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September, 2008

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Case for Strategic Patience

AFOE's Edward Hugh offers a solid analysis of the current financial turmoil roiling Russian markets, that among other things debunks the idea that the invasion of Georgia was an essential cause -- as opposed to a catalyzing event -- of the capital flight in the invasion's aftermath. In other words, absent other fundamental weaknesses and contributing factors, there's no way of knowing whether globalized markets would have "punished" Russia's muscle-flexing in the Caucasus.

While most of the loud arguments about the Russian invasion have framed it in terms of NATO enlargement and some sort of moral obligation to defend Georgia's young democracy, the fact is that Russia's message was more directly addressed to the Central Asian energy sources that are shaping up to be tomorrow's geopolitical brass ring. Judging by the immediate fallout, that message has gotten through. Azerbaijan, a key stop on Dick Cheney's post-invasion tour, just decided to reduce oil shipments to the EU in order to increase Russian and Iranian deliveries. The move had been a temporary reaction to the threat the Russia-Georgia conflict posed to the trans-Georgian pipeline, but has now been continued indefinitely to "spread risk." (For more on just what those risks are, see this ISN piece.)

Azerbaijan's predicament highlights the difficult balance the Central Asian energy producers need to strike between a desire to lean towards the West on the one hand, and the reality that the West's tough talk and plans for future military integration did nothing to deter Russia from showing who has the military upper hand in the region now. That leaves the West with a tough choice of its own: push forward with the integration of Georgia, Ukraine and the Central Asian countries into the U.S.-NATO military sphere of influence (with or without membership for the former two), which means confronting Russia head-on at a time when Russia enjoys the tactical upper hand; or else develop a concerted energy security policy -- whether NATO or EU -- which means finding solutions that aren't necessarily easy to come by, and for which the proposed ones (ie. Nabucco) are unraveling.

On the other hand, as Hugh's analysis above makes clear, the other fundamental weaknesses and contributing factors to Russia's economic turmoil -- as well as the difficulty Russia's military sector will have meeting the demands of its ramped up military procurement schedule -- are significant enough to seriously weaken Russia's longterm strategic position. Russia needs Western capital to upgrade its dilapidated energy infrastructure if it hopes to meet its energy contracts into the next decade. That's one of the reasons it's been so aggressive in trying to corner the market on the 'Stans.

It's also why an expert cited in the Reuters article on the difficulties facing an EU energy security policy made it clear that the EU's dependency on Russian supplies is no greater than Russian dependency on EU demand. A conflict with Russia might ultimately be unavoidable. But there's every reason to believe that Russia's need to responsibly integrate the global order will become clearer to the leadership in Moscow with time, meaning our hand will only get stronger, and Russia's steadier.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Markets & Finance   Russia   

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Monday, September 29, 2008

Consolation Prize?

I hadn't realized this, but apparently they play out the Major League baseball season even after the Yankees have been mathematically eliminated. What's more, there's even a playoffs and World Series and everything. I'd always thought everyone just lost interest.

Update: Hah! I just checked the Hoops, Hardball and Fisticuffs archives and realized I wrote a variant of this post last year! Funny, every year it surprises me.

Posted by Judah in:  Hoops, Hardball & Fisticuffs   

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Saturday, September 27, 2008

McCain's Pakistan Flip Flop

This isn't the first time I've flagged these comments made by John McCain in an interview with the editors of Defense News last October. I'm posting them again in light of last night's debate, where McCain once again attacked Barack Obama for his stance on American strikes against al-Qaida leadership in Pakistan's tribal frontier:

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.

That's a pretty clear case of political bad faith, but oddly enough it hasn't gotten a whole lot of traction.

Posted by Judah in:  Media Coverage   Pakistan   Politics   

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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Paul Newman, 1925-2008

A class act. Really, what more is there to say?

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   

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Friday, September 26, 2008

Amen

Laura Rozen:

It's an extraordinary and disturbing spectacle that's going on now, with this White House unable to convince even and especially its own party to rescue what they argue is essentially the country's financial liquidity. All these years of gratuitous demagoguery, ideological rigidity, ultra-partisanship, secrecy, cronyism, lying, attacks on dissent and the media and immigrants and calling concerns about torture and domestic spying treasonous, it all just comes down to total bankruptcy and weakness and pleas to any and all in the end to please help. Extend them the reasonableness, the decency, the good will that in the almost fascistic overreach of their high power days they never considered extending, they sneered at. They presided over the destruction of so much they touched, sometimes on a cataclysmic scale; and now they are weak and have made this country weaker and more vulnerable before its adversaries to a degree unimaginable a decade ago. Such deeply, deeply irresponsible men.

Amen.

Posted by Judah in:  Markets & Finance   Politics   

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Missing the Obvious Followup

This entire post is covered by the caveat that I didn't see the entire Katie Couric interview with Sarah Palin, just the brutal clip of Palin's Russia answer. So it could be that Couric went on to ask the question I formulate below. But it seems to me that getting into a debate about whether or not proximity to two foreign countries qualifies as "foreign policy credentials" actually lets Palin off the hook. Couric should have taken Palin at her word and moved on to the obvious followup: "In that case, what should our policy towards Russia be in the aftermath of the Georgian invasion?" Granted, it's a question that no one can really answer right now, but by forcing Palin to actually discuss a foreign policy question of substance it would have put her claims of being qualified to the test.

Posted by Judah in:  Media Coverage   Politics   

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Putting Afghanistan Back in Afghanistan Strategy

With the security situation in Iraq improved to the point where Secretary of Defense Robert Gates referred to entering the "endgame" in Congressional testimony yesterday, the question of what to do in Afghanistan is getting more and more attention every day. In the same testimony Gates, when pressed, conceded the possibility of adding three more brigades to our troop presence there next spring. That's in addition to the additional brigade announced by President Bush for February, and would roughly meet the repeated requests of theater commanders. Meanwhile, the White House has announced an interdepartemental strategic review of Afghanistan policy to be carried out before the administration leaves office, and Gen. David Petraeus has also commissioned a strategic review from his CentCom braintrust.

Now if you've been following this debate recently, you'll know that the emerging conventional wisdom is that the insurgent threat in Afghanistan has essentially been displaced to safe haven bases of operations across the Pakistani border. The Pakistani government is reluctant to go after the militants for a variety of reasons, creating the operational need for American cross-border attacks into Pakistani territory. The danger that these attacks could further destabilize the Pakistani civilian government, and by some accounts the Pakistani state itself, has in turn led to calls for a broader regional approach that addresses the principal motor driving Pakistan's security posture, namely its historic rivalry with India.

So far, so good. But now that everyone's thinking big picture, it helps to dial back in to the little picture, specifically just what we're trying to accomplish in Afghanistan. That was the subject of a press briefing by Nathaniel Fick and Vikram Singh (.pdf) at the Center for a New American Security last week. (Scroll down this page to download the audio file.) And according to both, who just toured the country talking to civil, military and non-governmental types, the answer is still very confused.

Is the mission a nation-building/counterinsurgency operation? If so, we're propping up a government that is  widely perceived as corrupt from top to bottom not only by the general population, but also by its vice president in an on the record quote. We're also trying to instill 21st century governance in what one questioner referred to as a 17th century society.

Is the mission a counterterrorism mission? If, so the additional troops will help tactically, but will do little to change the longterm strategic prospects. A more robust counterterrorism approach also risks inflaming anti-American opinion in both Afghanisan and Pakistan, especially given the growing use of airstrikes with the associated collateral costs in civilian casualties.

The two both advocate for the former approach, but argue that it will demand not only a significant increase in resources, but also a shift in emphasis from military to political solutions. Cross border strikes and a regional approach including Pakistan only make sense in that context. But before anything, they argue, the American people need to be prepared for the enormous costs of such a mission.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

McCain to the Rescue?

Given how hysterical his response to this financial crisis has been, about the last place John McCain should be is anywhere near the discussions aimed at resolving it.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Just Wondering

Is America too big to fail?

Posted by Judah in:  Markets & Finance   

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Pull the Plug

Given that his campaign is the biggest obstacle standing between him and the presidency, it shouldn't come as a big surprise that John McCain is so eager to suspend it.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

COIN and the Limits of Nation-Building

Janine Davidson at Intel Dump cites a Tom Johnson and M. Chris Mason piece in the Atlantic, All Counterinsurgency is Local, before discussing the tension between the tactics of counterinsurgency, which emphasize engaging with governance and authority at the most immediate (ie. local) level, and the strategy of counterinsurgency, which emphasizes shoring up governance and authority at the national level:

[T]he question we need to examine is about tradeoffs. What are we sacrificing from a national or international security perspective when we focus on human security at the local level, as Johnson and Mason suggest? What might an international system with weaker nation-states look like?

Do we have to choose between strengthening the local over the national level systems? Is it possible to have both? And can we help build both simultaneously, or should we focus on the local level and then eventually aggregate efforts up to a national level?

It's a point I alluded to here, in discussing the ways in which targeting the faultlines of the Westphalian order is increasingly becoming a feature not only of asymmetric non-state actors, but of great power geopolitics as well. It's also a point that I was planning to develop today, even before reading Davidson's post. Preventing failed and failing states from becoming vectors of regional and global security threats -- whether through terrorism, organized crime (human slavery, money laundering), or drug trafficking -- has become the foundational logic of America's national security posture, as reflected in the U.S. military's doctrinal shift towards a counterinsurgency emphasis.

But the tactical-strategic paradox that Davidson flags, between COIN on the one hand and nation-building on the other, reflects a broader historical context that risks getting clouded by the need for practical solutions to the operational challenges of two wars. Because in ways that vary from Iraq to Afghanistan to the Pakistani tribal areas, America is running up against the fundamental and historically unresolved tensions between the modern Westphalian system and the traditional ethno-sectarian/tribal system. Our strategic posture amounts to a colonial crusade in defense of the Westphalian order, even as the tactical necessities demanded by that crusade identify the historical limits of that order's applicability.

We're essentially fighting a rearguard battle of the 19th century colonial wars, minus the colonies. The fact that we're engaged in this exercise at the very moment that our global dominance seems to have peaked and our financial foundation is more uncertain than at any time in several generations suggests that in ignoring history, we're condemning ourselves to repeat it.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   International Relations   Iraq   

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Saturday, September 20, 2008

More of the Same?

I was just thinking this morning how the problem with the Obama campaign's strategy of equating John McCain to President Bush is that it ignores the ways in which the last two years of Bush's presidency bear very little resemblance to the first six. Between the Democratic Congress, the ascendancy of the Condoleezza Rice-Bob Gates (ie. the sane) axis in foreign policy, and his lameduck status, Bush has managed if not to undo, at least to address and in some cases to mitigate a lot of the damage he did prior to the 2006 mid-term elections. It's a thought that's borne out by this Jonathan Rauch article (via Andrew Sullivan) in the National Journal:

Had Bush left office at the beginning of last year, his tenure might indeed have gone down as calamitous. Winding up in the middling ranks, then, would be no mean accomplishment. Far from being happenstance, such a finish would reflect an unusual period of course correction that might be thought of as Bush's third term.

What's more, I think the country, and even the most die-hard Democrats, are over Bush in a way that seemed unimaginable two years ago. So going after him neither motivates the base nor grabs the fence-sitters, many of whom might have voted for him in 2004 and won't appreciate being reminded of the fact. Obama should go after McCain, who makes a pretty easy target all by himself.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Saturday, September 20, 2008

Four Reasons God's a Liberal

The act of creation is a progressive act. A conservative God would have left things the way they were.

With over 600 laws and commandments, the Bible is a litany of regulation. A conservative God would have let people decide for themselves.

From the flood to the parting of the Red Sea, God has demonstrated an interventionist streak. A conservative God would have let the market and/or natural law decide.

The ancient Israelites were essentially a nation of illegal immigrants. A conservative God would have sided with the Canaanites.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Saturday, September 20, 2008

COIN vs. Conventional Diplomacy

Via Small Wars Journal, two complementary articles on the increasing encroachment of the military instrument on civil development and humanitarian functions. The first, a CSM op-ed by Catholic Relief Services director Ken Hackett, criticizes the recent use of naval gunboats to bring humanitarian aid to Georgia in the aftermath of the recent conflict with Russia. The second, a National Defense University monograph by Patrick Cronin (.pdf), discusses the ways in which the increasingly political nature of irregular warfare has put pressure on the traditional civilian-military balance of power in conflict zones.

Hackett's criticism is based on the need for humanitarian organizations to maintain impartiality in order to operate in conflict zones without being targeted by either side. Cronin's discussion, exemplified by this citation of Bob Gates, illustrates why that is an increasingly anachronistic, if perfectly valid, argument:

[T]he lines separating war, peace, diplomacy, and development have become more blurred, and no longer fit the neat organizational charts of the 20th century.

With the military already on COIN footing, the State Dept. is under increasing pressure to play doctrinal catch-up. The risk is twofold. First, once diplomacy and development have been adapted to the needs of the conflict zone, they will increasingly be deployed to them, to the detriment of other areas in need of our development aid. Second, once development becomes an element of the American war-fighting instrument, it will increasingly be governed by military logic. Here's Hackett:

. . .When the role of aid is to control or influence foreign governments or other parties in a conflict, the danger is that, instead of taking care of people's needs, the aid will simply fan the flames of the instability that led to the conflict in the first place. . .

The initial setbacks in our counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq have been the cause of a great deal of soul searching among the military community, and rightly so. The result has been the formulation of a broad "whole of government" approach to conflict, exemplified by the particularly effective team of Ambassador Crocker and Gen. Petraeus. But we shouldn't become intoxicated by our success to the point that we see the world exclusively through the lens of conflict, and conflict exclusively through the lens of counterinsurgency. Success in irregular warfare demands a "whole of government" approach, but the whole of government must not be reduced to the demands of irregular warfare.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   

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Saturday, September 20, 2008

All Bark, No Bite

The NY Observer ran an important piece earlier this week that didn't seem to get much of an echo on the political sites I follow. Not surprising, since the piece discusses the way in which political print journalism and political journalism in general has lost its ability to resonate:

In-boxes crammed with New York Times articles and Huffington Post hyperlinks do not advertise their relative value or importance. Everything is equal, everything is a tie and nothing, it seems, is important anymore.

Nobody has felt this more acutely than the Newspapers and Magazines of Record in the United States. The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time: all over the world of “quality” journalism, there is a feeling of decline.

The internet is an echo chamber and, of course, one of the effects of an echo chamber is that all you hear is the echo and not the original message. Add to that the "noise machine" that drowns out news with spin and deflection and it's easy to see how the power of the press has been diluted.

But the impact of technology overlaps with a concerted effort by the Bush administration over at least the past four years to endrun the national press of record. This went beyond repeating the longstanding conservative mantra of "liberal media bias" to become an official communication strategy of "taking the message to the American people" that consisted of using "town hall meetings" and local press outlets to broadcast the administration's talking points. This strategy has reached its apogee in the McCain campaign's handling of Sarah Palin, whose inability to credibly address policy on a national level is being camouflaged by an attempt to challenge the very role of the press in scrutinizing candidates.

Now, there's nothing unconstitutional about this, because contrary to the Congressional oversight that the Bush administration has treated with contempt, the Constitution only guarantees the press its liberty, not its access. But the result, when combined with the evolution in communication technology, has been a fundamental shift in the extra-Constitutional system of checks and balances as it had been established over the course of the previous thirty to forty years. We're witnessing the end of the press as "watchdog of democracy," not because the press isn't barking, but because no one's listening.

One of the consequences is the ease with which McCain can get away with a campaign based on lies; the old saw that everyone's entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts seems to no longer apply. Anyone familiar with human nature knows how stubbornly people can hold onto their beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence. That has become even more acute now that the authority of the press, formerly the arbiter of what qualified as evidence, has been so thoroughly undermined.

Posted by Judah in:  Media Coverage   Politics   

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Teflon, Talent and Story Arc

Meanwhile, speaking of gaffes, am I forgetting something or has Barack Obama basically not made any? I'm not talking about policy positions that made waves before the conventional wisdom caught up with them, or "scandals" like his pastor. I can't remember a single time where he just muffed one and had to ask for a "do over." They called Reagan the Teflon President because he could get away with so many whoppers. But Obama just doesn't seem to stumble. Regardless of whether you support him or not, he's pretty good at what he does.

Meanwhile, too, so is John McCain. By which I mean he's a pretty good Senator, especially when it comes to stuff he cares about, like getting up in some Defense Department official's face about wasteful procurement contracts. I really don't see how he serves his nation better as President than as Senator, and the proof is that he's been a Senator for forever. It's been almost fifty years since a Senator made it to the White House, but has anyone who ever languished in the Senate for most of their career ever done it? 

What's more, for all the talk of "Obama the Celebrity" and charges of inexperience, the Presidency has more often been the culmination of a meteoric rise than the epilogue to a stagnant career. Think Bob Dole, or even Joe Biden for that matter. The Presidency isn't an afterthought, what you get for having stuck around long enough to be closest to the ring. Ronald Reagan had been around forever by the time he won the Presidency, but he was a crusader who led a movement from the wilderness to the Promised Land. There was a story arc to the narrative. McCain's story arc flattened out when he lost to George W. Bush in 2000.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

You Say Zapatero, I Say Zapatista

There's a very simple explanation to John McCain's refusal to commit to meeting with the Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero (video via TPM here) were he elected president, and it has nothing to do with whether he knows who Zapatero is or where Spain is. The tell is in McCain's reference to Mexico immediately after the question. I'd be willing to bet that McCain missed the first part of the question that referred to Spain, and after a string of questions dealing with leftist Latin American leaders thought the interviewer was referring to the Zapatista Army and its leader, Subcomandante Marcos. Whether he thought Marcos was running a drug cartel as opposed to the first "post-modern revolution" is another story, since he immediately talks about Mexican President Calderon's success in the war against drugs. But I'm pretty sure this one's being blown out of proportion.

Later, at 4:39 of the clip when the interviewer tries to make it clear she's talking about "Europe", McCain heard "you", to which he replies, "What about me?" Why the campaign wouldn't just fess up is beyond me, although maybe it has to do with the fact that the Zapatista Army hasn't been in the news for about a decade or so, lending weight to the claim that McCain is responding to the last century's strategic threats.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Pakistan and the Bush Doctrine

Yesterday, I linked with arithmetic snark but without comment to TX Hammes' Small Wars Journal post on the broadening of the Afghanistan War into Pakistan. It's a very important piece, because it points out the danger of seeing Pakistan exclusively through the lens of our own tactical needs in Afghanistan, while ignoring the fact that for Pakistan, managing the Taliban in Afghanistan or its own tribal areas is part of the broader strategic calculus of its rivalry with India. Hammes argues that until we develop a strategy for handling this broader regional architecture, our efforts in Afghanistan (which he also characterizes as lacking a coherent strategic framework) will only put pressure on the Pakistani government without resolving the problem.

That problem tends to be formulated Stateside as a failure of the Pakistani civilian government to rein in the rogue elements of the military and ISI intelligence agency that play the Taliban and the U.S. against each other in order to hedge against India. Today, Arif Rafiq at the Pakistan Policy blog fills in the contours of what's at stake in the civilian-military turf war:

Zardari lacks the legitimacy and power with which to assert himself over the military.  While the Pakistani public supports the cessation of the ISI’s political role, there is no support for tying the organization’s hands in other matters.  If pressed by Zardari, Gen. Kayani would be forced to enter the political realm, against his will, because of civilian excess.  Zardari should be wiser and focus on his self-proclaimed mandate of roti (bread), kapra (clothing), and makan (a home).

And so, Gen. Kayani is delineating the parameters of acceptable discourse on Kashmir, and at a broader level, Pakistan’s national security issues. Gen. Kayani has given the civilians free reign over non-security matters.  He has, however, drawn a line in the sand.  The civilians cannot pass the line of control into his own domain.  Given Zardari’s consolidation of power and the absence of checks and balances upon him, a foolish press against the military would compel that institution to intervene, making his presidency the shortest in Pakistan’s history.

Hammes points out the dual nature of our Afghanistan mission and the lack of strategic integration between NATO nation-building efforts and American counterterrorism efforts. He doesn't say so explicitly, but the fact that the needs of the former are increasingly leading the latter to target the Pakistani tribal areas makes it clear that the Casus Belli that initially led us to invade Afghanistan has essentially jumped the border. There's been some discussion lately about what exactly the Bush Doctrine is. But the question is increasingly becoming, Does it apply to what Hammes reminds us is "a nuclear-armed nation with 170 million people"?

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   India   Pakistan   

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Great for Alaska

Laura Rozen flags a passage from Gail Collins that I think sums up nicely the problem with Sarah Palin. Everything I've seen of her makes it clear that she's not only a gifted communicator (not sure how she'll wear with time, though), but that she's also no policy lightweight. She's got an obvious command of Alaskan politics, from party infighting to the issues that drive voters' concerns. But that's all. The problem isn't that she couldn't eventually achieve the same kind of command of national politics, but that she hasn't yet done so.

During the Democratic primaries, I pointed out that whereas Hillary Clinton was campaigning in an America she already knew intimately, Barack Obama was in many ways discovering America through the campaign. But after a long and hard fought 18 months, he has discovered it, and the four years he's spent in Washington served the same purpose. I think that given the same kind of learning period, Palin could probably hold up, even if she isn't Obama's intellectual equal. (I'm not sure how many people are.) But she hasn't been given a learning period. She's been given a trial by fire. 

The question isn't one of qualifications or experience, but of scale. The Obama campaign's line of attack ought to be, Palin's great for Alaska, that's why she should stay there.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Friday, September 12, 2008

The Power Behind the Throne

Laura Rozen weighs the pros and cons of Sarah Palin's folksy appeal. From what I've seen so far, Palin seems like a pretty effective communicator who is very obviously communicating talking points and policies that aren't her own. Think Mitt Romney with a more deftly programmed robotic module. The obstinate repetition of talking points in the face of substantive questions is for me the worst aspect of American politics. But that's not Palin's doing, even if it's a bit scary how talented she is at it.

Of course, every candidate relies on a team of policy advisors to formulate and articulate policy, but it's apparent that Palin is particularly dependent on the cue cards. So far those are being written for her by the McCain campaign, which is to be expected, since the Veep nominee by necessity tailors policy to the top of the ticket. The question no one has asked yet is, Who would ultimately write the cue cards for President Palin if she ever wound up in the Oval Office?

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

September 11th, 2008

In as quiet and unassuming a way as possible, I'd simply like to acknowledge the significance of today's date, even if seven years later its meaning still escapes me. More than anything, my thoughts are drawn to the acts of courage, bravery and heroism, great and small, and the outpouring of solidarity, individual and collective, that followed the attacks. I've found in my own life that the pain of loss grows less sharp with time, while the memory of the gestures of love and humanity that have always followed it grow more pronounced. I hope this is the case for 9/11, and that in time it will become an anniversary of hope, and the power of peace to rise from the ashes of hate.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Media Appearance

I'll be appearing as a guest on Sirius Radio's Blog Bunker program this evening at 5pm EST. I did the show from their NY studio last May and had a blast. (I'd forgotten how sweet a high-quality studio mike can make your voice sound.) Tonight, I'll be doing it by telephone from Paris. If you're not already a Sirius subscriber, you can catch the show by registering for a free 3-day trial period here. (Don't tell 'em I told you.)

Posted by Judah in:  Media Coverage   

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Afghanistan Illusion

The question of what to do in Afghanistan (and alongside it, Pakistan), is beginning to get the attention it deserves. So far, the default answer is converging on sending more troops, with little real thought as to where they'll come from and the resulting problems that will cause. Some will apparently be cycled in from a drawdown in Iraq. But the Iraq drawdown, as formulated so far, is going to come at a snail's pace, with the possibility of it being halted or reversed as conditions on the ground dictate.

Barack Obama fleetingly addressed the issue in his Berlin speech when he discussed the need for NATO countries to increase their troop commitments. But that, too, presents problems. To begin with, political problems in the three countries (England, Germany and France) potentially capable of answering the call. The difficulty these countries will have in "selling" the Afghanistan War to their public opinion will only escalate with the rise in casualties any increased engagement will entail. (The reaction in French opinion to the recent deaths of ten soldiers in a Taliban ambush is a case in point.)

Secondly, interoperability problems, since one of the Achilles' Heels of multilateral operations is the challenges presented by conflicting rules of engagement and doctrinal approaches to the conflict engaged. That's already the case in Afghanistan, and will only be complicated by the kind of double down now being called for.

Finally, there's the problem of military preparedness. The British military is already stretched from its commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. The French army is deployed in various peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, Africa and Lebanon that in combination have put a heavy logistical strain on its military that already faces budgetary constraints. In order to deploy the 700 additional troops it committed to Afghanistan, the French Army was forced to to turn to foreign suppliers in extremis for everything from up-armored personnel carriers to radio transmitters. That's in addition to requisitioning pistols from the national Gendarmerie, and up-armored personnel carriers from its contingent in southern Lebanon.

One of the foundations of America's strategic culture is that once a conflict has been embraced by the public, no limits are placed on the means and resources that the military needs to engage it. It's an assumption that's based on the massively disproportionate wealth and prosperity America has always enjoyed compared to its enemies, but also to it's allies.

America has the means to conduct the Long War against vectors of instability that harbor extremism, of which Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal areas are now the principle theatres. Some questions still remain as to whether the political will can be maintained for the duration of what is certain to be a series of limited engagements with periodic spikes in casualties, the very sort of conflict American public opinion is historically averse to.

Our European allies, on the other hand, have neither the former nor the latter. An American troop buildup there will almost certainly lead, not to a concomitant European buildup, but to a European drawdown, especially if the conflict is widened into the Pakistani frontier by unilateral American operations. It's also important to remember, and the Russian-Georgian conflict serves as a timely reminder, that the entire strategic calculation of the Long War comes in the absence of any other conventional threats. Keeping in mind that it's always easier to start a war than to finish one, these are the sorts of things that should be part of the Afghanistan debate.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   

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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

After the Surge

It's admittedly been a while since I wrote about Iraq, which is a testament to the ways in which that conflict has become a mature stabilization operation. Twenty-three U.S. soldiers dead in August is twenty-three too many. But the security gains since January 2007 are enormous and game-changing.

I was opposed to the Surge when President Bush announced it, I've been skeptical of the weight it's been given as a causal factor of the decline in violence, and I remain unconvinced that it has accomplished its ultimate strategic goal of ensuring that Iraq's ethnic, sectarian and factional conflicts are resolved through the political process as opposed to armed violence. I also don't believe President Bush's decision to send the troops was particularly courageous from a political standpoint, since his only alternative was to admit to having committed the most catastrophic strategic blunder in American history.

That said, the Surge did accomplish two things. By signalling Bush's unwavering commitment to America's military engagement, it helped convince the various Iraqi factions that whether or not they ultimately resolve their differences through bloodshed, they'd stand to gain by waiting until after we're gone to do so. And should the security gains hold until the American drawdown is complete (whenever that is), the Surge will have allowed the American military to withdraw from Iraq with its coercive reputation intact. And that's indispensable if American power, in both its soft and hard expressions, is to be credible.

Now it's official, the shift of troops from Iraq to Afghanistan will begin in January 2009. That's, of course, where the rubber will hit the road in both theaters. I'm on record as being opposed to widening the conflict in Afghanistan, not because the objectives of the Afghan War aren't desirable. They are. I'm just not sure if they're achievable. As I pointed out above, I've been wrong before. Hopefully I'll be wrong here, too.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Iraq   

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Friday, September 5, 2008

Whitman on Palin

Back on July 4th, I posted this passage from the introduction to Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, 1855 edition. It expresses, perhaps as much as anything I've ever read, the essence of America:

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.

I thought about this passage today, and wondered whether there isn't something unseemly about questioning someone's qualifications for the office of president in a country where the people are supposed to be sovereign:

"...the air they have of persons who never knew how it felt to stand in the presence of superiors..."

What a terrible nobility in that simple sentence fragment that Whitman used to describe all of us! Because what else binds Americans together more than the idea, certainly more abstract at times than real, that we are all common people?

And yet, it's a tricky question:

"...the terrible significance of their elections -- the President's taking off his hat to them not they to him..."

Even more so when it comes to the office of vice-president, which has the peculiar feature (not always historically the case) of being voted on only obliquely. 

But the beauty of the American system of government, its genius, is not just that it taps its greatest strengths -- as well as its greatest weaknesses -- directly from the strengths and weaknesses of the American people, but that it hedges them with the institutional checks and balances that prevent passion from overtaking reason, and reason from losing its bearings.

All of which is to say, there's no point trying to disqualify someone from running for office, when the Founders devised a very simple method for doing so called the ballot. In a democracy, a people gets the government it deserves. And as Abe Lincoln put it, "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time." Either you believe that or you don't. But the beauty of America is that just as no one is entitled to office, neither is anyone excluded from seeking it.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Friday, September 5, 2008

Message Discipline?

I couldn't really bring myself to get all the way through McCain's speech. For whatever it's worth, I didn't watch Obama's either. But this caught my eye.

I wonder where he spent the evening.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Thursday, September 4, 2008

Palin as Bitch Slap

I just got through watching Sarah Palin's speech to the Republican convention, and frankly, I don't think anyone has really gotten the nature of the threat she represents to the Obama-Biden ticket. In the context of Josh Marshall's "bitch slap" theory of politics (which I find repugnant if regrettably relevant), Sarah Palin is the ultimate bitch slap. For anyone who didn't catch the operative line of the speech the first time around, here it is:

There is only one man in this election who has ever really fought for you in places where winning means survival and defeat means death.

The short version is what the McCain campaign will be running on: There's only one man in this election. They've already done the groundwork for painting Obama as an effete, Paris Hilton-esque celebrity. Now, for the next two months, the McCain campaign is going to be running not McCain, but Palin against Obama. They've already started with this ad, via Andrew Sullivan. The subtext of the ad is simple: Obama isn't even man enough to warrant sending out McCain. We'll send the hockey mom to take care of him.

While it's obvious Palin wasn't vetted, it's still unclear just how calculated her nomination was. But if there was a calculation, it was pretty brilliant and pretty cynical. I imagine the McCain campaign figured that whatever damaging stuff trickles out between now and November can be spun. In the meantime, Palin is going to be hitting Obama hard and, what's even more damaging if last night's speech is any indication, with loads of scorn and derision. The impact of that coming from a woman is enormous. And if you think that because Obama weathered Hillary Clinton's attacks, he's somehow immune from Palin, think again. Palin is not Clinton. She's tough enough to hunt moose (how long before she condescendingly invites Obama on a hunting trip?), but fundamentally she's a mother (ie. a real woman).

Those are the optics, and Obama and Biden will have trouble responding. Hit back too hard and they're bullies, too soft and they're wimps. Even Hillary showed what a difference a display of "feminine vulnerability" (the tears in New Hampshire) can make, and her brand is far more Margaret Thatcher than Sara Lee. The McCain camp is simultaneously using Palin's gender in the most progressive and regressive ways imaginable. Cynical? Yes. Effective? We'll see.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Thursday, September 4, 2008

Off-Duty Cop

The current issue of Military Review (.pdf, via Small Wars Journal) contains a quiet but significant article by Christopher Housenick titled "Winning Battles but Losing Wars" (p. 91). The overlap with French Gen. Vincent Desportes' analysis -- synopsis here (.pdf), interview here (.pdf) -- is pretty striking, especially with regards to the ways in which attacks on state infrastructure in the initial destructive phase of an intervention will inevitably hamper reconstruction efforts in the stabilization phase. According to Desportes, the challenge before Western militaries isn't to ". . .conduct a 'better war'. . .[but to] aim for a 'better peace.'"

The question underscores the need for a doctrinal evolution in American military strategy. So far, that's been limited to the still hotly contested COIN vs. conventional capacity debate. (Col. Gian Gentile, a WPR contributor here and here, has a recent CSM op-ed, also via SWJ, on the subject.)

I've been developing the argument this week that the debate should be broadened to include our global conception of the military instrument. So long as war is conceived of from a strategic and doctrinal perspective as an all or nothing proposition (that's to say total, with an objective of regime change and unconditional surrounder), the American military will be extremely constrained in its possible deployments. That, in turn, has an impact on American foreign policy.

Now, I'm not advocating for a banalization of military interventions or an embrace of limited war. What I'm suggesting is that American strategic doctrine is poorly adapted to the current geopolitical landscape of rapidly emerging, diffuse centers of influence. And so long as that doctrine hasn't been re-examined, we'll be susceptible to the same kind of strategic miscalculations that led us to underestimate the length and cost of our engagement in Iraq.

American power, both hard and soft, took its current shape in the global conditions of the post-WWII/Cold War era. Overwhelming and decisive force in the conduct of a total war was a sound approach to those conditions. But in many ways, those conditions were a strategic parenthesis, as was the post-Cold War unipolar moment. Now, both the geopolitical and military contexts have changed, and we need to adapt the ways in which we conceive of and apply our influence and power as a function of those changes.

That means finding a balance between America's historic traditions of isolationism on the one hand and global crusader on the other. The conflicts to come might not rise to the level of a crusade, but neither will we be able to comfortably ignore them. There will be no shortage of time- and resource-consuming stabilization and reconstruction operations to choose from, but there's also a growing risk of limited conventional conflicts, whether between regional rivals or larger powers and their weaker neighbors. We are no longer the world's reluctant policeman, neither in the eyes of the world, nor in our own. But we have yet to identify what role we will play, across the spectrum of hard and soft power. We'd better do so before events catch us offguard.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   

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Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Dead Man Walking

[This is a guest post by Eva Ostrum, my sister and an Obama donor/volunteer.]

It's official: John McCain's shark meat. Why?

Fact: Sarah Palin turned on both John Stein and Faye Palin, two signators of the original petition for her very first political race (Wasilla City Council in 1992).  Sarah unseated Stein as mayor in a “contentious” election and then later refused to endorse Faye Palin (her mother-in-law) to succeed her as mayor. 

Fact: Sarah Palin unseated former Alaska Governor Frank Murkowski in the Republican primary – the same man who had given Palin a “plum” political appointment as Chair of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission at a salary of more than $120,000 a year. 

I'm sure more examples are out there waiting to come to light. In the meantime, McCain should be watching his back. If he does manage to beat Obama, count on Palin to use her new leverage as the star of the right-wing base to force him out in 2012. They don’t call her Sarah Barracuda for nothing.

Posted by Eva in:  Politics   

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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Family Matters

Friend of the blog GS emailed me asking for my thoughts on the presidential election, reinforcing the fact that it's been a while since I felt like I had something vital to say about it. In fact, although I'm still following the race closely, I often find myself surprised by how much so many other people do still find to say about it.

Watching the videos from the Democratic convention, I was struck by how prominent the almost maudlin use of family and personal narrative is in American politics. Then it occurred to me that American politics really is family politics, and not just because of the Kennedy's, Clintons and Bushes. How many times did a speaker in Denver refer to the "Democratic family"? Party affiliation is so often the product of a person's family culture and it, more than anything else, determines voting. Which means that in a normal election, the majority of American voters have already decided who they'll vote for before the candidates for either party have even been selected. There's a reason why the term "Reagan Democrats" entered the political lexicon, and it's because it represented a phenomenon that happens so rarely.

Those who haven't yet made up their minds will base their decision more on character and personality than policy. There, too, I find little to say, because the choice seems so self-evident. Barack Obama, like all first-term presidents, will have some proving to do. Given his relative lack of national and executive experience, he will probably have more to prove than others. But so far in his handling of his campaign, he's demonstrated that he's a gifted politician and an effective manager. More importantly, he hasn't given any indication that he's categorically unfit for the job.

John McCain, on the other hand, seems to combine all the worst elements of American politics (pandering, fear-mongering, sleazeball tactics) with a reckless lack of judgment that makes the thought of him in the Oval Office downright frightening. I've heard the Palin nomination explained as an example of McCain's penchant for gambling, and insomuch as gambling involves accepting the certainty of longterm losses in return for the possibility of a shortterm gain, it was. But even a gambler studies the odds and bases his bet on some sort of calculation. The Palin pick, by contrast, was a shot in the dark.

As for the horse race angle, I've been saying for months that there's no way that John McCain will defeat Barack Obama. And the reason is that there's something called reality, and it's what happens in a little corner of people's minds -- sometimes without them even realizing it -- when they see a tired, outdated, old man next to an energetic, contemporary, youthful man and are forced to decide who they really trust to be in charge. To go back to the family image that I used above, this just isn't a time to turn the car keys over to Grandpa, and when the time comes to choose, most people (including, I imagine, a larger than expected number of Republicans) will grasp that intuitively. So no matter what the polls say between here and November, Obama is going to win in a landslide.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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