August 30, 2007

The Problem With Fredos

"I often remind our fellow citizens that we live in the greatest country in the world and that I have lived the American dream. Even my worst days as attorney general have been better than my father's best days."

--from Alberto Gonzales' resignation statement.

Even a determined Gonzales-hater might find this statement somehow poignant, given his family's hardscrabble background. But what Mr. Gonzales evidently fails to understand is that he has diminished our collective American dream, alas. He diminished it by dismissing the Geneva Conventions as "quaint", by allowing a horrific torture policy to take root, by his banana-republic like late night visits to John Ashcroft's hospital room, by ignoring Congressional subpoenas, by authorizing illegal wiretapping programs, by firing qualified United States attorneys in an apparent putsch, and on and on.

Still, I will confess to a measure of sympathy for the man. Much like Harriet Miers, he was so supremely underqualified for his position, so spectacularly beyond his depth, that he should never have been put in such a difficult position. Instead Bush's bovine obsessiveness with loyalty--basic competence be damned--has focused the brutal kleig-lights of international opprobrium on old friends like Harriet and Alberto. Like Brownie, say, they will become key examples in the history books of the rampant cronyism and incompetence of this Adminstration.

Their legacy thus sealed, one wonders, is Bush even cognizant of how he's effectively besmirched his friends by trying to elevate them to realms they should have never occupied to begin with? I suspect not, as the President's capacity for self-criticism appears somewhere between minute and non-existent. Instead, he's doubtless bitterly nursing his grudges, rankled that Senators like Arlen Specter and Pat Leahy and Chuck Schumer dared to challenge an Attorney General whose sycophancy to the President was so complete as to render the Department of Justice a totally discredited arm of Government, one where Administration lawyers dutifully genuflected before David Addington and John Yoo's youthful exuberances.

In the end, I suspect Gonzales simply couldn't tolerate the punishing mortification anymore, the spectacle of his gross incompetence playing out so harshly on the national stage. And so he finally summoned up the courage to confront the President, that one time, if only to try and salvage whatever crumbs of dignity he had left, likely pleading with Bush to set him loose. Put differently, his only act of rebellion came at the very end, not on the important issues of the day that so badly sullied our democracy and highest traditions, but because Gonzales could no longer abide a crushing humiliation that had by then become total.

Ironically evincing a smigden of backbone only in a bid to persuade Bush to allow him to move off stage to spare himself further misery, this belated act of banal self-preservation sadly came far too late. By then our collective American dream had been badly tarnished. Still, if it is part of the price of him leaving, let us allow him to fancifully imagine he is still somehow living his. All told, it's a small price to pay as we begin to clear out the rot left in the wake of this baleful Administration.

Posted by Gregory at 08:42 PM | Comments (27)

More Poor Policy: Special Designation of Revolutionary Guards

Regular readers of Belgravia Dispatch likely sensed my dismay when the Administration floated that Iran's Revolutionary Guards were likely going to be declared a foreign terrorist organization. (Actually, a "specially designated global terrorist", seemingly something of a sui generis category born of breezy 'transformationalist diplomacy' that apparently allows the largest branch of a sovereign state's army to be designated a foreign terrorist group. And, yes, in case you're wondering, this doesn't really logically fit into this more established listing of foreign terrorist organizations, which I guess is "quaint" now).

Beyond the sloppiness, however, the policy itself is unlikely to have any material financial impact on the Guards, but will very likely help dash any meaningful chance of fruitful diplomatic dialogue with the Iranians on issues like the nuclear dossier. As Ray Takeyh explains in yesterday's FT:

...the US has no trade linkages to Iran that it can sever, and European companies are unlikely to adhere to yet another set of American sanctions. Moreover, given the murky and ambiguous nature of the Revolutionary Guards' business enterprises, it is difficult to suggest in a conclusive manner whether a company is really operating on their behalf. As such, the type of information and intelligence that is needed for targeted sanctionsis unlikely to be available.

While the economic ramifications of the new policy will probably be in-adequate, its political impact is likely to be considerable. Past and present Guardsmen permeate Iran's security network. The staff of Ali Larijani, Iran's national security adviser and chief nuclear negotiator, is composed mostly of Revolutionary Guards. Iran's policy toward Iraq and Afghanistan is also under the purview of the Guards.

Despite their attempts to arm and train Iraqi Shia militias and advance Iran's nuclear programme, the Guards have not opposed negotiations with the US. Indeed, it would be inconceivable for talks on the nuclear issue or Iraq to have proceeded without the Guards' approbation. The administration's attempt to coerce and put pressure on this organisation is likely to trigger its antagonism towards further dealings with the US.

So we merrily continue to go down a road where conflict with Iran increasingly looks to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is hugely troublesome, not least because--as Anthony Cordesman has pointed out--the repercussions of such a conflict could be disastrous. Cordesman describes potential Iranian retaliation (with some tweaks for context/language) to include:

1) Iranian retaliation against US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan using Shahab-3 missiles armed with CBR warheads; 2) using proxy groups including...Sadr in Iraq to intensify the insurgency and escalate the attacks against US forces and Iraqi Security Forces; 3) turning the Shi’ite majority in Iraq against the US presence and demanding US forces leave; 4) attacking the US homeland with suicide bombs by proxy groups or delivering CBR weapons to al-Qa’ida to use against the US; 5) using its asymmetric capabilities to attacks US interests in the region including soft targets: e.g. embassies, commercial centers, and American citizens; 6) attacking US naval forces stationed in the Gulf with anti-ship missiles, asymmetric warfare, and mines; 7) attacking Israel with missile attacks possibly with CBR warheads; 8) retaliating against energy targets in the Gulf and temporarily shutting off the flow of oil from the Strait of Hormuz; and 9) stopping all of its oil and gas shipments to increase the price of oil, inflicting damage on the global and US economies.

And yet, as Glenn Greenwald notes well, no one really seems particularly alarmed about such a prospective debacle. What to say? I mean, whether on civil liberties issues (as Hilzoy describes to devastating effect here), or on the foreign policy side of things (we all know we're 'surging' now through March '08, don't we, whatever September festivities aside, as this report indicates strongly?), one feels compelled to ask, where is the effective opposition?

I know, I know. Larry Craig has wandering toes, and we're busily chronicling the travails of the blow-dried, bow-tied vigilante class roaming malls off "M" Street. But really, and speaking of "grit" as we've been doing here these past days, what about the abysmal meekness and unseriousness we are manifesting as a nation in refusing to attentively broach any number of issues of critical import to the future direction of this country?

Posted by Gregory at 06:20 PM | Comments (9)

August 29, 2007

Bush's Apocalyptic Rhetoric

In President Bush's recent speech to the American Legion he continues to ratchet up the war of words with Iran, notably speaking of the region potentially being under "the shadow of a nuclear holocaust" because of Iran's nuclear program. I find this rhetoric very incendiary, very uneven, very dangerous. Of course, we expect this from the disgraced ideologues surrounding Vice-President Cheney. But I hope people like Bob Gates and Steve Hadley and Josh Bolten have the courage to speak truth to power so that the United States government pursues a policy short of war vis-a-vis Iran. After all, their reputations are on the line if they let this President blunder into a catastrophic conflict with Iran. These are dangerous times, and there are very few individuals tasked with protecting the national interest at the highest levels of government. Here's hoping historical perspective and tempered reason will ultimately prevail among them. The stakes are very high, and we have rarely in our history had an Administration as reckless as this one charged with the public trust. It is time for some of our most senior public servants to finally summon the courage to face down the seeming propulsion to messianism passing as policy-making that has infected this Administration.

Posted by Gregory at 07:35 PM | Comments (33)

August 28, 2007

"We Can't Want It For Them More Then They Want It For Themselves"

Don't miss the plaintive "Please bring my husband home. Please bring our brave troops home. We're tired". Outside of cloistered mondo think-tank, there is real anger in the land. Anger which is driving the Republican Party off a cliff. And to think some want to expand the theater to Syria and Iran. Folly.

Posted by Gregory at 09:19 PM | Comments (11)

Syria Hysteria

Joe Lieberman recently wrote in the pages of the (pre-Murdoch!) WSJ:

...the Damascus airport is the point of entry into Iraq for most of the suicide bombers who are killing innocent Iraqi citizens and American soldiers, and trying to break America's will in this war. It is therefore time to demand that the Syrian regime stop playing travel agent for al Qaeda in Iraq. When Congress reconvenes next month, we should set aside whatever differences divide us on Iraq and send a clear and unambiguous message to the Syrian regime, as we did last month to the Iranian regime, that the transit of al Qaeda suicide bombers through Syria on their way to Iraq is completely unacceptable, and it must stop.

We in the U.S. government should also begin developing a range of options to consider taking against Damascus International, unless the Syrian government takes appropriate action, and soon. Responsible air carriers should be asked to stop flights into Damascus International, as long as it remains the main terminal of international terror. Despite its use by al Qaeda and Hezbollah terrorists, the airport continues to be serviced by many major non-U.S. carriers, including Alitalia, Air France, and British Airways. Interrupting the flow of foreign fighters would mean countless fewer suicide bombings in Iraq, and countless fewer innocent people murdered by the barbaric enemy we are fighting there.

At a time when the al Qaeda network in Iraq is already under heavy stress thanks to American and Iraqi military operations, closing off the supply line through which al Qaeda in Iraq is armed with its most deadly weapons--suicide bombers--would be devastating to the terrorists' cause. Simply put, for the U.S. and our Iraqi allies, defeating al Qaeda in Iraq means locking shut Syria's "Open Door" policy to terrorists. It is past time for Syria to do so.

Where to begin? Perhaps the recently published NIE, which states:

Syria has cracked down on some Sunni extremist groups attempting to infiltrate fighters into Iraq through Syria because of threats they pose to Syrian stability, but the IC now assesses that Damascus is providing support to non-AQI groups inside Iraq in a bid to increase Syrian influence.

Well of course the Syrians, like the Saudis, Jordanians, Turks, Iranians, and indeed all of Iraq's neighbors, are going to provide support to Iraqi factions they deem friendly to them. But note the NIE, the most authoritative judgment on national security issues produced by the Government, states explicitly that Syria has "cracked down" on Sunni extremists, and is providing support to non-al Qaeda groups.

But what is most fascinating about Lieberman's zealotry is its sheer ignorance, how devoid of any historical context it is. Does he remember Tom Friedman's "Hama Rules", born of the Hama Massacre? Hafez Assad brutally put down a domestic rebellion of the Muslim Brotherhood back in 1982, as the Alawite ruling elite feared the growth of Sunni extremism in their midst. Indeed, the Alawites in Damascus are not fans of Islamic extremists, because said extremists view the Alawites as heretics. So the notion that Bashar Assad plays "travel agent" to al-Qaeda is just laughable. And regardless, if Damascus International were really the Grand Central Station of al-Qaeda for the entire Middle East, per Lieberman's hysterical accounting, the 'blowback' would likely ultimately prove severe, and Assad's regime could well be toppled (in this Lieberman and al-Qaeda may have common cause).

Now, Lieberman is not alone in making these wild claims. We have Michael Gerson waxing rhapsodic about "Syria's Ho Chi Minh Trail of terrorists" and "lower-hanging fruit" (to which George Will recently quipped: "In the other faction, there still are those so impervious to experience that they continue to refer to Syria as "lower-hanging fruit." Such metaphors bewitch minds. Low-hanging fruit is plucked, then eaten. What does one nation do when it plucks another? In Iraq, America is in its fifth year of learning the answer.")

And how can one forget our favorite Rudyard Kipling-lite, Max Boot, who writes in Commentary's blog (deliciously named "Contentions") a post entitled (you guessed it!): "Low-Hanging Fruit", riffing on Gerson's piece in très excité fashion: "One possible idea: Hold Damascus International Airport—the entry point into Iraq for countless Arab radicals from countries such as Saudi Arabia and Algeria—hostage. We could announce that we will use our airpower to shut down the entire facility, Syria’s only international airport, until Bashar Assad cuts off the influx of terrorists into Iraq. This would be a relatively low-risk option from the American viewpoint, but it would impose considerable pain on Syria."

A peachy idea! Save that using airpower against a sovereign nation's airport is an act of war, you know. But, little matter. Gerson, Boot and Lieberman are very, very serious individuals. Much more serious, say, than the members of the Iraq Study Group, people like Larry Eagleburger, Vern Jordan, Ed Meese, Sandra Day O'Connor, Leon Panetta, Bill Perry, Chuck Robb, Alan Simpson, and of course, co-chairs James Baker and Lee Hamilton--all of whom counseled high-level dialogue with Damascus. Why? Because people who've been around the block and understand how the real world works know that when you're bogged down in a massive mess (read: Iraq), you seek to dialogue rationally with neighbors to help put the fire out, not scream for more adventures like shrill hysterics.

Ultimately, this is why it's much more alarming to see a sitting Senator displaying such a dangerous combination of ignorance and adventurism--as compared with assorted think-tankers screeching from the side-lines, to which we've become drearily accustomed. What happened to the Senator from Connecticut, one wonders, who in decades past seemed a reasonable man? Increasingly, one has little choice but to see Joe Lieberman, as Joe Klein put it so well, simply as an "American embarrassment".

Posted by Gregory at 03:49 AM | Comments (21)

August 27, 2007

Maliki Emotes

''There are American officials who consider Iraq as if it were one of their villages, for example Hillary Clinton and Carl Levin. They should come to their senses."

--Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, speaking today.

Oh my. When Haley Barbour and Hillary Clinton are singing from the same song-sheet, one cannot help but grow ever more concerned the Washington-Baghdad honeymoon is coming to an inglorious end (by Baghdad, I mean the Iraqi leaders cloistered in the Green Zone, of course). Why, soon we might be treating Maliki's 'freely elected' Government like others in the region that have come to power of late via the ballot-box, but were deemed undesirable and shunned (though not just yet, as the President recently declared Maliki a "good guy", a moniker not quite as affectionate as 'Turd Blossom', but still...)

Meantime, more from Maliki:

"Concerning American raids on Shula and Sadr City, there were big mistakes committed in these operations. The terrorist himself should be targeted not his family."

The Shi'a of Iraq increasingly view us, no longer as liberators, but as occupiers. Yes, there was brief euphoria among many Shi'a after Saddam was toppled, given the parade of horribles the savage dictator had visited on them for decades. This good will mostly evaporated, however, amidst the fiasco of the Rumsfeldian "stuff happens" chapter, as the anarchic chaos unleashed left millions of Iraqis fearing desperately for their security ("freedom is messy"!).

Now, fast forward a couple more years, as we try to hold Shi'a 'crude majoritarianism' at bay, and increasingly cozy up with Sunni tribal elements. We can guess how this is going to end, can't we? Matters are almost certain to get much nastier between U.S. forces and the majority Shi'a of Iraq. And that, putting it gently, can't be good news for the U.S. I mean, just ask the IDF how it felt patrolling Gaza back in the day? They were hated, and the occupied wished for one thing and one thing only: for the occupier to leave. The same will increasingly apply to U.S. GI's in places like Sadr City, as it has already to the British in Basra.

The Iraq project, alas, looks increasingly unsalvageable, whatever short-term, localized security improvements arguably achieved by the much ballyhooed 'surge'. We've unleashed historical forces beyond our control, and of which we know little, ultimately. The national security team at the helm is mediocre, at best (though Steve Clemons has been more optimistic on this score, at least on occasion). We're been unable to adopt a serious regional approach a la Baker-Hamilton, and within Iraq, we are floundering trying to balance myriad Iraqi factions on the political side, who have little appetite to drop their maximalist demands at this (relatively early, at least vis-a-vis Iraq time) juncture. In my view, therefore, it is time to draw-down our involvement in this terribly costly adventure, flawed from its very conception by the false WMD pretenses, executed in criminally negligent fashion and with course corrections coming far too late, with some of them regardless of dubious merit (for instance, arming all-Sunni militias).

Yes, it is time to start coming home, not in a wild panic, but with purposeful deliberativeness. After all, we have other tools in our quiver, apart from bleeding American lives in seeming perpetuity in Iraq, to prevent a full-scale genocide there, or the emergence of a significant al-Qaeda sanctuary, or the regionalization of the conflict. Indeed, cogent arguments can me made that having troops 'over the horizon' or located near the borders might act as better prophylactic to prevent the conflict spreading to neighboring countries, while still affording requisite forces in the neighborhood to pressure al-Qaeda as necessary (indeed, freeing up some forces for Afghanistan). As for preventing a genocide, we've done rather shabbily protecting innocent Iraqi life to date, and it is very likely that population transfers born of 'ethnic cleansing' fears will continue to take place whether we stay or leave. For instance, the rate of internally displaced hasn't slowed since the surge began, indeed reports indicate the contrary. These movements are occuring because Iraqis feel compelled to flee towards areas controlled by sectarian kin. They know, sooner or later, that we will leave, and so are planning for that day. It is high time we start doing the same.

Posted by Gregory at 01:18 AM | Comments (14)

August 26, 2007

In-House News

Did I mention I'm guest-blogging over at Andrew Sullivan's this week? Catch new content, as ever, evenings/weekends, and note I'll doubtless cross-post here on occasion too.

Posted by Gregory at 05:31 PM

August 24, 2007

What's Really "Inexcusable" Here?

I decided to read O'Hanlon & Pollack's full trip report to see if it provided more nuance, as they say, than the (now infamous) op-ed. Beyond being disappointed, I was frankly stunned by the report. Let me point out a few howlers. First, a couple quotes so risible they read like parody:

Ramadi is, to be sure, a badly damaged city. There has been hard fighting there for years, culminating in a major defeat for al-Qa’ida this March. But even in its bleakness, there were important signs of progress. For instance, the devastation requires legions of cleanup workers that American troops (though not yet the Iraqi government) have been able to hire and pay.


Successful U.S. tactics have gone well beyond classic military measures. For example, coalition forces are now trying to remove nitric acid and urea from stores, since these are the ingredients for homemade explosives. As a result, when many car and truck bombs are detonated these days, they are often less powerful than before, further helping to explain the reduction in casualties (which appears to amount to roughly a one-third decline in the monthly rate since just before the surge began—meaning that while Iraq remains very violent, trends are clearly in the right direction at the moment).

I'm sorry, but when progress is being highlighted by showcasing the existence of large-scale clean-up crews to tidy up the devastation (and, mind you, crews the central government refuses to pay, as they employ Sunnis, so it's on Uncle Sam's dime!), or needing to rush about local stores to get the nitric acid off the shelves so the bombings aren't as gory (alas, this didn't help the Yezidis much), boy, you're really scraping the barrel I'm afraid.

But it gets worse, if you can believe it. In one passage (hold on to your seats), the duo actually chastise the Pentagon for not highlighting the good news enough:

The Pentagon has done a poor job to date of explaining our progress in its major documents. For example, its latest Quarterly Report to Congress on the war, released June 15, stated that civilian fatalities for the spring had not declined at all relative to the winter. That was probably inaccurate even at the time, according to DoD data we saw in Iraq, and in any event the situation this late spring/summer has improved substantially. Overall levels of violence against civilians in Iraq have declined by about one-third relative to their pre-surge winter levels. This is not nearly enough progress of course. It means Iraq is still witnessing perhaps 2,000 deaths a month from all forms of violence, comparable to the levels of 2004 and 2005 before the civil war really heated up. But things are finally headed in the right direction, to be sure. Nevertheless, the inability of the Pentagon (and the rest of the U.S. government) to disseminate relevant—and realistic—information to the American people is both part of the reason that the Bush Administration has lost credibility with the American people, and why so few Americans are even aware of the modest but important progress being made in Iraq, especially in the security sector. In a democracy, in the information age, this failing is inexcusable.

After all the Administration spin, distortions and, yes, lies, of the past half-decade, Pollack and O'Hanlon are upset the Government isn't better highlighting "modest but important progress", calling this shortcoming "inexcusable". Talk about a whopper! How about instead, Michael and Kenneth, greater doses of skepticism, such as Tony Cordesman's finding that the surge would have failed if it were not for the 'luck' of the Sunni tribal so-called 'awakening', and that sectarian killings continue apace, with rates of internally displaced actually increasing?

There's much more. Pollack and O'Hanlon, in a fit of Beltway-speak banality, allow: "Success is not guaranteed, and some measure of failure is still possible if not likely." First, of course success isn't guaranteed, second, to say failure is unlikely at this vantage point shows that Pollack and O'Hanlon are veering deeply into unreality. Success is still extremely low on the probability curve, I'm afraid, however judiciously defined, this type of airily aspirational gibberish aside. But O'Hanlon and Pollack insist on hammering away with such claptrap. Elsewhere, they write: "(h)owever, we caution that the U.S. is not yet irrevocably headed for success in Iraq, so the Administration and Congress should remain vigilant." The Administration should remain vigilant? Gee, you think? After the thousands dead and billions squandered the Administration, say, shouldn't just punt to a third-tier war tsar and hope for the best? You don't say....

More substantively, there are other significant issues with their trip report. Most alarmingly, and without even a Michael Gordon-like stab at sourcing, Pollack and O'Hanlon write:

There are other new tactics associated with the surge as well. As one case in point, we are now controlling more access points into Baghdad from the southeast. Doing so complicates Iran’s ability to supply al-Qa’ida as well as Shi’i militia forces with sophisticated deadly weaponry such as explosively formed penetrator devices. [emphasis added]

OK, well let's posit that Iran is helping procure EFPs for JAM and other renegade Shi'a militias. But al-Qaeda too? One can certainly be less than naive, and assume the Iranians are hedging their bets and occasionally assisting radical Sunni elements in Iraq too, but A) this hasn't been conclusively established, at least as far as I'm aware and B) even if assistance by Iran to Sunni radicals operating in Iraq is firmly established beyond a reasonable doubt, Pollack and O'Hanlon display an alarming tendency to conflate varied Sunni radicals under the al-Qaeda banner, in very Joe Lieberman-esque fashion, shall we say.

In addition, Pollack and O'Hanlon's contention run contra the NIE, which states:

Over the next year Tehran, concerned about a Sunni reemergence in Iraq and US efforts to limit Iranian influence, will continue to provide funding, weaponry, and training to Iraqi Shia militants. Iran has been intensifying aspects of its lethal support for select groups of Iraqi Shia militants, particularly the JAM, since at least the beginning of 2006.

The NIE finds the Iranians "concerned about a Sunni reemergence in Iraq" and thus arming and funding Shi'a bad actors, while Pollack and O'Hanlon, without deigning to source or otherwise buttress their contention, breezily let fly that Iran has supplied al-Qaeda with EFPs. If there are rumblings of discontent with the (too cozy) foreign policy fraternity, this type of casual group-think, given the real risks this disgraced Administration will stumble to war with Iran with catastrophic consequences, might be a leading Exhibit A.

Beyond this, Pollack and O'Hanlon display other egregious errors of basic judgment. Despondent about the lack of progress at the national level regarding reconciliation, they declare:

Consequently, it is a mistake for the United States to be focusing its main efforts and resources on the national government in Baghdad. It is badly deadlocked and the U.S. strategy should be to try to minimize the central government’s influence and meddling throughout the country. The U.S. government must make a maximal effort to push resources and authority out or away from the central government in Baghdad and out to provincial and local level governments where smart, flexible American military and civilian personnel are generally able to identify competent Iraqi partners and fashion specific responses to local needs.

The fatal flaw in this prescription is blindingly clear, as well as the reason Pollack and O'Hanlon make such a clumsy error. Regarding the latter, they were taken around on an 8-day dog and pony show, and so became overly credulous that progress in places like Ramadi and Mosul (which they are more bullish about than I) can be replicated throughout the country. Regarding the former, if "maximal effort(s) to push resources and authority out...from the central government" are made in Basra, say, or Najaf, or Karbala (where Shi'a militias predominate), or parts of Anbar (Haditha, say) or Baqubah or Ninawa or the southern 'belts' of Baghdad (still quite infiltrated by al-Qaeda and other assorted Sunni radical groups) , this will not lead to a spirited 'bottom-up' process of greater Iraqi cohesiveness, but rather greater atomization, local militiazation, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, town-by-town, region-by-region protection rackets--a Hobbesian hell of competing sub-factional and sub-ethnic rivalries, beyond the larger engulfing Sunni-Shi'a tension-- playing out throughout the country.

Pollack and O'Hanlon compound this flawed reasoning in their report, taking the example of the police. They write:

One solution increasingly being embraced across central, northern, and western Iraq is to try to stand up local police forces (called Iraqi Police, IPs) instead of relying on the NPs [national police]. In many sectors, this has been a very effective solution because the IPs are made up of people from the town or neighborhood, who know the people and the streets and are committed to working with the Americans and the Iraqi Army to provide security for their people.

This approach is akin, say before the Bosnia war broke out in earnest, to having U.S. military forces arm Fikrit Abdic's forces near Velika Kladusha, mujaheedin-affiliated Bosniaks operating near Zenica, Izetbegovic's main-line Bosniak forces in Sarajevo, Bosnian Serbs in Banja Luka under Karadzic, Mladic affiliated JNA operating near the border with Serbia proper, as well as Hercegovinian Croats in West Mostar, to then say, OK boys, have at it! It is a recipe for a massive debacle, likely well worse than if we gradually re-deploy and let the Iraqis (however painful the process may prove) sort through their power-sharing modalities, as at least then we'll not have pumped additional armaments and training into the local mix, and can instead focus on ensuring less regional meddling by better concentrating on border areas and/or comprehensive diplomatic efforts.

Pollack and O'Hanlon write:

Finally, the utter stagnation of the “top-down” political process is made more obvious and more inexcusable by the relative progress being made from the “bottom-up” security and local economic/political processes.

"Inexcusable" is a word they toss around a few times in their report, whether because the US Government hasn't deigned to propagandize effectively enough for them, or because the USG isn't pursuing a 'bottom-up' strategy, and so on. But what is really "inexcusable" is that soi disant serious think-tankers would return from a Potemkin exercise through 'Awakened' Anbar and set-piece portions of Baghdad, to then splashily announce in the pages of the New York Times that victory may well be nigh, if only our men keep dying in a simmering civil war that is not related to protecting the American homeland in any material way, and then slapping together a trip report full of flawed recommendations, unproven contentions that could prove to have tremendously dangerous ramifications (war with Iran, say), and other such haberdashery. That's inexcusable, all right.

P.S. Don't miss this revealing part of the report either: "Over the long term, the United States must be looking to draw down its force levels in Iraq overall—probably to 100,000 or fewer troops--by about 2010/2011." I don't know about you, but do you think it's a reasonable use of the American armed forces to have 100,000 of our men still in Mesopotamia 4-5 years from now?

Posted by Gregory at 07:24 PM | Comments (45)

August 23, 2007

Self-Awareness Watch

Yglesias writes:

"I'm afraid a bloggerish tendency toward sarcasm, in-group lingo and a proclivity to write in haste and a degree of anger got the better of me here."

Can we agree this serves well as an excellent general disclaimer, of sorts, one if I had the technical know-how I'd place prominently under the B.D. masthead, or something, by way of fair warning to readers who stumble upon this site? In the meantime and as a mea culpa, I promise to try to ban the use of the word "clerisy" in this space going forward....

August 21, 2007

"It's An Awful Mess"

Given all the Vietnam talk of late, I found the below YouTube with voice-over of LBJ on the phone w/ McGeorge Bundy of topical interest:

LBJ's haunting question "What in the hell am I ordering them out there for?", is a question the current occupant of the White House never really had the depth of character, or essential dignity, to truly probe and ask himself, especially after the WMD claims wholly evaporated. But now, several years past the strutting Mission Accomplished follies, Bush must at very least better appreciate this quote from LBJ: "It's damned easy to get in a war, but it's going to be awfully hard to ever extricate yourself if you get in." Sadly, we fail to learn the lessons of history, over and over again.

Meanwhile, George Packer rues how isolated Bush is, compared even to LBJ:

But what’s striking about the moment when L.B.J. finally began to break is the nature of the forces that had led him to it: not just Clifford’s establishment friends and the bipartisan gray eminences of American foreign policy but also newspaper editors in the provinces and the power centers, party bosses like Mayor Richard Daley, of Chicago, moderate Republicans, and, above all, Johnson’s former colleagues in the Senate—his mentor Richard Russell, of Georgia; the majority leader, Mike Mansfield, of Montana; and even Eugene McCarthy, of Minnesota, who, though he was running an insurgent antiwar campaign against Johnson, maintained a back channel to his old friend in the White House. These were not just individuals but institutions that represented a broad center, able to appeal to politicians of both parties and, in a moment of crisis, speak to a truly national interest.

We had a moment, when the Baker-Hamilton report was released, where "politicians of both a moment of crisis" might have better taken action towards "a truly national interest" that represented a "broad center." But, alas, there were too many apparatchik whores (sorry, do you have a better word?) and other enablers still spouting on about victory. Well, that's just fine and dandy, save it's claptrap. The British have lost Basra. Relations with Maliki are cratering (the Iraqi PM, yesterday, after describing American criticism as "discourteous", rather a loaded term, went on to say: "No one has the right to place timetables on the Iraq government. It was elected by its people..Those who make such statements are bothered by our visit to Syria. We will pay no attention. We care for our people and our constitution and can find friends elsewhere.") Meantime, other debacles are brewing:

Under a tree by a battlefield road in Iraq's "Triangle of Death," Lieutenant- Colonel Robert Balcavage meets his new recruits.

The men are Iraqi Sunni Arabs who are about to join the U.S. military's payroll as a local militia. They want guns.

"I am not giving out guns and ammo," the U.S. commander says. The men listen carefully as the interpreter translates.

"I've been shot at up here enough times to know that there's plenty of guns and ammo. Me personally. Some of you guys have probably taken some pretty good shots at me."

Slowly but deliberately, U.S. forces are enlisting groups of armed men -- many probably former insurgents -- and paying cash, a strategy they say has dramatically reduced violence in some of Iraq's most dangerous areas in just weeks.

It is a rare piece of good news in four years of war, and successes like this are likely to play a prominent part when U.S. commander General David Petraeus makes an eagerly anticipated report to congress in mid-September.

"People say: 'But you're paying the enemy'. I say: 'You got a better idea?'," says Balcavage. "It's a lot easier to recruit them than to detain or kill them."

But U.S. forces also say the militia -- dubbed the Concerned Citizens Programme, or CCP, -- is only a temporary measure. If the comparative peace is to hold, the mainly Shi'ite government must offer the fighters real jobs in its army and police force.

It's grossly negligent (at best) that American kids are dying for strategic incoherence on such an epic scale. If I were a diplomat at the State Department, I'd probably resign in protest rather than continue to serve an Administration bleeding American lives so irresponsibly. Arming Sunni militias (sorry, Concerned Citizens Programmes) rather than the National Army, as nascent and pitable as this last is, will almost certainly lead to more intensified Sunni--Shi'a fighting. Meantime, these bolstered Sunni forces (some of them simply ex-Baathists we supposedly went in to topple) will eventually be fighting for primacy against the very Government we've been trying to prop up in Baghdad. I find this mind-boggling in its short-sightedness and lack of overarching strategic direction (unless we've truly become Machiavellian, and are plotting to return the Sunnis to power to contain Iran!)

Am I being hyperbolic? Or would senior diplomats of talent, two or three scotches into a frank off-the-record discussion with an old confidante, say, more or less admit same? I can't know, but in my gut I suspect they can't be too optimistic about the way ahead. I mean, we've been here before. As Eric Martin points out, we had Jaafari. Unhappy, we went with Maliki. Next it might be Adel Abdel Mehdi, another Shi'a. But none of these men can change the fundamental dynamic: the Sunnis want to be returned to power, or at very least get a major slice of the pie, and the Shi'a don't want to allow them back in, nor give them a share of power beyond de minimis theater.

And, repeat after me, there is no military solution that can be imposed by the Americans to resolve this fundamental divide. What is needed is international mediation (beyond Kouchner preening for the cameras, say) by dedicated non-American emissaries within Iraq, fully aided by a coordinated attempt by this Administration to defuse the regional temperature by engaging in real high-level negotiations with Syria (as we peel away the Syrians from the Iranian orbit, the Iranians will get less cocky about their regional position, so we can then better work to contain them). Put differently, only by fully employing our diplomatic tools could any 'surge', especially an unconvincing one (too few men, saved by the luck of the Anbar Awakening and, indeed, the fact we're now essentially bribing Sunni militias by arming them direct), only then might the surge have begun to help move us towards a strategically enhanced position. In a political vacuum characterized mostly by chimerical Green Zone posturing and politicking, however, the surge is merely a tactical variation that cannot convincingly change the underlying conditions preventing Iraq's emergence as a reasonably stable country with a cohesive central government sitting in Baghdad. As Chuck Hagel has written:

An international mediator, under the auspices of the UN Security Council andwith the full support of the Iraqi government, should be established. The mediator should have the authority of the international community to engage Iraq's political, religious, ethnic and tribal leaders in an inclusive political process...

...Special envoys have been instrumental in helping bring political reconciliation to other recent conflicts - Afghanistan, Kosovo, East Timor, Northern Ireland - adapted to the conditions in each country. Iraq needs the inter-national community's help and support if it is to turn away fromsectarian violence. If there is Iraqi resistance, we should be clear with all Iraq's leaders that this initiative is a condition of continued US support.

This approach would help begin to take the American face off Iraq's political process. The US is seen as the occupier. Our ability to influence the outcome in Iraq has been seriously eroded.

This approach would further invest the region and the rest of the world in helping to stabilise Iraq. Reversing Iraq's slide into chaos is a goal shared by nations around the world. Creating an international mediator would build on this common interest.

To succeed, this initiative must be complemented by other elements of a new regional US strategy. Stability in Iraq requires a sustainable and constructive comprehensive regional security framework, one that includes engaging Syria and Iran. We cannot allow last month's regional ministerial conference on Iraq in Sharm el-Sheikh to be a "one-off" event. The US must also announce a renewed commitment to address the Arab-Israeli conflict, with a Middle East special envoy who has the authority effectively to work the day-to-day political reconciliation effort. The appointment of Tony Blair is welcome. He has the stature, standing and experience that will be required. To succeed, he must also have the mandate and authority to address all issues, including the political issues that must be resolved to achieve the two-state solution.

More on related topics soon.

Posted by Gregory at 11:13 PM | Comments (10)

Nielsens for the 'Clerisy'!

Given Michael O'Hanlon's notoriety of late, I thought I'd pop over to his Brookings bio, just out of curiousity. There was this snippet:

O’Hanlon has written at least a dozen op-eds in each of the following newspapers: The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Times, and The Japan Times. He has also contributed to The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many other papers. O’Hanlon has appeared on the major television networks more than 150 times since September 11, 2001 and has contributed to CNN, MSNBC, BBC, and FOX some 300 times over that same period. [my emphasis]

It occurred to me reading this how empty these tabulations of media appearances are, though of course I know this is how the game is played so as to move up the 'seriousness' food chain. But is it too much of a stretch to surmise op-eds like his splashily boosterish cri de coeur to see "sustainable security" through are tailored some to keep these television appearances coming (look 'ma, lefty Brookings guy sez 'surge' working!)? Who knows, and I don't mean to impugn O'Hanlon personally, but rather am making a more general point about that certain Washington class that rushes Sunday AM to see where their 'quote' was placed in a Week in Review piece in the Times, say, or how prominent the billing they got on some asinine anchor's show on CNN or Fox. It's all so provincial and petty finally, no (especially when you think of the millions of refugees this war has created, hundred thousand plus dead, billions squandered, and national repute dragged through the mud)?

Almost makes you nostalgic for the days when one was expected to be in the papers three times: birth, marriage, and death...

Posted by Gregory at 10:03 PM | Comments (2)

Senatorial Angst


We are also encouraged by continuing positive results -- in al Anbar Province, from the recent decisions of some of the Sunni tribes to turn against al Qaeda and cooperate with coalition force efforts to kill or capture its adherents. We remain concerned, however, that in the absence of overall “national” political reconciliation, we may be inadvertently helping to create another militia which will have to be dealt with in the future. [emphasis added]


Declaring the government of Iraq "non-functional," the influential chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said yesterday that Iraq's parliament should oust Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his cabinet if they are unable to forge a political compromise with rival factions in a matter of days.

"I hope the parliament will vote the Maliki government out of office and will have the wisdom to replace it with a less sectarian and more unifying prime minister and government," Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) said after a three-day trip to Iraq and Jordan.

Posted by Gregory at 01:50 PM | Comments (13)

August 18, 2007

What's the Frequency, Kenneth?

"The surge, we all know, will end sometime in 2008, in the beginning of 2008, and we will begin probably a withdrawal of forces based on the surge..."

-- Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, last Friday.

"How much longer should American troops keep fighting and dying to build a new Iraq while Iraqi leaders fail to do their part? And how much longer can we wear down our forces in this mission? These haunting questions underscore the reality that the surge cannot go on forever. But there is enough good happening on the battlefields of Iraq today that Congress should plan on sustaining the effort at least into 2008."

Kenneth Pollack & Michael O'Hanlon, writing July 30th, in an op-ed titled: "A War We Just Might Win".

Odierno says "we all know" the surge will end in the "beginning of 2008", but apparently some enthusiasts (who see the surge needing to last "at least into 2008") didn't get the memo...

UPDATE: Oh my, Michael O'Hanlon, as quoted in today's NYT Week in Review: "...the time may be approaching when the only hope for a more stable Iraq is a soft partition of the country." Funny, I don't think the word "partition" (soft or otherwise) made it into the 7/30 piece...Perhaps it would have struck a too lugubrious tone for ye olde blockbuster op-ed!

MORE: A powerful rebuttal to O'Pollahan (Yglesias' sardonic amalgam) from men actually serving on the ground, rather than getting ferried around the week-long Potemkin circuit. Don't miss the powerful closer: "(w)e need not talk about our morale. As committed soldiers, we will see this mission through." Translation: Mssrs. Pollack and O'Hanlon, please don't gauge our morale for us....(a point I'd earlier made here).

Posted by Gregory at 05:00 PM | Comments (8)

August 17, 2007

Rudy, Pugnacious Hedgehog

Rudy Giuliani desperately wants you to know he’s tough. That he means business. In his foreign policy manifesto manqué in the (heretofore?) august pages of Foreign Affairs, we are repeatedly made to understand, with primitive repetitiveness, that Rudy is the right man at the right time, providentially made available to protect us endangered masses in these most perilous of times. Yes, he gets the threat all right, as the spiritual overseer of the self-declared “9/11 generation”, where others, alas, have not learned the lessons of that terrible day.

I mean, didn’t you know, the Democrats in their recent debate didn’t even mention the term “Islamic terrorism” once?!? Holy cow! They are simply either in total denial or lack the courage of their convictions, evidently. Well, not Rudy, folks! I mean, check out his Foreign Affairs piece, OK? The terrorists we face are not just “Islamist terrorists.” They are the “radical Islamist enemy”. No, not quite good enough, they are the “radical Islamic terrorists.” Sorry wait, not really quite right either, in terms of communicating the apocalyptic stakes here, how about: “radical Islamic fascism” (quelle mouthful, though it will doubtless get the Hewitt-Steyn Wing in appropriately gleeful tizzy).

You see, the Great One gets it. No ‘GWOT is just a slogan' hog-wash here. Fanatics are about to charge the very ramparts of civilization, and by God, it shan’t happen under Great Protector Giuliani’s watch. Indeed, be assured, we’ll be fighting them, you must understand, for a very long while. Yes, the former Mayor assures us, “this war will be long.” After all, it’s nothing less than the “terrorists’ war on global order”. No, one better: it’s the “Terrorists’ War on Us” (Rudy’s stunningly juvenile all caps in the original, perhaps a derivation of Toys “R” Us?). Bottom line folks: the “long war” (sorry, The Long War?) looms, and you better get ready for many “battlegrounds” to come (“Iraq and Afghanistan….are only two battlegrounds in a wider war.”) Ah, the smell of victory in Damascus and Teheran come Spring '09! And is that Riyadh I see beckoning, or perhaps Mecca (grab your Tancredoish pitchforks, and come along!)?

And so what is our strategy to confront this petrifying al-Qaeda threat, a group that enjoyed a spectacular success on 9/11 but pales in comparison to foes we’ve faced like the Soviet Union, the Axis Powers during WWII, or, say, a rising China? Well, for starters kiddies, we’re going to retire that horrifically sissy-like soi disant ‘peace dividend’. Once we’ve put that Les Aspin type reverie to bed, we’re going to build a real national missile defense system. Next up? How’s about 10 new combat brigades minimum, not to mention that we are gonna really ramp up on “submarines, long-range bombers and in-flight refueling tankers” (the submarines will be particularly helpful for hunting UBL in the arid, craggy elevations of Waziristan, ostensibly?).

Oh, and there will be “constellations of satellites that can watch arms factories everywhere around the globe, day and night, above-and belowground, combined with more robust human intelligence…” Well you know something? If those satellites weren’t 24/7, or they could only see above-ground or something, I’d have been mighty ticked off, and my adolescent fancy would have just, like, cratered. As it stands, however, all I can say is, Booyah Rudy, You're the Man! (If only we could bottle up the manliness inherent in this Vigilant Shield Vision, cojones infused and far-sighted as it is, we'd be able to shoot all of Manhattan to the moon with the potent Chateau Giuliani elixir!)

But as we all know, we can’t just Stay On The Offense in foreign theaters militarily, right? That’s just part of the picture. You have to get your deep-think on people! After all, defense of the Volk (sorry, “homeland”) is critical too. Thus:

We must preserve the gains made by the U.S.A. Patriot Act and not unrealistically limit electronic surveillance or legal interrogation. Preventing a chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear attack on our homeland must be the federal government's top priority. We must construct a technological and intelligence shield that is effective against all delivery methods.

“Legal interrogation”, eh? Sounds so much better than “enhanced interrogation techniques”, which smell a bit too much of, you know, torture and other such pre-Enlightenment nastiness. And “legal” is such delightfully expansive fare (in these racy post-Yoo/Addington days), so rest assured we’ll be water-boarding to our heart’s content as need be during a Giuliani Administration, with nettlesome artefacts like the Geneva Convention getting their comeuppance once and for all. And what, really, does it mean to “preserve the gains” of the Patriot Act, in Giuliani-speak? Ramp it up folks, cuz we’re just getting started! (For more on Rudy’s authoritarian tendencies, don’t miss this part of the F.A. piece either: “For diplomacy to succeed, the U.S. government must be united. Adversaries naturally exploit divisions. Members of Congress who talk directly to rogue regimes at cross-purposes with the White House are not practicing diplomacy; they are undermining it. The task of a president is not merely to set priorities but to ensure that they are pursued across the government.” Translation: I’ll throw Nancy in the clink if she dares go to Damascus again, in a New York minute…)

OK, OK. So ‘flypaper’ (Must. Stay. On. Offense. Because, if we leave Iraq, Sadr militia will turn up in Greenwich, CT next week, capiche?) and ‘homeland protection’ are kosher now, I’m good with your program, but how about the over-arching strategic lens behind all this neo-Reaganite muscle? Where’s the beef, Mr. Mayor, what’s your strategic direction?

Giuliani writes:

The next U.S. president will face three key foreign policy challenges. First and foremost will be to set a course for victory in the terrorists' war on global order. The second will be to strengthen the international system that the terrorists seek to destroy. The third will be to extend the benefits of the international system in an ever-widening arc of security and stability across the globe. The most effective means for achieving these goals are building a stronger defense, developing a determined diplomacy, and expanding our economic and cultural influence. Using all three, the next president can build the foundations of a lasting, realistic peace.

In this supposed crystallization of what the next President’s supposed three “key foreign policy challenges” will be, we see the profound emptiness of Rudy Giuliani’s world view. That the Emperor simply has no clothes, I’m afraid. He is the quintessential hedgehog as described by Isaiah Berlin, animated simply by one Big Idea, which is to say, we face Radical Islamic Fascism in the Terrorists’ War on Us (and Only I, The Great Rudy, Can Shield Us From This Grave Peril).

Let’s go Derrida on Rudy for a little second, and deconstruct some. Goal 1 is to “set a course of victory in the terrorists’ war on global order”. How? Bloated military budgets and “determined diplomacy”, whatever that means (though props for the alliteration!). Next we strengthen the international system (by opening up NATO to all comers and de facto relegating the UN to the ash-heap!). And then, the glorious coda, we create an “ever-widening arc of security and stability across the globe”. Sounds delightful, and it's always heartening to see hifalutin' Kaganite pipe-dreams making the rounds, again.

It’s all here, isn’t it? The easy meta-narrative of Good vs Evil, the empty Manichean machismo, the Concert of Democracies bursting forth to carry the torch of liberty to the subjects gratefully arrayed before Imperator Rudy. Throw in, and this goes without saying of course, a hyper-simplistic conflation of Shi’a and Sunni, Syria and Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, rebels in Thailand and the Philippines, with Chechens and Afghans, or Maghrebis and Muslim minorities in Europe. I mean, they’re radical, and they’re fascist, and they’re Islamic—what else do you need to know? Indeed, it is painfully difficult to imagine Rudy summoning up the insight that, say, conflict resolution aimed at de-radicalizing populations (see Kashmir, Palestine, Chechnya) mightn’t hurt, or that chanting on about ‘carrots and sticks’ vis-à-vis the Iranians is grotesquely unsubtle and transparent, or bashing the Arab-Israeli peace process as a waste of time will get us nowhere, and so on and on.

There’s more of course. As Dan Drezner has pointed out, Rudy shows a majestic lack of basic understanding about realism, not to mention the Vietnam precedent (as I’d earlier quipped, Walt Rostow meets The Sopranos). Then there is the alarming residue of Bushian new-paradigmist, ‘transformationalist’ thinking (Foggy Bottom shall be revamped, and Ambassadors shall henceforth take names and kick ass, NATO should be opened up to all who see the Justness of the Cause (welcome, Ethiopia!), how dare nettlesome Iran hide behind quaint notions of sovereignty, Hamas is corrupt and hopeless (save the detail they were voted in as a result of Fatah corruption!), the Madrid-Oslo approach is for Utopic Wimps, and to be banished, until decades hence 'institution-building' status or such is deemed a la hauteur.

Ah yes, what’s the Bowie song: “ch…ch…ch…changes…”? They’ll be plenty of them come the Rudy Administration. Like a bad hang-over from the ascendant Cheney, Rummy, Bolton, Wolfy etc days, even the munificent crumbs of the Bush 43 Thermidor (see competent players like Paulson and Gates), those smalls rays of sunshine might well prove things of the past. We’ll be back to the hard-core neo-con play-book, circa. 2003. Only this time, not only will we still have the toxic combination of Dubya’s utopian ideology and bovine stubbornness, but we’ll be throwing in even headier doses of pugnaciously primal excess (think Bernie Kerik without his bone). And this with someone who, having digested these past six years, suggests a course correction, but one that’s in an even more ill-fated direction! To top it off, this approach will be emitting from Ye Great Savior who sees running New York City as neatly analogous to supervising the planet. It’s all rather simple, see:

In this decade, for the first time in human history, half of the world's population will live in cities. I know from personal experience that when security is reliably established in a troubled part of a city, normal life rapidly reestablishes itself: shops open, people move back in, children start playing ball on the sidewalks again, and soon a decent and law-abiding community returns to life. The same is true in world affairs. Disorder in the world's bad neighborhoods tends to spread. Tolerating bad behavior breeds more bad behavior. But concerted action to uphold international standards will help peoples, economies, and states to thrive. Civil society can triumph over chaos if it is backed by determined action.

Save, as Fred Kaplan sagely observes:

Here is another of Giuliani's potentially dangerous assumptions on display—that being mayor of New York City isn't so different from being president of the United States. One difference, among many, is that the mayor doesn't need to negotiate with the Queens borough president before sending more cops to Jackson Heights. Another difference is that, once the cops do go to Jackson Heights, they are generally recognized as figures of authority; their guns and badges carry legitimacy; it's a major news story, not a commonplace event, when the bad guys respond by drawing their own guns, much less firing back.

Well, yes, though "carry legitimacy" is a stretch Fred, after all, an Amadou Diallo approach regarding the Persian Gulf isn’t the way forward post the Bush 43 debacles, I’m afraid. I’ll take Hillary, or Barack, or Chuck Hagel instead, thank you very much. (Hell, even Mitt ‘Double Gitmo’ Romney or John ‘Surge Furevah!’ McCain might be saner).

Rudy concludes:

After the attacks of 9/11, President Bush put America on the offensive against terrorists, orchestrating the most fundamental change in U.S. strategy since President Harry Truman reoriented American foreign and defense policy at the outset of the Cold War. But times and challenges change, and our nation must be flexible. President Dwight Eisenhower and his successors accepted Truman's framework, but they corrected course to fit the specific challenges of their own times.

Yes, but Truman had Dean Acheson, and George Kennan, and Chip Bohlen, and many others of caliber, advising him. Rudy has a crush on John Bolton and Norm Podhoretz and other such discredited hot-air balloons. And Truman, I suspect, was cut out of relatively sound non-authoritarian cloth, while Rudy’s something of a Manhattan Mussolini, as Andrew Sullivan quipped recently, and one who thinks he’s on the cusp of becoming the planetary savior because he’s going to kick some Islamic Radical Fascist tail from Jakarta to Tangier. Let’s pass, shall we? I’m for damage containment in ’08, not double-down ‘real men go to Teheran’. What say you?

Posted by Gregory at 08:14 PM | Comments (24)

August 16, 2007

The Markets

This is basically a foreign policy blog (at least when it’s not being overrun by fevered polemics) and so not a finance blog, but permit me a very brief word on the markets, as its been a very instructive couple of weeks. I've been bearish for months (if not years), and it does look like the chickens are finally coming home to roost. We've gone from a broad market sentiment that the sub-prime mess was going to be relatively contained, and then with the events w/ BNP Paribas the specter of contagion suddenly became the prevailing mood. Now we're seeing pretty wide-spread hedge fund exposure, with encroachments into mutual funds. Meantime, the sub-prime mess is also increasingly impacting commercial paper:

The turbulence in subprime mortgages has now spread to the commercial paper market -- a $2.2 trillion market in the USA that is the working capital lifeblood for the corporate sector," David Rosenberg, North American economist at Merrill Lynch, wrote in a note to clients on Wednesday. "This is looking worse than just another credit cycle."
(see also more here).

In my view, this is just getting started, and things are going to get a lot worse before they get better (this isn’t to say there mightn’t be large rallies, I’m speaking of the overall trend-line over the next 3-6 months). And unlike Long Term Capital Management (a single fund, after all), this crisis is exponentially deeper, and so will take much longer to unwind. So don your seatbelts, as it's going to be a rocky few quarters....meantime, be sure to read Nouriel Roubini, who has a lot more on related topics.

P.S. Just to inject a note of humor, can you imagine how far Jim Cramer's jaw dropped today when he read this?

Posted by Gregory at 04:09 AM

August 15, 2007

Is "Strategic Patience" Based on "Luck" Good Enough?

Anthony Cordesman writes (PDF):

There are other reasons for patience. While all the half truths and spin of the past have built up a valid distrust of virtually anything the Administration says about Iraq, real military progress is taking place and the US team in Baghdad is actively seeking matching political and economic progress.

Fair enough. So I read his report in that spirit and with respect for his intellectual abilities and competencies, as compared to many of the blow-dried parvenus preening for airtime on Fox. In his report, he stresses we've been rather lucky, as the surge has only really been able to enjoy relative, localized success because of the (largely unanticipated) Anbar “Awakening”.

There is a real opportunity that did not exist at the start of the year. What is critical to understand, however, is that while the surge strategy has had value in some areas, much of this progress has not [been] the function of the surge strategy, US planning, or action by the Maliki government. In fact, the “new” strategy President Bush announced in January 2007 has failed in many aspects of its original plan.

The increase in forces (5 Brigades ~ 20,000 U.S. troops plus 30,000 additional Iraqi troops in Baghdad) did enable the MNF-I to make some gains against AQI and sectarian violence. So did US military planning that developed and implemented a counterinsurgency doctrine, and a strategy based on that doctrine, that emphasized the primacy of population security and the political line of operations. These measures did help to enable the Sunni tribal “awakening” and its spread. This would not have been possible without the tribes’ new hope of success that resulted from the arrival of additional forces. More importantly, it would not have been possible without the change in employment of US forces to deploy and remain in neighborhoods and rural areas versus the previous strategy of operating only from large bases. The IA did deploy all of the 30,000 soldiers that it had agreed to. While the initial units were not at full strength, they soon fully deployed and continued to deploy units at excess of 100% strength. The non-Kurdish Army units, however, have had mixed loyalties and some have had ties to the JAM and Shi’ite militias. With some exception, the police have failed to act as a national force and provide enough paramilitary capability to “hold” in the areas where the US and IA have won. The fact that the Iraqi Army and police forces would fail to provide anything like the reliable support required was all too predictable.

The fact remains, however, that the increase in US forces alone could not have dealt with the rising Al Qa’ida threat outside Baghdad and in the Baghdad ring. Without the unplanned uprising by the Sunni tribes, the US simply did not have enough forces to carry out the present level of operations if it had had to rely solely on the real-world capability of the official Iraqi Security forces. It has taken the mix of forces the US and Iraq deployed over six months to establish a limited kind of security over half of Baghdad. This security has so far been local and has not stopped sectarian cleansing. The US has sharply reduced cleansing in the areas where it effectively sits over the ethnic fault lines, partly due to US military efforts and partly due to the fact the US has put up T-walls partitioning the city The Sadr militia continues to take advantage of the US and ISF campaign against Al Qa’ida to push Sunnis out of northwestern Baghdad. Some elements of Iraqi Army and police forces, except the Kurdish units, are clearly in collusion with sectarian cleansing, although the US watches those units and their commanders closely, and attempts to minimize any unlawful behavior. Many, including some US officers in the field, feel the Prime Minister’s office, Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Ministry of Interior (MoI) are still colluding actively or passively in this ethnic cleansing, as well as in similar efforts in Diyala and various pockets throughout the country.

So let’s recap: 1) most of the ‘successes’ we’ve had since February 1 have been due to luck (though to be fair, better implementation of counter-insurgency doctrine has helped sustain improvements with regard to the Sunni Tribes), and 2) these successes themselves (and here I’m speaking of purely the military ones, which have been the most ballyhooed by impressionable analysts), have led only to “local” improvements and have “not stopped sectarian cleansing”.

But regardless, as even surge cheer-leaders like O’Hanlon aver, it’s the political prong that matters most. Absent political reconciliation, or at least some basic compact/accommodation (someone tell Hakim and Maliki to make peace already w/ the dreaded ‘tafkiris’--broadly defined, as is their wont--OK?), this project simply isn’t going anywhere, unless we count “strategic patience” in many years, rather than months, and even then it’s far from assured. And again, even the military side of the equation remains hugely problematic, with cleansing still underway, and security improvements very localized, and dare I say, highly reversible.

As Cordesman writes:

The political and economic dimensions of the surge strategy have also failed to materialize at anything like the rate planned in Washington before the President announced his new strategy in January. Iraq has not made anything like the political progress required, and the effort to expand and revitalize the US aid effort to help the Iraqi central government improve its dismal standards of governance and economic recovery efforts have already slipped some six months and are far too dependent on the US military

….Prime Minister Maliki may sometimes tell us what we want to hear, but he is at best weak and ineffective and may well be far more committed to sectarian Shi'ite positions than he has publicly stated. The almost universal criticism of Maliki's office during a recent trip to Iraq showed that it is seen as too closely tied to the sectarian cleansing effort in Baghdad and south Baghdad, as involved in freeing JAM and Shiite detainees, as refusing to work with the Sunni tribes out of fear they will gain power and as refusing to bring Sunni fighters into local security forces and the police for the same reason. US commanders in NW Baghdad and in the southern ring, and both Sunni and Shi'ite officers in the IA were equally critical of the PM's office as were Iraqi officers. There are reasons Sunnis and Kurds, senior US officers and officials, and high-ranking Kurdish officials do not trust the Prime Minister.

And so there’s the rub, really. Because if Maliki doesn’t give the Sunni tribes a real stake in the central government (anyone want to place some bets on this?), the honey-moon is going to end over in Anbar, as frustration steadily mounts and patience wanes. 6 months on, say, we’ll be in a situation where strengthened Sunnis are girding for conflict with the Shi’a, and the Shi’a are getting increasingly acrimonious vis-à-vis the U.S. (translation: you gave us a shot at crude majoritarianism, now bugger off…). Meantime, relations with Iran will worsen, as well as the Kurds and Turks. And we'll still be in the middle of this huge mess, strategically adrift, but with the predictable actors tut-tutting about tactical improvements amidst the Baghdad 'belts' or such. Look, what this Administration, and its allies, simply can’t wrap their heads around is that the war is, for all intents and purposes, already lost, and we must now focus like a laser on containing the damage via region-wide crisis management and diplomacy.

Cordesman, more optimistic seemingly, writes:

Sunnis that were shooting Coalition and ISF forces six months ago now want to work with the central government if the central government will work with them. They will sign loyalty oaths, join the regular police, and join the army if the government will give them money, status, and a share of power. The problem is that this shift is tenuous and depends on reasonably rapid central government action to give the Sunnis what they want. (US officers put the limit of tribal and Sunni patience at 130-180 days).The fact remains, however, that luck has paid off so far and could pay off even more in the future.

But don’t we owe our men in uniform better than “luck”? I mean, is luck really good enough, as we approach 4,000 dead and billions squandered? Why not a strategic re-calibration of our regional position via the bipartisan consensus of Baker-Hamilton (or something close to it)? Wouldn’t that be wiser, all told, and fairer to our men and women in uniform? (Of course this isn't possible with the current blundering national security team in power, I'm really just watching the clock run here, and suggesting whomever inherits this massive mess think in terms of containing the damage rather than fantastical notions of "victory.")

This approach too, in my view, can serve to better prevent regionalization of the conflict, as well as provide for 'over the horizon' assets that can strike at al-Qaeda targets as necessary. And genocide, you say? The sectarian cleansing would quite likely get worse, before it got any better, but forgive me if I find protestations from Administration flaks on this score unconvincing. For one, we might only be making the going forward killing fields worse by arming two (or three) sides to a civil war that is likely to intensify. But beyond that, our "Stuff Happens" Rumsfeldian adventure has created the largest refugee crisis in the Middle East since 1948, with 2 million Iraqi refugees having been forced to flee to neighboring countries like Syria and Jordan. And they, relatively speaking, are the lucky ones, as there are another 2 million "internally displaced persons" actually forced to vacate their homes but still in a tottering Iraq.

And we've taken in what, a few hundred of these refugees? Sorry, but I don't want to hear anything about morality from this crew, in terms of how much worse it might get if we begin to gradually re-deploy. What's been unleashed, with over 100,000 Iraqis dead, at least, and millions displaced, that's quite awful enough. So spare us the sanctimony, and let us not waste more American lives to this unfolding disaster in seeming perpetuity on the back of half-baked calls for "strategic patience" based mostly, it would appear, on that elusive thing called "luck". This isn't the Bellagio, after all.

Or does Ryan Crocker have detailed information showing us that Dawa is capable of surmounting its crippling insularity, endemic suspicions and profound weaknesses so as to busily forge a bona fide central government among all the key factions, and in the next 6-12 months? C'mon, people! I'm afraid the gig's up, and "victory" passed us by quite a while ago. I know, it's painful to admit, but we Americans don't always "win", alas. Which means one has to be a realist, and weigh the costs and benefits of continuing to pursue a maximalist agenda propelled forward on the flimsy hopes that we'll pull a rabbit out of our hat, meaning a miracle called political reconciliation, one which will allow for a real central government to take root in Baghdad allied to Washington, and which respects Sunni, Shi'a and Kurdish aspirations--absent a massive diplomatic effort involving all of Iraq's neighbors, as well as using non-American players to mediate among the local factions. Without such an approach, and based simply on quixotic Green Zone politicking, localized yet reversible security improvements, sundry factions stockpiling arms, and likely a trend-line towards greater sectarianism--not to mention evidently a brewing storm with Iran--do any experts who follow the ins and outs of Iraqi politics believe this is remotely possible? If so, scream the good news from the rooftops so we can all hear it...

(NB: My emphasis throughout)

Posted by Gregory at 08:53 PM | Comments (27)

August 14, 2007

Wait, I Thought Our Quota for Epic Debacles Had Been Exceeded!

(Updated below)


At a news conference Thursday, Bush said Iran had been warned of unspecified consequences if it continued its alleged support for anti-American forces in Iraq. U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker had conveyed the warning in meetings with his Iranian counterpart in Baghdad, the president said.

Bush wasn't specific, and a State Department official refused to elaborate on the warning.

Behind the scenes, however, the president's top aides have been engaged in an intensive internal debate over how to respond to Iran's support for Shiite Muslim groups in Iraq and its nuclear program. Vice President Dick Cheney several weeks ago proposed launching airstrikes at suspected training camps in Iran run by the Quds force, a special unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, according to two U.S. officials who are involved in Iran policy.

The debate has been accompanied by a growing drumbeat of allegations about Iranian meddling in Iraq from U.S. military officers, administration officials and administration allies outside government and in the news media. It isn't clear whether the media campaign is intended to build support for limited military action against Iran, to pressure the Iranians to curb their support for Shiite groups in Iraq or both...

...For now, however, the president appears to have settled on a policy of stepped-up military operations in Iraq aimed at the suspected Iranian networks there, combined with direct American-Iranian talks in Baghdad to try to persuade Tehran to halt its alleged meddling. The U.S. military launched one such raid Wednesday in Baghdad's predominantly Shiite Sadr City district.

But so far that course has failed to halt what American military officials say is a flow of sophisticated roadside bombs, known as explosively formed penetrators, into Iraq. Last month they accounted for a third of the combat deaths among U.S.-led forces, according to the military.

Cheney, who's long been skeptical of diplomacy with Iran, argued for military action if hard new evidence emerges of Iran's complicity in supporting anti-American forces in Iraq; for example, catching a truckload of fighters or weapons crossing into Iraq from Iran, one official said. [emphasis added]

We've known for a long time that various constituencies--ranging from amateur bloggers dishing propaganda spoon-fed by the Michael Ledeen crowd, all the way to professional bureaucrats in Cheney's circle--have been falling over themselves chronicling varied misdeeds allegedly being committed by Iran in Iraq, so as to heighten calls that something be done about the Islamic Republic of Iran. And yet I think this is the first time I've seen a significant news organization reporting what I've long suspected--that should 'evidence' mount of such supposed Iranian perfidy-- there are still delusional players in this Administration (most prominently the Vice President) who would actually counsel air strikes on Iran.

Call it the Cheney-Lieberman-McCain caucus (as this last grows older, his sanity has more often been deserting him, alas). Condi Rice is reportedly opposed, but if the last six years serve as any indication, we know she'll ultimately do as she's told. Bob Gates is a more interesting question, and one hopes he'd summon the honor to resign should such a catastrophic policy be pursued. As for the Decider, Cheney's spokesperson ominously notes (per the article linked above): "(T)he vice president is right where the president is."

Aside from handicaping Beltway players' views of the merits of an attack on Iran, individuals opposed to a folly-infused attack on Iran must also focus on beseeching the more respected news organizations (like the New York Times, say, and by extension its reporters like Michael Gordon) to stop acting in the main as stenographers for General Odierno and other MNF sources and instead assiduously pursue original reporting on, among other issues, the precise provenance of EFPs, to include what local Iraq-based manufacturing capabilities exist and to what degree of sophistication.

As David Gardner recently wrote in the FT:

...US commanders seem to have no trouble detecting the hand of Tehran everywhere. This largely evidence-free blaming of serial setbacks on Iranian forces is a bad case of denial. First, the insurgency is overwhelmingly Iraqi and Sunni, built around a new generation of jihadis created by the US invasion. Second, to the extent foreign fighters are involved these have come mostly from US-allied and Sunni Saudi Arabia, not Shia Iran. Third, the lethal roadside bombs with shaped charges that US officials have coated with a spurious veneer of sophistication to prove Iranian provenance are mostly made by Iraqi army-trained engineers – from high explosive looted from those unsecured arms dumps. [my emphasis]

We have a supremely underqualified President who has repeatedly proven his capacity for strategic blundering. We have a pugnacious Vice-President who can only be described at this juncture as a dangerous man, not least as he's likely unwilling to simply fade off-stage into ignominy in an undisclosed location near Casper, Wyoming. We have other assorted national security players (Rice, Hadley, etc) who have repeatedly proven their capacity to kow-tow to higher-ups, even when pursuing grossly misguided policies, at great expense to the national interest.

Given this alarming reality, I'd suggest Democratic Presidential hopefuls stop the sophomoric pissing matches about who might attack Pakistan and under what circumstances, or whether the nuclear option is on, off, under or plastered prominently atop the table, or whether Obama has a secret hankering to give Hugo a big wet kiss over cocktails in Caracas, before racing to Havana for a spot of Cohibas in Fidel's hospital room. Instead they might deign to focus on the chance that another catastrophe might occur, this time in Iran, because of this Administration's recklessness.

But I digress. Let's for a second assume Iranians have assisted on occasion with the manafacture of more sophisticated EFPs, and let's further assume some U.S. personnel have died as a result. Well, I suppose you could argue this constitutes some casus belli, but let's stop kidding ourselves. There's an intricate game of cat and mouse underway. Amidst all the clamor for regime change emitting from points Washington, the Iranians aren't just going to sit back in prone position to see what the coming months might portend (it would be far different, of course, and more actionable in my view, if they were up to such trouble-making with good faith foreign minister level meetings between the two countries underway, though that would also necessitate having a capable Secretary of State in office, alas). And we all know they could be playing a far nastier game, don't we? After all, didn't they smuggle anti-tank guided missiles to Hezbollah for use against the IDF (you can be assured it would be a lot easier to get them to Iraq)? Nor, as Tony Cordesman has recently pointed out, have the Iranians smuggled in advanced MANPADS and SHORADS to JAM and other Shi'a militias, which would put our airforce pilots active over Iraq at much greater risk.

Regardless, I don't recall us attacking Iran when Hezbollah bombed our Marine barracks in Beirut, say, and I'd suggest it's quite possible more Americans died in that single attack than have due to firmly proven Iranian assistance to rogue elements in Iraq, which in turn, have verifiably led directly to U.S. loss of life. To stress, aren't we constantly reminded that Hezbollah is but an arm of the dastardly Mullah's ensconced in Teheran? If true now, and so back in '82, was Reagan then a Chamberlain-like appeaser for, not only refusing to attack Iran, but also vacating Beirut whole-sale, after the attack on the Marines? Or did he perhaps instead display some realism, statecraft, sobriety and a sense of proportion (something sorely lacking in today's cretinized Washington), that the associated risks and continuing costs weren't worth the potential benefits of the deployment? (ed. note: cue assaults on my 'pre-9/11' thinking).

So let us not, as proud Americans who care about the future of our country (or other concerned individuals besides), let us dare not allow again a growing drum-beat of vague allegations to gather momentum, with the attendant formation of a new consensus among group-thinking Beltway agitators whose strategic lens have proven disasterously faulty, but nonetheless still have the President's ear (mostly via Cheney), so that launching of attacks on Iran gains traction as a plausible policy option. And even if you were to be tempted by some of these gung-ho chest-beaters on the Potomac, do you genuinely believe this grossly incompetent national security team would be able to handle the potential fall-out of such an operation, given the very real possibility that Iran, in response, would (source) :

• Retaliate against US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan overtly using Shahab-3 missiles armed with CBR warheads

• Use proxy groups including....Sadr in Iraq to intensify the insurgency and escalate the attacks against US forces and Iraqi Security Forces

• Turn the Shi’ite majority in Iraq against the US presence and demand US forces to leave

• Attack the US homeland with suicide bombs by proxy groups or deliver CBR weapons to al-Qa’ida to use
against the US

• Use its asymmetric capabilities to attacks US interests in the region including soft targets: e.g. embassies,
commercial centers, and American citizens

• Attack US naval forces stationed in the Gulf with anti-ship missiles, asymmetric warfare, and mines

• Attack Israel with missile attacks possibly with CBR warheads

• Retaliate against energy targets in the Gulf and temporarily shut off the flow of oil from the Strait of Hormuz

* Stop all of its oil and gas shipments to increase the price of oil, inflict damage on the global and US economies.

The real danger we face as this criminally incompetent Administration winds through its final days is compounding the Iraq imbroglio by a catastrophic intervention in Iran. Any American concerned about this possibility needs to remind their representatives of the possible ramifications thereto and suggest to the Democratic Presidential candidates (on the Republican side, all but Ron Paul and Chuck Hagel on the side-lines have evinced a smidgen of sanity on foreign policy matters of late) that they cease their petty internecine skirmishing (at least occasionally, if possible) and focus on the danger of the Iraq conflict spreading to Iran (it is quite clear Shi'a-U.S. relations are set to deteriorate significantly in Iraq in the coming months, adding more fuel to the fire, and margin for error leading to a wider conflagration). Meantime, all of us must demand unimpeachable evidence about Iranian activity in Iraq rather than relatively thin gruel, to include summoning journalists to, if they are capable of it at least, digging into this story as genuine truth-seekers who skeptically monitor MNF claims rather than report them as undisputed fact. We're tired of lackadaisical hoodwinking, aren't we?

UPDATE: Breaking...the armed forces of countries we don't like can simply be designated foreign terrorist organizations (sorry, "specially designated global terrorist(s)"). Just like that, with some EFPs thrown in. Oh, and it might buy Condi six more months vis-a-vis mean Uncle Dick, who's clamoring for air strikes, but may be temporarily mollified by this (mostly) empty display of semiotic cojones. Regardless, #43 will look rather odd on this list.... But, B.D. tsk, tsk, you party-pooper you. 'Transformation' is in the air. Armies of sovereign states become foreign terrorist organizations, with the stroke of a pen, and reading Rudy Guiliani's sweeping Foreign Affairs manifesto (Walt Rostow meets The Sopranos, to a fashion, of which more soon), NATO should be opened to all comers, the UN more or less relegated to the ash-heap save the odd humanitarian mission, and so on. Heady times!

Posted by Gregory at 03:14 AM | Comments (27)

Back Home

"I think you know that when an American stays away from New York too long something happens to him. Perhaps he becomes a little provincial, a little dead and afraid."


--Sherwood Anderson

Despite the increasingly condo-ized hell that is debut siecle New York, there is nonetheless a feeling of real contentedness as one hops into the airport cab for the ride back into town. Paris may enjoy more sumptuous beauty, London perhaps is more regal and stately (and, of late, a deadly serious rival in the financial industry), Sao Paolo an even more titanic, jumbled cacophony of urban landscape, and the future beckons ever more insistently in cities like Dubai, Mumbai and Shanghai. Yet NYC still feels like the singular city, somehow. Which affords something of a sense of tranquility as the bridges loom and you're 'back home'. As Fitzgerald wrote:

Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.
Posted by Gregory at 01:50 AM

August 10, 2007

The Adult Trip Report

Call this the corollary 'adult' trip report to be digested in tandem with the more youthful exuberances slapped together here. After all, a heavily caveated case for "strategic patience" is hardly a declaration that victory (sorry, "sustainable security") is within our sights if only we ensure prolonging the surge through '08, so that political reconciliation ostensibly falls into place. More on Cordesman's more serious (and far less show-boaty) analysis when I touch back down in NYC. I do recommend interested readers click through and read the entire PDF.

Posted by Gregory at 01:42 PM | Comments (7)


"It’s the kiss of death...(t)he minute you are counted on or backed by the Americans, kiss it goodbye, you will never win."

--Turki al-Rasheed, a Saudi reformer, commenting on Amin Gemayel's recent loss in the Lebananse by-elections.

Heckuva job, Condi!

Posted by Gregory at 01:28 PM | Comments (6)

August 05, 2007

In-House News

I'll be on the road for work travel for about a week, six to nine hours ahead of New York time. If time allows, new content would typically come on-line late evening local time, or around 2 PM on EDT. Just a head's up for regulars. Thanks.

Posted by Gregory at 12:50 AM

August 03, 2007

O'Hanlon & Pollack: Guilty of Rose Colored Glasses?

With each passing day, Iraq sinks deeper into the abyss of civil war. The history of such wars is that they are disastrous for all involved. Asking who won most civil wars is a bit like asking who "won" the San Francisco earthquake. Unfortunately, we may soon be forced to confront how best we can avoid "losing" an Iraqi civil war.

--Kenneth Pollack "Things Fall Apart: Containing the Spillover From an Iraq Civil War" (The Saban Center for Middle East Policy at The Brookings Institution, Analysis Paper, Number 11, January 2007)

The time may be approaching when the only hope for a more stable Iraq is a soft partition of the country. Soft partition would involve the Iraqis, with the assistance of the international community, dividing their country into three main regions. Each would assume primary responsibility for its own security and governance….unless the U.S. troop surge succeeds dramatically, a soft partition model may be the only hope for avoiding an all-out civil war. Indeed, even if the surge achieves some positive results, the resulting political window might best be used to negotiate and implement soft partition. As of writing, it is too soon to know exactly how the current approach will fare. We are highly skeptical of its prospects. But one need not have a final assessment of the surge to begin considering which “Plan B” might succeed it in the event of failure—or even a partial but insufficient success.

--Michael O’Hanlon “The Case for Soft Partition in Iraq” (The Saban Center for Middle East Policy at The Brookings Institution, Analysis Paper, Number 12, June 2007).

I quote the above not as ‘gotcha’ to try to embarrass Pollack or O’Hanlon, each reasonably competent foreign policy analysts. And aside from my discomfort regarding the dearth of "humility" issue, I will refrain from any heated accusations or personal broadsides here. I know neither of these think-tankers personally, and can only presume they wrote in this NYT op-ed exactly what they believe in good faith, despite their much more pessimistic (and very recent) views quoted above. But I thought I might respond to the O'Hanlon/Pollack piece on more substantive grounds, as I’ve not seen much criticism of it on that score elsewhere.

They write:

Today, morale is high. The soldiers and marines told us they feel that they now have a superb commander in Gen. David Petraeus; they are confident in his strategy, they see real results, and they feel now they have the numbers needed to make a real difference.

It is well and good to say morale is “high”. But saying so doesn’t make it so. Take this report from August 1st :

U.S. troop morale is being put at risk by the lack of political progress in Iraq, the Pentagon's new top uniformed leadership said yesterday. Adm. Michael Mullen told his Senate confirmation hearing the Iraqi government must do better at national reconciliation, a theme the Bush administration has sounded with increasing urgency in recent months.

"Barring that," Mullen said, "no amount of troops and no amount of time will make much of a difference."

U.S. troops are aware that Iraq's politicians have just gone on a month-long vacation, and "there comes a point at which they're going to look at that and say, 'How much longer, and for what price, if progress isn't seen?'" echoed Marine Gen. James Cartwright.

You have the nominees for Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Joints Chief saying in open Congressional testimony, where you’d suspect they’re trying to put a brave face on, that morale is problematic, at best. But O’Hanlon and Pollack, fresh from a week in Iraq, assure us it’s “high”. I don’t doubt they met soldiers excited by Petraeus’ leadership, or varied localized successes on the security front, and perhaps even a new-found sense of mission. But this does not mean morale is high across the board, and it is irresponsible and misleading, in my view, to so suggest. For instance, is the morale of the men featured in this video “high”? Let’s us be wary of blanket statements, overly cheery diagnoses, all clears, no?

Pollack and O’Hanlon continue:

Everywhere, Army and Marine units were focused on securing the Iraqi population, working with Iraqi security units, creating new political and economic arrangements at the local level and providing basic services — electricity, fuel, clean water [ed. note: do read this for context] and sanitation — to the people. Yet in each place, operations had been appropriately tailored to the specific needs of the community. As a result, civilian fatality rates are down roughly a third since the surge began — though they remain very high, underscoring how much more still needs to be done.

But what is “everywhere”? Is it Sadr City? Other parts of Baghdad military handlers didn’t take them because the security situation was overly problematic? Parts of Diyala and Niveneh provinces? Well, no, it appears Pollack and O’Hanlon were shepherded mostly around Mosul, Tal Afar, Ramadi and the Ghazaliya neighborhood of Baghdad (of which more below). This is quite a bit of ground, but it is not “everywhere”. Again, I am not trying to parse and play gotcha, I am trying to force us, now more than four years on in a conflict that has killed almost 4,000 of our country-men, not to mention tens if not hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, to contain our enthusiasms and retain some sobriety.

To continue, what does it mean that “in each place, operations had been appropriately tailored to the specific needs of the community”? This almost sounds like bespoke suits were being rapidly put together on expedite from Saville Row storefronts, specifically fitted to a tee for each and every remote hamlet of Iraq, given the ebullient tone. But where is the concrete manifestation that “new political and economic arrangements” have been persuasively created by Army and Marine units at the “local level”, or that “electricity, fuel, clean water and sanitation” have been provided “to the people” (this almost reads like Soviet propaganda, in parts, so giddy the tone)? Put differently, what Pollack and O’Hanlon are really saying is that the “building” part of clear, hold, build is going very well. But even relatively optimistic accounts of the surge urge greater caution than O’Hanlon and Pollack would have it:

…Energy Ministry is unable to muster and protect enough repair teams to work on the frequently attacked transmission grid. As a consequence, Baghdad enjoys an average of only 8.4 hours of electricity a day, and less during the sweltering summer months. For similar reasons, the Oil Ministry was able to spend only $90 million of its $3.5 billion capital expenditure budget in 2006, and Iraq's oil production remains below paltry pre-war levels, despite the billions of U.S. dollars invested in infrastructure. Across all ministries, the Iraqi government managed to spend only about 20 percent of its $6 billion capital investment budget last year; the flow of government services dried to a trickle.

"Our clear, hold, and build strategy will not work if people in the affected neighborhoods don't see government services, jobs, economic opportunity, and their quality of life improving as part of the process," said a senior U.S. officer who asked not to be named. Although the Iraqi government bears much of the blame, he says, U.S. government agencies have also failed to supply the robust support, mentoring, and oversight to other Iraqi ministries that the Pentagon has given to the ministries of Defense and Interior, probably the two highest functioning in Iraq's government.

"So once again we are seeing a synchronization problem. The U.S. military has surged forces into Baghdad and slowed the cycle of violence, but we can't keep these force levels up indefinitely," the senior officer said. "If we don't see political and economic initiatives fall in behind the surge and take advantage of that increased security, we will have missed another key opportunity in Iraq."

Pollack and O’Hanlon then write that, as a “result” of the successful ‘building’ function being performed by U.S. forces, “civilian fatality rates are down roughly a third since the surge began.” But was it Disraeli who famously quipped: “There are lies, damn lies - and statistics”? O’Hanlon has made something of a cottage industry crunching Iraq stats and having graphic designer types help provide accompanying imagery to plop into the Sunday Times now and again, so I’m not going to quibble with the factual accuracy of this statement given his wealth of experience with these numbers, save to say, according to this report at least, civilian fatalities sharply increased to 1,653 in July ’07 from 1,227 in June.

Yes, O’Hanlon is using some other metric, ostensibly allowing him to feel comfortable stating that civilian fatality rates are “down roughly a third since the surge began” (the official date of the surge’s commencement, of course, a matter shrouded in rather a lot of obfuscation and spin). And yet, again, let us contain our enthusiasm, as at least 1,653 civilian Iraqis died last month, well up from June (in fairness to Pollack and O’Hanlon, they do write that fatalities “remain very high, underscoring how much more still needs to be done.”)

Elsewhere in the op-ed, where O’Hanlon and Pollack are striving to highlight positive stories, they unintentionally reinforce that bad news is still more the underlying real story.

Take this statement:

In Ramadi, for example, we talked with an outstanding Marine captain whose company was living in harmony in a complex with a (largely Sunni) Iraqi police company and a (largely Shiite) Iraqi Army unit.

I am sure, when high profile visitors are being spirited through a barracks with U.S. forces obviously eager to have said personages leave with a good impression, the Sunni police company and Shia Army unit must have been behaving rather well so as to appear the very picture of “harmony”. But the fact that the police in Ramadi are all Sunni, rather than integrated, and the national army majority Shi’a, points to the festering danger of sectarian conflict rearing its head at any moment. These dorm-mates could turn on themselves quite violently indeed, certainly when (as is inevitable), U.S. forces in the area will have to begin to withdraw, and there is little we can do about this, alas, save agreeing to sign on for a decade plus long committment. Put differently, there exists no truly national Police, nor Army, and an excited Captain (one of course appreciates his pride in the progress he's trying to achieve) showing Pollack and O'Hanlon around a 'success story' in Ramadi doesn't change that undergirding dynamic, I'm afraid.

Similarly, Pollack and O’Hanlon write:

In Baghdad’s Ghazaliya neighborhood, which has seen some of the worst sectarian combat, we walked a street slowly coming back to life with stores and shoppers. The Sunni residents were unhappy with the nearby police checkpoint, where Shiite officers reportedly abused them, but they seemed genuinely happy with the American soldiers and a mostly Kurdish Iraqi Army company patrolling the street. The local Sunni militia even had agreed to confine itself to its compound once the Americans and Iraqi units arrived.

Well, of course, the local Sunni residents “seemed genuinely happy with the American soldiers and a mostly Kurdish…company patrolling the street.” For if they weren’t there, the Shi’a officers would be, at best, abusing them, and at worst, massacring them. The presence of the Americans is their main source of security, but again, we cannot stay there forever, however much this is difficult to countenance. In this vein, the notion that the local Sunni militia “even…agreed to confine itself to its compound” is no miracle that should precipitate such seeming surprise, rather it is realism that the Kurds and Americans can protect them, so why not retreat and hold their powder dry (at least for now)?

As for the larger state of affairs in Ghazaliya, other reports suggest matters mightn’t be so rosy:

In some Sunni neighborhoods in west Baghdad, such as Ghazaliya, some residents who were initially excited about the outposts and joint security stations have grown dissatisfied. They say the Americans are doing too little to stop attacks by Shiite militias. "The Americans won't come out to help unless they have orders," said Abdul Rahman, 29, a chemist. "They don't prevent the Mahdi Army from attacking us."

Here is another recent report (like the one above, also from July ’07) from Ghazaliya:

At one plant, all four delivery drivers quit last year after warnings that sectarian gangs would kill them if they continued to drive across the invisible but all-too-real lines dividing Baghdad's Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods.

Customers in one suburb cautioned them that takfiris - fanatical Sunni extremists - had decreed their frozen product un-Islamic.

"In Ghazaliya it is forbidden to sell ice because the takfiris said the Prophet Muhammad had no ice in his time," said Khatan Kareem, an ice factory manager, shaking his head at the absurdity.

Michael and Kenneth tell us they “walked a street slowly coming back to life with stores and shoppers” in this neighborhood. Perhaps they did, albeit doubtless with heavy security, and I fear with a good dollop of attendant Potemkinism in the air. Regardless, and at very best, the picture appears much more mixed, if the reportage of the LA Times and IHT is to be believed.

Pollack and O’Hanlon continue:

We traveled to the northern cities of Tal Afar and Mosul. This is an ethnically rich area, with large numbers of Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens. American troop levels in both cities now number only in the hundreds because the Iraqis have stepped up to the plate. Reliable police officers man the checkpoints in the cities, while Iraqi Army troops cover the countryside. A local mayor told us his greatest fear was an overly rapid American departure from Iraq. All across the country, the dependability of Iraqi security forces over the long term remains a major question mark.

I wonder about these somewhat airy sounding locutions, like “stepped up to the plate”, smacking of the naivete of a Pyle say, the character in Graham Greene’s Quiet American. But regardless, if the Iraqi Army and “reliable police officers” have “stepped up to the plate”, then why are local mayors so fearful that all hell will break loose when the Americans leave? Answer? Because the Iraqi Army and Police have not reliably “stepped up to the plate”, of course. Take this report, from August 1, via the Stars and Stripes paper:

U.S. military officials have talked of a possible drawdown in Iraq’s north, but two local Iraqi commanders here say they aren’t yet ready for such a plan to take hold. Iraqi army Lt. Col. Abdulkhaliq Hamed, commander of an outpost in what he and U.S. Army officials call the most dangerous part of the old section of Mosul, and Iraqi police commander Abid Hamad Hasan, who runs six stations in the central and northern area of the dense city, say they aren’t ready to take over security duties solely on their own. “There should be no type of any withdrawal — we are not ready yet,” Hamed said through an interpreter during an interview Saturday at his outpost offices in western Mosul. The Iraqi police commander’s comments were similar. “We have heard the notion in the media [of a withdrawal], but for us, we are still in need [of] the forces,” Hasan said through a translator Sunday in his station offices in central Mosul. “If there is a sudden or gradual withdrawal — I expect civil war here.”

Doesn’t sound like a resounding call to pull out the victory bugles, eh, or even a ringing of the “sustainable security” bells and whistles? And to the Iraqi police commander's statement that "we are not ready yet", why should we think he'll be ready in 3 months, or 6, or 12, or 18, and so on?

Pollack and O’Hanlon then write:

American advisers told us that many of the corrupt and sectarian Iraqi commanders who once infested the force have been removed. The American high command assesses that more than three-quarters of the Iraqi Army battalion commanders in Baghdad are now reliable partners (at least for as long as American forces remain in Iraq).

In addition, far more Iraqi units are well integrated in terms of ethnicity and religion. The Iraqi Army’s highly effective Third Infantry Division started out as overwhelmingly Kurdish in 2005. Today, it is 45 percent Shiite, 28 percent Kurdish, and 27 percent Sunni Arab.

In the past, few Iraqi units could do more than provide a few “jundis” (soldiers) to put a thin Iraqi face on largely American operations. Today, in only a few sectors did we find American commanders complaining that their Iraqi formations were useless — something that was the rule, not the exception, on a previous trip to Iraq in late 2005.

“American advisors”. “The American high command”. Some quick number-crunching on the composition of the Iraqi Army’s “highly effective” Third Infantry Division. Of late, “only a few sectors” with commanders complaining about the quality of the Iraqi Army units. Sounds great, and yet—is it only me who is bothered by O’Hanlon and Pollack’s huge reliance on MNF sources for the above cheery news?

There are other problematic parts of the op-ed, such as, A) a simple declaration that there exists “no more whack-a-mole”, without any hard evidencing thereto; B) a contention that the Mahdi Army has seen an “outpouring of popular animus” aimed against it (albeit to a “lesser extent” than that aimed at al-Qaeda, still a very debatable, indeed likely erroneous, proposition); C) a tacit acknowledgment, somewhat glossed over, that Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Teams are undermanned, and so on.

But even in the midst of this rah-rah call to summon our collective resolve ("Americans need to understand: we are finally getting somewhere in Iraq...") to keep the surge going “at least into 2008”, Pollack and O’Hanlon are nevertheless forced to concede the Iraqi National Police remains “mostly a disaster” (but I thought they'd "stepped up"!), that the “situation in Iraq remains grave” (add a deteriorating to this, and you’d have the Baker-Hamilton description of conditions in Iraq as “grave and deteriorating”), that we face “huge hurdles” on the political front, that politicians of all stripes “continue to dawdle” and avoid even basic steps towards accommodation, let alone reconciliation.

O’Hanlon, in an op-ed in the WSJ on July 13th of this year wrote that: “politics are 80% of any counterinsurgency operation”. Well, no less than the Chairman and Vice Chairman designate of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have declared the political track very problematic indeed, and we know Petraeus has had his fights with Maliki, and that Ryan Crocker wants to do away with benchmarks, so arduous the political challenges ahead (see this informative article for more on the political stalemate). Nor do Pollack or O'Hanlon deign to investigate growing Shi'a-U.S. tension, still an under-reported phenomenon, but likely the big story of coming months (as relations with beleaguered Sunnis continue to improve, in large part at least, relations with Shi'a will worsen).

In short, there is a breeziness and a cocksureness to this op-ed I found disconcerting. Something akin to think-tank apparatchiks, smart and well-meaning ones, knowingly throwing a bombshell into the Iraq debate by, as supposed left-leaning Brookings types, providing high-profile fodder for the Administration and its defenders that the surge is a viable strategy. But I continue to believe, in the absence of a major regional diplomatic initiative, undertaken in tandem with the appointment of high-powered non-American envoys to negotiate among Iraqi factions within Iraq, we are seeing only short-lived localized tactical improvements, with the overall strategic situation at best a status quo, and very likely to worsen in the days ahead.

Regardless, I hope O'Hanlon and Pollack are right, I really do. But to say I'd be surprised if they were would be an understatement, as no military victory per se is possible, only a political settlement among Iraqis can ultimately provide "sustainable security" (one involving Iraq's neighbors too, including the ones we don't deign to talk to at high enough levels, and in sustained enough manner). And neither David Petraeus, nor the bravest among his men, can force such an accomodation on the Iraqi people themselves, absent massive diplomatic efforts both regionally and within Iraq, aimed at complementing (a still under-manned) surge, something I fear is well beyond the abilities of this Administration, putting it politely.

Posted by Gregory at 03:52 AM | Comments (26)

August 02, 2007

The Bush 43 Years: An "I Do Not Recall" Chorus

Cheney, yesterday: "I do not recall".

Rumsfeld, today: "I do not recall..."

Gonzalez, perennially: "I do not recall".

Lewis Libby, to a grand jury: "I do not recall..."

And so on (readers can doubtless find myriad more examples).

If the Clinton era is often remembered for the memorable phrase "it depends upon what the meaning of the word is means," surely the more placid "I do not recall" will figure prominently in the annals of the Bush 43 years.

But forget Gonzalez, a profound mediocrity who has caused morale at DOJ to capsize below that of even the trying Watergate days, or Libby, the footnote-like "fallen soldier" of Fouad Ajami's hallucinatory imaginings.

Let us instead focus on those two old and wily Beltway barons, Cheney and Rumsfeld. Bruce Fein was likely right when he recently wrote about Cheney (it applies equally well to Rumsfeld) that: "Like old soldiers, he will simply fade away after the expiry of his term, but probably in disrepute."

But that is mostly a pity. If we had legislators of keen intellect, significant energy and tactical skill, moral courage and greater backbone, Cheney and Rumsfeld wouldn't be allowed to fade into (relatively dulcet) ignominy. They'd be facing a cascade of subpoenas and dogged Congressional inquiries related to varied abuses of power (ones which transcend in national import lying about receipt of fellatio, say, even to potentially evade liability in a lawsuit, by exponential degrees of gravity).

But the sad reality is these two men, however profoundly misguided stewards of the national interest they've proven, however grossly reckless, however willfully myopic, or pugnaciously stubborn--they are nevertheless about as smart as it gets in today's Washington. This is a sad statement, but it accurately reflects the state of play. They played the bureaucratic game for keeps at the highest levels of government, and they usually mostly won (though the '06 election finally forced the detestably prostrate Decider to give Rummy the heave-ho).

In short, while history will ultimately view them with disdain, they nonetheless outpaced their critics handily enough that a cozy retirement on the Eastern Shore of Maryland beckons, rather than a much more ignoble fate. And that's a deep pity, for reasons too numerous to list here tonight.

Posted by Gregory at 04:26 AM | Comments (17)

Jaw Jaw, Mossad Edition

Efraim Halevy, former head of Mossad, recommends Israel directly engage Hamas. Doubtless he'll be tarred an enemy of the state of Israel soon by varied notables.

....the dialogue option is receiving renewed attention amid widespread doubts about the viability of the Bush administration's latest plan for dealing with the Palestinians. The Gaza takeover effectively split the Palestinians into Gaza, controlled by Hamas, and the West Bank, politically dominated by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of the more secular Fatah party and his appointed prime minister, Salam Fayad.

In response, the White House has rolled out what it calls a "West-Bank-first" strategy. It envisions financial, political and diplomatic support for Mr. Abbas in an effort to improve West Bank life so dramatically that Palestinians will be wooed away from Hamas in both enclaves. At the same time, Washington plans to work with Israel to further isolate Hamas in Gaza, a policy that prohibits contact with the group.

Ms. Rice is expected to emphasize that strategy today and tomorrow in meetings with Israeli leaders and with Mr. Abbas.

But Mr. Halevy believes this strategy amounts to political fantasy, especially given the weakness of Fatah and signs it is fracturing inside the West Bank. "If there is a secret assessment somewhere which says this is going to do the job and is going to turn things around, I salute them," says the former spymaster, who retired from the Mossad at the end of 2002 and went on to briefly head Israel's National Security Council under then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He has since maintained his public profile as a commentator and author.

Mr. Halevy started advocating talking to Hamas last year, before the Gaza takeover. He now sees no other choice. "I don't say we should talk to Hamas out of sympathy to them. I have no sympathy whatsoever for Hamas. I think they are a ghastly crowd," Mr. Halevy says. "But I have not seen anybody who says the Abbas-Fayad tandem is going to do the job."

Mr. Halevy says defeating Hamas politically is unrealistic, given its enduring popularity among Palestinians. Hamas defeated Fatah in Palestinian parliamentary elections last year.

"The danger is that they will not be defeated, that they will become more despairing...and they will no longer feel constrained by anything, because there is nothing left for them to hope for," he says.

In the end, he fears, that will mean that the only option for Hamas will be to return to a strategy of larger-scale terrorist attacks on Israel. The conflict currently plays out in almost daily low-intensity fighting between the two sides.

Mr. Halevy says pressure should be used to reach a favorable, long-term armistice, similar to those Israel reached with hostile neighbors after the Jewish state was founded in 1948. Hamas has repeatedly said it is willing to discuss such a deal.

"We signed armistice agreements with all of the Arab world," Mr. Halevy says, adding that many Arab nations agreed to end hostilities without formally recognizing Israel. The U.S. and Israel have pushed for a formal recognition of Israel from Hamas before agreeing to possible talks.

"Political fantasy". A succinct description of this Administration's spectacularly mediocre foreign policy. And a fitting epitaph for it too.

Posted by Gregory at 03:16 AM | Comments (3)

Le Plus Ca Change

While we're YouTubing over here, another classic scene, this time from Gillo Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers.

Posted by Gregory at 02:26 AM | Comments (2)

Bergman Dies

It doesn't feel right at least not noting in passing Ingmar Bergman's death, at the age of 89. Below a representative scene showcasing Bergman's genius from Autumn Sonata. In it, Ingrid Bergman (in, I think, her only collaboration with her namesake Ingmar) plays a talented concert pianist, but also something of a cruel perfectionist and neglectful mother. Liv Ullmann, who plays the daughter, appears alternately awed and loving of her mother, but also crushed and hate-filled too. Like much of Bergman's work, a literary precision is achieved, powerfully evocative of the welter of complex emotions that characterize human relations.

Posted by Gregory at 02:17 AM | Comments (1)

August 01, 2007


"What’s missing from the Op-Ed is a necessary humility."

Amen George, amen.

Posted by Gregory at 06:06 PM | Comments (9)

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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