January 22, 2009

What Would Real--Rather Than Rhetorical--Change in U.S. Foreign Policy Look Like?

It is hard to overstate the immense occasion that is Barack Hussein Obama’s inauguration as the 44th President of the United States. His name alone stuns, at least as that of a U.S. President, the surname eerily similar to the West’s post 9/11 arch-villain Osama bin Laden, his middle name the very surname of the dethroned Iraqi strongman. Throw in his status as the first African-American U.S. President since inception of the Republic and it is little wonder the whole nation (indeed the world) paused to marvel, not only at the momentous sight of this man taking the oath of office, but also America’s near awe-inspiring ability to re-invent itself.

So there is a sense of profound optimism that real change is afoot, if couched by a subtext of fear given the massive economic challenges facing the incoming Administration. And yet partly because of these very economic challenges—and the consuming efforts that will need to be directed towards alleviating them--one is concerned the scope of change required in the foreign policy realm may not prove quite as dramatic as necessary, perhaps with President Obama not being able to devote as much attention to same as he might otherwise.

Below I list six critical areas for Obama and his foreign policy team’s consideration, that is, if we are to move beyond the merely rhetorical (if inspirational-sounding) change, to the real thing, meaning a truly fresh start for American foreign policy after the profound strategic blunders of the Bush era.

1) Don’t Let Afghanistan Become Your Administration’s Iraq

The Iraq/Afghanistan narrative has become too trite these past years during the seemingly permanent election season. It goes something like there was a “good” war (Afghanistan) and a “bad” one (Iraq). Rapid de-escalation from the Mesopotamian morass is required, not only to hit a strategic ‘re-set’ button of sorts in the center of the Arab Middle East, but also the story has it, to allow for more man-power to be channeled to Afghanistan. While I agree with the former statement, I disagree with the latter one. And yet, too few skeptics in positions of influence question the wisdom of ratcheting up our involvement in Afghanistan (I’ve espied a few individuals like Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jim Webb, perhaps several others).

Here’s why it’s not such a no-brainer to march tens of thousands of reinforcements into the wilds of Afghanistan. Counter-terrorism is not nation-building. Retention of counter-terror surgical strike capacities and requisite intelligence-gathering capabilities can be maintained via a modest presence in key cities like Kabul, perhaps too temporarily bases like Bagram as we nonetheless move to phase them out, ‘over the horizon’ forces, drone strikes, a heightened ‘train and equip’ effort for the Afghan Army, and the like. U.S. marines should not be dying to try to de-Talibanize, if we might call it that, remote portions of the Pashtun south of Afghanistan. Why? First off, it’s a losing battle. The presence of foreign troops (like it or not, they are widely viewed as occupiers) only serves to further radicalize local Afghans (have the experiences of the Soviets, and before them, the British—thought us nothing?). Second, al-Qaeda is mostly scattered in parts Pakistan, rather than portions of Afghanistan where Marines are operating. And, even if not, or they move too freely back and forth, query: what was it about the 9/11 hijackers, say, that made it so critical that they’d enjoyed a safe-haven in Afghanistan? Was this safe haven needed to allow some of the hijackers to attend flight school in Florida, say, as former UK diplomat Rory Stewart has quipped? Can one only learn the finer usages of box-cutters—or more ambitious chemical and biological schemes for that matter—in far-away Afghanistan (to the contrary, one might argue it’s much harder in such parts, rather than in more advanced societies with easier access to the relevant technologies etc.)?

In fact, our most worrisome terror threats are probably far afield from Afghanistan, no matter how intellectually consuming and fodder for myriad think-tank ‘studies’ the latest folly-like fantasy of turning Afghanistan into a modern state might be (perhaps we can turn it into a Pakistan, say, albeit even this relatively ‘modest’ goal would require hundreds of thousands of men, tens upon tens of billions dollars—perhaps some TARP funds can be deployed?—as well as decades plus of far too many G.I.s on the ground). Put simply, any rational cost/benefit analysis should have us, not only forging and speedily implementing a responsible exit strategy from Iraq, but also accomplishing the same in Afghanistan. As I’ve said, the realer threats instead persist in Internet cafes and empty store-fronts in portions of the Parisian banlieu, the fringes of East London, and so on.

The alternative Mr. Obama confronts? Doubling-down for the long haul in a counterinsurgency effort all but doomed to failure, this in a country far larger and with more difficult terrain than Iraq, with NATO slowly but likely inexorably being torn asunder as too few other member states—certainly their populations—really believe in the ‘mission’, ultimately. And they are right not too, as we largely accomplished it already when al-Qaeda mostly scattered into parts South Waziristan in neighboring Pakistan, where last I checked no one sane was calling for a sustained nation-building effort, or alternately, an on the ground, years-long, robust counter-insurgency effort.

Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke is an immensely talented negotiator—with few able to cajole, harrumph, corral, threaten, bluster as relentlessly as he. In the context of his new role for Afghanistan and Pakistan matters I would hope that some of that relentless energy is spent—not having us sucked deeper into the Afghan counter-insurgency with Holbrooke thereby also spending precious time with the proverbial cup out for more NATO forces in varied European capitals, but rather, focused on helping stabilize critical parts of each country (say Kabul, Jalalabad, Peshawar and even Islamabad, for instance), while not forgetting to think about high level mediation efforts over Kashmir. A deal between India and Pakistan over that issue—however unimaginable it might seem from where we sit today—would go a long way towards de-radicalizing large swaths of Pakistani opinion, and help allow for a possibly viable rapprochement between New Delhi and Islamabad, while assisting our anti-terror efforts in Pakistan at the same time. A man of Holbrooke’s talents should be focused more on such issues, in my view, rather than spending too much time getting knee-deep with the Generals on a counter-insurgency effort I believe destined to fail.

This being said, we cannot underestimate how our presence--not to mention varied rhetoric and policies emitting from Washington during the Bush years--has helped contribute to an intensification of Taliban efforts, on both sides of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border (see this piece for vivid insights into the gravity of the situation, including how Pakistani Chief of Staff Kiyani is reticent to open up a second anti-Jihadi front in Punjab given he has his hands full in the Northwest Frontier Province, or NWFP, another reason incidentally Holbrooke should not forget the Kashmir issue as part of his mandate), so that I would stress again important cities and key populations centers like Kabul and Peshawar must be better protected, the former by NATO forces for the time being (as we continue to train and equip the Afghan Army), the latter where we should certainly be liaising with the Pakistanis as very closely as possible so as to monitor the efficacy of their efforts in strategic areas like Peshawar. This more limited mandate is at least a more realistic prescription than trying to convert 'hearts and minds' in a protracted counter-insurgency deep in the Pashtun heartlands.

2) De-Mystify Al-Qaeda, It’s Not All That

This young, charismatic new President has a near unique chance to captivate the world, more than any of his predecessors since at least John F. Kennedy. Imagine a major speech in Jakarta showing real sensitivity to the arrayed hundreds of thousands that this new African-American President whose middle name is Hussein understands that the phrase “global war on terrorism” (or ‘war on terror’, which the new President apparently is still employing) sounds far too much like a substitute for a “global war on Islam” to the billion plus Muslim faithful with whom we share this planet. Barack Obama can stand above the herd of typical politicians, and appeal not only to our better angels here at home, but across the world, as a reservoir of genuine good will exists for him to tap.

In this vein, there is no reason, Ahab-like, to get in the trenches obsessing about the GWOT and, in particular, Osama bin Laden. Robert Fisk is often derided in Western circles, but as a journalist with true regional expertise, courage and intensity, few can match him, as most of his fairer critics well realize. Here he is recounting his meeting with bin Laden in his gripping book “The Great War for Civilization”:

“Mr Robert," he began, and he looked around at the other men in combat jackets and soft brown hats who had crowded into the tent. "Mr Robert, one of our brothers had a dream. He dreamed that you came to us one day on a horse, that you had a beard and that you were a spiritual person. You wore a robe like us. This means you are a true Muslim." This was terrifying. It was one of the most fearful moments of my life. I understood Bin Laden's meaning a split second in front of each of his words. Dream. Horse. Beard. Spiritual. Robe. Muslim. The other men in the tent were all nodding and looking at me, some smiling, others silently staring at the Englishman who had appeared in the dream of the "brother." I was appalled. It was both a trap and an invitation, and the most dangerous moment to be among the most dangerous men in the world. I could not reject the "dream" lest I suggest Bin Laden was lying. Yet I could not accept its meaning without myself lying, without suggesting that what was clearly intended of me - that I should accept this "dream" as a prophecy and a divine instruction - might be fulfilled. For this man to trust me, a foreigner, to come to them without prejudice, that was one thing. But to imagine that I would join them in their struggle, that I would become one with them, was beyond any possibility. The coven was waiting for a reply.

Was I imagining this? Could this not be just an elaborate, rhetorical way of expressing traditional respect towards a visitor? Was this not merely the attempt of a Muslim to gain an adherent to the faith? Was Bin Laden really trying - let us be frank - to recruit me? I feared he was. And I immediately understood what this might mean. A Westerner, a white man from England, a journalist on a respectable newspaper - not a British convert to Islam of Arab or Asian origin - would be a catch indeed. He would go unsuspected, he could become a government official, join an army, even - as I would contemplate just over four years later - learn to fly an airliner. I had to get out of this, quickly, and I was trying to find an intellectual escape tunnel, working so hard in digging it that my brain was on fire.

"Sheikh Osama," I began, even before I had decided on my next words. "Sheikh Osama, I am not a Muslim." There was silence in the tent. "I am a journalist." No one could dispute that. "And the job of a journalist is to tell the truth." No one would want to dispute that. "And that is what I intend to do in my life - to tell the truth." Bin Laden was watching me like a hawk. And he understood. I was declining the offer. In front of his men, it was now Bin Laden's turn to withdraw, to cover his retreat gracefully. "If you tell the truth, that means you are a good Muslim," he said. The men in the tent in their combat jackets and beards all nodded at this sagacity. Bin Laden smiled. I was saved. As the old cliché goes, I "breathed again". No deal.

Perhaps it was out of the need to curtail this episode, to cover his embarrassment at this little failure, that Bin Laden suddenly and melodramatically noticed the school satchel lying beside my camera and the Lebanese newspapers partially visible inside. He seized upon them. He must read them at once. And in front of us all, he clambered across the tent with the papers in his hand to where the paraffin lamp was hissing in the corner. And there, for half an hour, ignoring almost all of us, he read his way through the Arabic press, sometimes summoning the Egyptian to read an article, at others showing a paper to one of the other gunmen in the tent. Was this really, I began to wonder, the centre of "world terror"? Listening to the spokesman at the US State Department, reading the editorials in The New York Times or The Washington Post, I might have been forgiven for believing that Bin Laden ran his "terror network" from a state-of-the-art bunker of computers and digitalised battle plans, flicking a switch to instruct his followers to assault another Western target. But this man seemed divorced from the outside world. Did he not have a radio? A television? [my emphasis]

Doesn’t bin Laden feel, well, small? And remember, this is in 1997, before the largest international man-hunt in history—still fumbled, alas—was in motion. Osama is probably even more desperate for news clipping these days, I’d think. Obama should keep him small and getting smaller, which is to say, not dignify him with any specialness (this is not to say U.S. forces should still not energetically be searching for him, but we should not elevate this mission to some special level of import in our public discourse, for instance, Ambassador Holbrooke should make very clear his Afghanistan-Pakistan mandate goes far beyond ‘bringing to justice’, to use an oft-used phrase, UBL). He has become yesterday’s man, even if he is alive (which I’m not certain he is), one can well imagine him barely cognizant of the events of the day, perhaps until weeks or months later, a vanishing specter we should not dignify with too great attention.

All this said, let us agree with the new President who said during his inaugural speech: “(f)or those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror . . . we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.” There is no doubt the perils we face on the terror front remain very real, and surely the intelligence briefings Obama has already been receiving during the transition period and now in office bear this out to some degree, but I am asking for some perspective, and that we not put Osama bin Laden on the same pedestal as we’ve done these past years, if understandably originally, emerging from the trauma of 9/11.

Beyond this, I am also suggesting that we re-order our national priorities so that, to be sure, combating extremism (in whatever manifestations) remains front and center, but that the sine qua non of U.S. foreign policy not be carried forward or advertised as part and parcel of the ‘global war on terror’. There are too many other threats to confront, and it is overly convenient to rebrand al-Qaeda’s brand of terrorism as the new ‘ism to replace communism and fascism as decades long center-piece of this country’s entire national security apparatus, which to my mind would prove too much of a distraction from the many other pressing challenges which confront us as well.

3) Resuscitate the Middle East Peace Process, But For Real This Time

The Middle East Peace Process, or lack thereof, seems everyone’s favorite topic, whipping-horse, perennial bugaboo—almost always approached with too much emotion and too little reason—by whomever is chiming in with their (usually grossly biased) views regarding same. Indeed, have we not all become tired of the various theories and clichés: ‘The Road to Jerusalem Runs Through Baghdad’, or is that the ‘The Road to Jerusalem Runs Through Teheran’, or perhaps Damascus, and so on? The platitudes and agenda-ridden sloganeering fatigues, with some wanting to prioritize neo-con like militarism via threats of regime change in Iran (and Syria), and others stressing that the Arab-Israeli conflict—were it to be solved—would serve as some region-wide panacea, so that Pavlovian-like ‘peace-processing’ is needed, nothing more, damn the intentions of the ‘bad guys’ on the ground (while I of course sympathize much more with the latter view, I am only pointing out that there are various other critical challenges that wouldn’t disappear the day after even a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace deal were inked, to include Iraq, Iran, Kashmir, and more).

What is nonetheless clear, however, as much as some would like to wish it away, is that the Arab-Israeli conflict acts as a toxin materially hampering forward progress in the wider region—while radicalizing tens of thousands, such as Mohamed Atta, to take one prominent example. Meantime the outgoing Bush Administration’s obsession (born of insecurity) to follow ‘ABC’ (“Anything But [Bill] Clinton”, e.g. no robust peace-making), isolate Arafat, forsake more of an ‘honest-broker’ role—while simultaneously airily obsessing about ‘free’ elections—all helped usher in Hamas’ rise to greater power in Palestine, with such radicalization further fanned by the war in Iraq.

All this, of course, hasn’t helped much. The result, the pitiable Annapolis process or not, is very clear to most if not all sober-eyed observers, which is to say, parts of the region are in flames or grappling now with Grozny-like misery, American leadership is at a depressing nadir (the French, Qataris, Turks, Egyptians and others have been vying to fill the vacuum, but none have any real influence where it counts—Tel Aviv—so that their efforts can only prove ultimately ineffective, and too often annoyingly poseur-like, frankly, particularly a recent spate of mostly feckless European interventions), the peace process in tatters and thoroughly moribund given this abject neglect, meantime the blood of far too many civilians needlessly lost in the recent conflicts in Lebanon and Gaza, Israel still without peace, of course, with her reputation near an all-time low internationally after the Gaza onslaught, and on and on.

(And so where were these United States these past 8 years, one asks? Mostly a bystander, with our former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice something of a Lilliputian in search of a legacy, uttering recently in a Washington Post exit interview “(t)here would have been no 1701 without me” (about the grossly belated Lebanon Resolution at the UNSC) or still, about Iraq, breathlessly relaying as if to showcase its democratic bona fides that Iraq even “declared Christmas a national holiday”. The mind still reels, now eight years into this horror show of massive incompetence masquerading as moral righteousness and ‘transformationalist’ diplomacy, or whatever its been called).

If we mean to cause real change then, we need to book-end this sorry chapter, and quickly. President Obama must immediately move to inject competence and strength into the uppermost reaches of American diplomacy, while also changing the substance and tone of America’s Middle East policy, not least, by recognizing the needs of both sides, to help restore our reputation as ‘honest broker’, rather than, in David Aaron’s Miller’s words, too often acting as “Israel’s lawyer.” (While Miller’s op-ed title might sound somewhat inflammatory to some, it is really anything but. Miller was merely calling for more pragmatic, even-handed handling of important negotiations, hardly controversial or incendiary fare, at least if one is sober-minded and interested in results-oriented diplomacy).

In this vein, I believe it a very positive signal that George Mitchell has been appointed special Middle East envoy (apparently with responsibility mainly for the Palestinian-Israeli brief, but also the Israeli-Syrian and Lebanese-Israeli tracks, all of which will doubtless demand much dialogue with the Egyptians and Saudis as well, in particular). I would recommend that Mr. Mitchell appoint a deputy (Dan Kurtzer, for example, a former U.S. Ambassador to Israel) bringing additional energy and more direct on the ground experience, to complement Mr. Mitchell’s gravitas, negotiating skills, and disciplined legal temperament, while also not being shy to fully use the Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs as well (to include the many talented and dedicated professionals in that Bureau).

And once the immediate, and inevitable, crisis management clean-up of the recent wreckage in Gaza is accomplished (first we need to help, if through proxies, mediate schisms as between Hamas and the PA, as well as more directly liaise with differing Israeli factions set to squabble mightily during the impending political silly-season there, where we may well end up dealing with the re-emergence of Prime Minister Netanyahu after the elections), thereafter the Taba precedent should be speedily used as launching pad, of sorts, with additionally other bold strokes considered, like asking the Israelis to free Marwan Barghouti, so as to help restore Fatah as credible counter-party to Hamas, and thereafter lead the negotiations on behalf of Palestine with the Israelis. Only a leader with charisma can close a deal of such magnitude and controversy, and Abu Mazen doesn’t have what it takes, particularly after Israel’s latest operation, given these grim (if woefully predictable) tidings.

In short it is high time to cease the hapless by-standing (pre-Annapolis), or alternately, the empty spectacle (Annapolis), and instead roll up our sleeves and get to the hard work of forging a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace without a moment’s delay, and with relentless energy (without getting bogged down necessarily in a months long series of anti-smuggling discussions with the Egyptians, in large part a waste of time given factors such as these, rather than focusing on the larger strategic picture). Such hard toil can and likely will pay-off (see Camp David, Madrid, Oslo, etc), but only if all instruments of American national power are used, and focus, intelligence and intensity are brought to bear consistently from the Presidential level on down, with pressure applied even-handedly to get to the (so elusive, but not impossible) goal-line. This, and follow-through, so that gains (as Madrid and Oslo) are not then frittered away. As I said, all things being equal, the appointment of George Mitchell alone is a strong start by the President and his Secretary of State, but the effort will need to be all hands on deck, hard-charging and even-handed (that phrase again), with bold ‘out-of-the-box’ strokes employed on occasion.

4) Iran: A New Paradigm, Moving Beyond “Carrots & Sticks”

It has become conventional wisdom to predict that the greatest (or at least most immediate) major foreign policy challenge awaiting the new President is that presented by the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is mostly of course because of the reasonably marked progress Iran is making on its nuclear program (though not quite as expedited as some would have it) and on this basis indeed makes sense as a major priority (though like General Abizaid and others of similar ilk have said, I am not persuaded we might not have to accept that the Iranians will ultimately either possess or have the capability to expeditiously produce nuclear weapons, so that aside from focusing solely on preventing same thought should also be devoted to how best to integrate such a capability into the regional security architecture, ideally without setting off an arms race including possibly the Saudis, Turks and Egyptians, and where a pledged U.S. security deterrent could play a strong role).

Obama has already made very clear he is keen to employ a new approach with the Iranians, and with some pull-back unfortunately having been signaled here and there (ironically, resulting from his campaign when then opponent Hillary Clinton took a more hawkish stance forcing Obama to retrench some) this nonetheless apparently still includes the prospect of direct negotiations without preconditions (leading up to Presidential level). Related and perhaps towards this end, I’d like to recommend this excellent article which has several key points, including: 1) don’t rush it (a major diplomatic push might well profit from waiting until after the impending Iranian elections), 2) link Iran negotiations to additional tracks beyond the nuclear issue to include Iraq and Afghanistan (each of where Iran can possibly be of some assistance to us where mutual interests converge, areas demanding fulsome dialogue and inquiry), and 3) employ a new tone in our discussions with Teheran.

I would add the following too. Additional tracks should be considered as well, meaning beyond the nuclear, Afghanistan and Iraq tracks, for instance, Iran’s role in supporting Hamas and Hezbollah. This track should not be included merely to scold and berate, however, but also to see if there is room for maneuver and collaboration (even if very limited) with the Iranians on the Arab-Israeli front (say liaison with Damascus-based elements of Hamas on new modalities for Hamas’ behavior in Gaza). Worth noting, a set-back on one track (say, Iraq, but more likely, the nuclear issue), should not result in freezing discussions on Afghanistan or the Middle East. Instead, an approach should be taken whereby dialogue is pushed ahead on all fronts as very much as possible—not necessarily to reach some likely chimerical ‘grand bargain’—but to better understand each parties’ ultimate red-lines, must-haves, etc. with regard to each individual track, thus facilitating making better informed strategic decisions regarding the overarching U.S.-Iranian relationship once a genuinely multi-faceted, good faith dialogue on all these issues has been sufficiently advanced.

Related, Secretary of State Clinton will need to give serious thought to whom will handle aspects of this dialogue, for instance, George Mitchell would seem the logical candidate to interface on Iranian issues as they related to Arab-Israeli peace, and Dick Holbrooke with regard to Afghanistan (as Iran is opposed to the Taliban and other Sunni extremists so can possibly be constructive there). And while I have heard rumors that a special Iran envoy might be appointed as well, we risk having too many envoys for one wider region, I fear, so that perhaps Secretary Clinton might take-up the Iran issue personally, as aided by appropriate Foggy Bottom and/or extant Special Envoy back-up, as necessary (frankly I’m tempted to have seen Holbrooke given the Iran mandate too, but then Iraq is left a bit off-kilter in neither of the two announced envoys bailiwick, so we will likely need to monitor how Clinton fills out the bench and better gauge logical responsibilities going forward).

Last, on Iran, we must not forget to employ a new tone in our conversations with the Iranians, something I’d advocated in the cyber-pages of this blog quite a while back
, quoting the Iranian Ambassador to the UN about his displeasure about the usage of ‘carrots and sticks’ verbiage to describe Washington’s approach to Iran.

As the Ambassador put it:

If you deal with the other side as less than a human society, then don’t expect to have multiple outcomes. What I’m saying is that in Western terminology, concepts are used that would infuriate the other sides. Even the terminologies used by the United States in the liberal realist tradition—such as “carrot and stick”—are not meant for humans, but rather for donkeys. In studies of Orientalism, the Eastern part of the world is dealt with as an object rather than as serious, real human societies with longer, older civilizations with concerns and needs that have to be dealt with. [emphasis added]

It was therefore very gratifying to finally see prominent commentators like Pickering and Luers (full disclosure, I am acquainted and a fan of both men) making the same point in the pages of the NYRB:

A new policy also requires a new tone. Iran is a proud nation with roots in a centuries-old civilization; its insistence on being treated with mutual respect is not empty rhetoric. Continued denunciation of the regime will likely produce greater intransigence, especially as Iran enters its presidential campaign. Iranians bristle at the use of the phrase "carrots and sticks," which they associate with the treatment of donkeys and which in any case suggests that they can be either bought off or beaten into submission. More generally, the US government would do well to follow a first principle of diplomacy—when you want to change a bad situation, start by shutting up.

Not only Secretary Clinton, but the new President himself (who has used the ‘carrots and sticks’ phraseology, I believe, and in connection with Iran) might well profit from thinking through these subtleties of approach, perhaps with some luck paying real heed to them. It could make a difference towards getting to a break-through with the Iranians, at least certainly cannot hurt.

5) A New Approach to Russia?

Another area begging for real change in American foreign policy is our relationship with Russia. To start off strongly on a different foot, I would suggest a dramatic opening to the Russians whereby we signal we are contemplating revisiting so-called missile defense shield arrangements—at least to some extent and degree—in Poland and the Czech Republic (where we are moving along with interceptors and a radar station, respectively). Meantime my views on the Georgian fiasco are decently known in the blogosphere (see, in close chronological order, here, here and here), and I would suggest we not prioritize rushing, say, Ukrainian and/or Georgian NATO Membership Actions Plans, highly controversial given historic Russian interests in Crimea and the Caucasus.

There are critical issues where the Russians could be of significant assistance to us (notably nuclear proliferation issues, to include Iran, among many others) and nothing would be more effective to this end than signaling to the Russians that we are not simply hell-bent on extending some fictitious Pax Americana to the outskirts of Moscow and St. Petersburg via ‘encirclement’ on their southern underbelly (Georgia), and/or to their West (the missile defense issue in Eastern Europe)—which, like it or not, far too many in Moscow believe--rather than helping foster a high-level strategic dialogue with the Russians on these issues (having moved to put these particularly controversial issues on the table to signal our seriousness of intent about trying to forge a re-fashioned relationship).

Regardless, let us think seriously for a moment. Who really believes the Iranians, as if in some re-do of Islamic hordes charging the Gates of Vienna, are set to perpetrate missile strikes against Europe? And while it is true the Shahab-3 missiles have a range of some 1200 or so miles (enough to reach Bulgaria or Greece, say) do we really believe they are keen to attack Athens, Bucharest or Sophia? Or indeed if they roll out a Shahab-4 with longer-range in coming years, that Vienna or Berlin will suddenly be in their sights? Why would the Iranians do this? Please let us not pretend in ribald fashion because they are but ‘mad Mullahs’ or some such, with a collective suicide wish. As I said, this is farcical, and displays an ignorance of the complexities of Iranian statesmanship and the behavior of the Iranian nation-state.

Given this back-drop, we therefore might forgive the Russians not believing us that the true rationale for the contemplated missile shield system is really about Iran—or some other to be concocted Middle Eastern rogue hell-bent on lobbing missiles into central Europe--rather than as is more likely another 'legacy' containment tool aimed at Moscow. (Nor does it help, indeed it adds rather a good dollop of insult to injury, that such anti-missile shields are to be based in former Warsaw Pact nations under Soviet dominion not so long ago.)

Put simply, and at minimum, you would hope the incoming team would at least review both NATO enlargement and Eastern European missile shields anew for sense and impact on relations with Russia, as we have a major moment of opportunity with Moscow to re-fashion the relationship occasioned by the new American Administration having assumed power.

6) Guantanamo, Torture, and Looking Ahead Rather Than Backwards

Last but not least, real change would also mean shuttering Guantanamo and declaring unequivocally and without any ambiguity that the United States will no longer torture. It appears both goals are being followed by the new President, for which he should be lauded (though a more explicit statement that Army Field Manual interrogation practices will wholly apply also to the CIA might not be unwarranted). And while it would have been a more dramatic flourish to close Guantanamo within the first 100 days of his new Administration, it is understandable that there are several complexities and challenges to accomplishing same, some of which Matthew Waxman touches on here. This said all best efforts must be made to close Guantanamo within the first year of the new Administration, so that at least when the new decade is ushered in this gross stain on America’s repute will be no more. Indeed, and as has been vividly pointed out (hat tip:
Glenn Greenwald
), this is Obama’s penitentiary now, alas, every day it remains open still.

But I write here, mostly, to broach Obama’s seeming unwillingness to prioritize analyzing whether war crimes or other illegal acts were undertaken by the prior Administration. First, a confession, Obama is a better man than this writer. His ability not to nurse grudges, his poise, his persistent optimism—we have seen it often already now. And second, he has said that Eric Holder will be the “people’s lawyer”, and certainly hasn’t indicated there will be a white-wash, and that whatever relevant evidence will be diligently analyzed. And yet, the emphasis has strongly been to move forward rather than look backwards, and while I understand the temptation of same, even some might argue, the wisdom (a perceived auto de fe could poison Obama’s attempts to position himself as a sunny Reagan of the center-left and there are myriad critical items on his agenda he doubtless thinks might be of even greater import than these war crime investigations, perhaps at least to the lives of ordinary Americans struggling without adequate access to health care, with jobs being lost by the hundreds of thousands, and the rest of a long laundry list of pressing issues). Still, however, there was something about the contempt shown by certain actors in the prior Administration (I am thinking less about Bush, whom I’ll confess I felt tinges of muted sympathy for as he hugged Obama with sincerity and wished him the best at the inaugural, in fairness too, he handled the transition reasonably well, and perhaps worth noting, the crimes committed were more often the acts of the real evil-doers who took advantage of his profound historical and constitutional ignorance) meaning men like David Addington, John Yoo, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld, among others. We must at least ask that Eric Holder be allowed to do a ‘deep-dive’ into this dossier, and share his unfiltered findings with the American people, to the extent possible, so collectively we might better gauge the best way forward at the time. Let’s recall, after all, human beings died under American custody due to torture, quite a few of them, and this is therefore a tremendously grave matter, among other reasons too, meriting the most serious attention by the incoming Administration.

There are many other issues that would similarly present opportunities for real change and that I’d be keen to broach, but time and space constraints counsel ending here, rather than discussing Iraq (where a responsible draw-down needs to be implemented and the Baker-Hamilton report dusted off, as political issues will become increasingly important and problematic to its future, requiring major diplomatic efforts by ourselves and other interested parties), the far too ignored relationship with Latin America, particularly Brazil and Mexico, better managing an economic dialogue with China, a still rocky situation with North Korea, and putting Trans-Atlantic relations on a better footing, but to close, I would suggest a real departure point from the Bush Administration could well profit from some of the above recommendations, if only at least consideration of them, as they relate to Afghanistan, international terrorism, the Arab-Israeli peace process, Iran, Russia, and the legacy of the prior Administration’s torture policy.

NB: I should perhaps add a last word on Secretary of State Clinton, who after all, will be the person day-to-day charged with the managing of U.S. foreign policy for the new Administration. While I haven't necessarily been one of her biggest fans (I supported Obama during the primaries), and truth be told would have preferred another Secretary of State (like Gideon Rachman quipped a few months back, I would have preferred someone more "dull" for the job, not least after all the fevered missteps of the Bush Administration, and am a tad discomforted too that there is a seeming 'celebrification' of the Secretary of State slot these past years), one nonetheless cannot help admiring her sharp mind, strong work ethic and--accompanied by heavyweights like Mitchell and Holbrooke (and with Obama hopefully steering her away from stereotypical notions of 'toughness' and 'hawkishness' when inappropriate, see, for instance, Madeline Albright and "cojones")--she could well prove a superb leader at Foggy Bottom, and we might wish her only the very best as she embarks on this challenging new chapter in her career.

Posted by Gregory at January 22, 2009 07:08 PM

I don't agree with you, or Mr. Waxman, about the difficulties in closing the Guatnanamo prison. IMO, the 'dangerousness' of prisoners is way overstated, but even where it isn't, you can't cure the problem of inability to convict a person of a crime because the evidence is completely tainted by crafting a new system that allows tainted evidence.

Brown v. Mississippi>/i> and Chambers v. Florida aren't just about the unfortunate men who were defendants there. Those cases are about us as a people. And if the prior authorities felt they had to make a choice -- taint future prosecutions in hopes of gaining critical information now -- well, we just have to hope that the information was worth it. Because when you make that choice, you are choosing (unless you're living in John Yoo's fantasy monarchy) to let potentially dangerous people go. And it's time to face up to the choices that were made.

Fortunately, the population we're talking about is vanishingly small. If not 0, it's under 10 -- no real barrier to solving the 240 man problem the new Administration has inherited. Even if released, these 10 or fewer men can't do any worse than join the losing cause that is AQ.

Posted by: CharleyCarp at January 22, 2009 11:26 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


An excellent summing up of the priorities of the Obama foreign policy team. You are in the wrong profession!

Posted by: Tom S at January 23, 2009 11:26 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I can find nothing with which to disagree. Thanks for going to the trouble. Have a great weekend.

Posted by: Tireduvit at January 23, 2009 05:12 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Great stuff! I just found you via Obsidian Wings. I'm definitely subscribing.

One point on al-Qaeda safe havens and bin Laden:

bin Laden's effectiveness comes from his strong organizational and logistical skills. He could enable the 9/11 attacks because Afghanistan was a clearinghouse of jihadis from around the world. First, bin Laden had plenty of ideas for terror and the "masterminds" to oversee them. But more importantly, he had access to thousands of willing martyrs, who could be personally evaluated and tested for their suitability for any particular plan.

So no, al-Qaeda didn't need Afghanistan for any particular training, but it did need it to sift through a large pool of potential radicals to identify who could legitimately carry out its plots. The Hamburg group were the simply the best recruits from the thousands of other jihadis who showed up on bin Laden's doorstep.

Now, without a safe haven, bin Laden can still hatch plots and direct resources to them. He also inspires self-organized copycat groups that can easily operate in their home countries (this is far more likely in Europe than the US). But he does not have the ability to hand pick the right people to carry out his future plots, which remember must be more spectacular than 9/11.

So I think bin Laden is a smaller threat right now than he's made out to be. However, I still would like to pursue him for his past actions.

Again, great writing, and I'm looking forward to future posts.

Posted by: Mark E at January 25, 2009 01:38 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I've quoted you and linked to you here: http://consul-at-arms2.blogspot.com/2009/01/re-what-would-real-rather-than.html

Posted by: Consul-At-Arms at January 28, 2009 09:36 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I suggest that Obama's over-arching objective should be to shed America's superpower status. America should no longer lead the world simply because it's the baddest dude around. Instead, it should lead by the persuasiveness of its positions, their contribution to the common good, and for their ability to bring nations together and gain consensus for broad, concerted efforts to reduce chronic, severe problems affecting humanity.

Objectives like "Don’t Let Afghanistan Become Your Administration’s Iraq," simply beg the question of why we are occuyping Afghanistan at all. Until we determine our objectives and role in Afghanistan, there is no point in saying anything more about what we should or should not do.

Unfortunately, no one, not even the SecDef, can state our goals in Afghanistan. "Gates suggested the US goals in Afghanistan must be 'modest' and 'realistic'. He said, 'This is going to be a long slog, and frankly, my view is that we need to be very careful about the nature of goals we set for ourselves in Afghanistan.'" How pathetic is that!!!

Sadly, the same can be said of Iran and Russia. "Obama has already made very clear he is keen to employ a new approach with the Iranians." But to what purpose? There is already strong evidence that the Iranians are not pursuing a nuclear weapons program,. There is no evidence they are supplying the Iraqi insurgency against the government of their friend Maliki. And they supply their friend Hezbollah mostly because Hezbollah is being threatened by Israel and because Iran itself is annoyed by US sanctions. So if these manufactured issues are evidently not the issue, why won't the US leadership articulate the real issues, stakes and goals for Iran? Ditto for Russia?

Obama should clearly state that it is no longer in America's interests to be the global cop, to force other nations to swear fealty to Washington and American commercial interests, or to engage in costly foreign adventures simply to prove American power and status or to control oil and natural gas spigots and distribution routes that will mostly supply Europe, China, India and Japan, not America.

Posted by: JohnH at January 30, 2009 08:02 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The real problem is we are not dealing with people who will listen to reason, they only respect force.

Posted by: Corey Frisbee at January 31, 2009 09:50 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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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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