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February, 2008

Friday, February 29, 2008

It's 3 A.M...

...and you're children are safe and asleep. But there's a phone in the White House and it's ringing... and ringing... and ringing...

Since it seems to be the topic of the day, I'll simply observe that that phone rings a long time (six, to be exact) before someone finally answers. That conveys something other than "ready" to me.

More broadly, I'd note that Hillary Clinton seems to have entered that phase of a campaign where she just can't catch a break. Which is a very unhappy phase for her to be in, seeing as how there's still a couple crucial primaries on the line.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Friday, February 29, 2008

WPR Blogging

I posted lots of good stuff over at the World Politics Review blog this morning, so click through and take a look.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Thursday, February 28, 2008

WPR Blogging

Just a reminder that, as usual, I did some posting exclusively to the World Politics Review blog. This post on the broader impact of the Turkish incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan is worth a glance, if I do say so myself. Speaking of which, when does an incursion become an invasion?

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Surge's Bitter Paradox

I've got a hunch that we're on the cusp of a popular Surge backlash, more widespread than what critics have suggested for the past few months. And when it does gather force, it will probably sound pretty much like what Sam Brannen, of the CSIS, says here. It's already clear that the improved security environment in Iraq has not led to increased Iraqi investment in the political process in Baghdad. Brannen points out, though, what I've yet to see mentioned, namely that it has instead led to increased American investment in the political process in Baghdad.

Increasingly, the United States has driven the Iraqi political process not just by setting benchmarks for Iraq's parliament but also by choosing winners and losers in the informal political processes that most define the country's power landscape. The United States is now the thread that binds Iraq, and it is clear that a serious unraveling of the situation would occur were this thread suddenly to be pulled away.

In other words, instead of making it easier for us to leave Iraq, the Surge has made it more difficult. And if that doesn't qualify a military tactic as a failure, I don't know what does.

But I'm beginning to think that to call the Surge a military tactic, or to speak of it as having caused some outcome or not, is a bit unfair. At some point, when we speak of the Surge, we'll be referring more to a moment in time than to a military tactic or troop count. A moment that preceded the painful realization that no matter how much ground we eventually control in Iraq, we will have little control over the outcome.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

WPR Blogging

Just a reminder to click through to the World Politics Review blog for some stuff that I only posted over there today. Also, consider this post each day as an open link for comments to stuff I've posted over there.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Beat Goes On

Yesterday I mentioned that India had successfully test-launched an undersea missile. Today the head of Pakistan's navy declared that the test would trigger a regional arms-race. (There are some doubts as to whether China has already mastered the technology.):

"We are aware of these developments, and these developments are taking place with a view to put nuclear weapons at sea and it is a very, very serious issue," the state news agency quoted him as saying.

Of course, having tested three nuclear capable missiles in the past year, Pakistan is hardly in the position of pointing the finger.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  India   Pakistan   

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Foreign Policy And The Press

There's been a lot of back and forth about David Signer's WaPo piece this weekend taking the major media to task for ignoring foreign policy in its coverage of the presidential campaign. Ilan Goldenberg at Democracy Arsenal has got all the links and some original insights that warrant a glance.

I'd add that part of the problem has to do not with a lack of interest so much as a sense even among journalists that foreign policy is better left to experts and the specialized press. Most people are comfortable discussing the political calculus of tax cuts, even if they aren't economists. Same goes for universal healthcare or education reform and a whole host of other domestic policy issues. But how many people really have an opinion on the expansion of NATO into Russia's periphery, or the best way to counter Chavez-style neo-Bolivarism in South America? Both foreign and domestic policy have concrete impacts on the lives of the end consumer of the news, but the former (outside of the big ticket items) are often more indirect than the latter, and more difficult to trace.

I'm also not sure how relevant it is to talk about foreign policy when what we really mean is a multitude of foreign policies, some broad and regional, others more narrow and local. Ideally they form a coherent strategic whole, but sometimes the result ends up being something of a patchwork of contingency and convenience that combines to offer a least bad rather than an ideal approach. While Matthew Yglesias is right in saying that the president has far greater control over foreign policy than domestic policy, it is often in the form of reacting to events on the ground rather than formulating and implementing a grand strategy. Which leaves me somewhat immune to foreign policy white papers and addresses, as well as the coverage they might inspire.

Meanwhile, although the major media has been remiss in this regard, the foreign policy press has been doing its job. Case in point is Ximena Ortiz's rundown of the three remaining candidates' foreign policy records, statements and agendas. None of them gets off easy, but Barack Obama scores some points for owning up to it when he changes his position. Worth a read.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Media Coverage   

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Turkey, The Kurds, And Iran

Over at WPR, I spoke with a well-informed European official about the IAEA's Iran report. On a hunch, I asked him what kind of strategic impact Turkey -- which has really stayed on the sidelines of this issue -- could make by actively siding with the West's position. Without hesitation he said it would make a huge difference. In addition to the obvious reasons (Islamic country, regional power, etc.), he explained that Turkey is one of the countries in the region he would be most worried about seeking a nuclear weapons capacity should Iran aquire a nuclear bomb. Although he did not explicitly connect the dots, I interpreted that to mean that by coming down firmly on the side of containing the Iranian program, Turkey would send a strong signal to the rest of the region of their own intentions. That in turn would shore up Western efforts to enlist other regional players to contain, rather than compete with, the Iranian program.

That's important to keep in mind for putting Turkey's Iraq incursion into context. American military commanders emphasized the difference yesterday between the U.S. receiving advance notice of the incursion and the U.S. approving the incursion. But that's a distinction very few people will find convincing, least of all the Kurds, who reminded the U.S. (in the form of a resolution by the Kurdish Regional Parliament) of its obligation to defend the territorial integrity of Iraq. (The resolution also notably called for the closure of Turkish Forward Operating Bases in Iraqi Kurdistan that date back to the 1990's.)

My source categorically refused to speculate on a potential quid pro quo. But should Turkey adopt a more vocal position in opposition to Iran's nuclear program, it would to my mind suggest a priority shift in American strategic calculations in the region, and reflect the extent to which Washington considers the Iranian program a very serious threat.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   Turkey   

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The IAEA Iran Report

I just posted a background interview with a well-informed European official on the impact of Friday's IAEA Iran report over on the World Politics Review blog. It's worth a read, so click through.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Bling Bling vs. Sustainable Development

Via Secret Defense comes the news that India's defense ministry today announced the successful test-firing of an undersea missile, adding India to a very exclusive list of countries that have mastered the challenging technology. That the news coincides with Parag Khanna's WPR article on the challenges facing India's emergence as a modern economy strikes me as a poignant reminder of where so much of the wealth of the "second world" that could go into raising living standards and developing infrastructure will eventually be diverted.

The launch is the latest in a tit for tat sequence of test firings between India and Pakistan, which not surprisingly places a higher priority on countering India's strategic forces than it does on either confronting extremist insurgents on the Afghan border or alleviating a recent nationwide wheat flour shortage. I don't know if there's anything the U.S. can actually do to reduce suspicions between these two countries, but inasmuch as there is, it should really be high up on the priority list for our regional policy.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  India   

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

WPR Blogging

Today, instead of just reminding you that I'll be posting primarily over at the World Politics Review blog, I'll also call your attention to an article by Parag Khanna that just went up on the site. Khanna just made a big splash (deservedly so) with his recent NY Times Sunday Magazine cover story on the geopolitical transformations that are re-shaping the global strategic landscape.

In his WPR piece, titled "On the Road to Disaster in India", he uses a recent trip back to his city of birth to illustrate the very real challenges that are often obscured by the media narrative of India's rise:

India, like the majority of the planet's countries that I call "second world," is perpetually on a knife's edge: rising in status while dwindling in resources, growing richer in some places and poorer (as if that is even possible) in others, trying to build one nation while globalization and money empower narrow political and corporate interests to place their agendas above all else. In India all of this is playing out in what will soon be the most populous country in the world, with neither rules nor historical precedent to guide it.

It's an eye-opening piece that doesn't shrink from calling attention to the many ways in which India's political culture and society serve as brakes to its economic and strategic development. The article also gives me a chance to plug World Politics Review. It's a really solid outfit with great contributors, updated with new material daily. Click through and give it a look and you'll see what I mean.

Posted by Judah in:  India   Media Coverage   

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Blog Ghetto

As someone who began "blogging" just over a year ago, I don't really identify myself as a blogger in the way that most early adapters do. So I usually don't get too wrapped up in debates about the relative merits of blogging vs. reporting. But like Andrew Sullivan, I was surprised to see the NY Times write-up of Josh Marshall and TPM's Polk Award for their US Attorney coverage reference the "stigma" attached to blogging. Here's the quote:

"[H]e operates a long way from the cliched pajama-wearing, coffee-sipping commentator on the news."

Now, the fact that this sentence shows up in a NY Times article in February 2008 has so many layers of ridiculousness to it that it's hard to figure out which one to unravel first.

Ridiculous layer no. 1)

I mentioned that I just contracted a freelance editing gig working for a newspaper trade publication. It consists of sifting through content (from their blog, no less) and synthesizing it into coherent articles. I'd say that about half of the articles I end up with mention -- among the many ways that newspapers are scrambling to integrate new media into their content delivery models -- the proliferation of blogs springing up on newspaper online editions. I'm too lazy to check, but I'd bet dollars to donuts that the reporter who wrote the Times profile has got a blog, or else contributes to one, either on the Times site itself, or privately.

A good deal of the rest of the articles I end up with mention the newspaper industry's enthusiasm for citizen journalists, and their increasing experimentation with volunteer reporters. This is of course driven by the challenging revenue outlook and the demand for content. But the fact is, in the battle between the MSM model and the blog model now being waged in newsrooms worldwide, the blog model is carrying the day.

Ridiculous layer no. 2)

The idea that blogs are in some way a novel activity is absurd. Having opinions and expressing them is probably the second oldest profession known to humankind. (In all likelihood, it springs from the first.) That's why newspapers employ op-ed columnists. Now it's true that these are usually experienced reporters who have worked their way up the ranks through the obscure metrics that preceded the measurement of web traffic: accuracy, ability to maintain sources, reader popularity or responsiveness, invitations to popular talk shows, etc. In other words, they have accumulated a certain authority.

But at a certain point, these experienced journalists begin trafficking in opinions that far exceed not only their own limited expertise, but also any objective measure of the accuracy of what's being expressed. I'm thinking here of pronouncements on what America believes, or what's driving independent voters, and the like. At that point, there's little that differentiates them from the bloggers who engage them, other than the number of people who take their opinion seriously. And that's a metric that doesn't always work in the op-ed writer's favor.

Ridiculous layer no. 3)

If you compare the news media to a sports broadcast, reporters are the play-by-play announcers, op-ed writers are the color commentary, and bloggers are the folks sitting around the set watching the game. Now, as anyone whose ever watched a game with a group of friends knows, you don't do it in silence. You shout, cheer, make observations, and more often than not you tell the color announcer to shut his trap because he doesn't know what he's talking about. The power of the internet is that it got the folks sitting around watching the game into the broadcast booth, and suddenly the color man has to answer to more than just the TV critic of the local paper.

But even there, blogging is nothing new. It's talk radio, written down and hyperlinked, with a range (from Rush Limbaugh to Diane Reems) that's just as broad. So, really, it's time for reporters to get over it. Everybody else has.

Posted by Judah in:  Media Coverage   

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Softer Side Of McCain

There's been a lot of speculation about what a John McCain presidency would mean in terms of America's military adventurism. But anyone worried about McCain's hawkish declarations regarding a 100-year occupation of Iraq should find this video, courtesy of the Iranian Intelligence Ministry, reassuring. McCain, it seems, has accepted the limits of American military influence, and once President would focus more on "culture-building" and "velvet revolution" operations funded by his friend and co-conspirator, "Jewish tycoon" George Soros.

I should note that the idea that America is trying to gather intelligence through recruiting a sympathetic network of influential and well-placed Iranian elites is not at all farfetched. But when the motivations behind that campaign get boiled down to a basement cabal funded by "Jewish tycoons", it gets pretty pathetic. This stuff reminds me of the kind of rumors being circulated about Barack Obama, with the difference being that the Obama slime is being funded by private interest whackjobs, and this is the product of an Iranian government ministry.

Big hat tip to Small Wars Journal for catching this priceless reminder of just what kind of government we're dealing with in Tehran.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Politics   

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The EU's Kosovo Problem

A quick followup to John's [WPR] post about the deep divisions among EU member states regarding whether or not to recognize Kosovo's independence. When you take a look at who's opposed and why, it becomes clear that for Europeans much more than for Americans, the question of national sovereignty vs. ethno-linguistic-sectarian autonomy is not some far-off problem. Spain has got a delicate situation with Catalonia, and a violent Basque separatist movement to deal with. Greece and Cyprus are both keeping a wary eye on Turkish Cypriot claims to legitimacy. Romania and Bulgaria are in a corner of Europe where separatist claims could stoke regional unrest. And that's just Europe.

I've limited my comments on Kosovo so far to how sloppily it's been handled. (See this brief Laura Rozen post for confirmation.) But one thing is obvious. The argument that it doesn't set a precedent for separatist movements has not resonated in the areas of the world where such a precedent would be most threatening. To the contrary, the dissolution of Yugoslavia down to its lowest common denominators (of which Kosovo is simply the final act) has been accepted as one of the principal models for dealing with weakly federated nation states. The Biden-Gelb Plan for Iraq, for instance, is a thinly disguised version whose Federal structure, should it be implemented, is unlikely to stand the test of time.

Now I don't dismiss the argument that Serbia's oppressive mis-governance of Kosovo created a special case. I'm actually pretty susceptible to it. But unlike Iraqi Kurdistan, for instance, which could actually make a pretty strong claim for being a truly autonomous sovereign entity, Kosovo is a legal fiction. Its declaration of independence is simply a facade papering over a NATO/EU institutional infrastructure. (See Jacqueline Carpenter's WPR exclusive for more.) So as much as Kosovo sets a precedent for separatist movements, it sets an even more dangerous precedent for -- or at the very least, leaves the strong impression of -- the enforced partitioning of sovereign states without a UN mandate.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   International Relations   

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Monday, February 25, 2008

Building An Army That Can Build Nations

In today's WPR top story, Richard Weitz points out that while the military's doctrinal embrace of stability and reconstruction operations in counterinsurgency warfare is a welcome development, there's no certainty that it will survive the Pentagon-Capitol Hill funding corridor. As Weitz points out, the Army that does the fighting is not the same Army that does the shopping, and Congress, for all its rhetoric about transformation, still has a penchant for funding the big ticket items that have little application to post-conflict reconstruction operations.

There's also the little problem of branch rivalry: speak the words "stability operations" to the Navy and Air Force brass and they're liable to hear "no new toys". (This Armed Forces Journal piece gives you a sense of just how little has changed in Air Force thinking in the past twenty years.) And though Weitz doesn't mention it, there's also been some internal resistance to the doctrinal shift from within the military establishment. (Ralph Peters, though retired, is a charming example.)

I think there's a case to be made for the argument that America should be very selective about which post-conflict nation-building operations we engage in. (A good place to start would be the invasions that make them necessary.) They're long, arduous, and resource-consuming enterprises. But anyone who makes the case that America should avoid them altogether must in turn explain just how we ought to handle the problem of weak and failed states, because it's not going away, and it can't be ignored.*

They also have to justify America's astronomical defense spending in a global environment where the U.S. military would more often than not be ill-suited to the crises at hand. As it is, the funding imbalance between military and civilian departments weakens our ability to project our combined hard and soft power, since stability and reconstruction operations require integrated interagency efforts. Here's Weitz:

Despite its massive capabilities and earnest desires, the Army by itself cannot establish functioning governments and prosperous economies in the countries its defeats and occupies. The assistance of these civilian agencies, as well as their foreign counterparts, is essential for converting the Army's battlefield victories into a war-winning strategy.

That's a subject that Australian Army Lt. Col. Mick Ryan treats at length in this Parameters monograph titled "The Military and Reconstruction Operations". Interestingly, he adds that humanitarian organizations and NGO's will also have to adapt to the military's new doctrinal emphasis on nation-building operations (should it stick).

By necessity, military-led reconstruction operations have spilled over into what was traditionally the domain of nongovernmental organizations. . . Some NGOs accept the security umbrella provided by the military, while others refuse to cooperate based on their organizational culture or fear of reprisal. While this reticence to working with the military is based on a range of factors, nongovernmental organizations will need to reexamine their cultures and relationships with the military if they are to be effective in rebuilding societies impacted by insurgencies. (p. 11)

It's likely that the new Army doctrine will be the beginning of a dynamic process to develop effective operational approaches, both inter-agency and inter-organizational, to the problems posed by weak and failing states. Hopefully it will get a chance to mature.

*This sentence was updated for clarity. It originally began: "But anyone who makes that case..."

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Monday, February 25, 2008

The Political Value Of Wit

In case it doesn't make the American news, Nicolas Sarkozy caused a new uproar yesterday at the Agriculture Salon when he responded vulgarly to an insult from a passerby. As Sarkozy was making his way through the Salon, reaching out and shaking hands with those headed in the opposite direction, a man in his late-fifties or so objected, saying "Don't touch me," in a very hostile tone of voice. He added an expression that translates poorly into English but which roughly means "You'll contaminate me." (Literally it translates as "You'll dirty me".) To which Sarkozy without hesitation responded, "Then beat it, you pathetic bastard." The actual French, pauvre con (which more literally translates to "poor cunt"), is a vulgar expression of absolute contempt. The entire incident (neither man stopped walking, so it can't properly be described as a confrontation) was of course captured on video.

The episode is revealing for yet again demonstrating Sarkozy's "man of the people" bona fides, for better or worse. But it also serves to set up this great passage that Art Goldhammer over at French Politics flagged from Marianne's online edition:

Older folks will remember that, confronted with equally difficult situations, presidents in the past adopted a more regal bearing. Take Jacques Chirac, for instance, to whom an onlooker called out "Bastard!" while he was leaving mass at Bormes-les-Mimosas. "Nice to meet you," replied the former Head of State. "Jacques Chirac, here." Compare that Cyrano de Bergerac-like riposte with General de Gaulle's inspired response when confronted with a vibrant cry of "Death to the morons!": "A vast undertaking." (Translated from the French.)

The passage made me realize to what extent Barack Obama represents a return of wit to the American political arena. Every time he is attacked, he manages to respond in a way that impresses with its cleverness, and that is perfectly lethal not despite, but because of the absolute lack of venom in the parry. I'm thinking in particular of his, "I'm looking forward to having you as one of my advisors, too, Hillary." But there are other examples.

As a reflection of character, it contrasts favorably with the brittle reactivity of the Bush administration, as well as the rapid response tactics of the Clinton era. In fact, I hate to say it but I think you'd have to go as far back as Reagan to find its equivalent.

Posted by Judah in:  La France Politique   Politics   

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Monday, February 25, 2008

WPR Blogging

Just a reminder that I'll be posting primarily to the World Politics Review blog all week. Click through and take a look if you haven't bookmarked the site already.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Taps: A Vision Of Military Honour

Continuing with the theme of Hollywood and the post-Vietnam rehabilitation of American militarism, it occurred to me that no discussion of the subject would be complete without mentioning what is to my mind the most intelligent, complex and poignant cinematic treatment of military honour ever made: Taps.

Released in the first year of Ronald Reagan's presidency, the movie is perhaps best known for introducing America to both Tom Cruise and Sean Penn. But in addition to providing an early heads up that Tom Cruise is a psychopath, the movie also captured, to an extraordinarily subtle degree, the challenges faced not just by America's military, but by the military ethos in general, in the post-Vietnam era.

George C. Scott, who plays the commanding officer of the fictional military academy, Bunker Hill, sets up the movie's theme when he explains to Timothy Hutton's Cadet Major Moreland that the 150 year-old academy will be closed:

There's a feeling on the outside that schools like this are anachronistic and leaders of men like you and me are dinosaurs... [Y]ou go to the movies, you read books. A military leader is always portrayed as slightly insane. Very often more than slightly. That's because it is insane to cling to honour in a world where honour is held in contempt.

To be sure, the film's pivot plays on the widespread popular animosity towards the military and its institutions that was de rigeur in America at the time: A group of locals harasses the cadets attending the academy's commencement ball. In the ensuing scuffle, one of the locals grabs Scott's pistol and is accidentally killed when it discharges.

But if the death seals Bunker Hill's fate, it is only because it accelerates the decision to close it that has already been reached by the academy's trustees, who are eager to cash in on the campus' real estate value by selling it to a group of condominium developers. That the film situates military honour as under attack from the twin menace of popular anti-militarism and market liberalism loosed from its ethical moorings illustrates the internal contradictions of the Reagan Revolution. Again, George C. Scott:

Their field of honour was a desk top. They didn't consult me. Never hinted at what their plans were. They just papered it and pencilled it and went ahead and did it because that's what the numbers said.

Six years later, the same profit motive -- boosted by credit-fueled prosperity and now sporting silk shirts, suspenders and greased hair -- would be celebrated by Michael Douglas in Oliver Stone's Wall Street. But at the time in 1981, the way forward still left many naturally inclined members of the Reagan coalition doubtful.

When Scott suffers a heart attack and falls into a coma following the local's death, Hutton feels honour-bound to keep the academy from closing. He and the other cadets occupy the grounds, only to find themselves besieged, first by the local police and later by the National Guard. From here on out, the film becomes an Oedipal struggle for the Cadet Major's soul, with Hutton (and post-Vietnam America) offered the choice between three visions of military honour.

The first, already introduced through George C. Scott's character, presents honour as the pre-requisite for glory. But as his address announcing the academy's closing that sets the drama in motion demonstrates, it is a vision of glory inextricably tied to death:

I stand here today with you and look out over these young men and of course I am reminded of other commencement days and other young men, men of courage and conviction, men who have given everything... How, then, can others say this land is for sale? It has been purchased and paid for with the blood of our graduates.

The second, more critical view of honour, comes in the person of Hutton's father, a drill sergeant who is the first envoy sent by the local authorities to convince his son to stand down. The character epitomizes the hard-nosed, leatherneck ethic of the enlisted soldier. For him, honour is a fool's errand that distracts people from the more essential duty of advancing in the face of incoming fire, both literal and symbolic, without getting hit:

Look, Brian, all the men in our family have been soldiers... Plain dogfaces with a knack for surviving. I hoped somebody would break into brass.

More concerned with the nuts-and-bolts operational logistics that decide an army's fate than Hutton's embrace of Scott's vision of honour, the father punctuates their conversation by slapping his son in the face. But if the gesture seems to say, "You'll never be the soldier I was", Hutton seems to embrace the rebuke. As he explains later to the national guard commander played by character actor Ronny Cox:

They want us to be good little boys now so we can fight some war for them in the future. Some war they'll decide on. We'd rather fight our own war right now.

Finally there's Cox, the war-weary and decent officer nonetheless obligated to carry out his orders. In his patient attempts to coax Hutton into calling off the students' rebellion, he offers the movie's moral foil, representing eros to Scott's thanatos. His response when Hutton claims the mantle of soldier offers the movie's corrective to the dangers of couching death in the robes of honour:

A soldier? No, goddammit, I'm a soldier, with the career goal of all soldiers. I wanna stay alive in situations where it ain't easy, but you, my friend, you're a death lover. I know the species. Eighteen years old and some son of a bitch has put you in love with death. Somebody sold you on the idea that dying for a cause is romantic. Well, that is the worst kind of all the kinds of bullshit there is! Dying is only one thing. Bad. Don't find that out. Please.

By defining a miltary credo that marries duty with vigilance and a respect for life, Cox provides the country with the rules of engagement it can feel comfortable embracing in the aftermath of Vietnam's confidence-shaking trauma. Safely in between Scott's glorification of death and the father's trivialization of duty, Cox offers a middle way of resolve without self-delusion.

When one of the children under Hutton's command finally dies, he, too, sees the hollowness of an idealized version of honour bound up in death:

When I knelt next to Charlie, I tried to find some justification. But honour doesn't count for shit when you're looking at a dead little boy. You don't think of the book of remembrance or bugles or flags or 21-gun salutes. All you think about is what a neat little kid he was... and how you're gonna miss him.

In many ways, Taps reflects the jaundiced view of the military ethos common at the time. It very clearly rejects Scott's lofty vision of honour as some ultimate value more urgent than life itself. Similarly, it condemns both the calloused professionalism of the father character as well as the hotheaded bloodlust of Tom Cruise's praetorian guard leader. Besides Cox, the most sympathetic supporting character, Sean Penn, represents loyalty more than duty, but a loyalty that does not exclude clear-sighted criticism and dissent.

But in the end it is Cox's resolute fatalism, accepting the tragedy of a soldier's calling without ever embracing it, that the film presents as a way forward in the moment of national self-examination that followed Vietnam.

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   International Relations   

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

The IAEA Report: Ad Out For Iran

Via Laura Rozen at MoJo, who has an excellent post on the subject, comes this .pdf file of the IAEA's Iran report. Laura has some analysis from Jacqueline Shire of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), and Arms Control Wonk has more worth reading here and here. A quick comparison of this report with the last one released just prior to the NIE indicates that while Iran has shed more light on various elements of the program, the sheer weight of the new allegations raised (thanks to American intelligence sharing) make the bottom line a net loss for Tehran.

This is reflected in the two reports' key findings summary, which are more or less "copy & paste" replicas of each other, with the exception of certain weathervane sentences which almost uniformly adopt a more severe tone this time around. So for instance, whereas last November's report spoke of Iran's "need to restore confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear programme", Friday's report refers more bluntly to "the confidence deficit created as a result" of Iran's decades-long clandestine procurement program.

The one exception is the IAEA's assessment of the general progression of its relative understanding of the Iranian program. Last November's report complained that, despite recent Iranian cooperation, "the Agency’s knowledge about Iran’s current nuclear programme is diminishing" due to the previous information blackout dating back to early 2006.

This Friday's report is comparatively, if guardedly, more generous:

The Agency has recently received from Iran additional information similar to that which Iran had previously provided pursuant to the Additional Protocol, as well as updated design information. As a result, the Agency’s knowledge about Iran’s current declared nuclear programme has become clearer.

Nevertheless, the passage is directly followed by this less enthusiastic note:

However, this information has been provided on an ad hoc basis and not in a consistent and complete manner. The Director General has continued to urge Iran to implement the Additional Protocol at the earliest possible date and as an important confidence building measure requested by the Board of Governors and affirmed by the Security Council.

Andy Grotto of Arms Control Wonk offered this assessment, which I think sums things up well:

There is a clear pattern here. For activities that have a colorable civilian rationale, Iran is suddenly happy to offer one. Since the IAEA is not in the business of second-guessing the sincerity of its member states in the absence of a technical rationale, it must accept these explanations unless and until new data comes along that calls the original rationale into question. And for activities that only have a weapons purpose, Iran plays the “How can you trust the Americans?’ card and simply refuses to engage the evidence.

From the analysis I've seen so far, every indication is that the new report does nothing to undermine the third round of UN sanctions being considered by the Security Council, and actually adds some credibility to the case for them. That's not to say they'll go through. The current makeup of the UNSC (Libya occupying the rotating presidency and South Africa's expressed reticence) presents structural challenges, and there's the possibility that Russia, stung by the handling of Kosovo independence, might not be in the mood to strike a deal. But this report, which just last week was being touted as a whitewash, looks instead like it might re-invigorate the effort to keep the pressure on Iran.

That leaves the question of just where the "diplomatic track" should be headed. I'll try to come up with some thoughts on that for later.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Barzani Draws The Line

There are conflicting reports about just how many troops Turkey has sent into northern Iraq, with the general trend being bearish. Initial Turkish TV reports (passed on by the press) put the number at 10,000, citing unnamed military sources. Reuters put the number at 8,000, or two Turkish brigades. Later television reports lowered it further to 3,000, which the Iraqi government today bid down to 1,000, only to be undersold by the American military command in Iraq which claimed that only a few hundred Turkish troops took part. The Turkish military, meanwhile, closed the bidding by warning that "media reports about the scope of the operation were misleading and exaggerated." (If this keeps up, look for reports of a Kurdish incursion into Turkey by tomorrow.)

To my eyes the real story here is still the confrontation between armored troops from Turkey's FOB near Dihok and Kurdish Peshmerga forces. As you can see for yourself with the magic of Google Earth, the Turkish operation has all the hallmarks of a flush and gather operation. (Move out one click and Dihok should appear in the lower lefthand corner of the map. Reports have located the incursion across the Iraqi border from Cukorka, which is in the upper righthand corner. The Turkish FOB is 25 miles northeast of Dohuk, or not far from the pinhead in the center of the map.) The Iraq-based Turkish forces that were turned back by the Peshmerga were in all likelihood prevented from intercepting the PKK who according to Turkish military reports are fleeing towards the south.

KRG President Massoud Barzani immediately left for Dihok to monitor the situation from very close by, while his office released the following statement:

The regional government of Kurdistan will not be a part of the conflict between the Turkish government and the PKK fighters. But at the same time we stress that if the Turkish military targets any Kurdish civilian citizens or any civilian structures then we will order a large-scale resistance.

For Turkey, it's a fine line to walk, since the PKK is a guerilla group with popular support in the area. But the fact that the Peshmerga stepped in to keep the Turkish forces on their "observer" bases suggests that Barzani means business.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Putting Time On The Clock

There's been a lot of speculation about just how far the latest IAEA report on the Iranian nuclear program would go towards letting Tehran off the hook. The fact that the U.S. turned over longheld intelligence to the IAEA and that France ratcheted up the rhetoric significantly is a measure of just how anxious Washington and Paris were about the possibility.

The report was just distributed to the IAEA Board of Governors yesterday and bits and pieces are starting to leak out, including portions that confirm increased Iranian cooperation with various outstanding issues, some of which the IAEA felt comfortable enough with to close. Not surprisingly Iran is claiming that everyone from Mohamed ElBaradei to Ban Ki-Moon have vindicated their claims of a peaceful program, and is repeating its demands to return the dossier from the UN Security Council's jurisdiction back to the IAEA. (Significantly, there are no direct quotes of these officials in the Iranian press.)

But this statement by Mohamed ElBaradei today is about the strongest language I've seen him use with regard to the three outstanding issues that Iran still refuses to cooperate on: explaining evidence of past weaponization programs, implementing the Additional Protocol of intrusive inspections, and suspending its uranium enrichment program as ordered by the Security Council. On the question of the Additional Protocol, ElBaradei was particularly adamant:

In addition to our work to clarify Iran's past nuclear activities, we have to make sure, naturally, that Iran's current activities are also exclusively for peace purposes and for that we have been asking Iran to conclude the so called Additional Protocol, which gives us the additional authority to visit places, additional authority to have additional documents, to be able to provide assurance, not only that Iran's declared activities are for peaceful purposes but that there are no undeclared nuclear activities. On that score, Iran in the last few months has provided us with visits to many places, that enable us to have a clearer picture of Iran's current programme. However, that is not, in my view, sufficient. We need Iran to implement the Additional Protocol. We need to have that authority as a matter of law. That, I think, is a key for us to start being able to build progress in providing assurance that Iran's past and current programmes are exclusively for peaceful purposes. (All emphasis added.)

The extent to which ElBaradei has couched his criticisms of Iranian obstruction in the past is one of the principal reasons -- along with the misreading of the NIE findings -- that Iran has managed to drag this standoff out for as long as it has. While the report has yet to be released and in all likelihood is written in the same diplo-speak as its predecessors, if it at all reflects the kind of impatience ElBaradei seemed to convey in his statement, it just might salvage the efforts to maintain international pressure on Tehran.

If so, it could possibly mark a turning point in this crisis. Iran had a real opportunity in the aftermath of the NIE report to deep six the U.S./EU negotiating stance. If they had just handed the keys of their program over to the IAEA, this case would have been closed by now. Instead they've taken piecemeal confidence-building measures that are more like two baby-steps forward (program documentation and explaining traces of highly-enriched uranium on centrifuges) followed by one giant leap back (revealing a next-gen centrifuge program), all while refusing to freeze enrichment or allow intrusive acccess to IAEA inspectors.

In many ways, the NIE left the U.S./EU playing for time. Above all, the challenge was to maintain the credibility of continued pressure long enough for the NIE report to lose some of its urgency. By highlighting Tehran's continued obstruction, this latest IAEA report just might do the trick.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Friday, February 22, 2008

An Officer And A Gentleman: The Return Of American Militarism

I'd been meaning to write a piece yesterday about what I thought was my very insightful observation that this week's events in Kosovo serve as a sort of bookend for the "liberal hawk" movement that began with the bloody dissolution of Yugoslavia and later passed through Afghanistan and Iraq, with less than stellar results. But Matthew Yglesias already got there in this American Prospect piece.

So instead I'm going to put the "liberal hawk" dynamic into the broader context of the rehabilitation of war as a foreign policy tool in the post-Viet Nam era, a theme which will allow me to trot out for the first time my "An Officer and a Gentleman" theory of American military renewal.

Of course, liberals were the last to sign on to the idea that America could use its military as a positive force in the world, and it took the crisis of conscience of the Yugoslavian tragedy to push them over the edge. The rest of the country had been seduced by the precision missiles and video game graphics of Operation Desert Storm. But it's easy to forget that before American triumphalism (reborn) could reach the sands of Kuwait, it had to pass through the moral vacuum of El Salvador and Nicaragua, the slapstick shores of Granada, and the cocaine-fueled police action in Panama.

The halting and tenuous progression from covert operation to training exercise to limited ground assault over the course of a decade illustrates the degree to which it would have been inconceivable in 1980 -- the year that Ronald Reagan proclaimed Morning in America* -- to deploy the American military (upon which any American resurgence depended) in a grand campaign. Not just because the nation would not have stood for it. The kids just weren't having it. Running against Sex, Drugs & Rock 'n Roll for possession of the cannon fodder generation's soul, the old military virtues of discipline and self-sacrifice weren't polling so high.

Enter Richard Gere, tattooed and shaggy haired, on a motorcycle. Like the bastard child of Easy Rider, he's an outcast and a misfit, only instead of heading out to the counter-cultural frontier with its now-discredited promise of freedom and transcendence, he has turned back for one last chance to come in from the cold: OCS, Officer Candidate School. Upon his arrival, Gere's nemesis, Louis Gossett Jr., summarizes the moral calculus that has brought the candidates and the country to where they now find themselves: while he, Gossett Jr., was serving his country in Vietnam, they were off getting high. Now it's time for penance.

The rest of the movie, down to the theme song performed by a newly rehabbed Joe Cocker (Joe Cocker, for crine out loud), is a brutal rejection of the excesses of the wayward left during the Sixties. Love no longer ushers in the Age of Aquarious. It lifts us up to where eagles -- and not doves -- fly. David Keith's repressed perversion immediately signals him as the film's "hidden threat". And sure enough, it's his ultimate awakening to his "real self" (that Holy Grail of the self-actualized generation) that gives the movie its tragic turn, since it turns out that his "real self" is nowhere near as compelling for the town girl he's been romancing as his officer's bars.

Richard Gere, on the other hand, knows better than to let anything as insignificant as his authentic self (a seething cocktail of self-absorption and inferiority complex) get in the way of accomplishing the task at hand. And the task at hand is to restore the image of the military's patriarchal values, in this case by kicking Louis Gossett Jr.'s ass (actually his balls) in an Oedipal coming-of-age ritual, and by making military dress uniforms look sexy again. By the time he returns to the factory to sweep Debra Winger off her feet and onto the back of his motorcycle, he has embraced the value of the Army's tough love. Whereas the previous generation had let it all hang out, Gere rides off with the girl because he has learned how to suck it up.

A year after the film's release, American forces were braving the dangerous shores of Grenada. The long march that would culminate in the rise of the liberal hawks had begun.

*Thanks to Justin, I stand corrected. (Morning in America was actually Reagan's campaign theme in 1984.) See comments for why I left it in the post.

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   Foreign Policy   

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Added Value

So far the best rundown of the Turkish incursion into northern Iraq that I've seen today is the post I put up over at World Politics Review this morning. No one else has said anything about the standoff between Turkish special ops forces and Kurdish Peshmergas. Click through and take a look.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Bad Medicine

Alan Dowd has got a pretty eye-opening article on the WPR frontpage about the quantum leaps in American missile defense technology that culminated in yesterday's intercept of the failing US-193 satellite. Dowd argues that America has just ushered in the Missile Defense Age:

Like the Rocket Age, which terrified Americans when Sputnik orbited the globe and then transfixed the world when Armstrong took his giant leap on the lunar surface; like the Jet Age, which turned the skies over Korea into a killing field and then opened the way to inexpensive, high-speed global travel; like the Nuclear Age, which ended a war by erasing two cities, put Armageddon within man's grasp and then provided boundless supplies of energy; this new epoch promises to bring both highs and lows, worry and wonder.

Count me among the worried. Not because I don't see the practical value of missile defense. It's just that with all the challenges to dissuasion and deterrence posed by global terrorism and asymmetric warfare, it seems like a pretty dicey moment to be undermining the one area where we've actually managed to reach a stable status quo. I'm a non-believer when it comes to N. Korean or Iranian ICBM capabilities, and consider those nations (by definition) to be eminently deterrable even if they should eventually achieve a strike capacity. With regards to Russia and China, on the other hand, the new age that, as Dowd makes clear, is irreversibly upon us basically sweeps away the strategic underpinnings of the past fifty years, and this at a time when there seems to be a global sense of urgency about pushing back against the prerogatives that go along with American military dominance.

Missile defense as a national security doctrine seems to reflect the idea that America can somehow immunize itself from the world. Ironically, while it will very likely provoke an outbreak of local "rashes", it can't protect us from the most dangerous threat of "infection" (asymmetric attacks, whether conventional or non-conventional) that we actually face.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Set Up?

Is Bill Keller the Dan Rather of 2008? That's the distinct impression I got when I noticed, as Kevin Drum put it, "the fast congealing conservative consensus that this will help McCain." Maybe the Times has got the goods. Or maybe they got set up. Either way, it's odd seeing McCain bash their impartiality seeing as how they endorsed him.

On the other hand, is Kevin right when he claims that no one really cares about the corruption angle? Is the story really about McCain's affair? The story about the story certainly is. But let's assume for argument's sake that McCain really did have an affair with this woman. Why is that a story? I couldn't care less who's screwing who in Washington, as long as nobody's screwing us.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Cherrypicking Serbia's Neighbors

I'm not sure the day that Serb rioters storm the US embassy in Belgrade is the best time to announce that NATO might very well pocket three more of Serbia's neighbors:

The Pentagon believes that Macedonia, Albania and Croatia meet the criteria for NATO membership and will support their bids at the Alliance's summit in Bucharest, a senior US official said.

"As regards NATO enlargement, the Pentagon believes that military criteria are certainly met. Six weeks before the summit in Bucharest, we will ...to ensure that these three countries become members of the Alliance," said Daniel Fata, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense at the press conference after the meeting with defense ministers of the Adriatic Group (A3).

Again, to say nothing about the merits of Kosovo's claim to independence, the handling of the announcement has been pretty amateurish. This sort of timing leaves the impression that the federal functions of the former Yugoslavia have ultimately been outsourced to NATO headquarters.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

World Politics Review

Just a quick reminder to click through to the World Politics Review blog. I've cross-posted a post or two, but a lot of foreign policy stuff is going over there exclusively for the time being.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Engaging Hamas

Laura Rozen has a must read interview with former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy over at Mother Jones. Among other reasons why Halevy argues that Israel and the US should engage Hamas, this struck me as noteworthy:

[Hamas has] pulled off three "feats" in recent years in conditions of great adversity. They won the general elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006; they preempted a Fatah design to wrest control of Gaza from them in 2007; and they broke out of a virtual siege that Israel imposed upon them in January 2008. In each case, they affected a strategic surprise upon all other players in the region and upon the United States, and in each case, no effective counter strategy mounted by the US and Israel proved effective... (Emphasis added.)

It strikes me as particularly significant that in a region where some sort of sea change will be necessary to move things forward, it is Hamas and not the US or Israel that is coming up with the strategic surprises. Ariel Sharon seemed to be heading down that road, but from what Halevy suggests, unilateral disengagement was the wrong direction.

As for who is behind the consensus to isolate Hamas and recognize Fatah, Halevy had this to say:

I don't know whether it is Abu Mazen who is pushing Washington and Israel not to deal with Hamas, or Abu Mazen who is acquiescing to them, or some combination of both. I don't know who the stronger element in this policy is.

There is a triangle of forces: Israel, the Abu Mazen–led group in Ramallah, and the [Bush] administration. They have become mutually interdependent on this policy and one cannot rule without the other two. That's the way it is at the moment.

There was a moment where I wondered if Olmert, Abbas and Bush might actually be counter-intuitively better-placed to achieve a breakthrough given that all three are so permanently weakened as to be effectively (and in Bush's case actually) de-coupled from the political necessity of electoral popularity. In retrospect, that would have depended on how much courage the three were willing to demonstrate and how many risks they were willing to take. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like they are.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  The Middle East   

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Quote Of The Day

"It would be politically incorrect to start surmising what the new leadership [in Washington] would do a year from now. A year in the life of the Middle East is a millennium."

-- Efraim Halevy, former Mossad chief, on the need for Israel and the US to engage Hamas.

Posted by Judah in:  Quote Of The Day   

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Presidential Cage Match

Look for the NYT's McCain story to have an insidious effect on the Democratic contest. A lot of people have already questioned Hillary Clinton's bareknuckled tactics against Barack Obama with the prospect of a tough general election looming on the horizon. If McCain's campaign comes out of this media cycled mortally wounded, the logic of Democratic restraint becomes less operative. To say nothing of the fact that a crippled McCain gives the Democratic nominee a lock on the White House. Which means Clinton's so close she can almost taste it.

Where do you go when you're already down to bare knuckles? Any street fighter knows the answer to that: the gutter.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Political Penalties

I've been a bit burned out on the Democratic primary campaign. Truth be told, I think the turning point for me was once I'd actually voted. I made a decision, felt good about it, had some buyer's remorse the next day, realized that I would have had the same feeling had I voted the other way, talked with my Dad and found out that -- separated by an ocean and a six-hour time difference -- we did the exact same thing on Super Tuesday (ie. we both went to the polls intending to vote for the same candidate only to change our minds and vote for the other one at the last minute) and that was enough for me to put the whole thing aside.

So I've watched the campaign unfold over the past few weeks with a somewhat dispassionate eye (although as someone who genuinely liked both candidates, my passions were less than enflamed to begin with). Which makes me feel comfortable making the following observation:

The Clinton campaign's performance since February 5th makes me wish that there were some sort of procedure in place whereby a candidate can be penalized by having delegates that they've previously won taken away from them. Something along the lines of a 15-yard penalty and loss of down in football. Because I've never seen anything as pathetic as what the Clinton camp has trotted out, not just once or twice, but consistently, almost daily, for the past two weeks.

As classless as Bill Clinton was in NH and South Carolina, I was willing to put that on him, not her. But there's really no one to hang the blame on for what's gone down the past few weeks. This is Hillary's campaign; in some ways it's her government-in-waiting, and she's the Commander-in-Chief. And if this is "ready from day one", well, then, Obama could probably get away with claiming that he really can walk on water.

I've said before that whenever I actually see Clinton in action, as opposed to just reading her press coverage, my opinion of her improves. Not surprisingly, I haven't actually seen much of her of late. It could be that the two upcoming debates could prove decisive in turning things around for her. But seriously, these past few weeks have reminded me of an elementary school class president election.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Don't Look Up

It looks like Moqtada al-Sadr, or one of his proxies, is threatening to call off his ceasefire again. Normally I don't pay much attention to this regularly recurring story. But this time it reminded me of this recent AP report about a Sunni Awakening Council that had protested an alleged strafing incident by halting its cooperation with the American military. Neither story alone seems very significant, and together they still don't add up to much. But they triggered a line of thought that goes something like this:

We've reached a point in Iraq where everyone has accepted the limits of what they can accomplish by force. More importantly, everyone on the Iraqi side realizes that they can't defeat their sectarian rivals or the US military. And the US realizes that while the Surge has made a difference, specifically with regard to the most heinous bombing attacks, it's largely a result of various Iraqi factions standing down that the security situation has improved so dramatically.

But no one is doing any of this out of the goodness of their hearts. They all want something in return. The US wanted decreased sectarian violence because it was the only way to maintain the legitimacy of a continued military presence, and by and large the Iraqi factions that have chosen to cooperate with us have delivered.

But what about Moqtada? What does he want? What is it he's trying to trade his continued cooperation for? According to the Guardian article cited above, he just wants someone to stop the Badr Brigades that have infiltrated the Iraqi security apparatus from targeting his guys. Now the question is, who in Iraq at the moment can deliver that concession? And who can deliver whatever it is the Sunnis cooperating in the Awakening Councils ultimately want?

It seems like a stretch to argue that the US can, and that strikes a pretty powerful blow to the logic of our continued presence there. Because it means that ultimately we're more indebted to the factions whose cooperation has furthered our tactical aims than they are to us. What's more, with very little effort they can make things very uncomfortable for us, as Moqtada hopes to demonstrate with his latest warning. Sure, he'll pay a price, but he's already paying a price, while getting little in return.

It's as if we're Damocles lying on the couch of the king, not yet aware of the sword hanging above our throat from the ceiling.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

World Politics Review

I've got some good news to announce. Starting today, I'll be the principal contributor to World Politics Review's blog. It's a trial arrangement, but the idea is to make the blog a more active part of their site. So if you like what you find here, I hope you make the WPR blog a part of your regular reading as well. Here's a teaser from my first post over there:

Two major stories, two major symbols: Fidel Castro and Kosovo. I think it's obvious how Castro's retirement represents the disappearance of the last vestiges of the 20th century. Sure, there's still N. Korea, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could qualify as well. But the least you can say about the latter two is that, while anchored in the geopolitical realities of the last century, they still managed to evolve in recent years. Kim Jong-Il has a warhead, after all, the Palestinians have an Authority, and an optimist might still hold out hope that there's a way forward on both fronts.

Castro and Cuba, on the other hand, seemed to have remained frozen in time, as did American policy towards both. His retirement might not change anything for the time being, but the writing's on the wall...

I'll be doing some cross-posting, and most posting on politics and domestic affairs will still be done here. But this is a real exciting opportunity to be involved with a great foreign policy and national security daily that deserves more attention. So please help spread the word. Thanks.

Posted by Judah in:  Media Coverage   

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Live And Learn

I expressed some surprise yesterday at Turkey's rapid recognition of Kosovo's independence, especially in light of their concerns over Kurdish separatist sentiment. Today I came across these remarks by a "high-level" Turkish diplomat in the Turkish Daily News:

Kosovo and Cyprus are two different cases and we are not trying to take advantage of the former's independence for the Turkish Cypriots. But we naturally cannot stop any third party's drawing similarities between the two.

The diplomat went on to emphasize that Turkey's priority is to proceed with Cypriot reunification talks under UN auspices, and to that end is watching the outcome of the Greek Cypriot presidential elections closely. But their recognition of Kosovo does seem to make more sense now, even if it seems like a pretty fine line to walk, given how closely the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq already resembles a sovereign state.

Meanwhile, to give you an idea of how prickly the Cyprus issue is, while Turkey has recognized Kosovo and the EU as a whole has not (leaving it up to individual members to decide for themselves), Turkey has warned that it will veto any NATO cooperation with the unanimously approved EU support mission being organized for Kosovo because of the presence of a Greek Cypriot contingent.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   International Relations   Turkey   

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Fear And Trembling In The Balkans

As many foreign policy experts expected, the most feared repercussion from Kosovo's declaration of independence has in fact materialized: the breakaway Moldavian republic of Transdnestr has declared that it will seek international recognition as an independent state. No word yet on whether an emergency session of the Security Council will be called.

All kidding aside, though, the development does lend weight to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov's claims that Kosovo will:

...open a Pandora' Box of declarations of independence as de facto independent republics across the world asked themselves the question, "How are we any different?"

Meanwhile, another Russian lawmaker, cautioned against Russia using two Georgian breakaway republics as payback for Kosovo:

"We should understand that by recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia we could trigger a serious crisis in the CIS," Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the International Affairs Committee at the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, said, adding that over half of all ex-Soviet states "have their own Kosovo and Abkhazia."

Unfortunately, we're living in an age that seems to be characterized by little concern for triggering serious crises.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Russia   

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Kosovo Afterthought

It struck me as significant that Turkey has decided to recognize Kosovo's independence. So far, most of the countries that have opposed the move are motivated by fears of setting a precedent for their own sizable minority groups harboring separatist impulses, something that characterizes Turkey's relationship with its Kurd population. The fact that Kosovo is majority muslim plays a role here, as does Turkey's participation in the KFOR mission. There's also the historic legacy of the Ottoman Empire. And the move will surely be covered with the caveat that it's a particular case, not a general rule. But I can't help but think that a whole bunch of ears perked up in Irbil when the news was announced yesterday.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Recount!

If this is how they rig elections in Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf needs to come take a refresher course from the Washington state GOP. It's still unclear whether Benazir Bhutto won the election posthumously, or whether Nawaz Sharif will carry Parliament. But Musharraf's ruling party was routed in what was described in the American press as a rebuke to Musharraf and his dalliance with the US.

The election outcome has sent Washington scrambling to line up the next Pakistani Prime Minister's support. At the risk of oversimplifying, our Pakistani policy really boils down to two priorities: to contain the burgeoning Taliban movement on the Afghan border, and to make sure the country's nukes are secure. Everything else is just static on the line. (Okay, preventing a nuclear exchange with India is a bit more than static, but bear with me.)

From everything I've read, the nuclear anxiety has always seemed slightly hysterical. Which leaves the Taliban on the Afghan border. Now, before she died, Benazir Bhutto had suggested she'd be willing to invite US forces into the border area to confront the Taliban there, a position that's significantly more pronounced than Musharraf's tepid charade that was supposedly too pro-American for Pakistani voters. So it will be interesting to see how hardline the PPP governing position is, especially if it's forced to form a coalition with Sharif.

The answer to that question will determine whether the WaPo is right when it suggested in an article today that a recent unilateral American strike in Pakistani territory without prior consent from Islamabad will serve as the model for future American operations in area. If domestic constraints force the future Pakistani government to continue the Musharraf policy of accomodation in the tribal areas, that could mean that the US will find itself fighting the border insurgency alone.

Posted by Judah in:  Pakistan   

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Fidel Castro Retires

Frankly, it's not the kind of headline I ever expected to see. Granted, his brother Raul (no spring chicken at 76) is likely to succeed him, and Fidel might still play a significant background role as power broker, health permitting. But nothing about the man seemed to lend itself to a slow decline and gradual fade out. I always expected his successor would have to pry power from Fidel's dead hands. Instead, the hand has grown too frail to maintain its grip.

Posted by Judah in:  Las Americas   

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Back To Nationalism

Via Laura Rozen, President Bush has recognized Kosovo's independence and will officially establish diplomatic relations. So there you have it.

Paris, London, Rome and Berlin have also all moved rapidly to "avoid creating a vacuum with indecisive behavior," according to German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. But despite having unanimously approved a support mission including police and judicial training teams, as well as maintaining the 15,000 strong KFOR deployment, the EU has left it up to member states to determine their position individually, due to internal divisions on the question. Spain, Cyprus, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia are opposed to formal recognition due to fears that it might set a precedent for their own separatist minorities.

That's the beauty of the EU (a collective sovereignty or a collection of sovereignties, depending on the need of the moment) but also its internal contradiction, which yesterday's Le Monde editorial described well:

It remains no less the case that Europe is playing against type. Founded to transcend nationalisms, it now gives the impression that it's rewarding Kosovar nationalism. In the name of what will it then oppose the self-determination of the Serbs...of Northern Kosovo, or even that of the Serbs...in Bosnia-Herzegovina? (Translated from the French.)

Le Monde went on to point out that if this is to be the conclusion -- rather than a new chapter -- of the instability in the Balkans, then all of Europe will have to invest politically, especially to present Serbia with the image of a European consolation prize to make up for its current loss.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   Foreign Policy   International Relations   

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Monday, February 18, 2008

No More Mr. Not-So-Nice Guy?

This Moscow News article on Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov's speech to the Munich Security Conference is a few days old but worth a glance. There's been a lot of speculation as to what's driving Russia's more conciliatory tone of late. Anna Arutunyan suggests the reason is quite simple: Russia feels increasingly secure about its resurgent role as a full-fledged global power broker. The confrontational theatrics that Putin put on display last year at the same conference, which had the desired result of getting people to sit up and take notice, are simply no longer necessary.

Posted by Judah in:  Russia   

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Homer Simpson Diplomacy

Without getting into any of the more substantial aspects of Kosovo's declaration of independence, one thing seems pretty straightforward about the timing of the announcement: it sucks. Setting aside for a moment the merits of the case (and I think there are valid arguments on both sides of the issue), the Kosovo negotiations have been dragging on for years. Stretching them out for another month or two would not have meaningfully changed anything, except to avoid pissing off Russia and China (both opposed to the move) on the eve of a decisive Iran sanctions resolution. In a complicated geopolitical landscape, it's a good rule of thumb to steer clear of the inherently avoidable landmines. D'oh.

Update: By the way, in case you're wondering why China is opposed to Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence, the answer lies just across the Taiwan Strait.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   Foreign Policy   International Relations   

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Symptoms Of Election Fatigue

Somewhere over the past week something turned for me, so whereas before I'd honestly felt that an extended campaign for the Democratic nomination was a good thing that would bring out the best in the candidates and the party, now I've got a serious case of election fatigue. It's not just that I'm mildly sick of both Clinton and Obama. It's that the longer this thing drags on without a resolution, the more full of crap both of them seem to be.

So, for instance, when Clinton says she's going to fight for the unpledged superdelegates even if she's behind in pledged delegates when the voting's done, that seems perfectly legit. It's an election, after all, one that she wants to win, and the unpledged superdelegates are, oddly enough, not actually pledged. But when she talks about trying to seat the Michigan and Florida delegates, that's very obviously the type of win-at-all-costs approach that might have served Al Gore well in Florida seven years ago, but is entirely uncalled for in an up to now riveting and fairly above board Democratic primary election.

Then there's the debate question. Clinton has every right to press for more debates with Obama, since it's a format in which, by consensus, she seems to have an advantage. But to suggest that Obama has some obligation to debate her is ludicrous, especially if by ducking her he suffers less among voters than he would by taking part. It's not the most honorable move, perhaps, and Clinton can call him out on it all she wants. But if you try to win at all costs, you can't fault your opponent for doing so too.

Meanwhile, when Obama resorts to hackneyed political phrases, like calling Clinton's debate ad the "same old politics", it becomes all too clear that his above-the-fray posture is simply a well-worn routine from the "same old politics" repertoire, albeit one that he's enjoyed more success with than anyone else who has used it before. As for his dazzling speeches before legions of transfixed supporters, they perfectly illustrate the defining conceit of Obama's campaign -- the artifice of authenticity -- whereby he does the same thing night after night while managing to give each successive audience the impression that they're privvy to a unique and special experience.

Moreover, when he talks about uniting the Red states and the Blue states, I for one get the distinct impression that he's still something of a stranger to many of those states he's referring to. As if he's actually getting aquainted with the country he aspires to preside over through the very campaign he's waging to convince voters to elect him. Say what you will about Clinton's experience or lack thereof, but she did register voters in Texas thirty years ago, and she did work for a children's legal fund in Connecticut twenty-five years ago, and something tells me that she's checked back in regularly with just about everyone she ever met in both places ever since. Which is why she doesn't give the same speech in El Paso as she does in New Haven.

It's bad enough when general elections are decided by 800 votes in Dade County. But there really seems to be a crisis in the decision-making process when we can't even select the candidates anymore. I know democracy is the worst system except for all the others. But I'm thinking that with the advent of Web 3.0 they're bound to come up with some widget that works better than this.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Byline vs. Bottom Line

I just landed a freelance editing gig for a newspaper industry trade organization helping to prepare their annual report. So I've got my head crammed full of all the latest industry jargon, from media convergence to newsroom integration to platform interchangeability. And while everyone seems to agree that the technological possibilities of the internet -- which have revolutionized the way in which news is gathered, produced, disseminated, and consumed -- benefit the end consumers of the news food chain, there are still some lingering questions about new media's impact on the hunter-gatherers (read: journalists) out in the field. Those questions just became dramatically less abstract to the one hundred NY Times staffers whose jobs will soon be trimmed to satisfy shareholder demands to improve the bottom line.

Posted by Judah in:  Media Coverage   

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Russian Roulette

I've seen a couple of posts and articles around the web today flagging Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's comments condemning Iran's missile and uranium enrichment programs. From the BBC via Andy Grotto over at Arms Control Wonk, here's the oft-cited money quote:

We don't approve of Iran's permanent demonstration of its intentions to develop its rocket sector and continue to enrich uranium.

It seems to square with a recent change in tone coming out of Moscow. But if you take a closer look at Lavrov's full comments, this time from ITAR-TASS, there's definitely some room for skepticism as to just how full circle the Russians have come in their stance on the Iranian nuclear program:

However, international law does not prohibit these actions...

...[T]here is a certain positive moment in this problem. This moment is related to Iranís cooperation to close the issues, which emerged earlier due to its nuclear activity. At present, these problems are being solved satisfactorily and weíll wait for the IAEA director-generalís report.

The ITAR-TASS translation is a bit mangled, but Lavrov was basically calling for both sides to calm down and quit engaging in provocative behavior. For the Iranians, that means avoiding missile launches and freezing its uranium enrichment until the IAEA closes its file. For the US and EU3, that means avoiding accusations that the Iranians are steps away from developing a nuclear bomb that they'll then unleash on the world. In other words, while Lavrov's remarks are definitely reasonable, they're only reassuring if you believe the Iranian program is inherently peaceful in nature.

I'm increasingly of the belief that the Iranians have nuclear weapons ambitions, even if they're willing to be extremely patient to attain them. After all, their current program is the fruit of twenty years of painstaking clandestine efforts, and is constructed in such a way as to superficially mask the military component, even while the underlying structure seems transparently revealing. So if the Russians really have come around, I'd like to see them say so in more unambiguous terms than those used by Mr. Lavrov.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Russia   

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

The World's Reluctant Auxiliary Policemen

According to this Jamestown Foundation report, US-Turkish relations -- which had been thawing recently -- just hit another snag over the US' request that Turkey step up its military participation in Afghanistan. Turkey already has 1,000 troops in the Afghan theater, most of them in and around Kabul, but they're restricted by rules of engagement that limit them to firing in "self-defense". Washington would like Ankara to send in more boots, especially to the south and west where the fighting is going on, and loosen up their trigger fingers.

Ankara isn't too pleased about the request being perceived as a quid pro quo for American intelligence that helped it target PKK camps in Iraqi Kurdistan since last November. Also, with 100,000 Turkish troops massed on the Iraqi border to engage the 3,000-strong PKK guerilla/terrorists in the Qandil Mountains, it's unlikely Turkey can spare too much of its military muscle...

Right. Anyway.

More than anything, this just demonstrates the way in which the failure in Afghanistan is having a very serious impact not only on the region, but also on our relationship with our coalition allies. Robert Gates' two recent sorties excoriating NATO countries for not ante-ing up with needed troops and material serve as further illustration.

And while our unpopular commitment in Iraq definitely complicates the picture and has degraded the Afghanistan mission, the force generation questions that are being raised with our NATO allies extend beyond that particular theater. They are the same questions that France is raising with regard to EU defense (although for its own strategic reasons), and get to the heart of how the EU will define its identity in the coming multi-polar world.

As Hubert Vedrine often puts it, Europe has to decide whether it wants to be a continent-wide Switzerland or a world power. And if it wants to be a world power, capable of advancing its interests and shouldering its share of the responsibility, it has got to not only develop a greater force projection capability (ie. dramatically increased military budgets for the majority of the continent), but also develop the political will to act. Whether that will is expressed through NATO or the EU is another question to be resolved, but it's contingent on answering the first.

Afghanistan might not be the best barometer, because it's been compromised by the Iraq connection. But if they've grown wary of the "world's reluctant policeman", then sooner or later Europe (and "emerging" countries like Turkey, India, and Brazil) are going to have to come up with an alternative.

Update: Click and ye shall find. Apparently I've stumbled on the "collective unconsciousness" meme of the day, since The National Interest has got not just one, but two articles on related subjects (peacekeeping missions and German combat participation in Afghanistan).†

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   European Union   Turkey   

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

One Of The Few, The Proud, The Five

There's all sorts of awards out there for blogs and such. But sometimes, the real honors fly in under the radar. Like writing an article that Danger Room's Noah Shachtman includes in his "Five for Fighting" daily round-up. Now that's what I call sweet.

Posted by Judah in:  Media Coverage   

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Dept. Of Shameless Plugs

I've got a featured article over at World Politics Review on Nicolas Sarkozy's nuclear diplomacy in the Middle East. Here's an excerpt:

...Indeed, if there's been a surprise in Sarkozy's foreign policy, it has to do not with how active, but with how radioactive it has been. Everywhere he has gone, it seems, Sarkozy has been peddling nuclear energy. And while his aggressive advocacy for Areva, the French nuclear energy giant, in both China and India did not go unnoticed, it's his vigorous promotion of nuclear energy in the Arab world that has really attracted attention.

Since last summer, Sarkozy has signed nuclear cooperation agreements with Libya, Algeria and most recently the United Arab Emirates; has signed a Memorandum of Understanding for such an accord with Qatar; has laid the groundwork for the same kind of deal with Morocco and Jordan; and has offered the arrangement to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. "What we're seeing," explained Bruno Tertrais, a research fellow at the Fondation de Recherche Stategique, "is a deliberate strategy of proposing nuclear partnerships that correspond to the regional demand."

Click on through to read the rest, because while this story has been covered elsewhere, I've got some stuff that hasn't been given much attention. Feel free to leave comments back here.

Posted by Judah in:  La France Politique   

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Blogs Eat Their Young

In many ways, the Clintons' brand of politics, if it didn't actually spawn the blog, served as a precursor to it in that the Clintons popularized techniques at the dawn of the internet era -- rapid response war rooms, spin, talking points, polarized partisan broadsides -- that blogs would later appropriate, greatly contributing to the proliferation of the new form. The polarization of blog discourse came to a peak during the first term of the Bush administration,† where in many ways blogs were the only platform available to resist a media narrative that was at best complacent and at worst complicit. What's more, as recently as the 2006 Congressiona mid-term elections, blogs seem to wholeheartedly embrace the idea of partisanship.

So it's kind of ironic that so much of the Hillary Clinton backlash, especially among the blog set, has focused on the polarizing effect of the Clinton brand. It's also worth considering what blog discourse will look like under an Obama administration where bi-partisan cooperation and respectful dialogue have become the norm.

Posted by Judah in:  Media Coverage   Politics   

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Meltdown

My experience over the past few months is that I respond much more favorably to seeing Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton debate than I do to print media coverage of either them. With Obama, seeing him discuss the issues reminds me that there's more to him than just the euphoric adulation that his campaign has been reduced to by the media. With Clinton, it's just the opposite. Seeing her reminds me that she's a lot more likable and impressive in person than the media allows for.

Now, it's been observed that the debate format is not one that favors Obama. And it's also obvious that euphoric adulation is not in and of itself a major disadvantage for a presidential candidate. So it doesn't surprise me that Hillary Clinton's meltdown-in-progress coincides with the end of the debate season. What does surprise me is that she hasn't been more insistent about getting some more debates scheduled.

Meanwhile, I'm not so sure her strategy to pin her hopes on Texas and Ohio is such a bad move. By conceding the past week's worth of primaries, she's put herself in the position of authentic underdog going into next month. Now she can legitimately make the case to her supporters in those two states that if they don't mobilize for her, and in a massive way, she's finished. Conversely, if she loses either one, or if her victory is not on a corresponding scale of magnitude, she's got to be willing to bow out.

Update: Apparently Clinton is calling Obama out for not debating In Wisconsin (YouTube at link). Andrew Sullivan calls it a negative ad. If so, it's pretty tepid as far as negative goes.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Chad, Europe & Darfur, Redux

I mentioned the other day that what was really at stake in the fighting in Chad, besides the survival of President Idriss Deby's regime, was the conditions on the ground for the roughly 400,000 refugees located in eastern Chad on the Sudanese border. Chad accused Sudan of supporting the rebels' assault in what was widely seen as an attempt to disrupt the deployment of a UN-mandated EU peacekeeping force. The EUFOR mission is to secure the area for the humanitarian NGO's that run the refugee camps for both Darfur refugees and internally displaced Chadians.

From all the latest reports I've read, the EU nations who comprise the mission have interpreted the rebel operation as an attempt to intimidate out of deploying, and they're determined not to back down in the face of that kind of pressure. So it looks like the mission will deploy as soon as it is logistically possible (ie. once the only land route from the capital to the eastern province has been re-secured).

But now, in an apparent retaliation for Sudan's support of the rebels, Chad says it will no longer accept any more refugees and is threatening to expel those that are already there. Just this weekend, 12,000 more Darfur refugees streamed across the border into Chad following bombing by the Sudanese military. In other words, this would have all the makings of a humanitarian catastrophe, if it weren't for the fact that it already is a humanitarian catastrophe.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   Human Rights   

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Bandar's Bundle

It's a drop in the bucket, I'm sure, but it looks like a civil lawsuit over that enormous BAE palm-greasing operation has kept Prince Bandar from re-patriating the proceeds from some US real estate sales back to Saudi Arabia. To give you an idea of the sums involved, BAE was accused of paying Bandar $2 billion in kickbacks to secure an $86 billion arms deal with the kingdom. Nice work if you can get it.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Monday, February 11, 2008

The Audacity Of Nope

About halfway through reading this Congressional testimony by Col. Douglas Macgregor (Ret.) explaining why the Joint Declaration of Principles between the US and Iraq more closely resembles the Warsaw Pact-era Brezhnev Doctrine than a US Status of Forces Agreement, it occurred to me that for all the outrage over the executive power grab of the past seven years, the Bush-Cheney administration has done nothing that the Founders did not foresee and anticipate. They understood and accepted as a matter of course that the executive would have a tendency to encroach on the powers of Congress.

But while the Founders also understood the corrosive effect of political parties on a democracy, I think what might very well have surprised them about today's political climate would be the degree to which Congress, faced with the Bush-Cheney putsch, has simply rolled over. From torture to habeas corpus to domestic wiretapping to signing statements, President Bush might have run roughshod over the Constitution, but Congress did nothing to stop him.

It's worth thinking about that for a moment, now that interest in the presidential campaign has reached a frenzied peak. A lot of thought and discussion has been devoted to which of the two Democratic candidates would be most likely to pull back from the expansive precedent of the Bush imperial presidency. Less has gone into identifying and promoting the kind of Congressional leadership in the Democratic Party that will actually push back against executive overreach.

With the superdelegates (of whom Congressional Democrats make up roughly a third) poised to decide the party's nominee, now would be a good time to consider just what Congress will be getting in return for its tie-breaking Convention votes. Obviously these sorts of deals are made between individuals. But hopefully there will be some institutional dealmaking going on as well.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Monday, February 11, 2008

What David Wants, David Gets

Given how gradually he's risen and how deftly he's handled the press along the way, you might not have noticed that Gen. David Petraeus now calls the shots for the entire American military. Who cares if freezing the troop drawdown once the five Surge brigades have been deployed out of Iraq come July might break the Army? If David says they stay, Gates and the Joint Chiefs can hem and haw all they want. In the end, they'll come around.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Saturday, February 9, 2008

Five Easy Pieces vs. Easy Rider

In the comments to this previous post, regular reader, frequent commenter and all-around "friend of HJ" Gerald Scorse wondered if I would venture some suggestions for a "signature enemy" for Obama to wage his "smart war" against. Guilty as charged: it's easier to formulate the idea in the abstract than to articulate an instance of how to put it into practice.

But in thinking it over, it occurred to me that this is in essence why so many of the historical examples Obama uses in his stirring rhetoric (the American Revolution, Abolition, Women's Suffrage, WWII, the Civil Rights movement) just don't pass muster as comparisons to what America faces today. The fact is, the most urgent moral issues on the agenda (ending the practice of torture, restoring habeas corpus to terrorist detainees, ending warrantless domestic spying) can all be resolved with a stroke of the pen through executive order.

The meme bouncing around the spherical world of online opinion today is that the Clinton brand of politics is either commodity-based (ie. Brooks) or else packaged into issue-ettes (ie. Sullivan). Both of which strike me as alternate ways of saying that it's the product of Mark Penn's micro-political mind. Obama offers the exact opposite with his call to a transcendent cause that rallies all the micro-political niches into a mass movement. But for that to happen, the transcendent cause has got to be up to the task as defined by the historical moment.

So far, Obama has relied on an ecclesiastic formulation of the American dream to serve as the glue which holds his grand majority together, which is why the choice between Clinton and him has become the choice between a Chinese menu (ie. a patchwork quilt of custom-fitted solutions to address the discrete fears of the electorate) and an epicurian cookbook (ie. a sense of purpose to satisfy the collective hunger for an organizing logic for action). The question is whether or not the historical moment bears out the former or the latter.

To be clear, I'm talking about rhetoric and imagery here. I think there are other, more convincing arguments for supporting Obama's candidacy than his appeals for unity, and I think he's capable of creating and carrying a broad majority based solely on his personal charisma even in the absence of the collective yearning for unity that he evokes. But if he does manage to identify some concrete popular crusade to rally America to a cause that is not, as he has currently formulated it, simply the cause of America, I think he could actually manage to live up to his rhetoric.

I'll try to identify what one might be, but in the meantime, if anyone has any ideas, feel free to pop them into the comments.†

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Saturday, February 9, 2008

Obama's War

A friend was making the case the other day for Barack Obama, to the effect that he'd be able to rehabilitate liberalism in the political worldview of an entire generation. He argued that with the comfortable Congressional majority the Democrats will in all likelihood have, he'd be able to govern effectively and demonstrate that liberal policies work, while seducing some centrists with compromise. My counter-argument was that with a comfortable Congressional majority, Clinton would be able to pass a more liberal agenda, so compromise wasn't necessary.

Thinking it over, though, I think my friend has a point. I'm an advocate, after all, for the idea of Israel offering the Palestinians in particular, and the Arab world in general, a generous peace. So the logic of that sort of approach in domestic political terms does appeal to me.

But here's the thing. The problem with Obama's rhetoric of unity and bi-partisanship is that it ignores two fundamental aspects of the formation of group identity. First, that there has to be a distinct and easily recognizable boundary separating inside from outside. (Like a cell wall, this boundary can be permeable, but it needs to be identifiable.) And second, in order to form that boundary, fighting for something works, but fighting against something works better. Whether or not you subscribe to Rene Girard's theory of the origins of human religion, the scapegoat mechanism is a historically proven component of human collective behavior.

Take Ronald Reagan, who Obama has repeatedly cited as an example of the kind of game-changing political mandate he hopes to generate. Reagan had two made-to-order scapegoats: the enemy without (the "evil empire") and the enemy within ("welfare queens"). The former allowed him to cherrypick blue collar Democrats who were alienated by the defeatist image that had, fairly or unfairly, stuck to the party of Carter like a wad of chewing gum on the sole of a shoe. The latter combined racial/racist dogwhistle appeals with a call for fiscal responsibility that got him the support of white collar Democrats who understood the value of a balanced checkbook. But while Reagan's new majority grew in part out of a national zeitgeist (whereby a return to American triumphalism compared favorably to the prevailing sentiment of fatigue, self-doubt and defeat), it certainly didn't represent a collective yearning for unity.

A few months ago, when Obama was still intriguing the electorate but not quite sealing the deal, Josh Marshall suggested that he needed a signature policy for his campaign to shift gears. I'd go a step further. He needs a signature enemy. In the logic of his oft-repeated formula for opposing the Iraq War (ie. he's not opposed to wars, he's opposed to dumb wars), Obama needs a smart war.

Now at first glance that might seem to be diametrically opposed to the inclusive logic of his campaign, as well as his refusal to use fear as a political tool, but it needn't be so depending on the enemy he identifies. Before Bush's War on Terror (to say nothing of the Constitution) or Reagan's War on Drugs, after all, there was LBJ's War on Poverty.

It might be too late for it to have much of an impact on the Democratic primaries. But in the event that Obama does win the nomination, it would set him up effectively for the general election.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Saturday, February 9, 2008

Quote Of The Day

"Donít buy something with someone you just met."

-- Pam Fica, an agent with DJK Residential, on love and real estate.

Posted by Judah in:  Quote Of The Day   

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Friday, February 8, 2008

Iran Endgame?

If this Asia Times Online article by MK Bhadrakumar is correct, a tectonic shift in the Iran nuclear standoff took place last week which garnered almost no media attention at all. Last Sunday, I flagged remarks made by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak that signalled what seemed like a hardening of tone towards the Iranian regime.

According to Bhadrakumar, to understand Kislyak's remarks and their significance, one need only look to the agreement signed three days before between US Commerce Secretary Carlos Guttierez and Sergei Kiriyenko, the director of Russia's state nuclear agency, Rosatom. The deal cleared the way for Russia to directly supply American nuclear power plants with reactor fuel derived from the reverse processing of its weapons-grade uranium. Previously, the deals had to be routed through an American intermediary agency that applied a 100% tariff, effectively keeping Russian fuel out of the lucrative American market. Kiriyenko estimated the deal's value at $5-6 billion over the next ten years.

Bhadrakumar adds some further dots (America's tacit approval of Russian nuclear fuel deliveries to Iran's Bushehr reactor, and its support for the Russian-sponsored uranium-enrichment bank as the foundation of a reinvigorated non-proliferation regime) before connecting them by suggesting that America has agreed to a de facto US-Russian nuclear energy cartel in return for a tougher Russian line on the Iranian nuclear program.

If so, the good news would be that, in answer to The Economist's top story this week, no, Iran has not won. The bad news being that Russia has. This would signal an enormous legitimation of Russia as a balance-tipping power that can leverage its troublemaking capacity for serious commercial and strategic concessions. And yet another validation of the idea that the long-announced multi-polar world is indeed upon us.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Russia   

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Thursday, February 7, 2008

Thanks, Dad

My dad made a few points about the Democratic race this afternoon that I thought bore repeating. For better or worse, Obama has now effectively appropriated the legacy of John F. Kennedy. Now to my dad, who is relatively immune to glitter and the whole blang blang thang, JFK does not represent a stellar example of presidential accomplishment. And on the merits it's not a tough case to make that his myth has far exceeded his record.

But on the symbolic level, and especially abroad, the JFK aura can't be underestimated. By way of illustrating, when I still lived down in Provence, I once went to pick up my son at a friend's house. The mother of the parents was visiting, a woman in her sixties who had emigrated to France as a young woman from her native Italy. When she heard I was American, she immediately grimaced and made a remark in a heavily accented French to the effect that it was a shame we had such a moron for president. Then her gaze wondered off to some interior horizon, and she added, "Not like Kennedy. Or Clinton. Now they were good."

My dad, too, had mentioned the irony that the last politician to consistently be invoked in the same breath as JFK was, of course, Bill Clinton. In other words, in a very real way, Obama's political persona threatens Clinton's historic legacy. (It's unrelated but worth noting here that however he was regarded in the States, Bill Clinton was pretty universally adored around the world.)

The other thing I found thought provoking were the presidents my dad invoked to measure Obama. In the untested category, he offered up Truman. And in the character category, he mentioned Eisenhower. I don't often talk politics with my dad, which is a shame, because he's a real mensch and the blog would probably benefit from his insight.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Thursday, February 7, 2008

Obama, Clinton & The American Imagination

Dug took me to task in the comments to the previous post about Obama and Clinton representing two halves to a whole:

Two different, evenly matched candidates who triggered different identity factors would carve things in half, but different halves. In short, you need to say something substantive about the constituencies, something to the effect that only this kind of pair would generate an even split. Otherwise, the speculative question about a larger collective dynamic at work isn't very interesting.

I was going to add something more substantive about the qualities I had in mind last night, but it was already pretty late and I was already up past my bedtime. What I was going to add, though, wasn't quite so much about the "identity factors" that Dug mentions. I was thinking more along the lines of American archetypes and our national genius. It's the sort of thing that isn't as easily measured as who carried which race, class, or gender among voters, and it's also much less useful in terms of the nuts and bolts of winning an election. So it's not likely to show up in any exit polling data.

The Rorschach of Obama and Clinton is the story of American archetypal opposites. See them at their best and Obama represents the tent revival movement leader, Clinton the party machine fixer working for the little guy. Obama the vertiginous and meteoric rise, Clinton the plodding and tedious ascent. Obama the promise of American renewal, Clinton the reassurance of American decency.

Take them at their worst and Obama takes on all the trappings of the charlatan snake oil salesman, while Clinton becomes the bought and sold politician in the special interests' pocket. Obama is the American idealist with his head in the clouds, Clinton the vulgar striver with her ankles in the muck. Obama is the teacher's pet, Clinton the crooked school board boss. On and on it goes, off to the horizon of the American imagination.

I'm not arguing that Obama and Clinton are the only two politicians who could ever inhabit such diametrically polar corners of the American archetypal landscape. But neither do I think it's just a question of finding images to stick onto two politicians who happen to split the electorate. A few dozen votes separated Bush and Gore, and the same exercise does not seem to apply.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Desperately Seeking Storyline

So now that Super Tuesday has come and gone, leaving neither Obama nor Clinton with a more legitimate claim to victory than the other, what's the narrative? Did Clinton stop Obama's momentum? Or did Obama, against all odds, make up a stunning amount of ground? Did Obama show the value of his appeal in the Red States? Or did Clinton prove her Democratic bona fides in NY and Cali? It seems as easy to support any of those arguments as to dismantle them.

With regards to Obama's momentum, so much of it seems to run off the fumes of whatever it is he inspires in his most ardent supporters, and even more so in the frenzied rush that has preceded each primary, that by nature it's almost bound to not live up to the expectations it generates. That said, the fact that he's not only still around, but gaining ground really is pretty remarkable. A lot of that has to do with the new voters he's brought into the electoral process, but I wonder if there wasn't a significant pool of voters who were naturally inclined to support him but reluctant to commit until they were certain he was the real deal. And whatever else is still in doubt, I think he's effectively made the case that he's the real deal.

With regards to Clinton, it's hard not to imagine her wondering what the hell she's got to do to shake this guy. After all, she went up against against Joe Biden and managed to convince people that she was the candidate of experience. She went up against the party's VP nominee from four years back and managed to convince them that she was the inevitable candidate. Compared to that, handling Obama ought to have been short work. But here we are on Super Wednesday, and you get the sense that no matter how many primaries Clinton wins, it just won't be enough to put Obama away, and that she's finally beginning to realize that. And you know it had to hurt to hear the news that while she was lending her own campaign $5 million, the rest of America was poneying up $32 mil for Obama.

Still, who would have believed even two weeks ago that the Democratic candidate that won NY, Cali, Massachusetts, and arguably Florida would have anything but a clear path to the nomination? In fact, with all the attention that's been paid to Obama's Red State appeal, I'm not sure I've seen it mentioned that his path to the Democratic nomination, should he end up winning it, will have curiously resembled the strategy that the GOP used to win the last two general elections. There's no doubt that California and NY will fall behind Obama should he win the nomination. But will he be really able to put those Red States in play come November? The answer, of course, to that and all the other questions being asked today is that despite the hopes, convictions and certainty that abound, no one really knows.

Which leads me to suggest that the real narrative of this election has less to do with the candidates than with the voters. It's somewhat tangential to the idea that Kevin Drum's been developing about the candidates functioning as a sort of Rorschach test, whereby everyone who looks at them sees something different. Because whereas Kevin has posited that "something different" as being very personal, I'm beginning to think there's part of a collective reflection involved as well. As if these two candidates somehow manage to incarnate two very distinct poles of our national genius. Notice that I don't say duelling, even though they are each trying to defeat the other, or irreconciliable, even though the spectre of bitter division has been raised.

The reason we're having such difficulty deciding between them is that they are two halves that form a whole. Put them together and you wind up with America.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Last Word

My experience with California bureaucracy has always been relatively painless over the years. The DMV's are clean, the state and municipal employees are in general pretty helpful, and there's an overall ethic of competence that seems to pervade the culture. So I was surprised and disappointed that, despite having contacted them a month ago, the LA County Registrar's Office didn't manage to get me my absentee ballot until this morning. Since the ballot had to be in the Registrar's office by 8pm tonight, and I didn't know anyone who happened to be flying out to the Golden State today, I walked over to the American Church where Democrats Abroad was holding the expatriate's [Note: correct spelling courtesy of reader GS.] primary. And that's how I wound up in this video clip that's now on the front page of Le Figaro:

My comment, which comes at the very end, roughly translates to, "Even if I'm wary of the Obama euphoria, I think he's an exceptional politician, the kind that doesn't come along very often, who manages to mobilize a lot of people."

It was a curious experience finally voting, after having followed the campaign so closely for so long. As I set out for the church, the realization dawned on me that I would finally have to actually decide between Obama and Clinton, and with each step I took the sense of uncertainty grew stronger. Because although I've been increasingly leaning towards one of them recently, it hasn't been without moments of doubt and wavering. So I really didn't know who I would vote for until I sat down at the table, filled out the form, and considered the names with the empty squares next to them. And although I was staring at the paper, my gaze was directed inward.

It was only after I left the voting area that I realized that for the first time in my adult life, I had just voted for someone who I wholeheartedly, without reservation would like to see elected president of the United States.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Monday, February 4, 2008

Blogger's Remorse

Between two articles I'm finishing off, a new job, and the last remnants of the flu, I've got a pretty full plate at the moment. So please bear with me with regard to the light blog activity.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Sunday, February 3, 2008

Russia, France & Iran

In what can only be considered very encouraging news, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak defended the sanctions against Tehran agreed upon by the "P5+1" and now being considered by the UN Security Council:

"When this document is made public, you will see that it contains serious signals for Iran and envisions a certain expansion of the earlier sanctions", Kislyak said in an interview with the Russian news agency Interfax...

"Iran should fully cooperate with the IAEA's Board of Governors, and, among other things, get back to the implementation of the additional protocol on control, freeze uranium enrichment and take some other measures pending the work to untangle all difficult problems", he said.

He added that the matter remained one of political will, presumably in Tehran. But China's political will is essential to any resolution of this crisis as well, so it's reassuring to see that Chinese banks have cut back their operations in Iran and with Iranian businesses, albeit reluctantly, due to pressure from America's banking sanctions.

Meanwhile, relations between Tehran and Paris continue to deteriorate. Both countries summoned each others' ambassadors, France to protest President Ahmadinejad's comments about the imminent demise of the State of Israel, and Iran in a tit-for-tat response. The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman also pointedly criticized France's plans to establish a permanent military base in the UAE, explaining that Tehran was opposed to any increased foreign military presence in the region.

The French role in the Iranian crisis can't be understated. Both London and Berlin have expressed only tepid support for America's unilateral sanctions, and the likelihood of either of them signing on with their own was remote even before the NIE. Now, America's credibility has been effectively torpedoed. The Bush administration's overly aggressive posture when it was actually in a position to impact the crisis was bad enough. But the brutal aftermath of the NIE report combined with the Bush administration's lameduck status are a fatal cocktail.

France, on the other hand, has maintained a credible and consistently firm opposition to the Iranian enrichment program, and if there is a third round of UN sanctions, it will be largely due to France's very aggressive lobbying for it. Likewise for EU or EU3 sanctions. In fact, it's safe to say that France's resolve has prevented a complete unraveling of the US/EU position in the aftermath of the NIE and the anticipation of a new administration in Washington. So it's no surprise that Paris has to some extent replaced Washington as public enemy no. 1 in Tehran.

I've criticized Nicolas Sarkozy in the past for being a very opportunistic politician who carefully picks his battles. Usually what he looks for before investing any of his political capital in trying to resolve a standoff is a situation where everyone knows the solution, but for lack of a face-saving way to reach it, no one is willing to compromise. His m.o. is to then lean on the right pressure points to generate the political will necessary to get everyone to sign on the dotted line, and then take the credit for saving the day.

That hasn't been the case at all with the Iran crisis. Last summer, he very vocally implicated France in the heart of the crisis at a time when many were concerned about the militarist tone coming out of Washington. Some interpreted his comments as indicating his support for a military strike, but my own sense was that by reassuring Washington about how serious he took the threat, he was actually attempting to walk the Bush administration back towards a negotiated settlement. In the meantime, the NIE effectively left him out on a precipice, very noticeably alone. But to his credit, he has not backed away one inch (or 2.54 centimeters) from the very precarious ledge he found himself on. And if the West does manage to stand Tehran down on its uranium enrichment program, it will be in large part due to the enormous political risk he has taken.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   La France Politique   Russia   

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Saturday, February 2, 2008

Chad, Europe & Darfur

A little heads up on the fighting going on in Chad's capital: there's actually quite a bit more at stake there than whether the rebels manage to replace Chad's thug ruler Idriss Deby or work out a power sharing arrangement with him. The real action in that story is the EUFOR Chad force which was scheduled to deploy yesterday to the Eastern part of the country, on the border across from Darfur. The area is a hotbed of Chadian insurgency groups, Sudanese militias, and organized bandits, all of whom target the over 200,000 refugees from Darfur and over 100,000 internally displaced Chadians that are gathered there in UNHCR refugee camps.

The EUFOR Chad mission, authorized by the UN Security Council, was designed to re-establish security in the area in order for humanitarian groups to provide assistance to the refugees, and eventually help them return to their homes. Needless to say, none of the border-hopping armed groups were particularly enthusiastic about the mission deploying, and the Sudanese government wasn't too keen on seeing a European contingent on the other side of the border from Darfur either. So the timing of the rebel offensive, which in cutting off the land route to the east has already delayed the mission's deployment, is highly suspect.

Should they seize power, which is looking more and more likely, it's very possible the rebels will revoke Chad's invitation to the EUFOR force altogether, effectively putting an end to the mission. The last time the rebels threatened Deby's hold on power in 2005, France provided him with intelligence and some air support which allowed him to turn them back. The move caused one rebel group to declare a "state of belligerence" with France, which had already raised some concerns about the largely French EUFOR contingent being targetted.

Now France must decide whether to intervene on Deby's behalf again to make sure the EUFOR mission (which it worked hard to put together) deploys, thereby impeaching the mission's multi-lateral veneer of impartiality; or stand by and let the rebels seize power, thereby watching the mission (and the months' worth of diplomatic maneuvering to get it off the ground) go down the drain.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   Human Rights   

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Friday, February 1, 2008

Flatline

One thing no one's mentioned about the improved casualty figures out of Iraq is that they seem to have flatlined at just about the level they were at in 2005. In other words, they've gone down dramatically from their peak, but have held steady for the past three months at about four to five hundred deaths a month. Even if we assume for argument's sake that the security gains aren't lost once the Surge is drawn down, it seems like a stretch to imagine that there will be continued improvement with fewer troops on the ground. Which means we're stuck with this level of violence for the time being. And that doesn't strike me as particularly good news.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Friday, February 1, 2008

Revenge Of The Crazies

This backgrounder from The Economist is about as cogent a presentation of where things stand in the Iran nuclear crisis as I've read so far. They reference all the significant developments, both foreign and domestic, to illustrate why anyone who takes the threat of the Iranian program seriously should be very, very discouraged right now.

Last week it seemed like a third round of UN sanctions might happen in spite of the NIE, but already there are signs (this time from South Africa, which holds a non-permanent seat on the Security Council) that international opinion is far from galvanized on the urgency of the measures. Even a watered-down third round would be significant, because it would offer multi-lateral cover for more unilateral American or EU sanctions that might pressure Iran to take a more flexible negotiating position.

But the fact is that there aren't that many promising options left. Iran has a number of pots on the nuclear stove -- mastering the nuclear fuel cycle, experimental labs that the IAEA has yet to inspect, a heavy-water reactor under construction -- all of which could eventually be plugged into a jumpstarted weapons component that has been frozen but not dismantled.

Of course, none of that would happen overnight, and it's not certain that any of it would actually happen at all. But anyone who has taken a close look at this issue and read the NIE carefully has to concede that it's possible. And even if it's true that a nuclear Iran could be deterred, that's still a huge existential burden to place on an already volatile region. It's also an assumption based on a binary theory of deterrence. If the entire region goes nuclear, on the other hand, the calculations become exponentially more complex. And with such short delivery times, the margin for error or miscalculation grows even slimmer.

I'm not sure what the answer is, because there's no way to put the NIE genie back in the bottle. As Bush's recent sabre-rattling tour of the Middle East demonstrated, no one's really taking this administration seriously anymore. Condoleeza Rice has been reduced to basically begging the Iranians to accept our pre-conditions so we can negotiate directly, but really, at this point they've got no incentive to, and have as much as said that they'll wait to see what a new administration offers.

If there's any hope, it's in a third round of UN sanctions, and even that would just be for what it would offer in terms of US and EU sanctions. But it looks like in our zeal to restrain the crazies in Washington, we've unleashed the crazies in Tehran. And now we'll have to live with the consequences.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Friday, February 1, 2008

Symbolism

In his first official meeting as Russia's envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin presented Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer with a ceremonial, custom-made Russian tomahawk:

"He is holding the tomahawk and now we have to find a spade to bury this hatchet as deep as possible in the ground," Rogozin said.

Rogozin also said he hoped to put "an end to all conflicts between Russia and NATO." Not bad for a guy whose appointment raised eyebrows due to his ultra-nationalist leanings.

Posted by Judah in:  Russia   

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Friday, February 1, 2008

Timing Is Everything

As you've probably noticed, between fighting off a flu bug and working on a couple of articles, I haven't been as active as usual in following the news. So it could be I've just missed something. But a quick Google search seems to confirm that no major American news outlet has picked up on the story of the Bush administration submitting a nuclear energy cooperation deal with Turkey to Congress. In the meantime, Turkey has announced that it will be opening bidding for construction of its first nuclear energy plant in February.

Update: Meanwhile, Turkey's energy minister just suggested that Turkey could finalize its gas deal with Iran -- whereby Iran would serve as a transit link for Turkmenistan gas destined for Turkey, and Turkey would develop Iran's South Pars gas field for European delivery -- next month. The deal is strongly opposed by Washington, and I'd assumed that the move to certify Turkey for nuclear cooperation was in part meant to serve as a counter-offer. Stay tuned.

Posted by Judah in:  Media Coverage   Turkey   

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Friday, February 1, 2008

Too Close To Call

Wow. I just got finished watching the entire Obama-Clinton debate, and what I said yesterday about either one of them destroying McCain come November counts for double now. They're both really great candidates. As always, whenever I see Obama I'm reminded of why I agree with so much of what's written about his strengths. And also as always, whenever I see Clinton I'm reminded of why I disagree with so much of what's written about her weaknesses.

I read a bit of commentary and analysis before watching the debate, and the consensus seemed to be that they both put on strong performances, with Obama having the slight edge due to his advantage during the Iraq portion of the debate. And I have to take issue with the latter half of that assessment. It was clear that Clinton was eager to re-direct the Iraq discussion to the way forward. But I found her very persuasive on the merits of her position on the authorization vote. And I say that as someone who opposed the war from the start, and who has never been sympathetic to the position she was defending.

What's more, while I continue to be impressed by Obama's strategic assessment of the past and strategic vision for the future, I found myself irritated by two of his assertions regarding Clinton's Iraq position. First, that she supported the war and the mindset that led to the war, which is a blatant distortion that I'm surprised he's not called out on. And second, that Clinton will be compromised by her authorization vote when facing off against McCain. There's tons of daylight between Clinton's Iraq stance and McCain's, and if anything, she'll be in the position of using her vote as proof that she's tough enough to wield the threat of force, but sane enough to determine when it actually makes sense to follow through.

I think both candidates did extremely well. Obama because he showed he belongs up there in every sense of the word. It's tautological, but the questions about his toughness and staying power become less and less valid the longer he sticks around. Meanwhile, Clinton's performance demonstrated her savvy in terms of how to modulate the tone of her campaign to suit the tactical needs of the moment.

While I've already made the editorial decision not to endorse either candidate, I thought as recently as last night that I'd finally decided who I was voting for. After watching the debate, I'm not so sure anymore. I've often found that when we have a hard time making a decision for ourselves, the universe sometimes makes it for us. Oddly enough, my absentee ballot still hasn't arrived from the LA County registrar's office, so maybe I'm destined to remain undecided in this one. One thing's certain. Come November, I'll have no problem voting for the candidate with the big "D" after their name.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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