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August, 2008

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Back in the Saddle

I just got back from vacation where for two weeks I was offline and, outside of a brief scan of the newstand headlines every few days, happily oblivious to domestic and world affairs. I found out about the Veep nominations two days after the fact in both cases, for instance, and that of Governor Palin only because a French aquaintance happened to ask me what I thought of her. Which reminded me of a visit back to NY in 1998 when, walking down the street in Little Italy, I noticed a small piece of cardboard carton propped into a street level apartment window that read:

Today in Yankee Stadium, David Wells threw a perfect game. 

At the time, I didn't yet get my news from the internet, but the idea that in the age of instant information, news might still travel via handwritten signs posted in apartment windows struck me as fanciful and satisfying. That and the fact that someone not only found the news of a perfect game in Yankee Stadium (the first since Larsen's in the 1956 World Series) momentous enough to broadcast, but also felt a civic duty to do so.

But I suppose that's what makes news news: the fact that it travels, whether via internet or word of mouth. All of which is to say that I'm back from vacation and will be posting throughout the week.

In the meantime, I've got a couple of pieces that just went up over at Small Wars Journal, a book review (.pdf) and interview (.pdf) with Gen. Vincent Desportes, the commander of the French Army's Force Employment Doctrine Center and author of The Likely War. They're worth a glance if you're interested in a proposed strategic context for the kinds of COIN-centric wars most military analysts are anticipating in the near future.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Friday, August 15, 2008

Fermeture Annuelle

Like most of the world, I've heard about how France shuts down in August. But because the first six years I lived here were spent in a tiny village in Provence that was actually a summer vacation destination, I never really experienced the phenomenon until this summer. To put it simply, for the past two weeks Paris has been a ghost town. It was actually enjoyable the first few days to just stroll up to outdoor cafes where there's usually a ten-minute wait for a table and sit down immediately. But after a while, I understood why everyone had encouraged me to get out of town.

So now I'm going native, which is to say that I, too, am heading off for a two-week vacation with the Lil' Feller to catch up on some father-son time, and also to relax and replenish a bit. It's been an eventful and rewarding year, full of accomplishments but also very draining. I'll be completely offline and might even hold out against the temptation to buy the IHT print edition. So when I get back, I'll be well-rested and very possibly clueless about the state of world affairs. 

See you all in two weeks.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Gift for Putin

Jeez. I figured that the opening of the Olympic Games meant I could sneak in a week of intermittent posting, and instead war breaks out in Europe. Obviously, with resident Russia specialist Richard Weitz around, I assumed WPR readers would be well informed, and I wasn't wrong. Setting aside the actual issues at dispute in the Russian-Georgian conflict, when I saw the first reports of the fighting, I couldn't help but think that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashivili had done the Russians an enormous favor in provoking an armed conflict, and this paragraph from Richard's piece explains why:

By punishing Georgia militarily, Moscow presumably also sought to make clear to Tbilisi and its allies the extent of Russia's military revival. Although Russian defense spending has increased in recent years, analysts remained uncertain about the extent to which the Russian military had experienced genuine improvements in its operational capability given its poor performance in Chechnya, morale problems, and lack of actual combat experience. Russian leaders have now demonstrated that Moscow has both the capacity and the will to use the country's armed forces to advance Russia's security goals. 

As Richard goes on to point out, ". . .no NATO government is prepared to engage in a war with Russia on Tbilisi's behalf." That point was already driven home by last April's NATO Summit, but apparently no one in Tbilisi got the message. So the Georgian military intervention, which depended on NATO and European military solidarity in the event of a Russian riposte, amounted to Saakashivili's mouth writing checks that his ass couldn't cash. Moscow, which by all indications was paying attention to the Bucharest NATO summit, jumped on the opportunity to demonstrate that it's willing to push things to the brink. 

It's a pretty safe brink as precipices go from Moscow's point of view, but it serves to illustrate the alarming shortsightedness of using NATO to lock Russia in to its humiliating 1990's impotence. The Russians have been signalling very strongly, and for a while now, that the 90's are over and that they expect to be taken seriously again. For the most part, that's been most pronounced in their historic sphere of influence, although they've demonstrated the willingness to play a spoiler role elsewhere (ie. Iran) as a way of leveraging American interests against their own. References to a new Cold War, though, are misguided in that Moscow is not proposing an alternate global order in opposition to the West, but rather to assume what it considers its rightful place in the existing order. 

While it's true that Russia's historic sphere of influence has in the meantime turned its hopes westward, the hard facts on the ground come down to interests and power. Russia has demonstrated it's willingness and ability to back up the former with the latter in Georgia. I'm sure that we'd do the same if it were a question of Russian strategic bombers based in Cuba. But the events of the past week have demonstrated just how far away Tbilisi is compared to Havana, and that's something that should be considered in formulating a post-Ossetian Russia policy.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Russia   

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Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Attacking McCain

In a lot of ways, Barack Obama has his hands tied in responding to John McCain's attack ads for reasons that have to do with each candidate's intended audience. And the suggested responses to McCain's attacks being pushed by Democrats and progressives illustrate why. Take the question of "Obama the elitist." Pointing out that John McCain comes from a privileged background and wears expensive Italian loafers ignores the lesson learned from the 2000 election, namely that no matter how big his trust fund, how many Ivy League schools he's attended, or how many free passes he's gotten because of his name, a tough-talking Republican can still pass himself off as "regular guy" more easily than a Democrat committed to policies that actually benefit "regular guys."

An effective counterattack, on the other hand, would be to point out that McCain's loafers are more than likely paid for by his wife's money. Same goes for the GOP ridicule of tire inflation as an energy conservation measure. Obama is right to point out that the measure is effective and recognized by efficiency experts, but that's a message directed at his own audience. To effectively counter McCain's message among McCain's audience (and the echo chamber), Obama would point out that any man who's ever taken his family on a road trip knows the importance of inflating the tires properly, not only for fuel efficiency but also for safety. He would then add that in the McCain household, not only is Cindy in charge of paying the bills, she's apparently in charge of car maintenance, too.

This kind of response rings true to anyone who has ever played the dozens, played pickup basketball, or hung out in a schoolyard, and one imagines that Barack Obama is no stranger to the three. In Josh Marshall's lexicography, it would be a "bitch slap" targeted at McCain's audience, effectively emasculating McCain in the tradition of the dozens: "I called your boy a punk and he couldn't do anything about it."

Trouble is, this kind of blatant misogyny is unpalatable to Obama's progressive audience. And to be clear, I'm not advocating it. I've actually sent a couple unanswered emails to Josh Marshall over the years, taking him to task for his "bitch slap" label. But so long as Democrats and progressives do not have a clear majority coalition whereby they can maintain message discipline and still win elections, they will be at a disadvantage on this playing field, and whining about it only reinforces the image problem. 

Obama might end up being the candidate who establishes that majority coalition by sticking to the high road. But part of me wishes Democrats would offer him a "no holds barred waiver," just long enough to get McCain to stick to the issues. You can take the kid out of Brooklyn, I guess, but you can't take the Brooklyn out of the kid.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Coordinating Interagency Integration

If you haven't seen it on the WPR front page yet, give John Nagl's and Brian Burton's piece on the need for building civilian institutional capacity for counterinsurgency and nation-building operations a look. Obviously conflict zones are going to command a great deal of American attention and resources, and as Nagl and Burton make clear, unless civilian agencies adapt their training and institutional orientation, they will increasingly see their expertise farmed out to, or absorbed by, the military. As the article also makes clear, that won't happen until these agencies are funded and staffed to a level appropriate with their essential contributions to these efforts.

The piece emphasizes the need for more interagency "integration" of operations, but one question it leaves unanswered is who ultimately will play the overall coordinating role:

. . .The demands of large-scale counterinsurgency and reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq are increasingly clear: The United States must integrate civilian reconstruction expertise with military force in conflict zones. Ad hoc measures, like the establishment of the civil-military Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan and Iraq, were an important step towards creating this capability but are an incomplete solution. Recent State Department-led initiatives, which include the establishment of the Civilian Response Corps as well as the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (CRS) and the Interagency Counterinsurgency Initiative, represent an effort to establish effective civilian control of the political, economic, and social dimensions of nation-building operations.

One of the problems identified with PRT's is that, lacking any uniform command structure, they are essentially coordinated by the agency controlling the funding stream. More often than not these days, that's the Pentagon. As Nagl and Burton put it, the State Dept. initiative is only a first step. An overarching conceptual framework of how interagency integration functions might be a useful second one.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Foreign Policy   Iraq   

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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Case for Iraq Withdrawal Timetables

According to this CFR backgrounder, neighboring Arab states are increasing their aid to and engagement with Iraq as a pre-emptive security investment in the event of an increasingly expected American troop withdrawal. Of course, forcing Iraq's neighbors to assume more of a burden in stabilizing the country was one of the logical underpinnings of a withdrawal timeline, along with the pressure it would place on the Iraqi political process to make progress on power sharing arrangements. So, basically, two for two.

Meanwhile, why does nobody ever mention the November 2006 midterm elections, which conclusively demonstrated that American public opinion had turned against the war, as a contributing factor to the reduction in violence in Iraq? If you take a look at this graphic from the Economist (via The Global Buzz), the peak in Iraqi civilian casualties actually corresponds to the end of 2006, before the announcement and deployment of the Surge. (I imagine the spike in American military casualties in Summer 2007 is due to the increased deployment and forward engagement of American forces in Baghdad.)

Contrary to the worst case scenarios conjured up of bloody internecine fighting, the possibility that American forces might soon be leaving Iraq seems to have a way of focusing people's attention on pulling back from the brink and finding ways to make sure things don't fall completely apart. In other words, pretty much what advocates of disengagement suggested, across the board.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Monday, August 4, 2008

Behind the Scenes at Geneva Iran Talks

Call it coincidence, but on the very day that the two-week ultimatum for Iran to respond to the P5+1's "freeze for freeze" offer runs out, Le Monde got its hands on detailed minutes of the Geneva meeting between Javier Solana and Saeed Jalili, attended by William Burns, two weeks ago in Geneva. And not surprisingly, the account isn't very flattering for Jalili. Apparently he managed to completely ignore Burns, seated only two chairs away from Solana, who spoke only to say the following:

I'm happy to be here to transmit a simple message: the United States are serious in their support of the offer [of cooperation] and of the Way Forward [freeze for freeze]. We are serious in the search for a diplomatic solution. Relations between our two countries have been based on a profound mistrust for thirty years. I hope my presence today is a step in the right direction, and that you will seize this opportunity. (Translated from the French translation of the original English.)

An opportunity described as "precious" by the Chinese, British and German envoys.

Jalili for his part spoke about a "strategic" cooperation to address the questions of "security, terrorism and energy security," and asked:

In what quality are we approaching these negotiations: as partners, friends, rivals, or hostile parties? (Translated from the French translation of the original Farsi.)

Jalili refused to address the P5+1's two pointed offers, namely the freeze for freeze and a six week period of prenegotiations, during the meeting itself. But Solana, after a private lunch with Jalili, reported that the Iranian negotiator had refused both. According to Le Monde:

. . .Jalili's presentation shows that Iran feels it is in a position of strength in the Middle East, with its diverse leverage points in the region's crises (Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian dossier), as well as on energy issues, and  that it doesn't feel any urgent need to cede anything to facilitate a negotiated settlement of the nuclear standoff. (Translated from the French.)

When offered with the two week "ultimatum" along with the threat of additional sanctions in the event of a negative response, Jalili replied that Iran's position is "strong" and that, citing the Ayatollah Khamenei, "We won't talk in an environment of threats."

The article notes that diplomats involved in the dossier believe a diplomatic breakthrough is unlikely before the American presidential election, but also because of Iranian President Ahmadinejad's weakened domestic political position. Unlike President Bush, Ahmadinejad isn't a lame duck, and will have to face his electorate in the event of what might be seen by others as courageous concessions, but would be protrayed by the John Boltons of Iran as capitulation.

Again, I don't think there's any coincidence that this got leaked on the very day that the news cycle will be dominated by Iran's likely refusal to accept the two-week ultimatum, and the West's likely pursuit of renewed sanctions. I also think the latest P5+1 offer, when combined with the presence of William Burns, is compelling and indeed a "precious" opportunity.

But as I pointed out here, it's important to listen to what the Iranians are saying, and as Flynt and Sarah Mann Leverett point out here, we should at least consider whether what they're offering isn't also a "precious opportunity." As for the obvious questions about whether or not the Iranians can be trusted, from what Jalili is saying, the Iranians are asking themselves the same questions about us.

What's needed is a real game-changing action (not signal, but action), to prove good faith. The Iranians could provide one by allowing unfettered IAEA access to their nuclear program. The U.S. could offer more than just William Burns' attendance at a meeting. But neither side is likely to do that so long as they both feel like it would be a sign of weakness, rather than strength.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Update: I mistakenly referred to William Burns as Nicholas in the original post. Thanks to Laura Rozen over at War and Piece for catching the oversight, which I have since corrected.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Friday, August 1, 2008

Saving Afghanistan

A propos whether success is possible in Afghanistan, Hampton forwarded me this Time article by Rory Stewart which is must reading. His arguments are specific to Afghanistan, a country he knows intimately from having walked across it in 2002, but also read as a manual of restraint and modesty in the conduct of foreign policy, especially when that foreign policy is increasingly outsourced to the military. I'm tempted to clip a paragraph or two, but instead I'll just strongly encourage you to click through and read through to the end.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   

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