Friday, October 30, 2009

David Brooks calling out Barack Obama

That most manly of commentators, David Brooks, lets his neocon slip show in today's essay.  He's consulted all the other manly men, the retired officers, analysts who have written books about counterinsurgency warfare, etc., those "who follow the war for a living, who spend their days in military circles both here and in Afghanistan,"  to solicit their views on the president's handling of Afghanistan policy.  Says Mr. Brooks, they all admire the president's intellect, but
they do not know if he possesses the trait that is more important than intellectual sophistication and, in fact, stands in tension with it. They do not know if he possesses tenacity, the ability to fixate on a simple conviction and grip it, viscerally and unflinchingly, through complexity and confusion. They do not know if he possesses the obstinacy that guided Lincoln and Churchill, and which must guide all war presidents to some degree.

Why don't you just say it, Brooksie?  What you're really asking Obama to do is show that he has balls. 

So that's what this is really about?  Guts?  Determination?  Not letting that oh-so-slippery intellect get in the way of real manliness?

I've never been a huge fan of David Brooks, but I'd always hoped that he felt this kind of stuff to be beneath him.  Disappointing.

An Iran conundrum

The merry-go-round of negotiations with Iran keeps spinning . . . and where it stops . . .?

Haaretz reported this morning that Israeli PM Netanyahu now likes the proposed deal with Iran  - whereby Iran would ship as much as 75 percent of its current stock of low-enriched uranium to Russia (and then on to France) for processing and eventually returned to Iran for use in its medical reactor.  (The idea is to buy time to make a longer-term deal with Iran, by getting the supply of enriched uranium out of the country and thus retard any putative progress toward weaponization.)  But now, the NY Times reports, Iran is going to reject that deal, which puts a huge ding in Obama's "engage-Iran" momentum, at least for the time being, and will have the war-hawks in Congress and the punditry screaming "there they go again" (and maybe Tom Friedman has another "screw 'em" essay in store for us?).

Iran's president, Mr. Ahmadinejad, is still touting cooperation with the West, but the real corker here is (as Robert Dreyfuss reports) that the West's Iranian darling, Mir-Hossein Moussavi, the focus of the post-elections reform movement there, is blasting Ahmadinejad for his earlier support of this proposal.  In Moussavi's view, Ahmadinejad (the Iranian whom so many Americans just love to hate) is caving to the US and jeopardizing many years of hard work and discovery by Iran's scientists.

So all of a sudden, the man in whom US hopes for regime change in Iran were being invested is coming across as harder-line than Ahmadinejad on the nuclear-program issue. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"Finishing" in Iraq

Thomas Friedman asserted this morning that the US needs to "finish" Iraq.  I would argue that it's not for the US to "finish" Iraq; it's not in our power to do that.  And this NYT report makes it clear that, to the extent "finishing" Iraq means ensuring its security, Iraq may be well beyond anyone's power to finish.

Garrison Keillor . . . and more on Matthew Hoh's resignation

This story was broken by the Washington Post yesterday, but Glenn Greenwald provides links to a pdf of Mr. Hoh's letter of resignation, as well as other related reports and analysis.

Also, the excellent Garrison Keillor, in his usual special and "above-average" way, weighs in: bring the troops out of Afghanistan. (The preceding link is to the Salon publication of it, but the NY Times has it as well.)

Thomas Friedman's decision on Afghanistan: Screw 'em

Friedman speaks in today's NYT.  Can't say that Gen. McChrystal will agree with his prescription for Afghanistan:

 . . . here’s my vote: We need to be thinking about how to reduce our footprint and our goals there in a responsible way, not dig in deeper. We simply do not have the Afghan partners, the NATO allies, the domestic support, the financial resources or the national interests to justify an enlarged and prolonged nation-building effort in Afghanistan.

Go to his essay for his explication of the "three principles" upon which he's based his decision.

In essence, #1 is - When good things have happened in the Middle East, the US didn't start them.  He goes on to note:

when the moderate silent majorities take ownership of their own futures, we win. When they won’t, when we want them to compromise more than they do, we lose. The locals sense they have us over a barrel, so they exploit our na├»ve goodwill and presence to loot their countries and to defeat their internal foes.
OK, except for that bit about "our naive goodwill."  How about "historically conditioned ignorance"?  Nor am I impressed with the oh-so-customary Friedman kick-ass tone that closes out #1:
 It is time to stop subsidizing their nonsense. Let them all start paying retail for their extremism, not wholesale. Then you’ll see movement.
No awareness of how US intervention (or lack thereof) has helped cause that nonsense.  No matter.  Screw 'em all.

Friedman's principle #2 = In the Middle East, the real stuff happens the morning after the morning after.  Cute . . . and here he has a good point, except that, again, his bottom line is "screw 'em."
the morning after the morning after, the Taliban factions will start fighting each other, the Pakistani Army will have to destroy their Taliban, or be destroyed by them, Afghanistan’s warlords will carve up the country . . . .

What Friedman doesn't point out are the thousands of corpses - mostly those of innocent villagers and such - that his "screw-em" prescription will produce.  And his #3 and last principle:

We are the world. A strong, healthy and self-confident America is what holds the world together and on a decent path. A weak America would be a disaster for us and the world.

One might call this hubris.

I can't disagree with his observations that the US simply can't afford the expense of ramping up efforts in Afghanistan.  As he says, "we desperately need nation-building at home. We have to be smarter."

But then, a last bit of hubris:
Let’s finish Iraq, because a decent outcome there really could positively impact the whole Arab-Muslim world

As if it's in the US's power to "finish Iraq."  Thomas Ricks made the point in his most recent book: Iraq's woes may only have begun.  It was Bush's 2003 intervention that brought them to a boil - actually, blew the lid off the pot.  Friedman seems to subscribe to the belief that the Surge put the lid back on.  Nope, at least, not securely.  The pot's still boiling, the lid's bouncing on the rim . . . and there's still a mess on the stove that we helped make, but can't clean up.

How long before Friedman pens another "screw 'em" prescription - for Iraq?

Obama's Afghanistan Decision - and the Likelihood of "Success"

Doyle McManus (LA Times) pens a cogent analysis of some of the factors that Mr. Obama ought to be (and surely must be) considering as makes a decision about future strategy in Afghanistan.  I'm especially struck, though, by his comments on John Kerry's recent involvement (his 4 days with Karzai in Kabul), and how Kerry is bearing in mind his Vietnam experience:

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who prodded Karzai into agreeing to the runoff last week, said he spent much of four days in the presidential palace insisting that reform had to happen -- and he thinks the message got through. "I'm confident there are going to be some changes" in Karzai's government after the election, including replacement of corrupt provincial governors and Cabinet ministers, Kerry said. "We need to work very hard at those, because they are central to this turning around."

But he acknowledged that the outcome of that issue is in Afghan hands, not ours.

"In 1971, I asked the [Senate] Foreign Relations Committee, 'How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?' " Thirty-eight years later, chairing the committee, Kerry said, "I keep that question very much in mind."

I do believe that Kerry's confidence in Karzai's intention to "reform" his government is badly misplaced - what we see as "corruption" is what many in Afghanistan's more privileged elements see as the customary way of doing business, and I suspect that no amount of cajoling from Kerry, Obama, or anyone else is going to change that, especially when those privileged elements know that the US has turned its back and walked away from Afghanistan not once, but twice, since about 1990.
But I've been remembering Kerry's 1971 question to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee ('How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?") for months now.  Most of the current brass are not going to be asking that question out loud right now - which is what makes the resignation of Michael Hoh so resonant at this point in time.  At what point do the military rank-and-file begin to weigh in with questions like Kerry's - especially given reports of already sagging morale?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Turkey PM Erdogan hits West over Iran nuke pressure

and this in-your-face to the US on the eve of his visit to Obama.  Plus, this is the same guy who had the balls to confront Shimon Peres (over the objections of the WaPo's David Ignatius) over the IDF's plastering of Gaza back in January at the Davos Conference.

I wish I knew how to say thanks in Turkish.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Implications of today's horrific bombing in Baghdad

Both the New York Times and the Washington Post's Anthony Shadid provide accounts of today's bombing of two government buildings in downtown Baghdad.  At least 130 people have been killed, with as many as 500  injured/maimed.  Spokesmen for al-Maliki's government are pointing the government's finger at al-Qaeda in Iraq as well as Baath die-hards.

I expect a number of consequences, among them:
  • damage to al-Maliki's election hopes, as he's been running on his record of increasing security in the country.  That bombers could set off such a coordinated attack near government ministries (again!) is a not a predictor of future success.
  • a crackdown by al-Maliki's security forces against suspected Sunni insurgents - who may include former Sunni Awakening members who've already been hit hard, and are feeling betrayed by their erstwhile US military patrons.  It's also commonly known that al-Maliki's people routinely engage in torture -  something that I don't believe Thomas Friedman takes note of in his paean to al-Maliki, who granted Friedman an interview during his recent visit to DC.  In fact, Friedman even quotes him as saying “Saddam ruled for more than 35 years.  We need one or two generations brought up on democracy and human rights to get rid of this orientation.”
  • pressure on Mr. Obama to slow the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, and at a time when the US military desperately needs to rest and re-tool soldiers who are destined for redeployment to Afghanistan.
  • perhaps, some pressure to postpone the Iraqi elections, which are set for January, but are being held up now because of the parliament's failure to pass an election law.  However, the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most esteemed leader of Iraq's Shii, has so far been insisting that there must be no delay.

Friday, October 23, 2009

NYT's new analysis of the Taliban

Bravo!  Finally, a MSM piece that hammers the point that the "Taliban" are not some Islamofascist monolith.  Long overdue, and it ought to be required reading for US citizens.

Including, I must point out, Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, current Chair of the House Armed Services Committee, whose recent interview with Charlie Rose was so full of platitudes and generalizations about "the Enemy" in Afghanistan as to be frightening to anyone who hopes for any semblance of well-informed leadership in Congress. 

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Afghanistan's "nationalism" and the US's cluelessness

An excellent analysis in the Daily Star (Beirut) makes the point that the US and NATO in Afghanistan are trying to impose a strongly centralized political system that runs completely counter to the region's history and tradition.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

US UN rep Susan Rice hopes to move along the "peace process"

Reported in The National - which also reports that Ms. Rice has assured the Israelis that the US will stand beside them in the UN to keep the Goldstone report from doing them more damage.  So much for the peace process.

Superb interview with Haaretz's Amira Hass

Video plus transcript of an interview with (IMHO) one of the planet's bravest journalists.  The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Amira Hass has lived in, and reported from, both Gaza and the West Bank for many years.  Her honest, forthright take on Israeli occupation has earned her the respect of many Israelis, and the hatred of many others.

New Round of Sham Elections in Afghanistan

After some haranguing from John Kerry, Hamid Karzai has decided to go along with a run-off election with his top challenger, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah.  It's too bad that he couldn't have been brought around to this a few weeks ago, when the evidence of fraud (perpetrated mostly by his own people) was becoming blatantly obvious.

Problem is (as this report notes straightaway), owing to the onset of winter, the poll has been set for only 2 weeks from now.  There is no way in hell that this can wind up being a truly representative poll - the weather, the Taliban insurgency and intimidation, the violence across so much of the country, and the growing sense among many that this entire exercise is being staged for the benefit of foreigners all weigh against it. 
Ultimately, the success of the second round will depend on the mood of the voters. Many Afghans say they are tired of all of the fuss, and just want to be left alone.

“I don’t know what the foreigners want from us here,” sighed Mohammad Yasin, a taxi driver in Kabul. “What elections? What freedom? What democracy? Whatever the foreigners want, they do. Nobody knew Karzai, they dropped him on a mountain in Uruzgan province and made him president. So now they can make somebody else president. This is a real soap opera for the foreigners. They enjoy our suffering.”

But the odds are that Karzai will "win'; the US will hail him as a "legitimate," democratically elected partner" in "moving ahead"; and the door will be open wide for Obama to send in more US troops.  In any event, the Republican and neocon demands that he do so are growing more shrill and insistent by the day, and the Hillary Clintons of the world seem to be pressuring Obama along the same lines.  A Karzai "victory" will only expand the cascade.

Meanwhile, be sure to look into David Rohde's multi-part series (in the NY Times) on his captivity with Pakistan Taliban; and the New Yorker's Jane Mayer (whose reporting on Bush administration authorization of torture at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib was superb, as well as her book, The Dark Side) reports on drone strikes in Pakistan is a must-read. (and see also the report from the New America Foundation).

Monday, October 19, 2009

A new problem for Obama: Audit Pushes Karzai Below 50 Percent in Afghan Vote

The NYT's Sabrina Tavernise reports that "Afghanistan’s political crisis deepened on Monday, with President Hamid Karzai hesitating to accept an international audit that stripped him of nearly a million votes, requiring a runoff with his top challenger." Most of the rest of the story follows below, but as it notes, these results create a huge crisis of legitimacy for Karzai, and they put Mr. Obama on the spot as well.  More and more people are demanding that he make a decision about escalating (or not) US military involvement in Afghanistan, even as US troops and Taliban forces (and, with them, undoubtedly a lot of "collateral damage") are being killed daily.  But how does the US partner with Karzai if he refuses to accept these results?  On the other hand, how does the US continue to partner with Karzai when the corruption of his government has become so appallingly obvious?  How do you make the case to a war-weary American public that it's OK to pour more lives and treasure into this rat-hole?

A panel of United Nations-appointed experts issued findings for the first time on Monday showing that the fraud was so pervasive that Mr. Karzai had not won the Aug. 20 election outright, according to foreign and Afghan officials in the capital, Kabul.

The findings are a defining moment for Mr. Karzai, who initially received 54 percent of the vote, and believes he is the rightful winner. They place him in direct conflict with his main backer, the United States, and threaten to pitch the country into a major constitutional crisis, should he decide to reject them altogether. . . .

The special audit committee, the Electoral Complaints Commission, invalidated nearly a third of all ballots cast for Mr. Karzai, according to a New York Times analysis of the preliminary data. More precisely, 28 percent of Mr. Karzai’s 3,093,000 votes were discarded due to fraud, the analysis showed.

The result pushed Mr. Karzai’s final vote total to about 49 percent, below the threshold needed to avoid a runoff. An independent analysis by an election monitoring group, Democracy International, gave Mr. Karzai about 48.3 percent, The Associated Press reported. A Western official familiar with the results had predicted that result earlier Monday.

The committee also threw out 18 percent of the votes of Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister and Mr. Karzai’s top challenger, leaving him with 31 percent of the total vote, more than the 28 percent he had originally polled.

The data remains preliminary until it is officially accepted by the Independent Election Commission, which received the results from the audit committee on Monday.

Mr. Karzai’s campaign officials have complained about the work of the five-member international-Afghan panel that conducted the fraud analysis, saying that foreigners were unfairly influencing its outcome. And Mr. Karzai himself indicated this weekend that he might oppose the results, setting off a flurry of last-minute diplomacy by western officials.

If the Independent Election Commission, the Afghan body that will certify Monday’s results, accepts them as required under Afghan election law, Mr. Karzai has few options. A runoff with Mr. Abdullah, is constitutionally mandated to take place within two weeks. But Mr. Karzai could use his influence over the commission to reject the findings.

That would pitch Afghanistan into a constitutional crisis just as the Obama administration is trying to make a decision on whether to send more troops here to halt the Taliban’s advance in the country’s deepening war.

A spokeswoman for the American Embassy in Kabul, Caitlin Hayden, said Mr. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, spent three days in Kabul over the weekend, then returned Monday to speak with Mr. Karzai, attempting to defuse a deepening political crisis.

“We call on the I.E.C. to implement these orders with all due speed and look forward to the final certified results,” Ms. Hayden said in an e-mail message.

It is unclear if the two candidates would actually go through with a runoff. The coming winter weather and increasing insecurity in the south of the country would make holding a second round difficult, and many foreign officials have suggested that the two candidates might strike a power-sharing deal, something both candidates have denied.

“I still believe in terms of where we are politically; that it’s unlikely to be a second round,” one Western official who asked to remain anonymous said.

The audit committee completely discarded the results of 210 ballot boxes due to fraud, the electoral complaints commission said in a news release. That reduced Mr. Karzai’s total by 41,000 votes. But the far larger number of his discarded votes — 874,000 — were thrown out based on a statistical sampling of the total body of suspect votes, which were divided into six categories, according to the Times analysis of that portion of the data, which was released in raw form.

Mr. Abdullah, for his part, lost 10,807 votes from the eliminated ballot boxes. An additional 185,000 votes were removed from his totals based on the statistical formula, the Times analysis showed.

The preliminary vote count of the Aug. 20 election had given Mr. Karzai over 54 percent of the vote and Mr. Abdullah 28 percent.

Demonstrations in support of Mr. Karzai took place in Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan and in Ghazni Province in the center of the country on Monday. About 3,000 people gathered in a market in the district of Spinbaldak, shouting, “We don’t want foreigners to interfere in our election,” a complaint frequently offered by his campaign.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Media obsession with stupid stories

Ariana Huffington writes about her experience last night . . . and I have to register my own disgust while I was exercising at our Student Activity Center.  As I plodded away on an elliptical trainer, the screen overhead - which was tuned to Headline News - broadcast the ongoing "news" about Balloon Boy - the 6-year-old kid who at first was thought to be lost on a hot-air balloon, only to have it turn out that he was hiding in the attic.  For 50 minutes, that was the only new story being covered.

WTF?!!  People dying in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan; a major story in the UN with the Goldstone report; so many other issues of concern.  And THIS is what cable news feels is newsworthy?

The war in Afghanistan: $400 per gallon for gas

Incredible . . . and it begs a larger question that I seldom see posed: How can the US afford (in the long haul) such an expensive and open-ended military commitment in Afghanistan - as well as new commitments of aid both there and in Pakistan, not to mention Iraq (where our supposedly imminent departure is going to cost billions as well).

US Middle East (and Afghan) Policy now completely wrong-footed

A moment of truth approaches in the UN, now that the UN Human Rights Council has indeed voted to forward the Goldstone report to the Security Council.  There, of course, the US will "protect" Israel by vetoing any move to send the matter of IDF war crimes in Gaza 10 months ago to the International Criminal Court (whose jurisdiction Israel does not recognize in any event).  As I noted here last night, Britain plans to abstain from the vote (which has infuriated the Israeli leadership) - but the US veto will completely undo the good effects of Obama's earlier outreach to the Arab and Muslim worlds.  Steve Clemons of the Washington Note reports today from Jordan, where he sadly notes the tremendous frustration with what they see there as Obama's knuckling under to Netanyahu on the settlement-freeze issue. There's a strong feeling there that Obama's intentions are worthy, but that he simply can't stand up to the pro-Israel pressure within his own government and country - a card that Netanyahu can play to trump any moves Obama might make to try to achieve progress toward a truly just settlement.

It's impossible to understate how devastating all this may be to US standing and prospects for leadership in the Middle East, and beyond.  By the end of his first term, George W. Bush had trashed that with his demolition of Iraq's society and his obvious pro-Israel slant in re the "peace process" sham.  During his second term, people around the world knew the score and maintained no illusions about what the US might do to improve relations with Middle Eastern countries outside Israel.  But Obama's election, combined with his gestures of outreach, offered new hope, a chance at a new beginning - in fact, perhaps the best chance imaginable for a new beginning.  Perhaps Obama has a longer-term game-plan for the peace process, but very few of those (in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and elsewhere) most directly affected by the intransigence of Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman can see that (if it's indeed even there).  The upcoming US veto in the UN Security Council will cement their frustration, which may now rise to levels even higher than during Bush's time.

Meanwhile,  more unraveling in the lands that the US has graced with its military presence.

And speaking of Afghanistan, I recommend highly this essay by long-time reporter Kathy Gannon in Foreign Affairs, about how the US's decision to ally itself there with some of the country's most murderous warlords is coming back to haunt us.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Obama's Outreach about to self-destruct?

The UN Human Rights Council vote on the Goldstone report evidently is going to go forward, and will win handily.  Britain apparently is going to abstain; Netanyahu has had a "robust exchange" with Gordon Brown over the matter, and is threatening to shut down the peace process.  That, of course, is laughable, because the peace process over the last few years has been a complete sham.  Sharon didn't really want one, Netanyahu doesn't really want one, but Obama wants one, so George Mitchell has been shuttled back and forth in a grandiose exercise in chasing his own tail.

When the US votes tomorrow against the resolution to accept the report, the last few tattered shred of  credibility still hanging onto Obama's outreach to the Arab world, especially among the Palestinians (and also among many Iranians),  will go "blowing in the wind."  This is hugely unfortunate, because his heart and mind are, I firmly believe, in the right place, but to maintain any momentum on other elements of his large and ambitious agenda, he has to play ball with certain powers that be in Congress and the American countryside, and among the opinion-shaping so-called moderate punditocracy (say, Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, David Ignatius). None of the fore-mentioned would stand for Obama to truly hold Netanyahu's feet to the fire, even in the manner that George H. W. Bush did by rejecting loan guarantees to Israel 20 years ago.  The Israeli leadership as now constituted might never be induced to enter an authentic, realistic peace process anyway, but there is absolutely zero chance of that if the US political leadership can't summon the will and courage to confront them with an ultimatum, or at least some kind of offer that they couldn't refuse without the US completely abandoning them - a fate that, in my opinion, Israel has long and richly deserved.

Now the Punjab is under attack

This startling news from Pakistan suggests that Taliban groups there now feel strong enough to attack not only in the peripheral areas of the frontier territories, but in the Punjab, the heart of the country.  Lahore is regarded as one of Pakistan's truly historic cities, and one  of its more tolerant ones as well.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

On Obama's Nobel Peace Prize

I can't say I'm displeased that the Nobel Committee decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Mr. Obama, even if to this point he has to his credit more inspiration  than tangible results.  But I also can't say I disagree with this assessment from the WaPo - that perhaps the award could have gone to Neda Agha Sultan, the young Iranian woman who was so senselessly gunned down in Tehran during the post-election demonstrations.

On the other hand, perhaps Rachel Corrie ought to have been remembered, even more.  If you don't know (or can't remember) who she was, note this excerpt from a recent essay by Stanford Universty's Joel Beinin:

On March 16, 2003, Corrie, a senior at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, was crushed by an Israeli army bulldozer in Gaza. The mammoth Caterpillar D9 bulldozer, custom-fitted with armor by Israel, was leveling the ground and demolishing Palestinian homes in the city of Rafah along the Philadelphi axis -- the road that runs along the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. Many homes and buildings had already been destroyed to create an open space in preparation for constructing a wall on the border. Corrie was working with the ISM, an organization dedicated to non-violent, direct action in solidarity with the Palestinian people under military occupation. She was killed as she stood, unarmed, in front of the home of a Palestinian pharmacist, Samir Nasrallah, in an attempt to prevent the bulldozer from razing it. . . . .

The death of Rachel Corrie brought a raft of journalistic inquests, all ostensibly concerned to sift through the competing claims of her fellow activists in the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), who say she was murdered, and the Israeli state, which prefers to call her untimely end a “regrettable accident.” Some of the media accounts were skeptical of the army’s internal inquiry, others less so. Many reporters seemed more eager to grill the ISM activists who were present than the soldiers, in lockstep with the Israeli army’s own counterattack: “We are dealing with a group of protesters who are acting very irresponsibly, putting everyone in danger -- the Palestinians, themselves and our forces -- by intentionally placing themselves in a combat zone.” And the army, despite Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s reported promise to President George W. Bush of a “thorough, credible and transparent” investigation, was hardly open to outside scrutiny. Human Rights Watch, which included a section on Corrie in a June 2005 report on faulty Israeli military inquiries, was unable to pronounce a verdict upon how she died, but did conclude that “the impartiality and professionalism of the Israeli investigation into Corrie’s death are highly questionable.”

Would that the esteemed editors of the Washington Post had raised their voices on her behalf at the time.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Cruel Dilemma Facing the Jews of Israel

The Israelis have a Hebrew word for the stuff Zuckerman spins out = hasbara. More directly put, propaganda. His writing has been bereft of credibility for years. Find the Haaretz website, people, and read Gideon Levy and Amira Hass. Or head to the library and find the books of Avi Shlaim, Tom Segev, Ilan Pappe, for starters.
Read the Article at HuffingtonPost

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

More on Obama White House discussions on Afghanistan

This report from the NYT shows some of the hard thinking and discussion going on in the Obama administration's calculations about Afghanistan (and Pakistan).  There's a major crap-shoot here = If the US were to increase focus on al-Qaeda and give the Taliban a bit more breathing space, would that lead to the Taliban linking up with al-Qaeda to provide them a safe haven (again) in Afghanistan?  Or might the Taliban then try to discourage al-Qaeda from nesting in their country, if only to keep the American and NATO foreigners from continuing to occupy their country?

We won't know the answer to that unless Obama adopts a strategy to split the two.  And it's at least somewhat heartening to see that thoughtful people around Obama seem unwilling to lump al-Qaeda and the Taliban together as "Islamic extremists" - a tactic often resorted to by Bush and his people.  They are indeed different entities, with mostly different purposes and ideologies.  But now, the Obama people need to take the next step = to come to grips with the complexity of the Taliban, to see them not as some monolithic entity, but as an internally variegated group.

Even with such an awakening though, it seems to me that defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan - or at least defeating that portion of them who consist of resistance fighters opposed to foreign presence - will forever be impossible for the US to accomplish.  So, sending a major "Surge" of troops into Afghanistan now would be to send more young Americans to senseless deaths.  And it's now being reported that McChrystal wanted to ask for 50,000 more - which would have almost doubled the US troop presence - but was talked down to "only" 40,000. 

I sense that Obama is not going to go there.  Still, he will likely make eloquent assurances of his resolve to stay committed to Afghanistan for the long haul, and to not abandon it as it was abandoned by the US when Bush launched his Iraq expedition, or earlier, after an earlier generation of mujahhedin had expelled the previous foreign occupier - the Soviet Union.

So, as I've said before, more young Americans will be going there, and more will be returning in body bags.

Obama's Holding Patterns for Afghanistan and Palestine

Reactions after his long meeting with Congressional leaders yesterday suggest that Mr. Obama is contemplating a glorified holding pattern for Afghanistan - what the LA Times calls the "middle ground" .  The WaPo's report headlines that his approach "divides lawmakers" - but given Obama's history, I suspect that he's going to come up with a course of action (I hesitate to call it a solution) that will give something to everyone, and probably satisfy no one.

In other words, a "middle ground," which is what - according to the NYT report - John McCain specifically cautioned him against during the meeting.  McCain, however, related that to the so-called middle ground that Bush adopted in Iraq before he agreed to the Petraeus-led "Surge," which in McCain's myopic world-view led to "success" in Iraq.  You know, it seems to me that for John McCain, "success" means creating a result from which the US military - with which he equates US honor and glory in general - can emerge as effective, undefeated, and can come home (as he so often put it in 2008 campaign) "with honor."  It has nothing to do with the long-term future of Iraq and its people.  And as for Bush's alleged "middle-ground" approach to Iraq . . . Does anyone else in the room believe that launching an essentially unprovoked war of choice (to use Richard Haas' expression) and  full-scale invasion of Iraq was a "middle-ground" kind of action?

As far as Obama's decision is concerned, my bet is on a continued boots-on-the-ground presence (again, the reports indicate that he will not agree to a major draw-down), with perhaps a slight increase (5 - 10,000) in troop numbers, with troops to be assigned to increase security in major cities as well as train the Afghan army.  Not enough to pacify the countryside.  Indeed, there aren't enough troops in the US military to accomplish that.  The US will likely rely on negotiating with "good" Taliban, maybe buying them off (indeed, the way Petraeus bought off the now-forlorn Sunni Awakening/Sons of Iraq groups in Iraq).  Again, a short-term, short-sighted fix, but, as in Iraq,  it will not make for a stabilized Afghanistan when - or if? - US forces depart.

The result will be a continuing slow hemorrhaging of the lives of US military - with an occasional incident when perhaps as many as 5-7 soldiers/Marines will be killed, but not enough to mobilize a US public opinion that is too distracted with its economic woe, the health-care debate, and the demonization of those mad, scary mullahs of Iran who are going to get nukes and wipe out Israel.

Speaking of which . . . an interesting analysis from IPS suggests that Obama's pressure on Mahmud Abbas to shelve action on the Goldstone report may be playing - wisely - for the long run.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Obama has hung Mahmud Abbas out to dry

I voted for him, I am desperate for him to succeed, but it looks like Mr. Obama has just torched any credibility he may have had with the Arab world and the cause of a "peace process" between Israelis and Palestinians.  Mahmud Abbas was no prize, to be sure, but he was indeed trying to hold his ground vs. Netanyahu on the settlements-freeze isue.  Obama seems to have talked him out of that . . . and now, Obama seems to be the one at fault for convincing Abbas' government to assist in deep-sixing the Goldstone report.  In the process, Abbas now looks to have sold out the people of Gaza.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Jones fires a shot across McChrystal's bow

. . . and none too soon.  By appearing before a British think-tank and lobbying publicly for a troop surge in Afghanistan, McChrystal was out of line, and General Jones (Obama's national security adviser) has called him on it.  Bravo!

US betrayal of its Sunni tribal allies in Iraq; and Iran's "chessmanship"

As we all re-focus on Iran's nuclear program and the steady deterioration of Afghanistan (where, the US military reports, 8 more US troops have been killed - the beat goes on - in a battle very reminiscent of one, in Wanat, about a year ago), let's not forget that Iraq is by no means "won" or a "victory" for the US.  John McCain, Lindsay Graham, Joe Lieberman et al. tout the "Surge" of US forces there in 2007-2008 as supposedly turned the tide.   The Wapo's Anthony Shadid reports on the Sunni sheikhs of Anbar (Iraq's large western governorate), who were vital in rolling back (at least for the time being) the al-Qaeda-type jihadists there, but who have been abandoned by their erstwhile US backers and threatened by the Maliki government.  They're feeling a bit betrayed and cowed right now, but if Maliki can't find a way to bring them aboard his new nationalist band-wagon . . . well, let's just remember that as US troops accelerate their withdrawal, the frayed seams of the Iraqi political and social fabric are going to be stretched.

As for Afghanistan, note two pieces in today's NYT: one from various contributors, about steps to "victory"; the other, from James Traub, much more thoughtful, on Afghanistan in the context of rethinking what are appropriate goals for US foreign policy, with much reference to George Kennan's brand of realism.

Amid the new hopes about Iran, what with the evident willingness of the leadership to allow IAEA inspectors in at the "newly disclosed" site near Qom, the WaPo's Jackson Diehl writes about the "coming failure" there (in re US policy), while respected analyst Kaveh Afrasiabi makes an interesting case  (writing in the Washington Times) that the most recent developments reflect some "brilliant chessmanship" on Iran's part.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The US's continued double-standard on nuclear proliferation

The NYT reports on the welcome development that Iran is trying to cool tensions over its nuclear program.  (And for more on this - and how Obama has put to shame 8 lost years of Bush-Cheney-Rice diplomacy - or almost absence thereof - on this issue, see Juan Cole today.)  But even as Mr. Obama continues to demand action from them, he has quietly acquiesced in one of the more absurd ruses of recent decades - namely, that the US will continue officially to recognize the non-existence of Israel's nuclear deterrent.  As noted by one expert (Avner Cohen, author of "Israel and the Bomb" and the leading authority outside the Israeli government on the history of Israel's nuclear program):
the accord amounts to "the United States passively accepting Israel's nuclear weapons status as long as Israel does not unveil publicly its capability or test a weapon."
The Washington Times goes on to note:

The secret understanding could undermine the Obama administration's goal of a world without nuclear weapons. In particular, it could impinge on U.S. efforts to bring into force the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, two agreements that U.S. administrations have argued should apply to Israel in the past. They would ban nuclear tests and the production of material for weapons.

A Senate staffer familiar with the May reaffirmation, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, said, "What this means is that the president gave commitments that politically he had no choice but to give regarding Israel's nuclear program. However, it calls into question virtually every part of the president's nonproliferation agenda.The president gave Israel an NPT treaty get out of jail free card."

This has to change, and I'm hoping that Obama - especially if he's able to win a second term, which will give him lots of time to lay the groundwork - will change his tack on this issue and demand that Israel (1) quit the charade and go public, (2) sign on to the NPT, and (3) pledge to dismantle its nuke arsenal.

On the Afghanistan front meanwhile, the tide may be turning against a major "Surge" of US forces there, especially among Obama's civilian advisers -  chief among them, Joe Biden, who (as one report noted) is old enough (like many of us) to have a visceral sense of what Vietnam was, and what it did to this country, and is wise enough to see so many of the same red flags that marked the path to disaster there.  (Actually, they're impossible to miss, even if McCain and McChrystal seem to feel otherwise.)  And, bless his heart, it's good to see that uber-conservative Pat Buchanan is weighing in against an Afghan surge as well.

But another new front for US action may be emerging . . . in Pakistan - specifically, in the Baluchistan region, where lies the city of Quetta - where resides (according to US intel) the core of the Afghan Taliban leadership (Mullah Omar included).  The US wants the Pakistani military to go after them, and would love to send in drones to take out these guys.  As of now the Pakistani military chief, Gen. Kiyani, is saying no to that.  And don't forget - Pakistan has always been one of the biggest backers of the Afghan Taliban. 

Finally, Iraq's elections approach in January, and PM al-Maliki is burnishing his new image as an anti-sectarian, pro-nationalist leader, even as he builds a sizable military force answerable directly to him, with a police force that continues to resort to torture routinely.  On the other hand, Iraqis in general want stability and order more than anything else, and Maliki seems to convincing many of them that he's the man to do that.  (Just like another leader in Iraq's recent history used to do that.)  Saddam, though, had no love for the Shii, or for Shii Iran next door.  Maliki's long-time political base, of course, has been the Shii religious party, al-Dawa, and he has been relying upon Iran's support, and helping Iran further its interests in Iraq, from the get-go.  How well he can meld that with his newfound nationalism (which is meant to appeal to Sunni Arabs as well) remains to be seen, especially as anti-Shii (and anti-Kurd) tensions are being ratcheted up in Iraq's north.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Signs of hope on Iran? An even gooier tar-baby in Afghanistan?

Evidently the bilateral talks between the US and Iran, as well as the talks between Iran and the "big powers" at Geneva, have shown some promise.  And along the lines of cooperation with Iran, a must-read is Juan Cole's latest on "beliefs" vs. "reality" about Iran's intentions and actions.

Meanwhile, on the Afghanistan front, even as John McCain tells us that Afghanistan is "easier" than Iraq, Mr. Obama has chaired a long meeting with top advisers, both civil and military, and is resisting pressure to decide quickly.  And according to the Wall Street Journal, Sec Def Robert Gates, who has been a big fan of the Petraeus/McChrystal counterinsurgency doctrine in Afghanistan (which would entail a major "surge" of US forces there), may be coming around to the approach favored by Joe Biden and Gen. James Jones: a more focused effort to keep global jihadists like al-Qaeda from re-establishing themselves there, as well as trying to co-opt some elements of the Taliban.

In this regard, also see this excerpt from the New Yorker's Steve Coll's testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which brings in Pakistan's reluctance to cut loose its ties with the Afghan Taliban as long as its leaders are convinced that the US may walk away from there, as well as support India" . . .to weaken Pakistan, by supporting governments in Kabul that at best are hostile to Pakistani interests or at worst facilitate Indian efforts to destabilize, disarm or even destroy the Pakistani state."  Coll's advice: focus US forces in Afghanistan's cities, and ensure that the Taliban can't take control in any of them.  This, of course, is in itself no walk in the park, given recent reports that the Taliban already control Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city.

Quite simply, there is no easy way forward in Afghanistan.  Going "all in," as some have advocated, is probably both militarily and financially unsustainable, nor would it go down well with ordinary Afghans (who already see US forces as occupiers) or some of their leaders.  And it has no assurance of "success," by almost any definition.  But even maintaining a limited military presence there will be costly in both blood and treasure.

Whatever he decides, Obama is going to take some big hits.


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