April 16, 2007

Strategically Adrift

Zinni, on MTP today:

MR. RUSSERT: As you know, there’s a widely publicized search for a war czar. One of the people who turned the job down was retired General, General John Sheehan, and let me read this to you: “‘The very fundamental issues is, they don’t know where the hell they’re going,’ said retired” Gen—“Marine General John ‘Jack’ Sheehan, a former top NATO commander...

“Sheehan said he called around to get a better feel for the administration landscape. ‘There’s the” resitue—“residue of the Cheney view--‘We’re going to win, al-Qaeda’s there’—that justifies anything we did,’ he said. ‘And then there’s the pragmatist view—how the hell do we get out of Dodge and survive? Unfortunately, the people with the former view are still in the positions of most influence.’” What does that tell you?

GEN. ZINNI: Well, I know Jack Sheehan very well, and he’s a extremely competent and capable former commander of the Atlantic command. And I think he’s expressing a view that, that many of us feel. We are in a situation now where we have to rethink our strategy on how we handle this. We have caused in the center of the Middle East a place where the—we could have a sanctuary for extremist groups, where Shia and Sunni strife can spill over, where we could have an Iranian or Persian/Arab conflict, and we have to find a way to contain this now. We can’t walk away from it. We cannot continue on the same course.

What has disappointed me is there hasn’t been this debate on the strategy, on the policy, a regional strategy on policy, let alone an Iraq policy. We’re, we’re debating the tactics. The, the surge is a tactic. In what context is the surge? You can make an argument for a surge if you were going to withdraw, to cover the withdrawal, for example, or to contain, to reposition forces or to re-engage in a different way or a stronger way. And why we got caught up in the tactical debate, in my mind, is an indication that we don’t understand what we want to do. What should our Middle East policy be? What should our policy be in terms of Iraq and, and the war against the extremists out there or the conflict against extremists? We seem to be strategically adrift, in my view.

So true.

Posted by Gregory at 03:04 AM | Comments (8)

April 15, 2007

Ankara Watch

FT:

Turkey's top general called yesterday for military intervention in northern Iraq in comments that will increase regional tensions - already high after a series of verbal exchanges between Turkish and Kurdish leaders.

General Yasar Buyukanit, Turkey's chief of staff, said he believed that Turkish troops had to move across the border to combat rebels from the Kurdish Workers party (PKK).

Ankara accuses the Kurdish regional government of northern Iraq of harbouring the rebels - an allegation the regional government denies.

"From the military point of view, a [military] operation in northern Iraq must be made," said Gen Buyukanit. He added, however, that he had not yet submitted a request to parliament and that "no political decision has been made yet".

More here:

Turkey warned Iraqi Kurdish leaders yesterday they would be "crushed" if they carried out a threat to stir up trouble among Turkish Kurds, as clashes with separatists in south-eastern Turkey claimed at least 20 lives.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, reacted angrily to weekend comments by Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq. Mr Barzani has set off a political and media storm in Ankara with his threat to "interfere" in Turkey's restive Kurdish provinces if Ankara did not stop "interfering" in his region.

Mr Erdogan said Mr Barzani would "be crushed by his own words". The Iraqi Kurdish leadership, he said, was "making very serious mistakes, and the cost will be very heavy".

The threats and counter-threats mark a fresh low point in relations between Ankara and the Iraqi Kurdish leadership. A few weeks ago Mr Erdogan was tentatively suggesting that official contact be established between them.

But that idea was strongly rejected by the Turkish military. The military and civilian leadership in Ankara has also become frustrated at its inability to influence events in Iraq as the prospect of an independent Kurdistan, with its capital in the oil-rich, Kurdish-dominated city of Kirkuk, moves ever closer.

Now, amid a heavy build-up of Turkish forces along the country's border with Iraq, some diplomats said the poisoned atmosphere could hasten a long-threatened "incursion" into Iraqi territory by Turkish forces to target the PKK Kurdish separatist movement.

Finally, for today:

Turkey made a decisive contribution to the Iraq war nearly four years ago when the parliament in Ankara rejected a US request to allow an invasion from the north. The military impact of this decision belongs to the "What if...?" school of history.

The diplomatic fallout is still casting a shadow over the US-Turkish relationship. Now Turkey could be about to make a second dramatic contribution.

Amid constant bloody clashes between Turkish troops and PKK Kurdish separatist guerrillas operating out of northern Iraq, Ankara is weighing up a cross-border incursion to attack PKK bases. Turkey, its political leaders insist, has the right and the determination to eliminate threats to its territory wherever they come from.

General Yasar Buyukanit, chief of the general staff, is expected to set out Turkey's concerns over Iraq when he visits Washington later this month. One possible outcome intended to guard against a unilateral Turkish intervention would be a joint anti-PKK military operation with US and Iraqi forces, says an analyst who asked not to be named.

Turkey is also becoming alarmed by what it claims is electoral and demographic gerrymandering by Iraqi Kurds in Kirkuk, the oil capital of Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. Ankara fears that Kurdish control of Kirkuk would give the Iraqi Kurds the economic basis for independence if Iraq were to break up.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, and other Turkish leaders have warned repeatedly that the gerrymandering threatens to make a fait accompli of a referendum on Kirkuk's status later this year that Turkey will not tolerate. Turkey is increasingly identifying with the Turkmen minority in the city, which Ankara believes is being ill treated by the Kurds. [my emphasis throughout]

More on this increasingly alarming situation soon.


Posted by Gregory at 04:15 PM | Comments (5)

April 13, 2007

First Bernie, Now Bolton?

Who's advising whom (among the Presidential field) on Iraq policy? Jason Horowitz has some of the goods over at the NYO. And don't miss this snippet:

Mr. Giuliani has criticized some aspects of the American performance in Iraq, but has basically supported the President’s plan without addressing its specific shortcomings. Asked about his day-to-day Iraq advisor, his campaign would only say that he speaks with many individuals, including retired Gen. Jack Keane and former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton.

Oh my...Rudy had already lost me on foreign policy when I saw a piece he co-wrote with Newt Gingrich in the WSJ a while back comparing Iraq War strategy to his welfare reform/crime-fighting initiatives in New York. Baghdad ain't Bed-Sty, Mr. Mayor, I thought then. Seeing that his campaign thinks it a confidence-builder to note that Bolton is advising him on Iraq policy isn't exactly heartening either...With McCain hail-marying on the Iraq Surge, and Romney's, shall we say, confusing diversity of views on social issues (not to mention Mormon baggage), it's no wonder B actors are thinking of throwing themselves into the Republican presidential field. Speaking of Thompson, the hilariously titled "Pirates of Tehran" blog-post was enough to set off the poseur alarms pretty mightily, eh?

Posted by Gregory at 03:06 AM | Comments (5)

Damascus: Detente Talk of the Town; Washington: Same Ol' Crapola

Marc Perelman has the best analysis (by far) I've seen of late regarding Damascus' strategic posture. Contrast it w/ the latest insipidness from Liz Cheney (note too the nauseatingly cheap trotting out of Basil Fleihan's tragic cries for his wife, the better to get the true believers' blood pumping), and thank your lucky stars she's no longer Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. We need sober crisis management leavened by regional experience in key policy-making roles, more than ever, not mawkish sentiment masquerading as policy, or the airing of fatuous historical analogies (e.g., see immediately below).

Imagine if, in 1776, James Madison, John Adams or Thomas Jefferson had been struck down by assassins. Could America have been born without them? It seems a calculation has been made that if enough Lebanese democrats are killed, Lebanese independence will die in its cradle.

Riveting stuff, this, and for "birth pangs" we've now got instead, ta-da, the "cradle". Charming. Look, make no mistake. The Hariri assasination was a horrific crime. Ditto the killing of Gemayel, as well as Gibran Tueni (and many others). But Cheney's narrative is infantile in its monocausal view of what ails Lebanon, and serves to showcase well the easy certitudes of the good/evil dichotomies that have defined policy-making during the Bush years. We must do better than this, much better. The region is bleeding, and needs sustained, intelligent and nuanced attention, which apparently is still very much in short supply. Far too much of what passes as supposed significant policy musings, as above, are outrageously unrealistic when applied to the real world.

Cheney, again:

It is time to face facts. Talking to the Syrians emboldens and rewards them at the expense of America and our allies in the Middle East. It hasn't and won't change their behavior. They are an outlaw regime and should be isolated. Members of Congress and State Department officials should stop visiting Damascus. Arab leaders should stop receiving Bashar al-Assad. The U.N. Security Council should adopt a Chapter VII resolution mandating the establishment of an international tribunal for the Hariri murder.

The Security Council should also hold Syria accountable for its ongoing violations of existing resolutions. The U.S. government should implement all remaining elements of the Syria Accountability Act and launch an aggressive effort to empower the Syrian opposition. European governments should demonstrate that they value justice over profit and impose financial and travel sanctions on Syria's leaders.

It's all here. "Outlaw regime" (and guess who gets to play Vice-Sherriff?!?) Chapter VII sanctions! Travel bans on Bashar the Evil Eye Doctor! An "aggressive effort to empower the Syrian opposition" (who will be the Great Syrian Ahmad Chalabi, dear Liz?)! Of course, people in the neighborhood, like the Israelis, realize that Cheney's tired, recycled neo-con gospel, as applied to Syria, would create another Iraq, only on the doorstep of Israel, and want none of it. Which was why Olmert asked Pelosi to transmit reassuring messages to Bashar Assad in the first place. Aren't we all getting tired of this tiresome 'more Catholic than the Pope' fervor? Time to face facts indeed...the biggest foreign policy debacle since at least Vietnam is raging next door, and this is no time to throw more gas on the fire.

Posted by Gregory at 01:57 AM | Comments (4)

April 10, 2007

What If They Had Been U.S. Navy?

Nasr/Takeyh:

Had the British followed the American example, once the sailors and marines were seized, they could have escalated the conflict by pursuing the matter more forcefully at the United Nations or sending additional naval vessels to the area. Instead, the British tempered their rhetoric and insisted that diplomacy was the only means of resolving the conflict. The Iranians received this as pragmatism on London’s part and responded in kind.

The United States, meanwhile, has pursued its policy of coercion for two months now, and one is hard-pressed to find evidence of success. Beyond even the symbolic move of apprehending the British sailors, Iran’s intransigent position on the nuclear issue remains unchanged. To underscore that point, Iran has scaled back cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency and released a new currency note adorned with a nuclear emblem.

More related fare, of the 'thanks, but no thanks' variety, here:

The US offered to take military action on behalf of the 15 British sailors and marines held by Iran, including buzzing Iranian Revolutionary Guard positions with warplanes, the Guardian has learned.

In the first few days after the captives were seized and British diplomats were getting no news from Tehran on their whereabouts, Pentagon officials asked their British counterparts: what do you want us to do? They offered a series of military options, a list which remains top secret given the mounting risk of war between the US and Iran. But one of the options was for US combat aircraft to mount aggressive patrols over Iranian Revolutionary Guard bases in Iran, to underline the seriousness of the situation.

The British declined the offer and said the US could calm the situation by staying out of it. London also asked the US to tone down military exercises that were already under way in the Gulf. Three days before the capture of the 15 Britons , a second carrier group arrived having been ordered there by president George Bush in January. The aim was to add to pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme and alleged operations inside Iraq against coalition forces.

We can discuss the merits of Takeyh's recommended detente policy another day, or the Guardian piece, for that matter. But for tonight, a little mind exercise, shall we? Imagine the 15 kidnapped Brits were U.S. Navy. And then imagine the eruption of incredible indignation, the 24/7 howls of outrage, the 'we gotta go into Teheran right now!' (it's an "act of war", after all, the hyperbolic goose-stepping gaggles would have gravely advised non-stop), the flood-the-zone jingo-banging of the war drums (as Francis Fukuyama quips about one of the more fevered, incorrigible neo-cons: "when has Krauthammer ever not cried “Munich!” in response to an act of diplomacy?").

Who would have had a freak-out and totally lost it first, one wonders: Bill O'Reilly? Glenn Beck? Lou Dobbs, off the Tom Tancredo-ish nativist brew for a second or two? Anderson Cooper, of course, would have started broadcasting live from a British frigate near the Shatt al-Arab waterway--explaining to us what it must have 'felt' like to get nabbed in disputed waters (though, in fairness to him, his reporting, if breathless, would have been more nuanced than any of the above personages). And, just a couple hours before, Wolf Blitzer's Situation Room would have been rife with buzzing electronic maps, on which frantic, 'John Madden Meets Sun Tzu' magic marker scribblings would have feverishly charted the possible invasion paths into Iran to mount the daring rescue.

And in the blogosphere? Well, Glenn Reynolds would have recycled some horse-dung along the lines that bayonets ain't for sittin', and it's time to roll ( 'more rubble, less trouble!'). Meantime, Charles Johnson would have passed out on his keyboard, after a series of post-cycling conniptions (coming on the heels of the "headscarf threat", it would all have been too much). Oh, and Michael Ledeen? Be afraid, be very afraid. Think frothing, at the mouth, rabidly. Here he is again, calling for attacks within Iran (despite his laughable denials that he's not in favor of military action there):

It would be nice if someone in a position of power noted that the Iranians have committed an act of war on a NATO country, and that the other members of the alliance can be obliged to join in common action against the aggressor if the relevant terms of the treaty are invoked, as they should be. That should be the first move, showing the Iranians that the West is united and determined to act. It should be accompanied by the appearance of some vessels from what is left of Her Majesty's Navy, buttressing our own warships and--shhhh!--the French carrier now in the area. If we have actionable intelligence from the recent wave of defectors/prisoners, we should step up the campaign against Iranian officials and agents in Iraq. And we should undertake the legitimate self-defense to which we are entitled, by moving against the terrorist training camps, and the improvised explosive device assembly lines and manufacturing sites inside the Islamic Republic.

Ah, to parachute Michael into the first "assembly line" raid!

Two pluses, though. More Bush as Carter comps might have resulted, though this does the latter a disservice, and, lo and behold, as pointed out hilariously here, we'd just perhaps have gotten more bursts of sanity emitting from the unlikeliest quarters. Hope springs eternal!

Posted by Gregory at 05:19 AM | Comments (10)

Dead Sea Flotsam

David Brooks travels to the Dead Sea, and identifies why peace in the Holy Land remains so stubbornly elusive. It's because of Walt/Mearsheimer! No, really, I think....

As it happened, though, the Arab speakers mainly wanted to talk about the Israel lobby. One described a book edited in the mid-1990s by the Jewish policy analyst David Wurmser as the secret blueprint for American foreign policy over the past decade. A pollster showed that large majorities in Arab countries believe that the Israel lobby has more influence over American policy than the Bush administration. Speaker after speaker triumphantly cited the work of Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer and Jimmy Carter as proof that even Americans were coming to admit that the Israel lobby controls their government...

...But there was nothing defensive or introspective about the Arab speakers here. In response to Bernard Lewis’s question, “What Went Wrong?” their answer seemed to be: Nothing’s wrong with us. What’s wrong with you? The events of the past three years have shifted their diagnosis of where the cancer is — from dysfunction in the Arab world to malevolence in Jerusalem and in Aipac. Furthermore, the Walt and Mearsheimer paper on the Israel lobby has had a profound effect on Arab elites. It has encouraged them not to be introspective, not to think about their own problems, but to blame everything on the villainous Israeli network...

...What we have is not a clash of civilizations, but a gap between civilizations, increasingly without common narratives, common goals or means of communication.

Were the arrayed Arab reformers supposed to prostrate themselves into rounds of self-flagellation because the great Bernard Lewis thunderingly queried them from on high regarding "What Went Wrong"? And the notion that the Walt/Mearsheimer piece has caused some seminal "profound effect" on Arab elites and their view of the Arab-Israeli conflict is (I'm trying to be polite) quite a stretch indeed. Wars in '48, '56, '67, '73, '82 and '06, the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, final status issues of Jerusalem and right of return, the various intifadas, all have had rather a "profound effect on Arab elites", vis-a-vis how they view the Arab-Israeli conflict. Much more so, I'd wager, than any single academic paper, however overwrought a reaction it may have garnered, whether here in Manhattan, or over there in precincts Amman.

As Matthew Yglesias quips:

Any nice Jewish boy can tell you that Arab political elites were pretty damn good at deflecting attention of their own shortcomings and onto Israel long before The London Review of Books decided to publish the infamous article.

Indeed. Let's rake Steve Walt and John Mearsheimer over the coals for any shortcomings in their piece where genuinely legitimate (though I am not one who subscribes to the view that it constituted some pernicious Kennedy School redux of The Protocols), but accusing them of writing something that's proven a material causal factor in stoking some unbridgeable gap in civilizational narratives is rather a lot, no?

P.S. One suspects most of Brooks' sources on Middle Eastern matters tends towards neo-con orthodoxy, alas. Perhaps David should speak more often to David Welch, to David Satterfield, to Aaron Miller, to Robert Malley, among others, to gain a wider perspective. Apologies to him if he is already, but this piece (and his earlier description of Hezbollah and Hamas as rank "nutjobs", which ostensibly means their millions of followers too, well, it speaks to contributing to a gap in civilizational narratives at least as wide as that which discomforted David so during this trip to the Dead Sea).

P.P.S. A commenter writes that David B. might be on to something.


Posted by Gregory at 04:07 AM | Comments (16)

Go Dick, Go!

More of this, please...

Posted by Gregory at 03:49 AM | Comments (1)

April 08, 2007

More Pelosi...

WaPo:

HOUSE SPEAKER Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) offered an excellent demonstration yesterday of why members of Congress should not attempt to supplant the secretary of state when traveling abroad. After a meeting with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, Ms. Pelosi announced that she had delivered a message from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that "Israel was ready to engage in peace talks" with Syria. What's more, she added, Mr. Assad was ready to "resume the peace process" as well. Having announced this seeming diplomatic breakthrough, Ms. Pelosi suggested that her Kissingerian shuttle diplomacy was just getting started. "We expressed our interest in using our good offices in promoting peace between Israel and Syria," she said.

My my. It's almost like we're in the midst of a constitutional usurpation of authority here of unprecedented proportion. Perhaps our friendly editors at the WaPo might pop a Valium or two, sit down for a couple minutes, and take a deep breath. The 'Nancy in Damascus' kerfuffle was quite simple, really. CODELs go through that town with much regularity, and Olmert reportedly asked her to pass on a message to Bashar (that there was no "summer attack" in the works from Israel), as the Israelis were concerned about a possible military miscalculation emitting from Damascus. Pelosi, not schooled by any means in the foreign policy subtleties of the Middle East, overplayed her hand, with intimations of ambitious peace gambits, use of "good offices", and so on. A rookie foot-fault, not a constitutional catastrophe imperiling the division of powers as among the branches.

Olmert, so weak domestically he makes Bush look like a guy riding a crest of unbridled rah-rah popularity, had to issue a "clarification" to state, for the record, that Israel's policy position on Syria wasn't new, that they had to do X and Y before any jaw-jaw might get started in earnest, that Damascus was still part of the "axis of evil" (Israel's variant, I guess, as ours never included Syria, at least not per Frum's original hifalutin' SOTU verbiage). In other words, a rear-end covering exercise, but not a whole-sale repudiation per se of Pelosi and her trip to Syria. Olmert was basically saying: I'm not wimping out vis-a-vis Syria guys, we're still holding the line. One suspects this wasn't only to cover his right domestic flank, but (speculation alert) that there may have been some carping from the White House, say Elliot Abrams calling someone in Olmert's office, along the lines of: c'mon guys, we're trying to help you, let's sing from the same song-sheet at least. (In reality, our non-policy regarding the Syrians isn't helping the Israelis at all, but that's a story for another day...).

Indeed, Olmert tasked Pelosi with transmiting a message because everyone sane realizes that the time has come to talk directly, at high levels, with the Syrians. This includes sane Israelis, sane Americans, sane Europeans, and sane Syrians. Unfortunately, such sanity doesn't prevail in the saintly certitudes of the upper reaches of the American Executive Branch, but at least it does now on the Hill Side. Regadless, notice what Olmert's clarification didn't say, it didn't deny that he had asked Pelosi to send on a message, indeed, she also reportedly delivered messages to Damascus stressing the need for them to help gain the release of IDF personnel. In addition, she was accompanied by Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor in Congress, a long-time observer of the Middle East (one who knows well the history of the Baathist regime in Damascus), and who doubtless helped prep her before her meeting with Bashar. So it's not like she was wildly freelancing, as I said, there were some over-exuberances, but not attempts at off-the-reservation negotiations. (Related, don't miss this refutation of the WSJ op-ed alleging Pelosi's trip was a criminal violation of the Logan Act).

Here's the rub. The real reason that Nancy Pelosi's visit caused such a stir is that it reminded the world that the White House has no Syria policy. It was another in a long line of the 'emperor has no clothes' moments. The hysteria about it was mostly a function of it showcasing how dismally we've dropped the ball in the Middle East. If we had a Secretary of State worth her salt on such issues, authorized by the President to speak and deal-make with adversaries, things wouldn't have gotten to the point where former Republicans like myself would actually be cheerleading one of the more underwhelming foreign policy lights on the Hill for calling the Administration's bluff and traveling to Syria. But, yes, I found myself heartened by Pelosi's visit, as it signaled that all the policy-making poverty born of ideological certainty just took another beating, as Bush's stock continues to plummet during his (too long) lame duck coda.

So, in short, she communicated a helpful message of calm from Israel, but as she's a foreign policy novice, she overplayed her hand. Of course there won't be any break-through, or major shuttling or such. Of course she's not Secretary of State, and as House Speaker, she needs to be more careful going forward. But still, the symbolism was important, and netting it all out, I think she did the right thing, and the WaPo's hysterical over-reaction was rather comical, frankly. Would they rather our 'no talk, they know what the need to do' imbecility lead to another war between Israel and one of her neighbors? No, Nancy's walk-about the Damascus souk hasn't imperiled the role of the Secretary of State and Executive Branch in some Grand Constitutional Order, and at least it helped cool the regional temperature some.

P.S. Oh, and let's not let this snippet from the WaPo piece pass unnoticed:

As any diplomat with knowledge of the region could have told Ms. Pelosi, Mr. Assad is a corrupt thug whose overriding priority at the moment is not peace with Israel but heading off U.N. charges that he orchestrated the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri
Memo to the WaPo: Discussions with the Israelis on the Golan are not mutually exclusive with continued progress on the Hariri investigation front, I don't think. Indeed, "any diplomat with knowledge of the region" would tell you that. I said diplomats now, not think-tank absolutists who call Syria "Syran" and other such claptrap.

UPDATE: M. Kleiman has more.

Posted by Gregory at 01:21 AM | Comments (21)

April 07, 2007

Quotable

A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity. In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defined as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be. Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?

--Barbara Tuchman, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam

Questions that (yet again) come to mind quite a bit of late, no?

Posted by Gregory at 02:17 AM | Comments (7)

April 06, 2007

A "Gang of Three" Containing the Damage Done?

Spurred on by commenters who thought this post too pessimistic (remember, I was flagging possibilities for reader input, not necessarily declaring any of my "A" through "F" certitudes), here's a silver lining as we survey the detritus wrought by the Bush Administration, courtesy of this piece in the FT.

In short, the thesis is a "Gang of Three" (Bob Gates, Condi Rice, and Hank Paulson) are working together well and putting the Administration on something of a corrective course, after the incredible outrages of the Cheney-Rumsfeld years. Meantime, Great Leader is bobbing about semi-cluelessly as is his wont, but perhaps taking more advice from the Gang of Three, the argument goes (see Chris Hill's North Korea diplomacy, for example, or Gates' sacking of riff-raff like "Cully" Stimson, a personage who would have been roundly feted during the bygone Rummy years, rather than quickly shown the door, or too Gates quick personnel changes when the Walter Reed outrages came to light).

Money quotes:

It has become conventional wisdom to say that no one has left the Bush administration with their reputation higher than when they joined it. With approval ratings for President George W. Bush languishing at stubbornly low levels for almost two years, even close friends openly doubt whether he can restore his fortunes.

But three senior Bush officials, two of them relatively new to their jobs, are operating as though they believe they can still leave office in January 2009 with higher standing. The trio in question – Bob Gates, defence secretary, Hank Paulson, Treasury secretary and Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state – are playing a quiet but central role in pushing through what one official described as a “course correction”.

Their growing co-operation on key issues was most dramatically illustrated last month when Ms Rice persuaded Mr Paulson to swallow the Treasury Department’s doubts about unfreezing $25m (€19m, £12.7m) worth of North Korean accounts in order to free the way for the six-party nuclear deal with Pyongyang to proceed. Ms Rice said she spent several hours talking it through with Mr Paulson. She also managed to gain Mr Gates’s support to by-pass Washington’s normal interagency process for big policy decisions – most critically to circumvent Dick Cheney, the vice-president, who remains opposed to diplomatic engagement with rogue regimes....

...“It is as though this gang of three has been grafted on to the body of the Bush administration,” said a senior official from the former Clinton administration. “It is an alien graft that ought to be rejected but which has nevertheless started taking over the body.” [emphasis added]

Yes, there are quite a few issues with this rosy thesis. For one, the corrective action may well be of the far too little, too late variety. Two, Cheney, though wounded, is still around (and, incredibly, Addington and ilk in the background). Three, Condi Rice, frankly and with all due respect, seems still to be facing a tremendously steep learning curve in the Middle East, and not performing at the level the major crisis management required there begs. Oh, and of course, Bush is still President (so we must continue to wince and suffer through painful press conferences as he wades through his foreign policy talking points with nary a clue what he's really speaking of, while shuddering too to think the risks of war with Iran, even if relatively low all told, are made higher by his continued presence in the Oval Office, Gang of Three or no Gang of Three).

Now, this being a blog post and a certain level of histrionics and shrillness thereby all but pre-ordained, perhaps I'm being unfair. Dan Drezner has pointed to some sober 'grand strategy' accomplished by this Administration in Foreign Affairs recently that has gone mostly unheralded (though I have issues with his thesis, of which more soon, I hope). And we've seen no hugely incendiary missteps yet on Iran, an attempt (if rather tepid) to get Israeli-Palestinian talks back from comatose to something more, and, of course, the North Korean deal.

But then, on the other hand, we see how the Iraq Study Group's recommendations on talking to Iran and Syria were ingloriously mostly cast overboard (save the odd regional conference where we've co-participated with vivid unenthusiasm), and we see the hysteria surrounding Nancy Pelosi's visit to Damascus, among so much more maximalist circa '03 'axis of evil' absolutism. There are also little matters, of course, that languish still painfully unremediated, even at this late juncture (with 'legal lickspittles' like Gonzalez still in power, Andrew Sullivan's memorable phrase, how can we be surprised?), like the junking of habeas, Guantanamo, CIA authorized torture, and other grievances we civil liberties types wail on about like pansies from the sidelines, while the real men go out and extract confessions, you know, to save us from Aussie post-adolescents gallivanting about Kandahar, the bettter so we can sleep soundly at night here in the Homeland.

But I digress. Bottom line readers, do you think the Gang of Three, "alien graft" that is is, will "nevertheless [start] taking over the body", or will the team of bovine Bush and crudely pugnacious Cheney still manage to scuttle real corrective action with just over 20 months on the clock?

P.S. This apart, my favorite part of the article was this delicious quote from Strobe Talbott, re: John Bolton's carping from the Green Room circuit these last weeks on the NoKo deal:

The North Korea nuclear deal enraged former Bush officials such as John Bolton, who stepped down as US ambassador to the United Nations in December and who described it as a “very bad deal . . . that makes the administration look weak when it needs to look strong”. Former neo-conservative supporters of Mr Bush were equally scathing – a good barometer of how much the ground has shifted. “John Bolton’s attacks on the deal were worth 10 endorsements,” said Strobe Talbott, head of the Brookings Institution and a former deputy secretary of state. “His boos and hisses earned all the more applause for what was a remarkable feat that Christopher Hill [the chief negotiator in the talks] pulled off with Secretary Rice’s support.” [my emphasis]

Heh, as they say. Like Atrios, in this brave new world of (wondrously oblivious) imbeciles like Glenn Beck holding court on prime time "news" channels, I often wonder why this or that personage is "on my teevee". Of late, I'll typically switch the channel when Bolton comes on, not least as I consider it bad form to diss on your former colleagues just weeks after you were ostensibly serving alongside them. But "class" is a rare commodity these days down in DC, not least among our 17th Street grandees busy cheaply defecating on those who need to navigate in the real world (like Chris Hill), rather than pursue absolutist agendas from their cocooned, provincial enclaves in Chevy Chase, Bethesda and NW Washington, spouting on about if 'we only had the resolve', all would be well, with bombs away in Iran and Saudi and Korea and such. An increasingly fatiguing, and boorish, spectacle, isn't it? And yes, my (very reluctant) support of neo-primitive Bolton back in the day was another error on B.D's part, and I accept I should be tarred and feathered for it. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

P.P.S. I should add, given the first sentence of the FT piece about the conventional wisdom being that no one has left the Bush administration with their reputation higher than when they joined it, that I really do hope people like Paulson, Chief of Staff Josh Bolten (another Goldman alum), and Bob Gates can leave with their reputations enhanced rather than diminished. It's in all of our interests that they be able to do so. This depends again, however, on how strong the remedial action they can accomplish. On that, I'm afraid, the jury is still well out...but I certainly wish them all the luck and good will in the world.


Posted by Gregory at 03:25 PM | Comments (17)

Site Issues

Just after getting back to blogging a bit in this space, the site crashed today, and the latest post (a somewhat skeptical take on this FT article) was gobbled up. If anyone, per slim chance, has a copy--please do send on and I'll re-post. If not, unless the site engineer can chase it down, I guess it's lost in the ether...apologies also to the commenters (yes, even the nasty ones) whose comments were lost on that and a couple other posts. It appears everything new appearing on this site over an 18 or so hour period simply vanished....

UPDATE: A couple of kind readers were able to track down (via the miracle of RSS readers, I guess) a missing post or two, and I'm told by the site engineer that posting and comments are now fully functional again. In short, all systems go.

Posted by Gregory at 02:03 AM | Comments (0)

April 04, 2007

The Kingdom's Increasing 'Go It Alone' Posture

Why are the Saudis increasingly going it alone, whether convening the Palestinian factions in Mecca, meeting with Ahmadinejad, condemning the American occupation of Iraq at the Arab League summit rather vehemently ("illegal"), or more trivial perhaps (though not without symbolic subtext), cancelling state dinners in D.C? Doubtless many factors, to include that they're underwhelmed by Condi Rice's 'C' level shuttling (in fairness to her, she's been dealt an even tougher hand than usual, given how incredibly weak each of Olmert and Abbas are, but still...), never bought into the crudely naive grand 're-alignment' strategy (Sunnis of the World Unite, Under U.S. Tutelage, as we Face Down Together the Shi'a Threat from Teheran!), or continue to be worried by the implosion in Iraq, surge or no surge, to include the continued rise to power of Shi'a groupings there. Rachel Bronson explains the root cause, however:

...a faltering global partner unable to help Saudi Arabia secure its regional interests--the United States. Whether it was fighting communism together during the cold war or keeping oil prices stable (especially after the dramatic rises and collapses of prices in the 1970s and 1980s), Riyadh and Washington have long been able to overcome differences on Palestine to secure other mutually beneficial political ends. Today, Saudi Arabia looks across a conflict-prone region spiraling ever faster into chaos and sees that the United States has sometimes hastened, rather than stanched, the bleeding in places like Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq. With the United States regionally hamstrung and President Bush domestically neutered, Abdullah has clearly decided to take matters into his own hands...

...Today, Iran is successfully entrenching its influence across the region. It is slowly encircling the kingdom, filling the vacuum created by American missteps. In Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine, Iran's influence grows ever larger with each passing day. In Palestine, U.S. and European cessation of aid to the Palestinian Authority after Hamas joined the government gave Iran the freedom to step in and offer its own aid package, one that quickly attracted Hamas's attention. This is why Abdullah brokered the Mecca Accord between Hamas and Fatah. It was done to dangle before the parties an aid package far in excess of what Iran could offer.

American missteps in the Middle East have been so large, and our credibility in the region is at such a low ebb (though Bob Gates will help some at the Pentagon), that the Saudis have been forced (faute de mieux) to take a more pro-active stance and free-lance more without necessarily coordinating all their moves with Washington. If Iraq worsens and there are no break-throughs on the Israeli-Palestinian front (both likely events), look for this trend of increasing Saudi independence to intensify, as they see too many of their vital interests at risk, and a U.S partner they have less and less confidence in.

Oh, and that cancelled state dinner? Bronson, again:

The Saudis have clearly decided that, in order to do what they must regionally, they need to portray distance from the United States. The king sees little value in being viewed as the Tony Blair of the Middle East, which would hinder his attempt to build the regional will to confront Iran and push through his peace plan (which, he believes, will also reduce sympathy for Iran). It is certainly a gamble--Arab unity has not brought significant benefits for leaders who invested heavily to achieve it. And the current Saudi moves are no pleasure for Washington to watch. But, given its own precarious position in the region, being a spectator for this round may, for Washington, have its own advantages.

I don't think we're quite at spectator status yet, with battle carriers in the Gulf and 150,000 plus men in Iraq. But certainly regional parties are more often taking matters into their own hands (look for this trend with Turkey too), underwhelmed and increasingly concerned by the growing weight of accumulating U.S. blunders in the region this past half decade.

Posted by Gregory at 12:26 PM | Comments (7)

Reader Poll

Bob Novak:

With nearly two years remaining in his presidency, George W. Bush is alone. In half a century, I have not seen a president so isolated from his own party in Congress -- not Jimmy Carter, not even Richard Nixon as he faced impeachment.

When will the 30%-35% crack, with even the strongest minded Bush devotees increasingly peeling away from Ye Great Leader, so that Bush enters the Nixonian nadir of the middling to high 20s: A) the surge falls flat, with American forces again facing a widespread Shi'a uprising in coming months, too few troops leading to whack-a-mole in Diyala, Ninawa, and Salah ad Din, not to mention still in Baghdad and Anbar, the Maliki government continues to (mostly) flounder, and Turkish-Kurdish tensions deepen; B) the sub-prime mess spreads deeper into the housing sector, with attendant effects on the wider market; C) prices at the pump rise above $2.85-$3 through the summer; D) the Gonzalez taint spreads further to Rove and other inner-core, key kitchen-cabinet lieutenants, E) Cheney prevails on The Man to pre-emptively strike Iran, precipitating a series of cascading international disasters; or F) a massive attack rocks the Green Zone, resulting in scores or even hundreds of American and coalition deaths? Call me pessimistic, but some combination of the above is where I fear this Presidency is heading. And, yes, I hope I'm wrong, for the good of the country, if nothing else. Worth noting too, things are seldom quite as bad (or good) as we tend to think, but typically balance out, on the whole, so as to avert the worst disasters. Here's hoping, as I said. Are readers less pessimistic?

Posted by Gregory at 04:51 AM | Comments (11)

Damascene Comedy

Bush, today:

We have made it clear to high-ranking officials, whether they be Republicans or Democrats, that going to Syria sends mixed signals, signals in the region and, of course, mixed signals to President Assad.

And by that I mean, you know, photo opportunities and/or meetings with President Assad lead the Assad government to believe they're part of the mainstream of the international community, when, in fact, they're a state sponsor of terror; when, in fact, they're helping expedite, or at least not stopping, the movement of foreign fighters from Syria into Iraq; when, in fact, they have done little to nothing to rein in militant Hamas and Hezbollah; and when, in fact, they destabilize the Lebanese democracy.

There have been a lot of people who have gone to see President Assad: some Americans, but a lot of European leaders, high- ranking officials. And yet we haven't seen action. In other words, he hasn't responded.

It's one thing to send a message. It's another thing to have the person receiving the message actually do something.

So the position of this administration is that the best way to meet with a leader like Assad or people from Syria is in the larger context of trying to get the global community to help change his behavior.

But sending delegations hasn't worked. It's just simply been counterproductive.

Haaretz:

Israel's political and military leadership has been preparing in recent weeks for the possibility of a Syrian attack on the Golan Heights that will start as a result of a "miscalculation" on the part of the Syrians, who may assume that Israel intends to attack them.

Israel, however, has delivered a calming message, and has no plans to attack its northern neighbor.

According to information Israel received, the Syrians are concerned that the United States will carry out an attack against Iran's nuclear installations in the summer, and in parallel Israel would strike Syria and Lebanon.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who visited IDF forces in the North last week, heard an intelligence assessment and was informed of the dangers of a Syrian "miscalculation."

Following his visit to the forces in the field, a decision was made to publicly address the concerns of a possible deterioration with the Syrians, and to send a message that Israel has no intention of attacking Syria, nor is there any coordinated plan with the U.S. for a joint attack against Iran.

The speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, is scheduled to meet with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus today, and will deliver a message of calm from Israel.

"We hope the message will be understood," political sources in Israel said yesterday. "The question is whether Assad is looking for an excuse ... so that he can carry out an attack against Israel in the summer, or whether this is a mistaken assessment." [my emphasis throughout]

So let me get this straight. Bush remonstrates dastardly Nancy for her passage through Damascus, at the very time the Israelis are reportedly using her to pass a message to Bashar Assad to help avoid a possible conflagration with the Syrians. Soon, Bush will be telling Bibi Netanyahu or Avigdor Lieberman they're wimps, and to hang Crawford tough against the 'Palis' or such. This is all so pitiable, isn't it? How many more months left of this bungling amateurism and fake machismo do we have left? 22, is it? Sigh. I suspect a Kissinger or Baker would have gotten Damascus to make the Iraqi-Syrian border less porous years ago now--probably in one meeting that would have run 6 or so hours. And this without giving up the store on the Hariri investigation...

P.S. Can someone translate this confused, uneven rhetoric into plain English: "So the position of this administration is that the best way to meet with a leader like Assad or people from Syria is in the larger context of trying to get the global community to help change his behavior"? Really, what exactly does this mean, pray tell?

Posted by Gregory at 03:48 AM | Comments (37)

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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