June 29, 2010

"Growth Now" vs "Austerity Now"

PIMCO's Mohamed El-Erian, writing recently in the FT, attempts to bridge the divide between the two warrings camps:

The two sides are both right, and wrong. Their impasse will persist until both understand that the debate is incomplete. In particular their discussion takes too narrow an historical perspective, looking excessively to the past experience of industrial countries as opposed to also reflecting that of emerging economies.

As a general rule industrial countries need to adopt both fiscal adjustment and higher medium-term growth as twin policy goals. The balance between the two will vary. Some, like Greece, need immediate fiscal retrenchment. Others, like Germany, the US and Japan have more room for manoeuvre. But no one should pursue just one of these objectives.

To begin to achieve both, countries must quickly implement what were once known in the emerging market lexicon as "second generation structural reforms". Basically these involve enhancing the longer-term responsiveness of western economies that have had their comparative advantages eroded, and now see their populations stranded on the wrong side of significant global changes.

Squaring the circle of growth and fiscal stability needs policies that focus on long-term productivity gains and immediate help for those left behind. This means first enhancing human capital, including retraining parts of the labour force, and increasing labour mobility. Then new emphasis on infrastructure and technology investment is needed, with greater support for scientific advances that promise increased productivity. Finally all nations must begin an honest assessment of the social frictions coming in the next few years. In some countries (like the US) this means an urgent bolstering of social safety nets. [emphasis added]

I post this less for El-Erian's cogent observations generally, to include his apt recycling of "second generation structural reforms" in a non emerging-market context, more for his mention of "social frictions" to intensify in coming years. I suspect this is an issue that merits more attention than it has garnered to date, to include here in the U.S., as El-Erian suggests in his parenthetical.

Posted by Gregory at 10:04 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 25, 2010

The McChrystal Follies

Amidst the reams of commentary on the General McChrystal fiasco, I found this snippet from George Will worth noting:

It is difficult, and perhaps unwise, to suppress this thought: McChrystal's disrespectful flippancies, and the chorus of equally disdainful comments from the unpleasant subordinates he has chosen to have around him, emanate from the toxic conditions that result when the military's can-do culture collides with a cannot-be-done assignment. In this toxicity, Afghanistan is Vietnam redux.

I would echo Mr. Will's observation. In Afghanistan we are enmeshed in a strategic blunder on par or worse than the Iraq debacle (incidentally, for those who have declared the Mesopotamian morass a victory, here's some level-headed reportage worth a gander lest we delude ourselves Dubya (or Petraeus, about whom more below) erected a Babylonian utopia in Baghdad, Fallujah, Najaf, Basra, Kirkuk, and Mosul. As for Will's Vietnam analogy, we might beware the perils of too easy historical analogizing, but with the Afghan war nearing a decade, it's certainly not an unfair comparison. I would add the following commentary on the McChrystal episode, piggy-backing on Will's apercu:

• It is profoundly sad that it is only McChrystal and crew's sophomoric dishing (President Obama "uncomfortable and intimidated" amidst all the beribboned military brass, Vice President Joseph "Bite-Me" Biden, the "clown" at the NSC, Dick Holbrooke, he of the scatological E-mails not worth opening, Karl Eikenberry, merely covering his behind for the history books, and, bien sur, the so lame and "gay" French), which collectively conspired to belatedly cause a genuine kerfuffle over matters Afghanistan. This is what has the print commentariat and cable pygmies aflutter, not that young Americans are dying in increasingly large numbers for a futile misson devoid now of even a smidgen of strategic sense? A sad testament, to be sure, on a variety of levels not worth detaining the reader with here. Suffice it to say empires die during periods of such obscene myopia.

• Equally, if not more disheartening, are that McChrystal's 'legacy issues' (to use a phrase in vogue) are evidently less concerning to most than the aforementioned juvenile aspersions from a liquored up gaggle at a tourist-trap Irish pub in Paris. That it has taken a young free-lancer from Rolling Stone to help sketch out the fundamental futility of the Afghan mission is, among other things, rather an indictment of a journalistic class increasingly propagandistic (whether purposefully or through languorous cluelessness might make an interesting thesis topic). But beyond this, McChrystal's prior indiscretions are arguably even more serious, to include presiding over such penal exuberances as Camp Nama ("No Blood, No Foul"!), or say, the parsimonious amount of information doled out up-front around the Pat Tillman episode. Are we to be surprised by the entrenched contemptuousness and disdain of civilian authority surrounding this physically courageous, but profoundly flawed, General? But no, warning signs are ignored, and instead, such conduct paves the way for promotions these days, or alternatively, audible yawns among our titular arbiters of appropriate conduct.

• Obama had to fire McChrystal (Eliot Cohen, whom I rarely agree with it, put it well in the Journal recently), though for a moment I'll confess I had to wonder if Barack had more Adlai Stevenson than Harry Truman in him (albeit a decision not to relieve him of command of the Afghan adventure would inevitably have been cloaked in 'team of rivals' soi disant self-confidence). This said, while Obama will doubtless garner some points for "decisiveness" and such banalities now, so that we must steel ourselves for a mini-season of such articles (charitably at best a stretch, as the BP debacle, watered-down financial sector reform and 'Runaway General-out, Petraeus-In' hardly constitute Churchillian fare, Sangerian stenography and self-preservationist Rahmian boosterism apart).

• The season of COIN-on-steroids beckons, as the think-tank apparatchiks dutifully chronicle whether Petraeus can turn Marjah from "bleeding ulcer" to Hamiltonian hamlet, before charging Kandahar and enlightening locals how to better run their jirgas, with the civil procedure treatises parachuted in. Apologies for the sarcasm, but my point is this: the war in Afghanistan, already Obama's, is now exponentially so. Having now demoted the American architect of what passes for modern-day counter-insurgency theory ("Government-In-A-Box"!) , as well the storied 'surge' proponent from Iraq, from CENTCOM to the field (in actuality, however, it will be increasingly perceived as a promotion, with the war elevated in stature too, and per the Washington echo-chamber, the 'war on terror'--or whatever moniker du jour--largely in Petreaus' hands), the die has now been well cast for this ill-fated Afghan fiasco to drift along at least through Obama's first term. Put differently, with the gloried Petraeus at the helm, we're now all-in in Afghanistan. And for what, there are perhaps, per Leon Panetta, 50-100 al-Qaeda operatives in the entire country, even fewer perhaps, and we have 100,000 or so men nation-building there? (For thoughts on why I view the Afghanistan mission as devoid of real strategic purpose, see for instance here).

• I stumbled on this letter of George Kennan's while re-reading his excellent memoirs, as he passes through Iraq in June of 1944, I believe on his way to Moscow:

So much for the handicaps; what of the possibilities of service in Baghdad? A country in which man's selfishness and stupidity have ruined almost all natural productivity, where vegetation can survive only among the banks of the great rivers which traverse its deserts, where climate has become unfavorable to human health and vigor.

A population unhygienic in its habits, sorely weakened and debilitated by disease, inclined to all manner of religious bigotry and fanatacism, condemned by the tenets of the most widespread faith to keep a full half of the population--namely, the feminine half--confined and excluded for the productive efforts of society by a system of indefinite house arrest, deeply affected--and bound to be affected--by the psychological habits of pastoral life, which has ever been at variance with the agricultural and industrial civilization.

This people has now come just enough into contact with Western life so that its upper class has a thirst for many things which can be obtained only in the West. Suspicious and resentful of the British, they would be glad to obtain these things from us. They would be glad to use us as a foil for the British, as an escape from the restraints which the British place upon them.

If we give them these things, we can perhaps enjoy a momentary favor on the part of those interested in receiving them. But to the extent that we give them, we weaken British influence, and we acquire native politicians. If they then begin to do things which are not in our interests, which affect the world situation in a ways unfavorable to our security, and if the British are unable to restrain them, we then have ourselves at least in part to blame and it is up to us to take the appropriate measures.

Are we willing to bear this responsibility? I know--and every realistic American knows--that we are not. Our government is technically incapable of conceiving and promulgating a long-term consistent policy towards areas remote from its territory. Our actions in the field of foreign affairs are the convulsive reactions of politicians to an internal political life dominated by vocal minorities.

Those few Americans who remember something of the pioneer life of their own country will find it hard to view these deserts without a pang of interest and excitement at the possibilities for reclamation and economic development. If trees once grew here, could they not grow again? If rains once fell, could they not again be attracted from the inexhaustible resources of nature? Could not climate be altered, disease eradicated?

If they are seeking an escape from reality, such Americans may even pursue these dreams and enter upon the long and stony road which could lead to their fruition. But if they are willing to recall the sad state of soil conservation in their own country, the vast amount of social improvement to be accomplished at home, and the inevitable limitations on the efficacy of our type of democracy in the field of foreign affairs--then they will restrain their excitement at the silent, expectant possibilities in the Middle Eastern deserts, and will return, like disappointed but dutiful children, to the sad deficiencies and problems of their native land. [emphasis added]

And imagine what this singular American diplomat would have made of Afghanistan, let alone Iraq, and coming out of our Great Recession (with a double-dip a real and present danger post the orgy of stimuli, bail-outs, so-called quantitative easing etc.)!

Moving beyond all the immediate events of last week, we are left to reckon with President Obama too. He said in his statement relieving General McChrystal something to the effect that war is bigger than one man, and he is right. So is the future of countries, polities, and empires. In the recent election, he defeated a Senatorial baron and fabled war hero as an African-American junior Senator fresh from a stint as a community organizer, an amazing feat for the history books, to be sure. Why? People were desperate for change, deep in their guts, after the catastrophic bungles wrought by George W. Bush. And yet, have we gotten said change? Do those who listened to his speech in Cairo still believe in it (assuming they ever did, though certainly there were some elevated expectations), a year or so out? Those who felt the 'moral Chernobyl' of Guantanamo required urgent closure of the detention facility? Those who hungered for financial reform that went after the root causes, such as shoddy underwriting and unmoored leverage, rather than the chaotic sausage-making emitting from Barney Frank's office? Or a bona fide restoration of the letter and spirit of habeas corpus, against the corrosive erosions of 'prolonged' detention, and so on.

Of course, Obama was dramatically, astoundingly even, better than the alternative, who'd have had us warring in Teheran and Tbilisi by now, with Sarah Palin regaling us with discourses about off-shore drilling job creation initiatives. But for some who held out the promise for more profound transformation, we are left with the underwhelming feeling, as Edward Luce put it a few weeks back in the FT, that a 'new and improved' stamp was simply affixed on the same fundamental narrative, no? A pity, for him, for the country, indeed, for the entire international community. Perhaps he is wiser than us, playing his cards and biding his time, being careful to secure a second term, and than wowing doubters with a more historic, transformative agenda. But I smell too much of a cautious, deferential institutionalist in him. In short, the man's story has been great, but the man may not be great himself.

After all, who serious can laud his approach to Afghanistan, with the almost dutifully subserviant default to a "surge", but one married to a supposed hard end-date for drawing-down, an awkwardly disjointed policy borne of a too long and divisive inter-agency review, with no one trusting the supposed end date for commencement of meaningful troop withdrawals regardless, especially with the ante upped with Petraeus now in. And if 'Government-In-A-Box' doesn't take root in Marjah and Kandahar (let alone the great one we have in Kabul, this one presumably specially gift-wrapped for us!), then what? Meantime, men are dying and our power is whittling away every day, as history increasingly occurs on other key stages far from this storied graveyard of empires where Obama, it seems, is essentially doubling-down, rather than seriously thinking of responsibly closing out this latest ill-fated chapter in American adventurism.

Posted by Gregory at 10:36 PM | Comments (14) | TrackBack

June 03, 2010

Blunders on the High Seas

Much ink has been spilt about the so-called flotilla fiasco these past days, a botched Israeli commando raid of the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara vessel in international waters transporting, depending on who you ask, committed Gandhi-like humanitarians, or per others, hardened al-Qaeda linked terrorists. Amidst the cacophony of YouTubes with yellow highlighted arrows emblazoned about, helpfully highlighting metal poles and “objects”, stun grenades and firebombs, or talk of ‘Khaibar’ chanting miscreants flush with a million Euros, as well myriad spent non-Israeli bullet cartridges allegedly causing manifold gunshot wounds, or per other (equally heated) retellings, something of a pre-planned massacre by beastly IDF goons simply for the sport of it, not too much is yet definitively clear save that tragic loss of life occurred in an illegal operation (or one of dubious legality at very best), so that the Israeli mission was undeniably a failure operationally, tactically, and strategically. Let us take each in turn, though it is the last which is most important.

Operationally, it’s largely no-brainer fare what went wrong, as various military experts have opined ad nauseam. Why was the intelligence about the ‘activists’ on board so sub-par, to include presuming a more docile reaction to airborne commandos crashing the party at an ignoble pre-dawn hour? What of the somewhat surreal tidbit about paintball rifles, as the FT reports typically “used to bruise and mark suspects for later arrest”, as if either of these crowd-dispersal techniques on a sea-borne vessel make any sense whatsoever? Instead, with the intelligence badly flawed from the get-go, and thus the operational capabilities required fundamentally misconstrued, it was all too easy for live ammunition to be too liberally employed in the initial chaos leading to fatalities (nine and counting, with regardless even one death too many for a boat full of non-combatants, which contra the always enterprising musings of Alan Derschowitz, where he says that the flotilla’s passengers “fit uncomfortably onto the continuum of civilianality that has come to characterize asymmetrical warfare”--I suspect instead most leading public international law authorities would ultimately conclude, 'continuums of civilianality' or not, that these individuals were not rendered bona fide combatants simply because the ship was attempting to break a blockade, and given the totality of the circumstances).

Short to mid-term tactically, the operation was similarly a blunder. I don’t necessarily disagree with many Israeli commentators who contend that the Mavi Marmara’s nautical intrusions were less about delivery of humanitarian aid, more about breaking the blockade (I am however fatigued by the sophomoric rhetoric emitting from Prime Minister Netanyahu that the Mavi Marmara wasn’t the "Love Boat", or the less sophomoric, and more crudely propagandistic fare, say, that the mostly Turks on board were hell bent on helping set up an “Iranian port”, the better for Ahmadi-Nejad to ship in the processed uranium). But here’s the rub, assuming the activists were more minded to break the blockade than anything else, the fact that Israel’s botched operation caused major loss of life and widespread international outrage will now only intensify further the international pressure to end this very same blockade. Already there is talk about modifying the extent of the blockade even in Washington, and the NYT reports the Israelis are “exploring new ways” of supplying Gaza. As Washington is ultimately Israel’s only die-hard friend--if a tad more halting one of late—this is hardly a surprise.

But it is the strategic failure however which depresses most, and for many reasons. First, and perhaps most important, the Israeli-Turkish relationship has deteriorated dramatically, even dangerously. I am reasonably confident that had the Israelis not immediately repatriated all the Turkish individuals in their custody Ankara might well have truly contemplated terminating diplomatic relations. That’s really rather stunning, when you think of it, given the longevity of these ties. Related, deepening defense cooperation is still at real risk looking forward depending on Israel’s next moves regarding the blockade (as is restoration of full Ambassadorial-level diplomatic ties). And of course you have Prime Minister Erdogan’s statements—which cannot be wholly discounted as fiery rhetoric in the aftermath of the emotional death of Turkish civilians—that “nothing will be the same” in the context of Turkish-Israeli relations. While one senses, at least as of this writing, that both parties have pulled back from the brink some, the situation is still fraught with real tension and the bilateral dynamics are highly problematic to say the least.

Second, this all comes at a highly sensitive time geopolitically in the region with Turkey having sought to broker (along with Brazil) a deal respecting Iran’s nuclear program (incidentally, I hope the subject of a separate post soon). These efforts, whatever their merits, and having been rebuffed rather too high-handedly (or, alternatively, in too rushed and defensive a manner?) in various quarters, will have as a result the Turks likely intensifying their reach out to the ‘East’, especially given Washington’s tepid reaction to date on the flotilla incident (certainly from Ankara’s vantage point, witness but a proposed U.S. observer for an Israeli-led investigation into this fiasco!). In short, and post the Iraq War with its materially negative implications respecting the US-Turkish relationship, it is fair to say Israel’s botched intervention on the high seas has only made the sledding all the harder respecting helping calibrate Turkey’s evolving role in the neighborhood better from Washington’s perspective.

Related, this ill-fated operation was a blunder too as it will only render more complicated Israel’s objectives respecting the sanctions end-game at the United Nations on the Iran dossier, doubtless making it easier for the assorted ministrations of Brasilia, Ankara (as well other emerging powers) to work on peeling away Beijing and Moscow’s support for anything emitting from Turtle Bay that might have had real teeth vis-à-vis Teheran (to the extent these capitals were really minded to ultimately sign on to a robust U.S. draft to begin with, a dubious proposition ultimately, nor am I a fan of sanctions for sanctions sake, ineffective as they typically are, whether of the ‘smart’ variety or otherwise, so that we should be more focused on long-term containment initiatives likely).

Third, this presents yet another set-back likely to the mostly moribund launch of so-called ‘proximity talks’ George Mitchell has been pursuing for so many long months, a thankless task if there ever was one (if an important one nonetheless, given no credible, more ambitious initiatives are underway). Any setbacks to these fledgling diplomatic initiatives provide a shot in the arm to Hamas, further make life difficult for whatever assorted Fatah moderates in Ramallah, while putting more pressure on Cairo, Amman and possibly Riyadh, to the benefit of Damascus and other less conciliatory players.

And last, while there are still other strategic setbacks besides, the continued de-legitimation of Israel among large swaths of global opinion coming out of the ’06 Lebanese conflict, the dismal Operation Cast Lead, the Goldstone Report, and now this latest debacle, is worth highlighting as well. I know, I know, everyone would be beating up on Tel Aviv anyway, we are told by those who are always at the ready to provide carte blanche style rationalizations for whatever conduct Israel might deem appropriate, and with whatever the consequences, but this seems too easy a retort, no?

Meantime the mood in Israel, in the main, seems to be one of mostly defiance and rallying around the flag. There are vehement criticisms about the operational missteps, but few question the tactical wisdom of the operation itself with respect to the preservation of the blockade, fewer still the strategic challenges the botched operation have raised to the forefront per the above. Yes, something has changed in the Israeli public’s mood these past years, a thriving polity known for its rancorous and hard-fought debates across the political spectrum, not least when it came to national security issues. The rancor is still there, to be sure, but save outlier parties like Meretz a broad Likud-Labor-Kadima consensus has apparently congealed, one with little patience for the niceties of world opinion, international law, persistent diplomacy, and painstaking alliance-building. This extends beyond the political class itself, as some roughly 95% of the Israeli public polled believed the vessel needed to be stopped, ostensibly come what may.

The reasons are many, I suspect. The long campaign of suicide bombings engendered much hatred of the 'other' amidst the Israeli public. The fact that rocket attacks continued from Gaza after Israel’s withdrawal frustrated keenly, ‘what more can we do’, many asked? And legendary figures from the Israeli national security firmament are no longer with us, most notably, Yitzhak Rabin, so that the nation likely feels somewhat unmoored with only more second-tier players available. And yet these very sources of frustration are evocative of a lack of self-reflection among too many Israelis, one fears. If you withdraw from Gaza, but after an election Hamas wins (like it or not) cut back on the amount of basic goods allowed in--and then even more so after the ejection of Fatah from the Strip--is it any wonder frustration will mount within Gaza helping fuel further bouts of violence, for instance?

As for the current crise du jour, less about the flotilla (as symptom) ultimately than the blockade (as cause), can Israelis not better appreciate that acting as self-appointed commissars authorized to calibrate the precise amount of food aid, medical supplies and other goods allowed into Gaza (with nutritional issues still arising nonetheless, and post-Cast Lead rebuilding efforts hugely stunted), with what types of specific goods per detailed lists of authorized and non-authorized fare, offends sensibilities, indeed mightily, and in many quarters? Or that the communal punishment of 1.5 million people, for the acts of an off-shoot group of the Muslim Brotherhood which also incidentally provides varied social services (and with which frankly the U.S.—or a proxy—should open channels too given their key position within the Palestinian polity), similarly perturbs many fair-minded persons? Or, still, that the constant discussion surrounding a single IDF soldier, one Gilad Shalit, while heartbreaking for him, his family, his unit and Army, and indeed perhaps too the Israeli nation more generally, is nonetheless perhaps discounted in ‘net’ import some by those looking at the plight of well over a million Palestinians by comparison (Netanyahu has listed this single soldier as one of three key variables weighing on Israel’s posture vis-à-vis the blockade)?

I could go on, but this mood of national testiness, dearth of self-reflection, default to non-conciliatory postures, and easy resort to militarism is proving ever more debilitating to Israel’s overall position and future in the region, and indeed globally. More than anything, the tactical obsession with eradicating enemies (as if one even could every last Hamas or Hezbollah adherent), rather than more seriously moving forward towards an overarching peace settlement with the Palestinians (as well the Syrians and Lebanese) is what strikes me as most short-sighted. What is needed is more strategic patience, realism and wisdom among Israel’s leaders, as reminiscent of the aforementioned Yitzhak Rabin. Mssrs. Netanyahu and Barak have not mustered same, alas, certainly not of late.

Last, however, we would be remiss not to mention Washington in all this, which has proven overly halting, passive and cautious in its approach to this issue, despite its ever growing costs as strategic liability to the United States. President Obama needs to become more personally involved in pointing the parties towards the final parameters of a convincing settlement, while playing ‘honest broker’ more forcefully, and in out-of-the- box fashion (yes, I know, he’s rather busy, and more seed-work is required by Clinton and Mitchell). This means bold acts (at least by our paltry standards) to shake up dynamics some, like having a vigorous international investigation into this incident with, who could imagine, Turkish and Israeli observers, say, rather than simply Israelis running the investigation with a token US observer who will be widely viewed by the world as a white-wash enabler, or moving to engage Hamas (likely indirectly via EU proxies at first), or still skipping over proximity talks in favor of the real thing, meaning direct talks under U.S. mediation (by exerting adult supervision and real pressure on the parties to get them to the proverbial table). Did we vote for change? Real change? Well, where is it, one too often wonders, across a variety of areas. Except, really, this isn't really revolutionary change, it's called basic, robust and slightly more risky and creative diplomacy, which this nation has employed in the past on occasion, if not too often in recent memory.

In short, and as often, another dismal episode emitting from the Middle East, lots of noise and protestations and shrieks resulting, and little by way of intelligent, concrete policy-making apparently in the offing from any governmental quarters (like, say, more forcefully sketching out in Quartet, UN and other international fora the key parameters that everyone is aware are needed for an overall peace deal, while pursuing outreach to portions of Hamas that would be willing to renounce violence on the basis of a meaningful peace settlement). This also begs questions regarding how a ribald, Tweeting (Palin-style), special interest-laden, and hugely dumbed-down cable news addled mass democracy manages to run a serious foreign policy, but that topic is perhaps better left for another day.

Posted by Gregory at 10:08 PM | Comments (24) | TrackBack

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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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