Saturday, January 31, 2009

Bush's Last Success

Say what you will about the presidency of George W. Bush, the war on terror, the invasion of Iraq, or anything else...

This is truly amazing. The fact that Iraq, a country that suffered under one of history's most brutal dictators, just voted in (what seem to be) free, fair, and safe democratic elections is a legacy of which President Bush should be most proud. And for which he deserves far more credit than he has been given.
The New York Times

February 1, 2009

Under Tight Security, Elections Are Calm in Iraq

BAGHDAD — Iraqis voted on Saturday for local representatives, on an almost violence-free election day aimed at creating provincial councils that more closely represent Iraq’s ethnic, sectarian and tribal balance. By nightfall, there were no confirmed deaths, and children played soccer on closed-off streets in a generally joyous atmosphere.

Security was extraordinary. Driving was banned in most of the country to prevent suicide bombers from attacking any of the more than 6,000 polling centers and security checkpoints, often spaced just yards apart. The tight security, coupled with confusion over where voters should cast their ballots, appeared to have reduced turnout in many districts across the country. Senior members of several political parties were complaining publicly even before the polls closed.

Nationwide turnout varied: some provinces hovered around 60 percent, with Basra, a Shiite-dominated region in the south, still lower at about 50 percent. Others, including the northern province of Nineveh, which is strained by political tensions and violence between Arabs and Kurds, had 75 percent participation, according to local election officials. Contentious feelings from the campaign spilled over into election day, when opposing party leaders made many complaints about their rivals to American and international observers who visited polling sites.

Turnout was also high in Anbar Province, an overwhelmingly Sunni area where residents largely boycotted the 2005 national elections because of threats by insurgents and opposition to the American-led invasion. Sunnis’ participation now is considered critical to restoring balance to regional politics and perhaps undercutting a reason for violence.

“I just voted and I’m very happy,” Mukhalad Waleed, 35, said in the city of Ramadi, in Anbar. “We could not do the same thing the last time because of the insurgency.”

Part way through the day, the government lifted the vehicle ban in some areas to allow voters to travel to polling stations farther afield. It also extended the voting period by an hour, until 6 p.m.

Results are not expected for several days, with politicians anxiously waiting to find out how many councils will change hands, and if widespread dissatisfaction voiced at religious parties will translate into fewer seats for them.

More than 14,000 candidates are competing for 440 seats in 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces. The seats are for provincial councils that control municipal budgets and have the power to hire and fire people, giving successful candidates a great deal of power and influence in a nation with high unemployment. There was no voting in the semiautonomous Kurdish region, or in the divided city of Kirkuk.

In Qahtaniya, a village southwest of Sinjar in Nineveh Province that was the site in 2007 of the single worst truck bombing during the war, with as many as 500 people killed, the voting was orderly and even cheerful. Khodar Khudaida Rashu, the administrator of the Qahtaniya subdistrict, predicted that turnout would exceed 90 percent in most places.

The voting was the largest electoral exercise to be held since the wave of violence peaked in 2006 to 2007, and conditions were considerably more peaceful this time.

As Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki voted in Baghdad’s Green Zone, now under Iraqi control but still heavily fortified, he said: “I am very happy today because all the indications and information indicate a big turnout in the voting centers. This is a victory for all Iraqis.”

In one of the few reported episodes of violence, two people in Baghdad’s Sadr City were shot and wounded by Iraqi security forces as they tried to enter a polling center carrying cameras and recorders, Iraqi officials and witnesses said.

One witness said the two men quarreled with soldiers guarding the voting station, demanding to be allowed to go in through the rear entrance while the soldiers insisted that they go through the front door.

There was some violence in the period leading up to election day, with at least five candidates and three campaign workers killed during the campaign.

And in an episode apparently unrelated to the election, American forces searching for an Islamic extremist shot two Iraqi national policemen in Mosul in the early hours of Saturday. There were conflicting reports about the circumstances: the Americans said they were returning fire from a nearby building and found the two dead men there afterward. However, the Nineveh Provincial operations center said that the policemen were at a checkpoint when the Americans suddenly opened fire.

Over all, there seemed much eagerness to vote, but also confusion. Some voters showed up at the polling station closest to their home instead of the one they were assigned to because of the ban on driving. Others were turned away because their names did not appear on voter rolls.

Voter registration is organized around a national system for delivering food rations, a holdover from the Hussein era. Voters have to consult two lists to find out if they are registered at a given polling station. First, each person has to find the name of his or her food ration distributor. Then the voter must consult a much larger list of all of the families served by that distributor. If the voter’s name is missing, he or she cannot vote at that station.

Some frustrated Iraqis gave up, while others reported going from center to center before finding the one associated with their distributor.

Nasreen Yousif, a 54-year-old Christian, visited three polling stations in the New Baghdad district of the capital but could not find her name at any of them.

“Now I am going home,” she said. “Maybe there is a fourth school, but it is too far and I can’t walk any more.”

She added: “It is obviously a mess. If it is not a mess, where is my name?”

The Iraqi government and election officials blamed voters for the confusion.

Qassim al-Aboudi, the chief officer of the Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission, said, “We repeated many times before the election that some of the voters might have to vote at remote polling stations because they didn’t update their voter registrations when they changed their addresses.” He said election officials had given people 45 days to update their information.

Even when people could vote, the ballots were often confusing. Some Iraqis stuck to voting for relatives or powerful politicians. One Basra police officer, Haidar Khalaf, 27, said he had chosen the local candidate on the slate of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. “I just voted for Abdul Hussein,” Mr. Khalaf said. “I only know his first names. I was just told to vote for him.”

The vote on Saturday, in addition to deciding how local governments are run, is also seen as an important indicator for national elections that are to be held within a year and decide the shape of the central government.

One of the most powerful Shiite blocs nationally, the Sadrist movement led by the cleric Moktada al-Sadr, is not contesting these provincial polls. It is, however, backing two other parties.

The Sunni parties are expected to make a better showing, especially in the west and north, where they boycotted the last round of polls at the height of sectarian violence in 2005.

In the mostly Shiite south, the main rivalry will be between two Islamist parties: the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, whose Iranian-trained militia is now a mainstay of the Iraqi security forces, and Mr. Maliki’s Dawa Party.

Secular parties are hoping that they will be able to capitalize on a protest vote against religious parties amid widespread criticism of their failure to provide jobs, services and utilities since 2005.

In addition to the widespread confusion, many complaints were lodged about the Kurdistan Democratic Party. In at least two instances, supporters were accused of handing out slips bearing the party’s ballot number inside the polling station, a violation of election rules; observers complained the practice was widespread.

In Nineveh, carefully negotiated agreements dictated where the Kurdish militias, or pesh merga, would be stationed around the polls, along with the local and national Iraqi police and the army. And still officers and soldiers entered the polling sites with weapons seemingly at will, another violation of the rules.

“It’s not fair,” said Wahid Mundu Hamu, a member of the Yazidi Movement for Reform and Progress. “We had hoped for the best, but that’s what I feel.” He then expressed fear that his people, a small Kurdish minority with its own religion and culture, would be overwhelmed by the larger Sunni and Kurdish parties vying for control in the region. “The Yazidis have been oppressed for so long,” he said. “And you’ll see that more and more.”

Reporting was contributed by Sam Dagher from Basra; Timothy Williams and Ian Fisher from Baghdad; Steven Lee Myers from Qahtaniya; and Iraqi employees of The New York Times from Baghdad, Basra, Ramadi, Baquba and Mosul.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Afghanistan and Heroin

As President Obama begins the process of switching focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, the situation in Afghanistan seemingly gets more dire with each passing day. In his column, Joel Brinkley offers some sober advice to Obama, including a suggestion that the US seal the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan by "declar[ing] the border closed, patrol[ing] it with helicopter gunships and shoot[ing] anyone who tries to cross." He also identifies the cultivation of poppies as a major impediment to progress, as "How can [NATO] troops quell an insurgency when the enemy is buying weaponry and enriching himself with drug money – as much as $100 million a year, the United Nations says – from the southern areas of Afghanistan he controls? And how can Western forces enlist cooperation from the government it is trying to protect when government leaders are also sucking up money from the opium farmers at such a voracious rate that Afghanistan is now classified as the fifth-most corrupt nation on earth?"

The solution, for Brinkely, is simple:

The United States, Afghanistan’s patron state, needs to tell Karzai that the price of continued support is the immediate eradication of the opium crops. Sure, the farmers will be angry. But what’s worse: enraging some constituents – or standing by while these same people hand over $100 million a year to your enemy?
Brinkely's advice violates everything the US military has learned about counter-insurgency warfare in Iraq. The most important thing is providing security and confidence to the local populace; if that cannot be done, the insurgents will be able to move among them and will be impossible to find. This is particularly true in Afghanistan, where the corruption of the central government and the seemingly endless litany of civilians deaths from NATO airstrikes have turned many Afghanis away from their government.

Poppy cultivation, and the subsequent production of heroin, is one of the only cash crops available to many Afghani farmers. Destroy their sole source of income, and they will have no choice but to turn to the Taliban for support as the central government has demonstrated no ability to develop a social network in the more rural area of the country.

Furthermore, how well has drug eradication worked in the US war on drugs? The US has spent $6 billion on coca eradication efforts in Colombia, only to see coca production rise by 15%. Why would it be any more likely to work in Afghanistan, which one can only assume would be a more difficult project than in Colombia?

A better answer is one I wrote about nearly 2 years ago: the legalization of poppy cultivation. Tony Blair raised this issue, arguing that the poppies could be purchased by NATO forces and used to produce opiate-based medicines (which just so happen to be in short supply). Even if the crop was purchased and subsequently destroyed, this option has at least two major benefits over Brinkely's suggestion. First, it would provide Afghani farmers with a reliable source of income that would be attributable to both the Afghani government and to NATO, two entities which are desperately in need of some good PR. Secound, it would deprive the resurgent Taliban of a vital source of income.

Shifting the outcome in Iraq took a major change in strategic thinking: the result was the surge that has paid off across the board in Iraq and has created the real possibility of success there. The same is true in Afghanistan. The tired logic and rhetoric of the war on drugs must be abandoned if the Taliban is to defeated and Afghanistan is to be given the chance that Iraq now seems to have. President Obama must not be held hostage by old ideas and domestic politics that sees poppy legalization as the first step towards drug legalization in the US. If legalizing and buying Afghani poppies can help the US and NATO win "the central front in the war on terror" then it is a move that must be made.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Obama And Torture

Yesterday, President Obama issued executive orders that gave heart to many who believe that the policies used by President Bush in the war on terror have damaged the moral and legal reputation and integrity of the United States. The orders directed the Central Intelligence Agency to shut down its secret overseas prisons, ordered the prison facilities at Guantanamo Bay to be shut closed as soon as possible but in no longer than one year, and banned the CIA from using "coercive interrogation methods," requiring the Agency to adhere to the same rules that the military follows in interrogating suspected terrorists. Taken together with the statement by Attorney General-nominee Eric Holder at his confirmation hearing that "waterboarding is torture" these orders seem to close the door on the debate on whether the United States does, and should, use extreme methods in its interrogations of suspected terrorists.

But not so fast.

In his own confirmation hearing, Obama's nominee for Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, refused to classify waterboarding as torture. He did say that the US would no longer use waterboarding as an interrogation technique and that the US would not use torture, but when asked directly whether waterboarding is itself an act of torture he refused to answer. Senator Carl Levin pushed Blair to answer, saying "If the attorney general designee can answer it, you can too," but Blair would not.

It may be that Blair is trying to protect US intelligence agents from prosecution, particularly as any agent that used waterboarding very likely did so believing that the Bush administration had determined that the technique was legal.

But it's also possible that the Obama administration is trying to keep the door open to use coercive interrogation techniques in the future if it is deemed necessary. Indeed, White House counsel Gregory Craig seemed to give confirmation to this in a briefing to congresspeople on Wednesday. According to the New York Times, "a Congressional official who attended the session said Mr. Craig acknowledged concerns from intelligence officials that new restrictions on C.I.A. methods might be unwise and indicated that the White House might be open to allowing the use of methods other than the 19 techniques allowed for the military."

Let's be clear what is being discussed here. The 19 techniques that the military is allowed to use are all relatively tame when compared to the extraordinary techniques authorized for the CIA (described below). They can be found in Army Field Manual 2-22.3 and range from "Direct Approach" (simply asking the subject questions) to offering incentives to playing on a subject's emotions (fear, hate, pride, ego) to tricking the subject that the interrogators already know the answers to the questions being asked to pretending the the subject is believed to be someone more important and dangerous and forcing the subject to reveal what he knows to prove he's not the other person to simply being silent and making the subject nervous. Two of the more controversial techniques, both of which require authorization from higher up the chain of command, are the "Mutt and Jeff" (also known as "good cop-bad cop") and "False Flag" in which the subject is led to believe that his interrogators are from another country not the US. Finally, one technique, "Separation," is highly restricted and requires authorization from flag officers. According to the Field Manual:

The purpose of separation is to deny the detainee the opportunity to communicate with other detainees in order to keep him from learning counter-resistance techniques or gathering new information to support a cover story, decreasing the detainee's resistance to interrogation. Separation does not constitute sensory deprivation, which is prohibited. For the purposes of this manual, sensory deprivation is defined as an arranged situation causing significant psychological distress due to a prolonged absence, or significant reduction, of the usual external stimuli and perceptual opportunities. Sensory deprivation may result in extreme anxiety, hallucinations, bizarre thoughts, depression, and anti-social behavior. Detainees will not be subjected to sensory deprivation.

Physical separation is the best and preferred method of separation. As a last resort, when physical separation of detainees is not feasible, goggles or blindfolds and earmuffs may be utilized as a field expedient method to generate a perception of separation.

• Physical Separation: Prevent the detainee from communicating with other detainees (which might increase the detainee's resistance to interrogation) and foster a feeling of futility.
• Field Expedient Separation: Prolong the shock of capture. Prevent the detainee from communicating with other detainees (which might increase the detainee's resistance to interrogation) and foster a feeling of futility.
The coercive interrogation methods authorized for use by the CIA are as follows:

  1. The Attention Grab: The interrogator forcefully grabs the shirt front of the prisoner and shakes him.
  2. The Attention Slap: An open-handed slap aimed at causing pain and triggering fear.
  3. The Belly Slap: A hard open-handed slap to the stomach. The aim is to cause pain, but not internal injury. Doctors consulted advised against using a punch, which could cause lasting internal damage.
  4. Long Time Standing: This technique is described as among the most effective. Prisoners are forced to stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor, for more than 40 hours.
  5. The Cold Cell: The prisoner is left to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees. Throughout the time the prisoner is doused with cold water.
  6. Waterboarding: The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane or a towel is wrapped over the prisoner's face and water is poured over him. The gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.
CIA agents undergoing waterboarding lasted an average of 14 seconds before giving in; Khalid Sheikh Mohammed apparantly lasted two and a half minutes. Christopher Hitchens voluntarily underwent waterboarding; the video is here.

There is a lot of discussion back and forth about the utility and necessity of coercive interrogation methods. However, as the Times article cited above makes clear, the CIA has for years asserted that the military's interrogation techniques are insufficient to pry information out of hardened terrorists like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Of course, many people, including former CIA interrogators, claim that the use of the more extreme methods are ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.

This seems to be a smart move by Obama: Repudiate the policies of Bush openly and decisively, but preserve the freedom of action he might need to interrogate other high-level members of al Qaeda. President Obama has very likely learned a very important lesson in his first days on the job. It's one thing to criticize policies as an outsider when one does bear the responsibility for the protection of the country; it's another thing entirely to do so when one is president.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Need To Define Torture

Many people are looking to President Obama to correct the moral and legal failings attributed to the Bush administration, not the least of which is the use of harsh coercive interrogation methods such as waterboarding. The statement by Attorney General-nominee Eric Holder at his confirmation hearing that "waterboarding is torture" is seen as a first step in purging the use of torture from the US's counterterrorism practices. The Bush administration never clearly defined the legality of the use of waterboarding; but, as I have pointed out before, neither did Congress. Nor does international law. Legal prohibitions of torture often wrestle with the thorny question of how to define what is and what is not torture. Not all coercive interrogation techniques are, nor should be, deemed torture. So what is, and what should be?

The task must lie with Congress. It is Congress that makes the laws that bind the president and the country's agents. Defining terror as that which causes "severe pain and suffering" as both Congress and international law have currently done, leaves far too much room for presidents to, as Bush did, parse defintions of pain. As Eric Posner points out, any attempt to prosecute Bush administration officials for the usage of waterboarding would likely run up against the following defense:
The waterboarders themselves will testify that they received assurances from superiors and lawyers that waterboarding is not illegal, and that they believed that waterboarding was necessary to protect the nation. The superiors, up to Bush himself, will testify that lawyers assured them that waterboarding is not illegal, and that they believed that waterboarding was necessary to protect the nation. The lawyers will testify that they honestly believed that waterboarding is not torture—it caused “pain” but not “severe pain,” in the language of the statute—and that in any event statutes need to be interpreted narrowly to avoid a conflict with the president’s commander-in-chief powers. The jury will believe all these people and it will refuse to convict or, at best, it will hang, prolonging everyone’s agony. It might refuse to convict because it doesn’t believe that anyone has the requisite mens rea; because it doesn’t understand the law; or because (most likely) it just doesn’t believe that people should go to jail when they are trying to protect the nation and the law in question is confusing or ambiguous.
This defenses were made possible by a feckless Congress, which outlawed the use of torture but never clearly defined its terms. It is up to Congress as our country's most representative body, as the body charged with creating the law, to define what practices our military and intelligence operatives should be permitted to use to protect the nation. It is not enough for President Obama or his Attorney General-designate to declare "waterboarding is torture," for if there is another serious attack on or threat to this nation, the government will be, as was the Bush administration, under great pressure to take any actions necessary to protect the American people. Congress must put this issue to rest by clearing defining what interrogation techniques are allowable, and what are to be understood to be over the line.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Out With The Old, In With The New

Tomorrow one of the most amazing aspects of modern politics will occur: a peaceful transition of power. While we and most other democratic nations take such occurrences for granted nowadays, we should keep in mind that not only is it a relatively new phenomenon, but that many countries in the world either do not have regular transfers of power or do have peaceful ones.

As George Bush prepares to leave and Barack Obama assumes the most powerful and important job in the world, it seems appropriate to reflect a bit on the last 8 years. I do believe that it is, in general, far too early to properly assess Bush's legacy, and my gut tells me that we will see his presidency in a far better light 10 or 20 years from now. But today, things don't look so good. Real Clear World has a piece highlighting 5 major foreign policy successes of the Bush administration. Let's take a look....

#5: Colombia

President Bush's administration significantly helped Colombia make giant strides in ending its decades-long war.

Colombia, a democracy, has been waging a war against the drug trade with the drug cartels and terrorism with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). By 1996 the US had decertified Colombia as cooperating on narcotics and withdrew assistance for two years, a period during which drug traffickers forged alliances with the FARC and the paramilitary United Self Defense Forces (AUC). When Andrés Pastrana took office, his top priority was to resume US assistance and he suggested a Plan Colombia, in the lines of a Marshall Plan. The Clinton administration agreed to a plan that would provide nearly $3 billion in security assistance and development aid over six years starting in 2000. While the plan aimed to strengthen the Colombian economy, local government, and establish the rule of law, it also gave way to a peace process that ceded the FARC a 16,000-acre safe haven south of Bogotá, which allowed the FARC to expand its drug production capabilities, increase its number of combatants and carry out more violence. At the same time, the AUC also became more powerful. (For further background please read Helping Colombia Sustain Progress Toward Peace, by Stephen Johnson)

When President Bush took office his Andean Regional and Andean Counternarcotics initiatives (ACI and ARI) granted more assistance to Colombia. By 2002 Andrés Pastrana had ordered the FARC out of their sanctuary zone when the FARC refused a cease-fire. That May, Álvaro Uribe, whose father had been killed by the FARC, was elected president of Colombia by running on a hard-line platform. During his first six months in office Uribe doubled aerial crop eradication efforts, raised a $780 million war tax, increased the size of the army, and started a network of 1 million civilian informants.

The Bush administration's ACI and ARI approach has focused in addressing the root causes of the drug trade, not just on curtailing the drug trade per se. The Colombian people have supported Colombia's austere government budget, its efforts to reduce public debt levels, and the economy's export-oriented growth strategy, along with the government's democratic security strategy (i.e., extending legitimate authority over national territory, all measures which complement the US's $600 million/year Plan Colombia aid.

With the US's assistance and training, the Colombian military has become more effective and more reliable. After the Colombian military's March 1, 2008 successful raid of a FARC encampment across the Ecuadorian border, the military (which years ago could hardly be trusted, as Simon Romero of the NYT reported) has dealt heavy blows against the FARC. The information yielded by the FARC laptops revealed not only Venezuela's Hugo Chávez support of the FARC, but also that of the Swiss and 30 other countries. For further reading on the FARC's international connections, see The world of the FARC (Part I: Europe) and The world of the FARC (Part II: America).

In July 2, the military successfully rescued French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, Americans Thomas Howes, Keith Stansell and Marc Gonsalves, and 11 Colombian officers and NCOs, in a mission that was planned and carried out by Colombians, with ultra-modern American spy technology . Following that rescue, the military has kept the FARC on the run, severing the FARC leadership and seizing their weapons while curtailing the FARC's drug production. The July rescue also showed Hugo Chávez dream of a cross-border Bolivian revolution to be a failure.

Colombia still has far to go, but thanks to the joint efforts of the Colombian people and the support of the Bush administration, it has turned itself around from being a failed, or near-failed, state to being the US's staunchest ally in South America.

I agree when it comes to FARC. US military aid has been vital in helping Colombia turn the tide against the Marxist rebels. But RCW's assessment ignores the absolute failure that Plan Colombia has been. As Foreign Policy makes clear, the US has spent $6 billion in an effort to reduce or eradicate Colombia coca cultivation and cocaine smuggling. However, between 2000 and 2006, coca cultivation rose by 15%. Now, maybe stabilizing Colombia has been worth $6 billion. But I doubt it. I find it hard to agree with the assessment of Bush's Colombia policy as a success.

#4: Military Transformation

At first blush, suggesting that transforming the military has been a success of the Bush administration seems counter-factual. After all, hasn't the U.S. military failed to bring decisive victory in both Afghanistan and Iraq? Hasn't the verdict been delivered by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and General David Petraeus that rather than lean and mean, the U.S. military needs more boots on the ground? Less tech and more mech? And indeed both men, in tandem with the incoming Obama administration, appear intent on reversing the military's emphasis on an agile, networked force to comport with the new conventional wisdom that what we really need are more soldiers skilled at pacifying unruly natives.

Looked at another way, however, transformation did indeed deliver on its promise. The U.S. military was able to swiftly depose two governments with minimal use of U.S. troops, and thus, a minimum loss of American life. In Afghanistan, the U.S. crossed 7,000 miles to run the Taliban out of power and fracture al Qaeda with an unconventional mix of precision airpower, Special Forces and C.I.A. paramilitary. In Iraq, a three week race through the desert brought down Saddam Hussein's Baathist tyranny without any of the ecological or regional catastrophes that a more protracted, conventional campaign might have provoked.

What the military failed to do - "win the peace" - was arguably never possible, even if General Eric Shinseki had his way and 300,000-plus troops poured into Baghdad. Studies of successful nation-building efforts from the Rand Corperation suggested that for the U.S. to adequately police Iraq, it would have needed to have nearly 500,000 troops inside Iraq and draw on a manpower pool of close to 2.5 million - nearly 1 million more troops than the U.S. had in its entire military (including the Air Force and Navy) at the time of the invasion.

Of all the vehicles to bring democratic governments to Iraq and Afghanistan - nations that have not known functional, let alone liberal, governing institutions for decades - the U.S. military was spectacularly unsuited. The only example in recent U.S. history of post-war military occupations delivering allied democratic governments (Germany and Japan) were preceded by unimaginable devastation and loss of life - destruction on a scale that would never have been countenanced for either Iraq or Afghanistan.

Most commentators and theorists have gazed into the maw of post-war Iraq and concluded that the U.S. needs an Army capable of waging counter-insurgencies against lightly armed guerilla forces: a constabulary Army with a civilian infrastructure modeled on the British Colonial Office. But one can just as easily conclude that the Iraq war should simply never have been fought. One can argue that Iraq did not expose the folly of military transformation, but the folly using militarily power unnecessarily and then insisting on the unreasonable political objective of installing a democracy in the heart of the Middle East. Even in Afghanistan, where the U.S. was legitimately compelled to act, the dynamic is similar. The "failure" is not insufficient boots on the ground, but political objectives for the country, which are at odds with America's capabilities and available resources and tangential to her interests.

While campaigning for the presidency, George Bush made two national security promises: to transform the military into a 21st century force and to avoid nation-building. At least he kept one of them.

Agreed. As I've written about many many times, US military planning needs to go in two separate directions. The warfighting component needs to be transformed, continuing the work begun by Rumsfeld. The counter-insurgency and nation-building forces need to be separated from the warfighting forces. Doing this will ensure that the US remains the unparalleled military power of the 21st century, dissuading any potential rival from challenging the current balance of power, while providing the US with the tools it needs to deal with the new problems posed by nation-building, intervention, and stability operations.

#3: India

On October 8, 2008, President Bush signed the United States-India Nuclear Cooperation Approval and Non-proliferation Enhancement Act. It was the capstone of a feverish, controversial effort by both the U.S. President and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Though the deal was ostensibly a technical agreement on civilian nuclear trade, in truth it was part of a broader effort to forge closer ties between the world's most populous, multi-ethnic democracies.

Great power relations fell out of favor in the aftermath of 9/11, as the spotlight shone on the role of non-state actors. But getting those relationships right remains the key to U.S. - indeed, global - security. Having shed its statist economy, India, with China, has taken its place among the world's major economic powers. While uncertainty persists regarding the trajectory of China, the U.S. shares a number of key interests with India, from counter-terrorism and free trade to the stability of Pakistan. As former Under Secretary for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns remarked, "this partnership will be for the 21st century one of the most important partnerships that our country, the United States, has with any country around the world. I would wager that in 20 or 30 years time most Americans will say that India is one of our two or three most important partners worldwide."

India was also the scene of some of the Bush administration's most deft diplomacy. On December 13, 2001, gunmen linked to Pakistani militant groups attacked the Indian Parliament, precipitating a tense stand-off between Pakistan and India. Both nations mobilized their militaries along the Line of Control and the specter of a nuclear exchange hung ominously in the air. Yet behind the scenes diplomacy by the Bush administration, led by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, was crucial in defusing tensions.

Again, right on the money. Getting the Indian nuclear deal completed was a major foreign policy success and one that should be emulated with other states, namely Pakistan. While it's fine and good to insist on upholding the moral and legal norms of nonproliferation, the weaknesses of global enforcement means that pragmatism must trump normative adherence. Getting the Indian nuclear program under international inspection regimes was absolutely vital. As India continues to grow in power, it will be able to play an increasingly important role in the world. The US needs to help India grow into that role in a manner befitting a democratic nation.

#2: China

On April 1, 2001, not even three months into his presidency, George W. Bush found himself in a treacherous predicament. A U.S. EP-3 spy plane, flying over the South China Sea, collided with a Chinese military jet and was forced to land on China's Hainan Island.

A tense 10-day period followed as China held the 24-person crew while the two sides negotiated a resolution. Finally, the U.S. offered up an "apology" that satisfied China. The statement, released only in English, expressed that the U.S. was "very sorry" for the death of the Chinese pilot and the plane's landing in Chinese territory. The Chinese took liberty with the translation and scored some "face" points with its domestic audience. The American crew was released and the plane returned a few months later.

In the seven-plus years hence, the Bush administration has continued an uncanny nimbleness in dealing with China, which was growing into a super-power-in-waiting and the world's third-largest economy. Although China opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq and blocked a few other U.S.-sponsored actions in the UN, for the most part, the U.S. has maintained a mutually constructive relationship with China - and not at the expense of other regional allies such as Japan and South Korea.

It was a far cry from an adversarial approach many had envisioned before Bush took office. Bush had campaigned on the basis that China would be treated as a "strategic competitor" instead of a "strategic partner" as it was during the Clinton era. Without a doubt, 9/11 necessitated a reassessment of U.S. relations with China, as the U.S. had more pressing security concerns. Also, the growing U.S.-China trade required both sides to seek more accomodations, not confrontations.

The Bush administration was particularly adroit in handling a potentially explosive situation across the Taiwan Strait. The Bush years ran almost concurrently with the presidency of Taiwan's Chen Shui-bian, who made it his business to endlessly provoke China with incessant rhetoric toward "independence." As Taiwan's security guarantor and arms supplier, the U.S. dealt with Chen smartly by exerting pressure both publicly and privately. The administration's handling of Taiwan allowed China to step back and calmed the tensions without sacrificing Taiwan's vital interests. With help from Taiwan's voters in 2008, the prospects for sustained peace across the strait have improved dramatically.

Bush hoped to liberalize China by opting for pragmatism and engagement - in that regard, the results were a mixed bag. Under current president Hu Jintao, China's record on human rights and religious and press freedom has not improved appreciably. But even to the very end, Bush chose diplomacy over grandstanding, most symbolically by accepting Hu's invitation to attend the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics.

The transformation that has been occurring in China is truly remarkable to watch. China today is a much less threatening state that it was 10 years ago. Economic and political engagement must continue unabated to ensure that as China grows it accepts rather than seeks to challenge the status quo. Hopefully, the anti-trade posture of Obama so far will not extend across the Pacific and undermine what has become a promising relationship.

#1: Africa

"The Bush regime has been divisive — but not in Africa. I read it has been incompetent — but not in Africa. It has created bitterness — but not here in Africa. Here, his administration has saved millions of lives."

So wrote singer and political activist Bob Geldof, remarking on the often overlooked legacy President Bush has built in the continent of Africa. Geldof - well known for his Live Aid and Live 8 concerts - isn't alone in his praise for the 43rd President. Among those Africa activists who, albeit reservedly, have praised the departing executive is Bono, U2 front-man and well known advocate on matters of African poverty and disease. "It is amazing what President Bush has done on AIDS ... to put AIDS third on the bill in a State of the Union speech by a conservative president was unthinkable a few years ago," said Bono in a 2003 interview.

Such praise might be news to the casual observer of the Bush years, and understandably so. Eight years, two increasingly unpopular war fronts and a weak economy are bound to obscure any president's positive works. Marred by his questionable invasion - and subsequent management - of Iraq, President Bush has had his good deeds obscured in Africa. Where his other foreign policy endeavors have been riddled with missteps and miscalculations, George W. Bush's African efforts have come about as close to a pure foreign policy success story as one two-term president could ever hope to get. While the president has become a reviled and clownish caricature in other parts of the world, he has enjoyed the opposite throughout much of Africa.

And with good reason. President Bush's emergency AIDS plan for Africa was possibly the largest health investment ever of its kind. In addition to AIDS spending, Bush quietly tripled the amount of overall U.S. aid to some of Africa's poorest countries. His efforts to address other deadly diseases, according to some activists and experts, have saved hundreds of thousands of African lives. The President's efforts have also cut incidence of Malaria by half in over a dozen African countries.

Tackling tough political matters in the region, President Bush moved the proverbial ball on genocide in Darfur, earning him rare praise from groups like Human Rights Watch. In Liberia, he helped facillitate the removal (and eventual arrest) of Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, and his administration has played an active role in resolving instability in Kenya.

His critics, rightly or wrongly, have been quick to point out upheaval in Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo as cases for indictment of Bush's African initiative. This view, while not lacking in certain merits, is perhaps too cynical when discussing Africa. Centuries of colonization, de-colonization, oppression, poverty and disease have left the continent a far too daunting policy challenge for any one president to tackle. And some, for various reasons, have done more than others in the time granted them by the American people.

For Africa, it's been a good eight years.

Many people, myself included, would have liked to see the administration do even more in Darfur and Zimbabwe. But those are very hard cases indeed. Under Bush, the US has paid more attention to Africa than ever before and has done far more good. One could easily add the Millennium Challenge Account to this success, which radicaly altered the way the US distributes foreign aid and has driven many African states to pay more attention to such metrics as governmental transparency, educational opportunities for girls, management of natural resources, and access to land. Bush's legacy in Africa should not be overshadowed, as it will hopefully pave the way for more and better programs that can make a serious different in the most often ignored part of the world.

Certainly, the fact that the US has not been attacked since 9/11 -- something that few analysts would have bet on back in 2001 -- must be labelled a success as well. For whatever reason, al Qaeda has not been able to successfully attack the US, and Bush must be given some credit for that. Obviously, Iraq and Afghanistan and works in progress.

Bush's failures are many, and there are enough other analysts writing about them that I see no need to do so. But we must give credit where credit is due.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Great Continuity

President-elect Barack Obama ran his campaign on a platform of hope and change, capitalizing on a surge of antipathy for a president who had immersed the US in two wars, overseen the greatest decline of the domestic economy since the Great Depression, and sullied the good name of the country through expansions of executive power, accusations of torture, and aggressive unilateralist foreign policies.

So why is it looking more and more like President Obama will, indeed, continue many of soon-to-be-ex-President Bush's policies?

Take a close look at the confirmation hearing for Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. Senator John Kerry asks her:
Is it the policy of the incoming administration, as a bottom line of our security interests and our policy, that it is unacceptable that Iran has a weapon under any circumstances and that we will take any steps necessary to prevent that? Or is it simply not desirable?
Clinton responds:

The president-elect has said repeatedly it is unacceptable. It is going to be United States policy to pursue diplomacy with all of its multitudinous tools to do everything we can to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state. As I also said, no option is off the table. [Emphases added]
"No option is off the table" is diplo-speak for "we reserve the right to use military force." So, in essence, Clinton claims that the Obama administration will use diplomacy, sanctions, and the not-so-veiled threat of force to try to get Iran to back away from the development of nuclear weapons. That would be little different than Bush's approach, especially in his second administration.

Of course, the proof will be in the pudding. But so far few signs are pointing to any radical shifts in foreign policy as of Tuesday, Jan. 20. US forces will begin withdrawing from Iraq according to the strategic logic of the Status of Forces Agreement and in consultation with the military officials, not according to the absurd time frame established by Obama during the campaign. There may be some more movement on the issue of Darfur (according to Clinton she has "spoken about other options, no fly zones, other sanctions and sanctuaries, looking to deploy the U.N. A.U. force to try to protect the refugees, but also to repel the militias"), but I'm not betting on much there. Global warming and climate change may be a bigger priority, but that will run into the same giant collective actions that undermine the Kyoto Protocol. Guantanamo Bay may be closed, but Obama will still have to create some mechanism by which to hold and try those being held there. All in all, I expect to see a lot of continuity between the foreign policies of Bush and Obama.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Israel's Impending Victory in Gaza

A few days ago I wondered what Israel was hoping to accomplish with its assault on Gaza. Today's it's still not clear, not even to Israel's government which is still debating whether to make a total push into Gaza's cities, a move which would signal an attempt to destroy Hamas as a governing body. Meanwhile, as people warn that Israel's attack on Hamas will only result in strengthening the group, rocket attacks from Lebanon into northern Israel seem to confirm that warning as many see the rockets as a message from a Hezbollah that emerged from its own war with Israel stronger than it was before.

But not so fast.

Hezbollah is adamantly denying that it has anything to do with the rockets being launched from Lebanon. That's not the move of an empowered nationalistic militia; that's the move of a group that, despite its propaganda claims to the contrary, suffered a massive beating in its war with Israel. Hezbollah likely lost more than 500 soldiers in ground fighting with Israel while Israel lost 30 soldiers (Israel lost about 10o total soldiers). Furthermore, Hezbollah's rocket attacks, in which Hezbollah launched around 4,000 rockets into Israel, killed 43 Israelis civilians and wounded more than 4,000. While it's true that the impact of the rocket attacks cannot be measured purely in casualties, it's also true that 5-1 loss ratios and the use of a large part of its arsenal to kill 40 civilians cannot really be seen as a military victory in any sense. Furthermore, the political fallout borne by Hezbollah for antagonizing Israel and endangering Lebanon seems to have been very heavy. And now we're seeing the results of the Israeli operation, as Hezbollah despites its blustery claims of Palestinian solidarity is not only NOT opening a second front, it is taking great pains to ensure that Israel does not turn its might against Lebanon again.

If the invasion of Lebanon was enough to reestablish a modicum of deterrence against Hezbollah, can the Gaza campaign do the same vis-a-vis Hamas? A wide campaign against Hamas's strategic assets, government facilities, and underground tunnels may very well cripple Hamas's ability to not only attack Israel but to provide the services for Gaza that have advanced Hamas's political agenda and brought it to power as a viable alternative to Fatah. Hamas's victory in Gaza was not only a result of its aggressive stance against Israel but also a rejection of the corruption and ineffectiveness of Fatah. But if Hamas loses the capability to threaten Israel, cannot effectively defend itself or the people of Gaza, and sees its ability to govern destroyed, the Palestinian people very well may turn back to Fatah.

It is for this reason that it is imperative, as I wrote in my last post, for Israel to make clear the benefits that can be had for adhereing to the path that Fatah has chosen. As I wrote, "Israel should immediately announce a halt to all funding for settlement building in the West Bank, dismantle all illegal settlements, and lift all but the most necessary checkpoints and roadblocks that have made life in the West Bank so difficult." Doing so in the midst of the war against Hamas will announce in no uncertain terms Israel's commitment to a peaceful, two-state solution so long as there is a willing and able partner among the Palestinians.

In an article in today's Wall Street Journal, Edward Luttwak writes "Hamas will claim a win no matter what happens, but then so did Hezbollah in 2006. And yet, for the most part, Hezbollah remains immobile and the Israeli northern border with Lebanon remains quiet. If Israel can achieve the same with Hamas in Gaza, it would be a significant victory." But we must not be fooled by rhetoric and propaganda. Israel's invasion of Lebanon was definitely a success, and whether Gaza is as well will not be judged by Hamas's empty claims of victory.