channels (not bidding up an East-West show-down in Pavlovian fashion as if inevitable) the following goals could possibly be accomplished in the short-term: 1) delaying or ideally preventing formal annexation of Crimea; 2) restraining Putin from invading Eastern Ukraine and 3) most important, helping defuse the specter of a horrible civil war in the heart of Europe’s eastern flank.
This is a time for sobriety and respect for one’s opponent and—dare I say—even a bit of gravitas—not think-tank ‘menus’ of punitive action to take in a huff, mostly as feel good nostrums. Yes too, I cannot help mentioning these are the bitter, dangerous fruits of locker-room 6th Floor Foggy Bottom talk of Yats and Klitsch, the bovine and myopic view of Ukraine through a zero-sum prism of winners and losers (Obama has been recently quoted saying he doesn’t “really even need George Kennan right now,” perhaps he should re-appraise this sentiment given the caliber of most of his policymakers ex Deputy Secretary Bill Burns). Putin shoulders huge blame too, of course, trying to thuggishly strong-arm Ukraine as a client, but we cannot pretend we have avoided all culpability given our own ineptitudes.
The broad middle of the Ukrainian people yearn for neither the dangerous hyper-nationalism of some in the Maidan movement nor being subjected to a revivified neo-Soviet yoke. To help deliver such a middle way, less bluster and more humility are in order, as well far more historical perspective than, say, the tidy supposed certitudes of the ’94 Budapest Memorandum. Ultimately if the current crisis can be defused—and more bloodshed averted—discussions around de-centralization (parts of Eastern and Southern Ukraine) and possibly autonomous arrangements (Crimea) can be constructively explored to all the parties’ ultimate benefit.
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January 28, 2014
Hyper-Nationalist Hysteria in Egypt
Our 'non-coup' tax-dollars at work in Cairo (photo credit: Reuters):
September 11, 2013
In-House Note: Sanity Check
Andrew Sullivan writes that rhetorical flourishes may have gotten the better of me in my last post. He says that I was "far, far too caustic about the extremely difficult choices Obama had to confront in the past few months and too breezily dismissive of the breach of the chemical weapons taboo." He may well be right. Foreign policy-making is messy. While I stand behind the basic thrust of my commentary across all its content, I have decided to stop commenting on Syria for at least a couple weeks, likely into October. This may help lend a fresher, perhaps revised view. I can't promise I won't tweet on Syria, but there will be no longer pieces for a spell. Please know I frankly do not relish criticizing U.S. foreign policy-making from afar. I do so because--despite it all--I have a deep pride and respect for the United States. I suppose therefore I care, and so try to enunciate my concerns (yes, sometimes too grandiloquently, the perils of my writing style). But I try to call them like I see them, and this Syria effort to date candidly has seemed a grotesque failure to me. That said, it's easy to carp from the sidelines, and I will 'hit pause' and see how matters progress in an effort to be more magnanimous and gain perspective. Thanks for your understanding.
Farce as Foreign Policy: The Syria Debacle
The gyrations in Syria policy the past week have been simply staggering, beyond the missteps previously chronicled here and the still inadequately proven and/or publicized intelligence I attempted to describe here. On September 5th the United States Ambassador to the United Nations accused Russia of holding “hostage” the UN Security Council given its ‘patronage’ of Syria (as if the United States has never showered patronage on her clients, for instance, myriad vetoes and assorted abstentions on any matter of Israel-related fare). Yet, just five days later, Russia was front and center having cleverly outmaneuvered the American diplomatic apparatus, largely by leaping on a reportedly off-the-cuff, ‘rhetorical’ ultimatum by Secretary of State John Kerry and nimbly re-fashioning it with dispatch into a fig-leaf diplomatic gambit which will likely stave off U.S. airstrikes (of course, its primary, if not sole, objective). The supreme irony is that it is not clear whether Vladimir Putin and Sergei Lavrov rendered more of a favor to their client in Damascus via these Machiavellian machinations, or rather to the U.S. President who appeared on the cusp of a resounding rejection of his unconvincing military cogitations by the American Congress, to say nothing of the lion’s share of his putative allies.
So how did we get to this inglorious impasse? For, make no mistake, Moscow and Damascus will now look to play out the clock and use every trick in the playbook to ensure, first and foremost, that Assad remain in power, second that Franco-American military power is not deployed against Assad’s chemical weapons (“CW”) program, and third that Assad’s CW program is not wholly destroyed, dismantled or otherwise put under convincing, full-bore international supervision (particularly in the context that a raging civil war is underway in that country). Meantime, the notion that this was not ‘gaffe diplomacy’ but the product of months of intricate dialogue with Moscow that belatedly came to fruit is credulity-challenging in the extreme, not least given the State Department’s immediate attempts to walk back Kerry’s remarks, but also broader context like the Obama-Putin summit being canceled in a fit of Edward Snowden pique as weightier agenda items like Syria languished after the NSA-related hissy-fit. Regardless, for those interested in a quick peek at a midstream post-mortem, several key factors helped contribute to this dismally embarrassing episode in U.S. foreign policy history:
1) The President’s Decision to go to Congress Smelled like a Panic Move: Having witnessed the UK Parliamentary debacle, and likely himself possibly looking for an out, Obama’s 45 minute walk-about with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough signaled indecision (not only to his blindsided national security team, but also the entire international community). And while I would have welcomed a sincere attempt to obtain the imprimatur of the legislature’s approval for a possible Syria military action, Obama effectively eviscerated the basic integrity and bona fides of the exercise by simultaneously saying he did not strictly require it as a legal matter given his ‘Commander-in-Chief’ authorities. The 11th and a half hour decision instead simply appeared borne of chaos, drift and indecision passing as policy, one already ridden by painfully apparent prior missteps. The world continued to take due note.
2) The Long Shadow of Iraq: While the UN Ambassador was busily breezily querying the basic cornerstone underpinnings of the post WWII security architecture (e.g. the role of the UN Security Council, which like it or not, if wholly shunted aside without replacement international infrastructure, could eventually lead to far greater perils than any single CW attack), such myopically fanatical R2P adherents apparently did not engage in the merest bit of navel-gazing amidst the festival of frenzied outrage. Post-Iraq, was ‘high confidence’ good enough to launch a war, rather than confirmation? Why were the fatality counts in Ghouta so wildly different among different intelligence services? And why this “absurdly over-precise number” (CSIS Analyst Anthony Cordesman’s words) tally of 1429 dead? All this speaks to basic credibility, and one could be forgiven for being truly astounded that the Administration did not better realize how much higher the burden of proof needed to be post the Mesopotamian morass.
3) Double Standards: Nor did the policy-makers in their Washington DC and Turtle Bay habitats evidently deign to pause and wonder: might we look hypocritical to some, given how selective this bout of mighty, amped-up outrage? After all, how many civilians were killed during Israel’s brutal Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, a campaign leading to a similar fatality count as alleged in Ghouta--both in terms of civilian adults and children tallies of dead--amidst horrific onslaughts in massively densely populated civilian areas, whether caused by conventional weaponry or not (worth noting, and whether strictly considered CW or not, Cast Lead entailed the use of white phosphorus munitions). And are the grim realities of bloodless corpses of a CW attack really that different than the ‘collateral damage’ visited by myriad drone strikes, or the ancillary damage of ‘shock and awe’ during the Iraq fiasco, or for that matter, the near thousand Sisi massacred in Egypt, still courtesy of our tax-dollars, before the bulldozers subsequently swept the corpses away? Regardless, and beyond these hypocrisies (of which one could catalogue many more) and the niceties of upholding norms apart (which when convenient we wholly ignored—even quietly supported their very violation--as with Saddam’s use of CW against Iranians), old-fashioned conventional weapons-based killing has frankly been a much more horrifying specter these past two and a half years of the Syria conflict than any use of CW. The bout of outrage appeared more of the Cambridge faculty room variety than the cruel realities of the blood spilled through this volatile region these past many years, with monstrously hyperbolic parallels to Hitler’s use of gas during the Holocaust an insult to any rational observer.
4) An Epidemic of Telegraphing Intent to the Enemy, or, the Cheerio Campaign: Never in recent memory was a possible military campaign so parsed, leaked, aired, tweeted, blogged, phoned, generally, a total ‘flood the zone’ phenomenon that gives new meaning to the phrase ‘open kimono’. Any element of surprise was removed, doubtless to the dismay of any sentient observer in the entire US military. Beyond this, Assad received all but an engraved invitation to wait out a putative attack, told alternatively that the action would be: a “shot across the bow”, “unbelievably small”; “just muscular enough not to get mocked”, or (perhaps the winner for most ribald): “If Assad is eating Cheerios, we’re going to take away his spoon and give him a fork. Will that degrade his ability to eat Cheerios? Yes. Will it deter him? Maybe. But he’ll still be able to eat Cheerios.” This was high camp playing pretend at soi disant norm-protection.
5) Keystone Kops Prevents Serious Alliance-Building: The above factors, taken together, led to at best a lukewarm reception to the Administration’s plans, everywhere but Ankara, Riyadh and (rapidly diminishing portions of) Paris. After all, when an Administration is lurching chaotically, has not adequately confirmed the intelligence, sanctimoniously and hyperbolically caricatures Syria as the greatest threat to international stability since Munich, and has no persuasive military, diplomatic or other strategic roadmap for what might follow the Tomahawks: well, would you go along? An indicative barometer of how hard the international sales job would prove was the flagging domestic lobbying effort-- even with 800-pound gorilla AIPAC now behind the Administration’s exertions--the Syria authorization still appeared destined for defeat domestically, even among The Hill’s ever-willing, serried lumpenproletariat ranks. Little wonder then that the going would be even tougher internationally, with the Arab League offering only tepid support short of military action (jaw-jaw about an “international global red line”, the redundancy of the verbiage meant to put lipstick on the pig of the empty rhetoric) with erstwhile allies in the grips of hyper-nationalist anti-Islamist hysteria like Egypt effectively opposed, all but rooting Bashar on. Or that our near zero ROI in Iraq was yet again revealed by comments such as these by Maliki: “History will not have mercy on us if we encourage a military attack against any Arab country or any member of the Arab League… Our brothers — the leaders of Arab countries and their peoples — should not forget that supporting a military strike against Syria will set a precedent that [can be] enforced on all Arab countries. If we accepted the strike on Syria, we would be legitimizing any prospective aggression and accepting the conducting of strikes against Egypt, Algeria, Lebanon, Yemen and all other Arab countries without exception. This is something we do not wish to befall any Arab country”. Finally, a unanimous G-20 statement could not even be cobbled together in St. Petersburg, with no BRICs support in the offing (even for rather a weak statement, China and Russia apart, Brazil and India would not play ball) and important countries like Indonesia and South Africa indicated opposition to military action as well. The emperor—even after (or perhaps partly because of) the risible saber-rattling—was effectively revealed to have no clothes, and no one but the most directly self-interested parties really wanted to come along for the ride.
6) Vlad & Sergei to the Rescue!: Amidst this veritable spectacular of incompetence, a last (to date, at least) act of loose-lipped amateurism via a John Kerry gaffe actually provided a possibly salvageable denouement via the near providential dispensation of handy exit ramp-offs. Apparently musing casually like a sententious orator in the Senate Chamber, rather than, well, a Secretary of State, and in response to a journalist's query in London, Kerry suggested immediate disarmament by Assad of his CW could stave off an attack. The Russians jumped into the abysmal policy vacuum presented by Washington’s wild bungling and corralled the Syrian Foreign Minister to make noises such an inspection and disarmament regime might be acceptable to Damascus. They will now play out the clock and steadily dilute any semblance of an international ‘coalition’ that Obama was pitiably attempting to cobble together to defend a norm he’d already abdicated defending previously on various occasions, until YouTubes finally woke him up from his slumbering disaster of a two year old train-wreck of a Syria non-policy.
Little matter. At this stage, one can only hope the shrieks, protestations and inanity of the latest Washington ‘obsession du jour’ will start to fade with the next news cycle. Otherwise, Obama must be careful lest the Syria matter consume much of the bandwidth of his second term, such as it is. He should pivot to a ‘containment-lite’ posture on Syria, effectively allowing the charade of the Russian proposal to play itself out, button-holing it best he can on the margins, despite how ultimately ineffective it will likely prove for a whole variety of factors, not least given there is a raging civil war afoot (but by all means, send in the inspectors!). If there is one smidgen of a silver lining here, the disgusting liar Assad—even as he likely ends up maintaining most of his CW stockpiles—will think quite carefully about using them again. We should count ourselves lucky that this plausible result may have resulted from such serial mismanagement. Obama should count himself similarly fortunate, before launching into a war he had nary a clue how to prosecute after first contact with the enemy in a tinderbox region on the cusp of even larger conflagrations. He should do his best to make up with Vladimir, declare something akin to victory, and move on. Basic self-respect demands it given how near total the fiasco he’s presided over. Meantime, the noisy commotion in the predictable precincts will go on (Are the Russians being honest? Or leading us on? Are we being tough enough? Etc.), speaking more to an insular provincialism seemingly unawares of how bumbling our exertions appear to most outside the Beltway. George Kennan, for one, would have wept.
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September 03, 2013
We Need Hard Confirmation on Syrian CW, Not Just "High Confidence"
Since the rigmarole passing for Syria policy described here, there have been two notable events: 1) John Kerry’s recent comments at the State Department effectively making the case for war against the regime in Damascus (or at least punitive action); and 2) President Obama’s stunning act of political jujitsu belatedly introducing the legislative branch into the late summer Washington pièce de théâtre. Neither development portends well or particularly ameliorates the overall conundrum presented by our flailing Syria policy. I will focus on “1” here, and hopefully turn to “2” shortly. Kerry’s remarks had as rhetorical showpiece a spirited refrain of what “we know” regarding Syrian alleged chemical weapons (“CW”) use. Delivered in a stirring--if overly forced--falsetto, the former Assistant District Attorney of Massachusetts presented the bill of particulars as if mounting a closing argument to a rapt jury box in the environs of Beacon Hill. But the stakes, stage and substantiation needed here are exponentially higher. And behind the spectacle of a bespoke suit, St. Paul’s baritone, ample Boston Brahmin chin, and silver-haired mane, Kerry’s comments ultimately rang hollow. As with Shakespeare’s Queen Gertrude, he ‘doth protest too much, methinks’.
In a relatively short statement, the Secretary of State managed to use the word “know” some nearly two-score times. Yet we really know with certainty far less than was portrayed with such assurance. After the grotesque failed WMD intelligence debacle of Iraq—a dismal stain on the United States--we have zero margin for error with respect to attenuated conjecture or trumped-up circumstantial “evidence.” Nor even does “high confidence” suffice. Indeed, before embarking on another Middle Eastern adventure (other merits of the proposed intervention apart), we must demand hard evidence--amply aired to the public--at very minimum established beyond a reasonable doubt and optimally wholly air-tight. This is not only to ensure we have proven culpability around the brutish crime of Ghouta, but also equally if not more important, to begin the hard work of restoring our credibility on such matters in the international arena. Put simply, a restoration of credibility demands conclusive proof; this means confirmation, full stop.
The following items gave pause in Kerry’s statement:
1) Kerry spoke of “thousands of sources”. This is hyperbolic, as it reflects myriad social media sources. To state the obvious, not all social media is created equal, especially when establishing culpability around war crimes, as opposed to deciding whom to ‘favorite’, ‘face-time’, or ‘friend’;
2) Kerry spoke of a “verdict reached by our intelligence community”, there was no such thing, there was a determination of “high confidence” regarding an intelligence assessment; this is no “verdict”, but rather, a finding;
3) While sympathetic to a degree regarding protecting intelligence sources, Kerry’s comment that “some things we do know we can't talk about publicly” leaves me underwhelmed, notably given the disgraceful Iraq back-drop, unless our global commons is to be relegated to so many supine sheep, we must and deserve more and better by way of publically disclosed information;
4) Kerry then pivoted to asking: “so what do we really know that we can talk about?”, which ended up being rather a lengthy recitation of circumstantial fare: A) that the Assad regime has the largest CW stockpile in MENA; B) that the regime used them previously this year on smaller scale and near the site of the Ghouta event; C) that the regime was “specifically determined to rid the Damascus suburbs of the opposition” and “was frustrated that it hadn't succeeded in doing so”; D) that for three days before the alleged regime attack” Syrian forces were “on the ground in the area making preparations”, and E) that Syrian regime “elements” before the attack were warned to don gas masks and take “precautions associated with chemical weapons.” This is all quite interesting background fare, but none of it—none of it—conclusively proves the regime ordered this atrocity (please know I say that as someone who firmly believes the Assad regime was behind this odious attack, and if we had a competent team and policy in place--which we manifestly do not--should be made to pay the consequences dearly); and
5) Only after this lengthy preamble, Kerry began to move into more interesting terrain, finally getting to the meat (read: evidentiary crux) of the matter. He said the following: “We know that these were specific instructions. We know where the rockets were launched from and at what time. We know where they landed and when. We know rockets came only from regime-controlled areas and went only to opposition-controlled or contested neighborhoods.” But reading the intelligence assessment does not provide the detail on the “specific instructions”, and speaks only of “satellite detections” regarding the rockets provenance. Here again, we need more, and it must be made public, even if in carefully redacted form. Or will we be content only to have Congressional lickspittles, our soi disant “representatives”, give a ministerial ‘all-clear’ on the intelligence, much as they were asleep at the switch on Iraq, or more recently, the egregious NSA over-reaching (at least until they were shamed by Edward Snowden’s revelations to awaken from their insouciant slumber)?
After laying this mostly rhetorical groundwork, Kerry went on to say what we all know, that “all hell broke loose in the social media” after the attacks. Indeed, it did, and yet, we require conclusive proof of the origins of the attack, beyond horrific footage of the grisly aftermath. After all, this speaks only to something horrible having happened, as did reports by respected NGOs like Doctors Without Borders (MSF), but it does not firmly evidence regime culpability. Similarly, sarin samples obtained from first responders proves the existence of said neurotoxic agent on the scene, but not necessarily who delivered it, precisely how, and exactly where.
There are other issues besides, when analyzing the balance of Kerry’s comments. As this McClatchy reporting details, there are pretty wildly differing fatality counts making the rounds, whether the ones trumpeted by the United States, or far lower ones: France (281 fatalities confirmed), the United Kingdom (“at least 350 fatalities”), the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights figures (approximately 500, so that they are reportedly requesting the names of others in the US Government's tally to reconcile an apparently 1,000 strong delta), etc. Regardless, as CSIS Analyst Anthony Cordesman stated, it does appear Kerry was “sandbagged into using an absurdly over-precise number” (1429!), again, this presents deleterious and predictable spill-over implications to our credibility (Cordesman has more well worth reading here, incidentally).
Nor does it help that Kerry has also—before the U.N. investigation is even released—effectively pooh-poohed it in advance, decreeing: “when the UN inspectors finally gained access, that access, as we now know, was restricted and controlled.” Are we concerned about what the United Nations’ investigative team’s findings will be? I mean, what is it with our seeming concern around prejudging same? As for his statement: “(w)e know that a senior regime official who knew about the attack confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime, reviewed the impact, and actually was afraid that they would be discovered”, while intriguing, the international community will be forgiven wanting to hear more concrete details regarding same (I suspect, rank speculation of course, that this is an Israeli intelligence intercept we are being told by Tel Aviv must be kept under wraps). Additionally, while noteworthy that the Syrian regime reportedly shelled the affected areas “at a rate four times higher than they had over the previous 10 days” (it is suggested in part to destroy evidence), this is more circumstantial fare than some resounding evidentiary capstone to Kerry’s “case.” Finally, and certainly worth noting too, some outside experts are unwilling to make definitive conclusions regarding CW usage by the regime, such as this impressively researched view.
Let me be abundantly clear: I believe the Assad regime is despicable in the extreme and that they indeed knowingly ordered the use of CW in Ghouta up and down the chain of command. I think the regime was feeling increasingly emboldened given Obama’s reticence in not enforcing the ‘red-line’ previously, given too the lack of tangible follow-through on arming the opposition, and lest we forget, the amazing spectacle of fecklessness with respect to Sisi’s massacres of approximately 1,000 Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (still courtesy of our tax dollars, as we can’t even summon a suspension of aid in the face of a bald-faced coup in keeping with U.S. law; perhaps bulldozed, bloody corpses seems less galling than ones without any marks and scratches, niceties of ‘norms’ apart?).
But we have no choice but to reckon that we labor under the legacy of the terrible blunder that was the ginned-up intelligence that caused trillions of dollars wasted, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, thousands of American ones, the epic disgraces of Abu Ghraib, and such grievous harm dealt the United States' global repute. We must recall all this was premised on lies. So, like it or not, evidentiary hurdles moving forward must be higher. This is critical to better bolster regional and global credibility, alliance dynamics, and more. Rapidly cobbled together 'quick and dirty' presentations to allow the Tomahawks be launched post-haste simply do not suffice. Indeed, before embarking on an adventure to Iraq’s legacy Baathist neighbor to the immediate West, particularly based on intelligence assessments again, it is incumbent to have, and forgive the phrase, a slam-dunk case, although let us please call it something else: conclusive proof beyond a reasonable doubt, or if you prefer, firm confirmation.
Mr. Kerry is of course an impressive personage on the American political scene of long-standing, and a talented diplomat as already evidenced by his resuscitation of the Middle East peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians. But he did not deliver such a case. Quite the contrary, his presentation begged more questions than it answered. We must demand more and better information. Our times—and recent debacles--require this. The stakes are too high for atmospheric speeches and Sunday green-room ministrations to carry the day. Else we have learned nothing.
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August 30, 2013
Make It Stop
Several days ago I wrote I was extremely conflicted on the question of punitive action in Syria, but no longer. I am now staunchly opposed having better detected an utter lack of true seriousness by the Obama Administration. The myriad leaks around what type of mission, the palpable trigger-happiness among some, the British debacle (they won't even have their poodle this time, the cat-calls will ring!) and the ‘shot across the bow’ nonsense showcases an Administration unready for an invigorated course correction of its flailing Syria policy. Frankly, I am astonished by the lack of seriousness and mediocrity on display. Our NSA Advisor has taken to Twitter to issue inanely faux-imperious pronunciamentos that would embarrass prior occupants of the office like Kissinger, Brzezinski, or Scowcroft, while abdicating an inter-agency coordination role that would actually bottoms-up a credible policy (memo to Susan Rice: calling foreign leaders to lobby coalitions is the easy work—if their Parliaments are another matter--having a convincing strategic end-game the true value-add, so perhaps you might tweet about the former less often). Defense Secretary Hagel is likely biting his tongue and saluting best he can but fundamentally opposed. And I don’t even need to speculate about what CJCS Martin Dempsey is thinking. Secretary of State Kerry, with respect, will be pulled in too many directions and himself is opposed to the pin-prick approach, which is essentially what is in the offing. In short, the team is not ready for prime time.
The incredibly publicized, telegraphed theater around how this will be a deterrent mission to slap bad-boy Bashar’s wrist for his alleged use of CW (as we break international law ourselves via the putative response despite the typical legal mumbo-jumbo the lawyers will be commandeered to produce) has been an epic embarrassment, unless Barack wished all the preamble noise and spectacle serve as the deterrent itself. Perhaps he did, if so, he should follow his instinct, hang up his spurs and allow his Syria fireworks show to never see the light of day. I expected more from this President given his obvious charisma, intellect and oratory, but it appears not married to strategic execution of complex statecraft. In this, he is no Dick Nixon, whom for all his many flaws, at least was capable of geopolitical panache and intrepid diplomacy on occasion. What we are seeing here is a festival of superficiality about the humanitarian imperative presented by Ghouta. It is an unbridled tantrum masquerading as moral righteousness.
If you mean it for real, however, you quietly go about your business planning a deterrent response that Bashar won’t simply hunker down through, you wait for the UN inspectors to issue their report on reasonable timing (would be graceful, no, at very least given the risks they undertook during their mission?), you at least try to have robust UNSC dialogue (let the Russians be on record that they are opposed, as we know they’ll be, but put in the effort regardless!) you cease with the constant leaks and descriptions and explications of what the policy might be or won’t or whether it will be no fly or no drive or cruise or no cruise or this or that, you don’t force allies to rush ham-handed into Parliamentary debates half-assed even before the UN investigation report finalized, and speaking of Parliaments, you deign to seek some imprimatur of legitimacy from yours; in short, you quietly execute, lay groundwork and let your opponent wonder what the hell is coming after his ostensibly despicable actions, rather than this gussied-up R2P prom-night feel-good gesture. The benefits of protecting the norm are outweighed by the feeble lack of coherence of the contemplated response.
These past 72-96 hours have been a titanic embarrassment for anyone who cares about U.S. foreign policy. It appears a rush job to beat the St. Petersburg summitry on a quiet August weekend that everyone hopes will be quickly forgotten, except for the mighty 'lesson' learned. It’s worse than unprofessional and cowardly. It’s contemptible in the extreme. Make it stop. Declare the orgy of speculation and movement of naval carriers have already doubtless ensured the boy dictator will think more carefully in the future using such weaponry. Mission accomplished! Better than risking gross unintended consequences by a team that, alternatively, does not really have the stomach for the fight, or are simply not up to it strategy-wise, and in the President's case, perhaps both.
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August 27, 2013
The Syria Conundrum (Cont).
I truly cannot recall a foreign policy challenge in recent memory as confounding as the Syria conundrum. There are no good options, as we are all painfully aware. I have been on the record since April 2011 that once Bashar began massacring his own people, his legitimacy evaporated and he would ultimately be swept from power. I still believe this, quite apart from what the U.S. and its allies may or may not do in the coming days. I also attempted some time ago, to sketch out the beginnings of a more robust, internationalized response, including buffer zones near the Turkish border, working to better consolidate the Syrian opposition, as well more unrelenting diplomacy with both friends and foes on the dossier. Events since have only rendered talk of easy fixes more fantastical. We have seen the radicalization of many fighters on the ground, an obdurate Russian stance rendering diplomacy frustrating, as well as an arguably unexpectedly high degree of support from Iran and its proxy Hezbollah, among other impeding factors.
As the months of conflict turned to years, a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions has mushroomed, with approximately 5 million refugees and internally displaced persons, not to mention over 100,000 dead. Somehow, a larger regional conflagration has not erupted (yet) in the midst of this terrible specter of violence and displacement, although clearly Iraq’s security has deteriorated (mostly but not only because of U.S. troop withdrawals), Jordan is under tremendous strain, Lebanon looks inordinately fragile even by its perennial standard of fragility, Israel is on hair-trigger, while Turkey’s Syria border has been a matter of steadily increasing concern for Ankara. Still, despite these growing risks, Washington and other Western chancelleries were mostly content to lean back amidst mostly vapid efforts and half-hearted action.
A supposed exception was the initial hullabaloo around so-called ‘red-lines’, originally depicted by the Obama Administration as not only use of chemical weapons (“CW”) but even merely movement of CW. This red line turned pink likely in Q4 2012, given reported CW usage by regime forces in Homs. Even after protracted ‘chain of custody’ cogitations that appeared to evidence regime CW usage, the Obama Administration still more or less did nothing, except a tepid decision to arm the rebels--delayed and ultimately still today an unconvincing policy change. Important to note too, I suspect it was the fall of Qusayr--with the regime and Hezbollah increasingly cleaning up the battlefield at the time with vigor --that had panicked some in Washington to begin arming the rebels directly, rather than the initial ‘red-line’ violations. Regardless, we were certainly not witnessing a robust policy with convincing strategic purpose.
Much of the above backdrop looks set to change with the apparent CW usage in Ghouta last week on a far larger scale than anything witnessed to date in Syria. Assuming the Assad regime is behind the attack—of which I have little doubt given the apparent delivery mechanism making a ‘false flag’ operation immensely doubtful—even a transparently reluctant President has been thrust into the vortex of imminent military action. Before turning to whether one might think military action warranted, or not, first, some quick predictions on what is likely to happen in the next days:
• Obama will make a statement to the nation touting the U.N. inspectors findings, our own investigative work (already a “near air-tight circumstantial case”, we are told), how broad the coalition supporting action (there will be countries beyond the usual suspects like U.K. France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey etc., if not the El Salvadors this go around) and the legal grounds (around violations of international legal ‘norms’—if not laws—given the Syrians not a signatory of the CW Convention, bonus points also for any non-ironic mentions of Geneva Convention), while perhaps making token mention of retroactive Congressional authorization given timing imperatives;
• He will go on to say given robust legitimacy/authorizations per “1” above he has directed limited, calibrated strikes in response to Assad’s regime odious violation of the international taboo against CW usage, a military action that will involve cruise missiles (easiest) and possibly long-range bombers (still reasonably low risk), and likely include U.S., U.K. and French direct action (I would be surprised this is cloaked as a NATO operation as that would only unduly humiliate the Russians more, quite unwise, as I’ll touch on below);
• The targets will likely include artillery batteries such as those used to deliver the CW into the environs of Ghouta, similar type ‘delivery’/transport/logistical military assets elsewhere, but will not include ‘shock and awe’ type direct hits on extremely strategic/high prestige regime targets, nor large-scale destruction of the air force, airports, air-defense systems and such (calibrated to try to not overly agitate the Iranians, who rely on air transport to aid the Syrians, nor overly rub it in the face of Moscow), although final target selection may well include some limited degree of air-force related assets as warning salvo;
• Obama will go on to message that the military action has been undertaken to protect something akin to the ‘core interests’ of, not only the United States, but also the entire civilized world, in that we cannot accept a 21st Century in which states—including non-signatories to the CW Convention—feel emboldened to use such hideous weapons (even if this has sometimes been exaggerated), and that Assad has hereby been warned should he do so again increasingly ‘high-value’ targets will be decimated (to keep a moving forward deterrent effect in place); and
• Finally, Obama will make mention that he well understands the U.S. public is tired of Middle East wars, this was the last thing he wanted to do, especially given critical tasks at home, etc. but that he has successfully deescalated us from Iraq and (supposedly) Afghanistan, and that given the egregious implications to standards of international conduct Ghouta presented, he had no choice but to lead the international community (drawing a line on the ‘leading from behind’ Libya precedent while he’s at it) in something akin to a ‘coalition of conscience’, by buttressing the strict taboo against chemical weapons use.
While this all sounds fine and dandy, the problems are many, although I will highlight just a few:
o Even such a calibrated initial campaign (say lasting approximately 36-48 hours) may lead to reactions from Moscow, Tehran or Hezbollah that may materially differ from our expectations (unless we are reaching private understandings in advance whereby Moscow is beginning to drop its client, for example), leading to the risk of greater geopolitical shocks;
o The Assad regime has effectively already gone rogue, and could become more desperate. Despite regime momentum these past months around Qusayr, Homs etc, the past weeks have seen a rebounding resiliency by the opposition, this in conjunction with Obama’s dismal reaction to Sisi’s massacre in Egypt may have led to Damascus’ miscalculation and overly cocksure use of CW, but now feeling more cornered and enfeebled it may calculate it has little to lose via additional, unpredictable actions even post-strikes (I worry about trying to change the ‘narrative’ via ‘damn the torpedoes’ adventurism in Israel, for example);
o It is important that a strategic roadmap be maintained for possible negotiations in Geneva, while no one can snap their fingers and resurrect a Dayton II (hard to believe, but a diplomatic resolution to the Syria conflict would be far more complex than ending the Bosnian conflict for a variety of reasons, nor is Dick Holbrooke around, may he RIP), we should not completely vitiate the prospects of resurrecting a diplomatic track because of the military action we are apparently imminently undertaking;
o There will doubtless be non-military casualties at the hands of American bombs, so-called ‘collateral damage’. Yes, holding Assad accountable for his ghastly CW use is certainly not an ignoble cause, but a death is a death however it comes about, and make no mistake, civilians will die (recall there was a fatality even in Bill Clinton’s dead-of-night pin-prick attack on a Sudanese pharmaceutical facility); and
o What else we just don’t know. Once the die is cast, in what is arguably the most volatile tinder-box on the planet these days, we would be naïve not to expect the unexpected. Most of the time, alas, these are negative, complicating dynamics, not helpful extra tidings of good luck.
All this said, why do I find myself ever so slightly contemplating an apparent bias towards action despite my disgust at the palpable excitement emitting from Washington about our latest Middle East adventure (my Twitter feed will likely soon start updating me on specific national security team member's bowel-movements and what they might portend for Syria war coordination & planning) and trying my best to reckon head-on with our apparent tendency to be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past?
Here are a half-dozen reasons:
1) I do believe indiscriminate CW use against innocent civilians a terrible disgrace in our day and age, one which cannot be tolerated, even in the context of the painful hypocrisies that more likely died at Sisi’s hands in Rabaa than Assad’s at Ghouta, and we cannot even bring ourselves to suspend aid re the former, whilst we effectively go to war re the latter!;
2) The constant whinging around “credibility” apart (it is true we exaggerate and trot it out too willy-nilly), Assad all but dared Obama on this one, using CW a year after the red-line speech to the very day; to have not done anything would have truly revealed the emperor to have no clothes and sooner or later precipitated an even larger mass chemical attack (read: a ‘Srebrenica moment’);
3) I fear the IDP and refugee flows are becoming so large, and given the additional context of growing instability in Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon and points beyond, we’d have had to grapple with the Syria situation sooner rather than later regardless, so that if the strikes can achieve some deterrent while providing the rebels greater short-term momentum this could achieve dynamics on the ground more amenable to diplomatic follow-on;
4) With most U.S. troops out of Iraq and Israel prepared to deal Hezbollah a devastatingly brutal retaliatory blow, I do not see particularly easy options for Iran to retaliate, nor do I think Rouhani would be keen to do so regardless;
5) I believe Moscow can be mollified if the strikes are contained, proportionate and we energetically attempt to reinsert Moscow into the Geneva process to try to forge some U.S.-Russian condominium on a post-Assad Syria at some future point once the dust settles; and
6) Assad might find himself so consumed with self-preservation he may rein in any temptation towards regional trouble-making (also to try to keep his Russian patron on side as more pliable, predictable client), and revert back to more conventional tactics mostly aimed at literally saving his own skin, as in the end, he could well suffer an inglorious Gadaffi-like, brutish end, while perhaps refraining from more CW-use to avoid further military action from the West.
In short, you might say I could be persuaded the risks of inaction (or, perhaps better stated, long-term implications of doing nothing) could be worse—or at least run neck in neck--with doing something, but I say this frankly extremely torn, very concerned and with tremendous humility looking at our misadventures since 9/11 in each of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and points beyond. This is truly a problem from hell, but I do not believe we can dither from the sidelines any longer, unless we are prepared to more or less wipe our hands of the entire sorry affair. However, cosmetic, feel-good strikes without concerted strategic follow through on pressing issues such as more of a U.S. leadership role and ‘adult supervision’ over the sourcing, training, equipping, funding, and logistics around rebel assistance, aimed at building up the moderates’ capacities as contrasted with the more radical groups (less to necessarily assure 'victory' by the 'good guys'--all moronic concepts here--more to create leverage for resurrection of diplomatic initiatives by pressuring Damascus more on our terms), as well related painstaking diplomatic initiatives revamped at an appropriate juncture and heightened humanitarian assistance, all of these and more will be critical.
We responsibly should not simply bomb for 36 hours, and then go away again. This would likely prove worse than doing nothing. We need to re-engage in a holistic Syria policy that squarely grapples with broader regional dynamics and that ultimately leads to a negotiated solution, a task we’d shirked, but where Assad’s use of CW appears to have forced a reluctant President to more forcefully engage. So if we are going in, we’re going in for more than a few Tomahawks so everyone can get a late August pat on the back that ‘something was done’. It’s not quite Colin Powell’s old so-called Pottery Barn rule: ‘you break it, you own it’. It’s perhaps more here, ‘you bomb it, the breakage is yours too’. Are we up to this? Our national security team? The strategic follow-through? The countless hours of spade-work with allies and, yes, foes? I just don’t know. I am straddling the fence and unsure, but it is one man ultimately who will decide. My thoughts are with him, this may be a more momentous decision than he may wholly realize. I would not begrudge him standing aside, if he feels the ‘roll-in the cavalry’ noises to date have caused Assad to blink already creating a sufficient enough deterrent impact (though this is dubious). He must also ask himself, when he thinks honestly taking his private counsel, whether he believes he and his team really have the appetite and abilities once embarking on this course to actually succeed in it. These are not easy questions. Yet they demand answers and realistic appraisal. As part of that analysis, one must honestly reckon too with the emerging school of thought that we can bifurcate a military action aimed purely to deter on CW, but without enmeshing ourselves in the conflict and attempting to influence broader outcomes. One doubts it could play out so neatly, and such assumptions should be amply stress-tested.
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August 21, 2013
An epidemic in the usage of a locution rendered increasingly meaningless, whether uttered by Presidents, Secretaries of State, U.N. officials, and/or other Western chancelleries. This is just a 'quick and dirty' partial list, there are many more. But it's particularly notable--even in the dog-days of August--how often said phrase has been trotted out for various Egyptian going-ons by Washington players. However, pending further confirmation around the reported chemical attack(s) near Damascus--particularly in respect of the soi disant 'red-line'--this latest statement of deep concern may well be the most egregiously lackadaisical trotting out of the apparently standard-issue verbiage to date.
UPDATE: Re: Syria, we have now moved to "grave concern".
August 17, 2013
August 15, 2013
Obama's Foreign Policy: A Season of Disappointments
It has become a season of disappointments with Barack Obama’s foreign policy. It appears adrift, unserious, above all, lacking any strategic underpinnings, direction, or execution. A quick glance around the globe helps buttress the contention that something is rotten in American foreign policy, urgently requiring redress. But few seem to care, and expectations must remain low. Unsurprisingly, it is most fitting to observe the situation in the wider Middle East. Syria is perhaps most instructive, although Egypt has been calamitous too. Yes, of course, Syria presents the proverbial ‘problem from hell’. The ethnic, sectarian and religious fault-lines of the Levant are maddening in their complexity. Russia, Turkey, Israel, Iran (and her main proxy Hezbollah), among others, have critical interests at play. Yet we seem to have all but wholly abdicated the scene, rolling our hands up in despair.
A noteworthy example was the supposed “red line” around chemical weapons use. After extensive ‘chain of custody’ cogitations, Washington concluded chemical weapons were indeed used by the Syrian regime. But the Administration response seems to indicate it was not this “red line” that precipitated Washington being reluctantly dragged into possibly broader involvement, but the fact that the Syrian regime (along with its ally Hezbollah) had overtaken the pivotal town of Qusayr a couple months back. This victory better allowed for a band of territorial contiguity from Damascus to the Alawite coastal heartlands, while rendering Homs more vulnerable to regime re-conquest. This stark reality, rather than any ‘red-line’, was what appeared to put Washington on more of an activist footing, followed by the decision to have the rebels armed (I suppose I am purposefully using the passive voice here). Whatever one makes of this decision, here too it became a bit of a shambles, with de minimis provision of arms like MANPADs that might make a difference (albeit given prior experience in such equipping forays one understands the reservations), with mostly small arms proffered up instead. Even in this watered down variant, long delivery delays ensued as well.
The net effect was one of small conviction and spine but much contrivance and theatre: was there really a red-line, or was it the fall of Qusayr; were we going to robustly arm the rebels, or kind of half-ass it? And so on. Amidst all the policy-making as directionless, incremental half-measures, nowhere did one get a sense of convincing strategic purpose. Could we more creatively engage with, not only the Jordanians, but also the Turks, in creating safe-zones near those borders that would provide more international legitimacy to the opposition (disparate as it is), and create at least somewhat greater leverage and control over rebel elements, rather than the hardened al-Qaeda affiliated radicals whom through their brute courage and determination are now winning at least some hearts and minds? Was our diplomacy with Moscow robust and creative enough (deal-making around Tartous, as one example), or did it lack imagination and energy?
Yes, it’s easy to be an arm-chair critic, but it’s truly hard to avoid sensing that our Syria policy lacks any strategic direction undergirding it. If we wish to wash our hands of the affair, so be it, and let’s do so. At least this would be honest. But if we mean to have influence on the outcome, the mish-mash of “policy” we have seen to date is something of a mockery; playing pretend we are doing something convincing when really we are doing anything but.
But we should not have been surprised. We have seen similar cynical behavior before from this Administration. One example was of course Afghanistan. While Obama should certainly be lauded for looking to extricate us from this morass (which has now lasted longer than WWI and WWII combined), he did so only after a "surge" implemented after he already knew nothing remotely commensurate with a “victory” was attainable. Frankly every American service-person who died as part of said surge died not for a mistake we only learned about later, but one that was already assuredly clear to the Commander-in-Chief (indeed he’d prominently campaigned on such very themes). As Obama's own Secretary of State said many decades ago about another conflict in a far-away land: how do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?
Meantime, in Iraq, again we must laud Obama for forging and executing a robust exit strategy. And yet, all sentient observers were aware to pull out the vast majority of U.S. forces would leave a tremendous security vacuum. To help alleviate the risks of radicals (both Sunni and Shi’a) looking to re-enter the fray, at a minimum the Administration should if anything have been doubly focused on the deteriorating situation in Syria, not least given the spill-over impact (in both directions) to Iraq. And East of Iraq, rather than West, we have seen a screaming lack of creativity with regard to engagement with Iran, even after the Rouhani victory. All the Beltway mavens certainly have earned their A minuses and B pluses for sanctions implementation, but to what end? Iran is closer to a bomb, our influence as negligible as ever, with the persons suffering the most Iranians on the street not complicit in the regime’s crimes.
Elsewhere in the broader MENA region, the latest policy foibles have been simply disgraceful with respect to Egypt. Egyptian security forces now on three occasions have mowed down innocent protestors in cold blood, the last episode constituting something of an Egyptian Tiananmen. There has been much handwringing behind closed doors in Washington, doubtless, but foreign policy on the matter to date has been delegated out to the Deputies level (albeit the extremely able Deputy Secretary William Burns) as well reportedly circular, non-productive calls between Secretary of Defense Hagel and the de facto Egyptian leader, Sisi. The National Security Advisor –whose skill-sets do not appear particularly compelling---does not appear to be brokering an inter-agency policy of any ingenuity or note, though she does ring up the President with bad news on the Vineyard ably. Meantime, the Secretary of State waded into the morass with the offensively off-base comment that the Egyptian Army was “restoring democracy”, when the truth was quite the opposite, given they have engaged in tactics that reek of a crude, fascistic crushing of dissent. Such Washington tea-leaves apart, fundamentally, did Sisi simply take the measure of Obama, and calculate he could massacre half a thousand (and counting) souls in cold blood, and not pay any real consequence for it beyond wrist-slaps to placate critics and such feel-good empty gestures?
What would matter to Sisi, or at least get his attention, is to put an end to the masquerade that we have not witnessed a bald-faced coup. Through it all, alas, apparently overly jittery about the implications to Israeli security (Sinai, Camp David Accords, Muslim Brotherhood’s Hamas cousins), as well the damage that too much non-ancien regime 'fluidity' in Egypt might visit on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (a rare recent success, with kudos due the Secretary of State, though Israel’s perennially poorly timed continued settlement expansion is not helping the lift-off much), we have not dared call the coup a coup. Legally, of course, the events of July 3rd were prima facie a coup, and morally too we should now feel well obligated with these latest mass killings to strip the Egyptian Army of the pretense there is some democratic interim governance in place beyond a fig-leaf masking the Army's brute putsch (see too the recent reinstitution of various military and Mubarak legacy cronies in key positions), all predictable fodder that I'd touched on before here. Regardless, however, if moral or legal arguments do not sway, even on realist grounds we should be designating the events a coup, as the brazen robbery of the Brotherhood’s ballot box victory--at such a critical juncture in the Arab uprisings—will now resonate profoundly with respect to the Islamic disenfranchisement narrative, with clear and present ‘blow-back’ risks to our interests, especially in the face of such horrific massacres.
Beyond MENA, the Administration’s track record has been little better. Any return on investment regarding one of the Administration's most touted 'signature' initiatives, the so-called Russia ‘re-set’, has been largely laid to waste in a fit of Edward Snowden pique (don't buy the spin other reasons were material to the decision to cancel the summit). Meantime, the NSA revelations have further harmed our moral standing (we clearly care not a whit about the privacy rights of ‘fur’ners’, as our friends in Europe and Latin America have learned), and Obama’s inability to execute on his pledge to close Guantanamo is not a tale of manifold complexity rendering it impossible, but ultimately a contemptible inability to grasp the nettle, strategically execute, and get the bloody job done. On China, the “pivot” too often smells like neo-containment to Beijing, and too little fulsome dialogue between the parties exists to provide a more constructive basis for trust-building between the existing “superpower” and its nearest rival. The point here is that strategic missteps (or, at best, disjointed, suboptimal execution) is not just a tale of MENA woes amidst the wild cauldron of the Arab uprisings, but has manifested itself in more 'structured' major power relationships as well, whether Beijing, Moscow, or others.
All this said, the President does have one thing going in his favor. The opposition party would have mounted an even more disastrous foreign policy, I suspect, proactively blundering about saber-rattling with the usual recycled neo-con nostrums, bogging us down in even more theaters than at present. Obama at least has spared us these indignities, ‘leading from behind’ adventures like Libya (and its ugly hangovers) apart. But it is not a particularly proud legacy to say ‘at least I was better than the other guy would have been’. This is not the stuff of a great Presidency, at least when it comes to foreign policy. Of course, there has been and is much work to accomplish at home, and while not the topic here, whether jobs, infrastructure, Wall Street reform, and more; we should not conclude the Administration necessarily covered itself in glory there either, beyond the easy myths that 'but for' pork-infested stimulus, QE-infinity and serial bailouts Great Depression II beckoned (this is not to take away from the gravity of the economic situation we faced in late '08 and early '09, nor some of the Administration's crisis management at the time, or indeed, the prior Administration's). But while I understand a great power can only remain so from a base of strongly rooted strength at home, and Obama’s apparent focus on domestic politics therefore is not ill-advised, it is another thing to look alternatively peeved, bored, listless and simply largely adrift on foreign policy. Leaders, whether Sisi or Putin, have noticed. We simply must do better, and please, this does not mean better, or more, speeches. It means strategic execution of statecraft in a turbulent epoch of geopolitical transition, one of the Presidency’s most solemn responsibilities, or at least one might hope, a solemn aspiration. And its manifest absence represents a season of disappointments the international community can ill afford at this juncture.
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July 27, 2013
The Interior Minister Speaketh
UPDATE: Important related context from the FT here.
A Coup That Will Resonate Far Beyond Tahrir
The mood was festive as the dim, bearded President Morsi and his equally bovine Muslim Brotherhood cadres--or so the caricature we are told by comme il faut Cairenes--were carted out on the backs of a supposed Revolution 2.0 on June 30th. The buffoonish Egyptian press went into jubilant tizzy, the Tamarrod twitterers into an orgy of self-righteous contentment (strikingly unawares of their abject kow-towing to the military and deep state behind), and the West looked on, at best with cautious incrementalism, at worst in abject cluelessness. For good measure, David Brooks helpfully chimed in, averring that Islamists "lack the mental equipment to govern" (left unsaid was what this showcased about other's ''mental equipment").
As developments progressed amidst these assorted enthusiasms, the prima facie proof this was a coup full stop was clear to all but those purposefully deluding themselves. Still, to the annals of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ or such Orwellian verbal mish-mash, we can now add the notion of a ‘popular impeachment’. Hill notables issued such clap-trap. The Administration, perhaps priding itself on a dose of Scowcroftian realpolitik (deluded, if so), instead retreated into a disingenuous bunker of silence, no one daring utter the dreaded “c” word. Israel lobbied, of course, that such a designation not be made (Morsi too cozy with their Hamas cousins, Sinai security risks, and in a worst case scenario, sacrosanct pillars like Camp David coming into starker relief). But even cynical observers must have been surprised by the Administration’s ultimate tack, wholly avoiding having to designate it a coup or not, as go figure, we simply wouldn’t broach the issue! Call it the ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ school of foreign policy. As Noah Feldman reminds us, however, the President of the United States does have an obligation to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” (well, I suppose that ship had already sailed, ex-legacy con law trappings).
As Washington cowers, with wrist-slaps on delayed F-16 deliveries and such, while Sisi and Co. are doubtless told to ‘hold tight’ and ‘course correct’ the revolution (by a reactionary counter-revolution!), the Egyptian Army is getting down to old-fashioned, brass-tacks business on the boulevards of Egypt’s cities. In tactics that will make Bashar al-Asad feel Damascus and Cairo are enjoying kindred moments amidst the hot summer months, snipers are shooting to kill, and doing quite well at it, with scores dead on Egypt’s streets (to date, at least, Egypt’s Army only uses its airpower to wow the Tahrir bevy with air shows, not bombardments a la Bashar). These massacres carry the stench of a brutish military trying to quash the opposition because they realize that the teeming slums of Egypt’s cities reveal much support for President Morsi, now under protracted arrest whereabouts unknown, but likely now housed near former President Mubarak, in a neat historical touch. After all, the man won 52% of the vote, like it or not. As for his bungling performance in office, what sentient individual in these United States wouldn’t have liked to mount a ‘popular impeachment’ amidst Dubya’s strikingly horrific stewardship of the levers of power, whether Katrina, Abu Ghraib, Rumsfeld’s dereliction, and Cheney’s despicable usurpation of the Executive? But, alas, one must wait for elections, at least if we are going to play pretend we are in the throes of a democratic “liberal” revolution.
Why should we care? These going-ons are taking place in far-away Arab lands, and summer entertainment might be more easily had by the pitiable Carlos Danger's vying for ink for sexting near-minors and such, like incredibly needy cretins. Well, for one, Egypt represents the beating epicenter of the entire Arab world and is the paramount, central actor in the denouement of the Arab Spring, such as it is. The enthusiasm by which Riyadh turned on the dollar spigot to Sisi’s gang should tell us all we need to know regarding the reactive forces at play. As blood spills, trumped up charges that are bogus in the extreme are lobbed at Morsi, and the crack-down intensifies in general, is the risk of mass Islamic disenchantment during the most high profile episode of the Arab uprisings not manifestly clear?
Of course, this is a mug’s game, and whatever the U.S. did (or didn’t) each side will be dissatisfied. But the singular implications of the Egyptian uprising all but demanded a more robust American reaction defending the integrity of the ballot-box, even if just pretending to muster some spine, rather than speaking of a naked coup as constituting some enlightened “second chance” for the revolution. How is an effective putsch to accomplish that, no matter how Westernized the technocrats that will preen about the instrumentalities of government power looking to unlock IMF funds, while Sisi and the Army control the real levers?
Foggy Bottom, the Pentagon and the White House will delude themselves that we are retaining ‘leverage’ over Sisi and will control outcomes, but our supine compliance to date has spoken volumes. The Generals get it, and they are getting on with it. The Islamists, if Egypt doesn’t descend into full-bore civil war, will remember, as they go into ‘hiding’. Another chapter in Islamist rejection is being written, this time vividly with respect to participatory democracy given their victory was stolen, and while we were never meant to be central players, and indeed must be cautious, there are nonetheless times where fecklessness of this magnitude will backfire to our detriment.
It is a quiet summer weekend down in Washington, and I shudder to think about the quality of the ‘Egypt discussion’ on the Sunday shows (to extent even broached), but this much is clear: the violence committed today, whether dozens, scores, over a hundred or more dead; was grotesque and unwarranted. It speaks to a military conscious of its eroding legitimacy (and this already during the immediate post-June 30th honeymoon period), likely increasingly fearful of the specter of civil war and, irrespective, feeling far too entitled to use brute force to quash dissent to try to avoid greater tumult. It is high time to signal to Egypt’s real power brokers (not some risibly figure-head President) that the implications of such continued conduct will have real ramifications, starting by what all but the willfully blind across the world know to be true: have the cojones to call a coup a coup.
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June 30, 2013
For any stalwarts still frequenting this space please note I've opened up a Twitter account as well. You can find it here. It will likely be somewhat more active than B.D. in the near term given time constraints on longer pieces. Frankly, as any long-time reader will appreciate, writing fewer than 140 characters might prove something of a challenge for me, but I'm galvanized to give it a go!
June 16, 2013
"We have rich oversight across three branches of government. I’ve got an [inspector general] here, a fairly robust legal staff here . . . and there’s the Justice Department’s national security division...For those things done under court jurisdiction, the courts are intrusive in my business, appropriately so, and there are two congressional committees. It’s a belts-and-suspenders-and-Velcro approach, and inside there’s rich auditing.”
Forgive me that I'm commenting in haste, and I hope to have more soon, but my first reaction reading this was to recall a splendid footnote from Michael Lewis' "The Big Short":
Wall Street firms like to say they build Chinese walls to keep information about customer trading from leaking to their own proprietary trading. Vincent Daniel of FrontPoint Partners offered the most succinct response to this pretense: “When I hear ‘Chinese wall,’ I think, ‘You’re a fucking liar.’”
I mean "fairly robust", "belt and suspenders" & "rich auditing" were already pretty rich (pun unintended), but Velcro too? The lady doth protest too much, methinks.
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.
About Belgravia Dispatch
Gregory Djerejian 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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