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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Covering Up Olympic Coverage

In the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake in May, I described China's press management as controlled transparency, and mentioned that the cautious manner in which it allowed the world to see its domestic tragedy reflected a lot about how comfortable China was, or wasn't, with its newfound status. The same obviously goes for the upcoming Olympic Games, and by every indication, China still has some ground to cover. With the opening of the Games just days away, the news has now leaked that Pekin has backtracked on its commitment to press freedom, restricting access to internet websites ranging from the BBC to Amnesty International or any site with Tibet in the url.

Today, the World Association of Newspapers (with which I have a professional relationship) has begun a campaign trying to pressure China not only to live up to its commitments, but also to free the more than thirty journalists and fifty cyber-reporters that are already emprisoned. Here's the homepage for the campaign if you're interested.

Posted by Judah in:  China   

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Pakistan and the Limits of Sovereignty

Matthew Yglesias calls John McCain's refusal to commit to ordering a U.S. strike on Osama bin Laden in Pakistan were we to have actionable intelligence on his whereabouts bizarre. It's also inconsistent with these comments he made in an interview with the editors of Defense News last October:

Q: Does the U.S. have any options with regard to al-Qaida and reputed al-Qaida strongholds in the federally unregulated areas in Pakistan? Other than what seems to be sort of a status quo of waiting for them to come over the border, the Pakistani Army occasionally launching a strike to -- well, it's hard to say for what end because they don't seem to be sustained efforts. What are the U.S. options there?

McCain: I think they're very difficult options. I think that if we knew of al-Qaida -- more specifically Taliban, it's mainly Taliban that are operating in these places -- that we have to do what's necessary. We don't have to advertise it. We don't have to embarrass or humiliate the Pakistani government. . .

. . .These are all very tough calls, and in summary I think that what happens in Waziristan will be dictated by events in Islamabad, but I also think that we, where necessary, without in any way embarrassing our friends, can have a lot of options.

Q: So if you were president and you knew that bin Laden were over there, you had a target spotting, you could nail him, you'd go get him?

McCain: Sure. Sure. We have to, and I'm sure that after the initial flurry, that whoever our friends are, wherever he is, would be relieved because, as I mentioned to you before, he's still very effective in the world, very, very effective.

Ygelsias goes on to defend McCain's original position, and that of Barack Obama, saying "Under the circumstances, Pakistani sovereignty can't be your top concern." Kal over at The Moor Next Door argues that "cowboy bombings" in Pakistani territory, even territory where the Pakistani government exercises nominal control, is a fool's bargain sacrficing prudence for the appearance of toughness:

Any American action in Pakistan against Osama bin Laden or other targets should be done in consultation with the Pakistani government. With or without consultation, the legitimacy of the government is at stake within those areas it does exercise control over and in those within which it does not. Doing so would at the very least allow the government to prepare for the consequences, however bad they may be. Not doing so would cause major problems for the United States, and Pakistan.

Something that's been overlooked in the discussion is that the consensus is now converging on putting American forces in the line of fire of any eventual blowback from a Waziristan (read: Pakistan) operation, in the form of a dramatically increased American military presence in Afghanistan. That blowback would be on top of an already thorny situation. Last night, Hampton forwarded me this video interview with Maulana Fazlullah, a Swat-based Taliban cleric who declares that he's got waves of suicide bombers ready to be unleashed in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as this Voice of America article describing the breakdown of the recent "peace agreement" between the Taliban and the Pakistani central government in Swat province.

Clearly we have the right to secure our interests, and clearing out the Pakistan border areas of violent extremists is in our interests. But how far does that logic extend? Into Swat? Into Islamabad if, as a result of our incursions, the Pakistani government becomes threatened?

The discussion surrounding limited incursions and missile strikes into Pakistani territory also begs the question of why, back in 2001, we didn't use a similar approach to take care of the al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, instead of generously relieving the Taliban of the responsibility for governing the entire country? It could be that such a limited campaign might have either, 1) proven ineffective; or, 2) dragged us inevitably into the broader conflict in which we find ourselves now. But if so, those are two arguments that weigh against the kinds of interventionism in Pakistan that's being bandied about so cavalierly today.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Pakistan   

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Political Logic of Timetables

Kevin Drum's got a smart post on the likelihood of President Bush and Iraqi PM Nouri Maliki reaching a deal on a status of forces agreement that was recently believed to be dead in the water. Here's the key quote from the WSJ article Kevin flags:

Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq's national-security adviser, said the recent agreement between Washington and Baghdad on a withdrawal time horizon is pushing the talks along.

"That mutual understanding has been very beneficial," he said. "Neither of us can deal with open-ended uncertainty."

The Iraqis are still pushing for a 2010 date, in line with Barack Obama's proposal, but the article suggests that a compromise date a year or two after that might salvage an agreement during the Bush administration's term. But what's interesting is that the logic used by al-Rubaie in support of a withdrawal timetable, which the Iraqis were already insisting on as early as June 2006, is the same logic used by American supporters of conditional disengagement, namely that the open-ended presence of American troops in Iraq was exacerbating factional divisions and undermining Iraqi political reconciliation.

What's happened in the meantime is that al-Sadr and the Sunnis silenced their guns, we surged five brigades into Baghdad, and Nouri Maliki flexed his muscles in Basra. Whether or not al-Sadr is beaten or just biding his time is a question we can't really answer, and the same is true of whether the Sunni insurgency will re-integrate the Iraqi political system peacefully or not.

It's also impossible to know for sure whether the American troop presence will simply postpone a return to violence, or create the conditions for a permanent political resolution of the sectarian and factional conflicts. But it's hard to think of a better way to test that proposition than by setting an actual timetable for withdrawal. In any case, an open-ended American military presence is politically untenable in Iraq, and it looks like the American political consensus is catching up to Baghdad's.

One final thought on the idea of a conditions-based timetable, where the big question no one is addressing is, Who sets the conditions? Spikes in violence might be caused by extremists bent on undermining the central government. But they might also represent resistance to a factional power grab legitimized by the mantle of American recognition. Anyone who thinks that a vague security guarantee to the Iraqi government is a good idea should take a look at France's experience in Africa, where due to outdated security agreements, French troops have been propping up regimes of varying degrees of unseemliness for decades.

Of course, to a certain degree that's what we did with Saddam Hussein so long as he functioned to contain Iran. But we did it with his army, not ours.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

France's Soft Power

At the final Council of Ministers before the August vacation, Nicolas Sarkozy invited his entire government to share a going away toast in a salon of the Elysée Palace. There, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy offered them each a dedicated copy of her latest CD, which they all prominently displayed before the press upon leaving. Gotta love it.

The degree to which France has remained obsessed with Sarkozy is truly fascinating. He's consistently the cover story of the weekly news magazines, alternately calculatingly omnipotent or hystericaly powerless, but always front and center.

But perhaps more fascinating is France's newfound obsession with Carla Bruni, who has managed to seduce not just Sarkozy but the entire country. There are obvious reasons, I think, why I've yet to meet a man who isn't under her charms. But I've also yet to meet a woman who isn't smitten as well. The women all describe her as both glamorous and charming, aristocratic and down to earth, elegant and unaffected. I always expect the claws to come out, given that they're talking about a woman who has "everything." But instead, Carla has become "living proof" that the fairy tale ending they all still hope for can come true, so they'd rather cheer her on than root against her.

Of course, the fairy tale ending would be more convincing if the frog had actually turned into a prince, but I suppose you can't have everything.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  La France Politique   

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Friday, July 25, 2008

The Afghanistan Surge

Do not miss Vikram Singh's WPR piece on the applicability of the Surge to Afghanistan. It's a balanced, insightful, and revealing treatment of what is increasingly becoming the common wisdom consensus. While Singh is far from a pessimist on the current situation in Afghanistan or on the chances for a successful outcome there, he very ably points out the limits of the current discussion.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Obama in Berlin

I admit that I got chills up my spine when I heard that 200,000 people showed up to hear Barack Obama speak in Berlin. I don't know what it feels like to have almost a quarter of a million living, breathing human beings, spread out in front of you off into the distance, hanging on your every word. For that matter, there probably aren't too many people alive who know what that feels like. But I imagine it's not you're ordinary, everyday kind of adrenaline rush. (The only video I found so far of the event is kind of anti-climactic, though, since the audience is a little offbeat in their applause, probably due to the language barrier, but also due to the sheer time it took for the sound to reach them, and it seemed to hamper Obama's delivery.)

Anyway, I read a transcript of the speech, and truth be told wasn't that impressed. It hits all the right notes in terms of repairing the mistrust within the trans-Atlantic alliance, which Obama implicitly but correctly identifies as existing on a popular level. (The arrival of Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy has already largely repaired the damage on a political level.) The two areas where he got bold were on global warming (on which he basically said, "Our bad, we'll get it right next time."), and Afghanistan, where he called for Europe and NATO to double down. On the first, I'm in agreement, on the second, I'm not.

After years of using the removal of military resources from Afghanistan as a club to beat the Bush administration over the head with for its conduct of the war in Iraq, Democrats (and increasingly Republicans) have come to believe that with more troops in Afghanistan we can achieve our objectives. I'm far from convinced that that's the case, and think that the claims of how important success there is to NATO's future are exagerrated.

More practically, calling for greater troop contributions from Europe ignore the fact that it's not going to happen. England's looking to reduce its engagement, Germany has already ponied up, and France has already downsized the contingent it committed to send at the April NATO summit.

The Afghanistan reference is pure Obama, who often uses his privileged iconic position to deliver a gentle chiding lecture. In that, it might disabuse his German listeners of what Josef Joffe calls in The New Republic "their infatuation with Obama":

After Inauguration Day, alas, Europe and the world will not face a Dreamworks president, but the leader of a superpower. Whether McCain or Obama, the 44th president will speak more nicely than did W. in his first term. He will also pay more attention to the "decent opinions of mankind." But he will still preside over the world's largest military, economic, and cultural power.

Finally, Obama closed with a call to "remake the world once again," a theme that I'm not terribly comfortable with. The speech probably works from a political perspective, in that by making demands of Europe and not assuming unilateral responsibility for the challenges the trans-Atlantic alliance has faced, he hasn't provided John McCain with any ammunition to use against him. It also probably did nothing to diminish his popularity in Europe. But if Afghanistan becomes central to Obama's European policy, he's in for some tough sledding.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   Foreign Policy   

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Obama's Pre-Victory Lap

What's remarkable about Barack Obama's Middle East tour is how unprecedented it is to see a presidency begin before the actual election. But that's obviously what's happening here. For both Obama, who has overnight assumed the presidential air he was by some accounts lacking, and for the leaders he's meeting, who are very clearly eager to get a head start on getting to know the next American president, this is a pre-victory lap. And he hasn't even touched down in Europe, where the buzz around him has already taken on the dimensions of a cultural phenomenon that's being compared to the Beatles' first tour. Obviously, no one here gets to vote, but I can't imagine the American electorate being unmoved by the sight of a candidate for president having this kind of effect everywhere he goes. It would be silly not to put that to good use.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Why the Rush with Iran?

If you'd like an alternative take on the latest round of Iran nuclear talks, try Flynt Leverett's and Hillary Mann Leverett's corrective in the National Interest. They condemn the rush to impose what they call an artificial deadline on Iran to accept our pre-conditions, even if those are more generously defined. Instead, they put the negotiations in the context of consistent Iranian efforts to use issue-specific cooperation as a way to engage a "comprehensive diplomatic agenda," efforts consistently disappointed by this and previous American administrations. The Leverett's suggest that recent shifts in American posture have created a receptive climate in Iran to once again try to arrive at some sort of grand bargain. But that opportunity will be lost if we once again reduce the negotiating track to a deadline-enforced single-issue track.

There's a danger, in the Leverett's argument, of getting lulled into the kind of longterm, potentially fruitless negotiations that in essence give the Iranians time to proceed with their technological advances in the nuclear fuel cycle. But there's also the chance that by treating the roots, the leaves take care of themselves.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Militarization of American Foreign Policy

I've made a point of not bringing the subject up for a while, because it's never good to get fixated on an idea and see everything through that lens for too long. But believe me, it hasn't been easy. So if none other than Robert Gates himself up and goes there (via U.S. Diplomacy), then I think I'm entitled to cut myself a little slack:

Overall, even outside Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has become more involved in a range of activities that in the past were perceived to be the exclusive province of civilian agencies and organizations. This has led to concern among many organizations – including probably many represented here tonight – about what’s seen as a creeping "militarization" of some aspects of America’s foreign policy.

This is not an entirely unreasonable sentiment. . . But that scenario can be avoided if. . .there is the right leadership, adequate funding of civilian agencies, effective coordination on the ground, and a clear understanding of the authorities, roles, and missions of military versus civilian efforts, and how they fit, or in some cases don’t fit, together.

There's also this, on what makes America strong:

. . .[M]uch of our national security strategy depends on securing the cooperation of other nations, which will depend heavily on the extent to which our efforts abroad are viewed as legitimate by their publics. The solution is not to be found in some slick PR campaign or by trying to out-propagandize al-Qaeda, but through the steady accumulation of actions and results that build trust and credibility over time.

It's striking to see a Secretary of Defense with such a keen understanding of -- and obvious affection for -- diplomacy. A lot of folks have been calling for Gates to stay on in the next administration as SecDef. Funny that no one's mentioned him as Secretary as State material.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Negotiating with Iran

Last night, Iran's less than satisfying response to the P5+1's latest offer on the nuclear standoff was leaked to the press by a European source. Today, the Bush administration leaked the news to both the Times and the AP that William J. Burns, the third ranking State Dept. official, will attend this weekend's meeting between the EU's Javier Solana and Iran's nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili. It's the highest-level contact between the two countries, but there are a number of caveats:

The officials emphasized that Mr. Burns’s participation was a one-time decision, that he would not meet one-on-one with Mr. Jalili and that he would reiterate the administration’s demand that Iran suspend uranium enrichment.

I'd be curious to know who leaked the story, and what faction in the internal administration wrangling over Iran that Burns belongs to. His Congressional testimony on Iran from just last week (.pdf) is an equal dose of firmness and openness to dialogue, therefore hard to decipher. The Times article frames the decision to send Burns as a response to some background noise coming out of Iran that ". . .led the administration to conclude that there could be more chance of a diplomatic resolution than some Iranian declarations and a battery of missile tests last week suggested." 

But Burns' presence remains ambiguous, in that it signals what amounts to a reversal in the American position of no discussions without a freeze in Iran's uranium enrichment program, at the same time that the message he's being sent to deliver communicates the exact opposite. In combination with last night's leak, it plays to the court of public opinion to create the perception of an American willingness to negotiate, thereby effectively raising pressure on Iran to come up with something substantive at the meeting. The question is whether the Iranians will perceive it in the same way.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Orwell Revisited

The screens aren't fixed into the wall, they're mobile.

The controlling authority isn't a political entity, it's a normative consumerism.

Information isn't destroyed, it's buried under more information.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Grow the Army?

Call me a crank, but when everyone starts agreeing on something, I start looking for flaws in the argument. I get the feeling that Steven Metz is the same way, which is probably why I get such a kick out of reading his work. In this case it's a short op-ed (.pdf) from the Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute questioning the gathering consensus that the U.S. Army needs to be expanded. Metz points out that the troops needed to ease the strain caused by Iraq and Afghanistan will take five years to generate, especially the officer corps. If we still need them at that point, it's worth questioning whether we ought to be in Iraq and Afghanistan to begin with. Beyond that, the larger force structure is mainly applicable to the kinds of boot-heavy, longterm counterinsurgency campaigns justified by what Metz argues is a flawed causal link between unstable conflict zones and the global terror threat. Worth a read, as always.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Iranian Threat

I found this Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation chart via Matthew Yglesias last night. As you can see, it uses a side by side comparison of U.S. and Iranian military capacity to effectively debunk the idea that Iran poses any kind of existential threat to the United States. Yglesias acknowledges the risk to regional stability represented by Iran acquiring a nuclear weapons capacity, but says that's "a far cry from saying that Iran is, as such, any kind of serious military threat."

My first thought last night was that this line of argument is convincing because it blurs the distinction between existential threat and military threat. In particular, it ignores the fact that Iran is aggressively pursuing a ballistic missile capacity which will soon put it in the position of striking Israeli targets, and eventually put European capitals within range. My first thought this morning was that had I posted that thought last night, the news that Iran just test launched a Shahab 3 missile capable of reaching Tel Aviv would have made me look like a genius. 

The fact is that for over twenty years now, Iran has been a hostile nation that has exercised a destabilizing influence in the region and demonstrated a willingness to use force -- including terrorist attacks carried out by proxies and state agents -- to further its interests. They are not the only nation that fits that description, but they are the most prominent among the group. The fact that American policy towards Iran over that time might not have been ideally formulated to modulate that posture is an exacerbating factor, but not a causal one, and it doesn't make Iran's posture any less real.

For a variety of reasons, it would be counterproductive to try to achieve our strategic objectives vis à vis Iran through military means. That means we need to engage them diplomatically, which entails allowing for a realistic recalculation of Iran's regional status, to our detriment. But we need to do that clearsightedly, which means recognizing both the difficulties of negotiating with Tehran (the response to the P5+1's latest offer on the nuclear dossier is an example), and also the threat a hostile Iranian state poses to our interests and those of our allies.

The case against a military approach to Iran can be made without minimizing or ignoring the military threat Iran poses. It is far from being existential, either to the U.S. or to our allies. But it exists.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Friday, July 4, 2008

Happy Fourth of July

"Other states indicate themselves in their deputies . . . . but the genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors . . . but always most in the common people. Their manners speech dress friendships -- the freshness and candor of their physiognomy -- the picturesque looseness of their carriage . . . their deathless attachment to freedom -- their aversion to anything indecorous or soft or mean -- the practical acknowledgment of the citizens of one state by the citizens of all other states -- the fierceness of their roused resentment -- their curiosity and welcome of novelty -- their self-esteem and wonderful sympathy -- their susceptibility to a slight -- the air they have of persons who never knew how it felt to stand in the presence of superiors -- the fluency of their speech -- their delight in music, the sure symptom of manly tenderness and native elegance of soul . . . their good temper and openhandedness -- the terrible significance of their elections -- the President's taking off his hat to them not they to him -- these too are unrhymed poetry. It awaits the gigantic and generous treatment worthy of it."

-- Walt Whitman, introduction to Leaves of Grass, 1855 edition.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Friday, July 4, 2008

No Place Like Home

Me and the Not-So-Lil' Feller ran around most of the afternoon getting him ready for his summer vacation. At the shopping center where we found his sandals, swimming gear and sunglasses, he managed to convince me to let him spend his allowance in the video game arcade. There, to my surprise, we found a full-fledged bowling alley and pool hall. He's played billiards before, but it was his first time bowling, and watching him roll the ball two-handed down the lane brought back memories of what seems like a rite of passage. Not quite a barbecue, but it struck me as about American an afternoon as you can spend in Paris. Happy Fourth, everyone!

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Thursday, July 3, 2008

Ingrid Betancourt Freed

I don't know how much coverage it's gotten in the States, but because she's a dual citizen of France, Ingrid Betancourt has been a cause célèbre here for the past six years. And today she's free. I've found myself particularly moved by the personal tragedy of her story over the years, but also of the national tragedy it incarnates, and never more so than watching her ten-minute address on the tarmac following her liberation. The courage of her political struggle grew out of her love for her country, and she and her family suffered terribly for it. Yet the sentiments she expressed upon being freed were still of her love for Colombia, and her desire to see it healed from its self-inflicted wounds.

She also expressed her gratitude to the media for keeping her story in people's hearts and minds, as well as to the Colombian Army, calling the operation that freed her, three American military contractors, and eleven other hostages "perfect." The operation, which was based on high-level infiltration of the FARC command and in which apparently not a single shot was fired, convinced the FARC commander who was holding Betancourt hostage that he was simply transferring her to another FARC location. Betancourt herself didn't realize she was free until the helicopter had taken off, and the men wearing Che Guevara t-shirts revealed that they were actually Colombian soldiers. She proudly mentioned that previously only Israel was known for this kind of operation, and sure enough, according to Le Monde, it was carried out with the help of retired Israeli national security operatives as consultants.

Ingrid Betancourt is an extraordinary woman and a fierce advocate for peace and justice. It's good news for her family, for Colombia and for the world that she's back among us.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Las Americas   

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