Monday, August 30, 2010

Obama's Peace Talks: A Snowball's Chance in Gaza

Tony Karon in The National puts it bluntly, and on target:

There is more chance of Saddam Hussein’s elusive weapons of mass destruction suddenly turning up in Iraq than there is of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas agreeing on the terms for a two-state solution in Washington this week. That does not mean the direct talks being orchestrated by President Barack Obama are pointless. On the contrary, they represent a moment of truth, not for the Israelis or the Palestinians, but for Mr Obama, who is creating a crisis by forcing irreconcilable differences between the two sides onto the table. The question now becomes, what is Washington prepared to do once the Israelis and Palestinians fail to agree. . . .

The real importance of this week’s talks is the symbolic sense of the US taking ownership of the issue. An old line on the two-state peace in Washington, sometimes repeated by Obama administration officials, holds that the US “cannot want this more than the parties themselves do”. If anything, the process launched this week will prove that the reverse is true: unless the US is prepared to join with international partners and impose a two-state solution, Mr Obama is in fact presiding over its funeral.

Obama has no real political will to push back against the AIPAC-Christian Zionist bunch, especially in the wake of a Glenn Beck extravaganza that called America back to its "religious values" (which in Beck-land means unwavering support for Israel and its colonization of "Judea and Samaria") and in the face of upcoming elections.  And in any event, without Hamas included in the mix, there's no chance for a sustainable solution that might bring real peace.

All of which means that these talks are going nowhere (although Obama will likely demand some kind of "statement of intention", or promise to talk some more - i.e., a pretty bow to decorate the big turd that will be the outcome of this farce.  Moreover, has he thought about the public reaction among the Arab "moderates" - Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan - and in Turkey when an even more disgraced Mahmud Abbas goes back to the West Bank with nothing to show for it.  Obama is counting on the leaders of all of these countries to back up the US's efforts to work with the "new Iraq."  Instead, those same leaders are going to be confronted by newly angered publics who will have learned again that, despite his words of outreach and accommodation, Obama is just one more American false promise.

Anne Applebaum: 'It's too soon to tell' how the Iraq war went

Anne Applebaum (WaPo) sizes up the Iraq war's impact on the US.  Not one word about the people of Iraq, except for her conviction that "an Iraqi democracy could be a revolutionary force for good in the Middle East."  It's all about us, isn't it?

General Odierno's Candid Confession: When the US Went Into Iraq, We Were Clueless

From Anthony Shadid's report ("U.S. Commander Fears Political Stalemate in Iraq") in today's NY Times comes an amazingly candid confession - one that says so much about the idiocy of the 2003 invasion in the first place:
“We all came in very naïve about Iraq,” he said.

“We came in naïve about what the problems were in Iraq; I don’t think we understood what I call the societal devastation that occurred,” he said, citing the Iran-Iraq war, the Persian Gulf war and the international sanctions from 1990 to 2003 that wiped out the middle class. “And then we attacked to overthrow the government,” he said.

The same went for the country’s ethnic and sectarian divisions, he said: “We just didn’t understand it.”

To advocates of the counterinsurgency strategy that General Odierno has, in part, come to symbolize, the learning curve might highlight the military’s adaptiveness. Critics of a conflict that killed an estimated 100,000 Iraqis, perhaps far more, and more than 4,400 American soldiers might see the acknowledgment as evidence of the war’s folly.

Asked if the United States had made the country’s divisions worse, General Odierno said, “I don’t know.”

“There’s all these issues that we didn’t understand and that we had to work our way through,” he said. “And did maybe that cause it to get worse? Maybe.”

We know - from his own admission - that "Boy George" W. Bush, that brave ex-commander-in-chief who launched the entire business in 2003, doesn't read much, and that the NY Times is hardly his favorite source of information.  I do pray, though, that someone passes the word along to him that the commanding general in Iraq - one who spent the early years of the war telling his troops to smash down doors and round up "insurgents" before he found Petraeus' counterintelligence religion - has admitted that we went in clueless from the beginning.

And I wonder what Colin Powell's thinking these days about those "Pottery Barn" rules: you break it, you own it.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

‘Is this how netanyahu’s government prepares for a peace agreement?’

As reported in the Daily Star, this was the question asked by Palestinian negotiator Saab Erekat after this week's weekly sermon from Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, in which he declaimed:
“May all the nasty people who hate Israel, like Abu Mazen, vanish from our world. . . .  May God strike them down with the plague along with all the nasty Palestinians who persecute Israel."
[Abu Mazen (Mazen's father, literally), by the way, is the more familiar name used by Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas.]

Palestinian spokesmen are suitably outraged:

“an incitement to genocide . . . .  “This is racist incitement of a spiritual leader of a coalition member party. These hateful remarks cannot be dismissed as politically insignificant.  . . .  The spiritual leader of Shas is literally calling for a genocide against Palestinians, and there seems to be no response from the Israeli government. He is particularly calling for the assassination of President Abbas who within a few days will be sitting face to face with Prime Minister Netanyahu. Is this how the Israeli government prepares its public for a peace agreement?”

The rabbi Ovadia is hardly the first Israeli rabbi to call for the killing of Arabs.  What makes him special is that he's the spiritual leader of Shas, an Ultra-Orthodox political party with a substantial following, enough so for Mr. Netanyahu to have brought them into his ruling coalition.  In other words, although he may disavow the rabbi's tender words, he can't completely turn his back on them.

The State Department condemned the remarks.  You bet - and they're probably both enraged and very worried.  With "negotiations" between Israelis and Palestinians to get underway in D.C. this week, after a lot of bluster and manipulation by the US to get both sides to the table, this kind of racist fulminating from the leader of a major party in Netanyahu's government is bound to cool even more what were already very dim hopes of success.

Is Richard Haass Declaring in Favor of Attacking Iran

A very disappointing essay from Richard N. Haass (former director of policy planning at the US State Department, current president of the Council on Foreign Relations), via Lebanon's Daily Star.  He purports to draw policy lessons from the Gulf/Desert Storm war of 20 years ago as they relate to Iran's nuclear program.  Basically, says he, sanctions weren't enough to force Saddam out of Kuwait, so military force was necessary.  Ergo, as sanctions may not be enough to force Iran to open up its nuclear program, or to get Iranians themselves to remove the Khamenei/Ahmadinejad regime, military force may be necessary to prevent what Haass views as unacceptable: an Iran with nuclear weapons.  Says he:

But not acting – in effect accepting Iran’s nuclear might – risks bringing about a more dangerous and possibly costlier future. As a result, it is Iran, even more than Iraq or Afghanistan, where the lessons of the Gulf war are likely to be debated and, ultimately, applied.

Haass is supposed to be one of the more reasonable, moderate realists in the foreign policy mainstream establishment, so it's especially disappointing that he would provide ammunition for the John Boltons and Benjamin Netanyahus (screaming super-hawks) of the planet.  Haass conveniently omits mention of the fact that, even if the IAEA inspectors aren't getting as much access as they'd like, there is still no - I repeat, no - evidence that Iran is actually developing nuclear weapons.  To be threatening military action (with concomitant "collateral damage") over something that Iran might do does not serve any useful purpose other than to make the Iranian regime feel more threatened than they already do, and perhaps more determined to develop the capability of quickly assembling a nuclear deterrent.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Iraq: Muri al-Maliki's terror warning

The AP's Laura Jakes reports that Iraqi PM Nuri al-Maliki has put the country on its highest level of alert for terror attacks.  That groups opposed to his government - and to the US presence in Iraq, which is going to be substantial for at least a couple of years - have been resorting to terror attacks in recent months is, of course, no secret; and we can expect many more to come.  As Jakes notes, some Iraqis received the news of the alert with cynicism, given the obvious frequent failures of the Iraqi security forces to prevent such attacks.

And I have to wonder about the timing of the alert.    Maliki specifies a threat from "an al-Qaida front group and members of Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath party [who] are collaborating to launch attacks "to create fear and chaos and kill more innocents."  Much of this is code for "Sunnis" - who happen to be the chief supporters of the Iraqiyya party led by Ayad Allawi, a secular Shia, former (US-appointed) prime minister - and former Baathist - who is also Maliki's chief rival for the prime minister's post in the current struggle to form a new government after last March's elections.  It's safe to assume that Allawi has Maliki plenty worried, especially since Allawi has been courting the most popular (and populist) religious Shii politician, Muqtada al-Sadr, with whom he recently met in Damascus under the kind auspices of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad (who happens to lead a government with a Baathist core and ideology).  Muqtada leads his own faction within the larger Shii party, INA (Iraq National Alliance), with which Maliki has been hoping to ally his own State of Law party in hopes of forming a new government that might leave him in as prime minister.  But Muqtada hates Maliki for having sent Iraqi forces to smash his own militia in Basra in 2008.  The situation is, as they say, complicated.

Might Maliki be trying to score political points against Allawi by issuing the terror alert in order to spin up the fear factor against the Sunni threat - which includes, by implication, Allawi and his Sunni supporters in the Iraqiyya movement?

By the way, one might remember that such tactics have worked before.  In the days after 9-11, as the Bush administration was ramping up its WMD rationale for invading Iraq and pushing the Patriot Act and other measures that tweaked constitutional rights and liberty in the name of national security, Bush's Homeland Security people frequently issued "yellow alerts."  Ostensibly, they did so to warn us of what they deemed imminent threats.  But as many noted at the time, those warnings were likely also intended to scare us all into shutting up and going along with the program.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Week's Worth of Material for Jon Stewart

This report from the NY Times' Dexter Filkins and Mark Mazzetti beggars belief: a key aide of Afghan prez Hamid Karzai evidently is linked to the massive corruption within the Afghan government.  That corruption is a principal reason why most Afghans have no faith in Karzai's government and why so many have turned to the Taliban.

Now it turns out that this guy is on the CIA's payroll.

Says a CIA guy: “If you want intelligence in a war zone, you’re not going to get it from Mother Teresa or Mary Poppins.”

OK, fair enough.  But then, can we please dispense with the baloney about how much we detest the corruption in Karzai's shop?  Does Mr. Obama truly believe he can have it both ways?

Iraq: Nothing Won, Much to be Lost - and the US is not leaving

The headline of Anthony Shadid's NYT report screams it out: "Coordinated Attacks Strike 13 Towns and Cities in Iraq."
In one of the broadest assaults on Iraq’s security forces, insurgents unleashed a wave of roadside mines and a more than a dozen car bombings across Iraq on Wednesday, killing dozens, toppling a police station in the capital and sowing chaos and confusion among the soldiers and police officers who responded.

The withering two-hour assault in 13 towns and cities, from southernmost Basra to restive Mosul in the north, was as symbolic as it was deadly, coming a week before the United States declares the end of combat operations here. Wednesday was seemingly the insurgents’ reply: Despite suggestions otherwise, they proved their ability to launch coordinated attacks virtually anywhere in Iraq, capitalizing on the government’s dysfunction and perceptions of American vulnerability.

"Coordinated."  "13 Towns and Cities" - with at least 51 killed, many of them police officers.  At one scene, police and soldiers were actually brawling with each other - the police angry that the army can't keep terrorists from attacking them.

Mr. Obama and the mainstream media meanwhile celebrate the drawdown of US forces to under 50,000 and their supposed reassignment to advise-and-assist.  But they are still a potent force; they can still call for massive air support.  As Louise Roug notes, "assist" is the operative word here:
The troops will continue to train the Iraqi army and police and will also provide help with logistics, air support, and surveillance—operating the ubiquitous unmanned aerial vehicles for reconnaissance as part of the intelligence-gathering operation—as well as provide security for State Department, NATO, and U.N. personnel. And here is the thing that no officials have been keen to talk about: American troops will still participate in counterterrorism operations, because, despite years of training costing billions of dollars, the 660,000 Iraqi security forces still can't operate fully without help.
And they're going to be augmented by a sizable force of 6000-7000 private contractors who will be tasked with protecting the ramped-up State Department contingent (which will be stationed at the huge Baghdad embassy as well as consulates and other outposts in the other major cities - Basra, Mosul, Kirkuk, Erbil), as well as forming "quick reaction forces" to rescue US civilians (which undoubtedly means, more "collateral damage" from trigger-happy mercenaries who have been all too willing to shoot up civilians whom they deem "threats."  Also,
To move around Iraq without United States troops, the State Department plans to acquire 60 mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, called MRAPs, from the Pentagon; expand its inventory of armored cars to 1,320; and create a mini-air fleet by buying three planes to add to its lone aircraft. Its helicopter fleet, which will be piloted by contractors, will grow to 29 choppers from 17.
A mini-army, indeed.  But as Gareth Porter reports, they likely will not be without help from the US military, because indications are rife that the US will renegotiate its status-of-forces with the Iraqi government (such as it may be; still no new government yet, and nothing on the horizon) to allow a substantial US military presence (5000 - 10,000) well beyond the end-of-2011 withdrawal date.  Mr. Obama is keeping quite about that until after the November elections.

The US's stakes in Iraq's never-ending drama are obviously high.  To pull out completely and then watch the country completely fall apart after wrecking it and then trying to band-aid it together would destroy whatever's left of US credibility as a global force for "good."   And, of course, there's that matter of strategic interests, as Anthony Cordesman has reminded us in his recent report for the Center for Strategic and International Studies:
  • While the US Department of Energy is far more realistic about the rate at which Iraq can expand its oil production than Iraq’s Oil Ministry and various oil companies, it still projects Iraq will expand its oil production from 2.4 million barrels per day in 2008 to 2.6 in 2015, 3.1 in 2020, 3.9 in 2025, 5.1 in 2030, and 6.1 in 2035. This expansion is critical in offsetting declines in the production of other major exporting states, and could be substantially quicker in a more stable Iraq – reaching 6.3 MMBD in 2030 and 7.6 MMBD in 2035.
  •  Iraq can play a key role in securing the entire Gulf, in cooperation with US forces and the forces of the Southern Gulf states. It plays a role in ensuring the stable flow of oil and gas exports throughout the region. Even using highly favorable projections of alternative fuels and liquids, the Department of Energy estimates that the Gulf will continue to increase its share of total world conventional and unconventional liquids production from 28% of all world production in 2008 to 31% in 2035. The Department estimates that this total could be as high as 35% by 2035. . . .
The energy aspects of the US need for a strategic partnership with Iraq, and strong overall posture in the Gulf, is driven by two other factors:
  • First, it does not matter where the US get its oil from on any given day. The US competes in a world market driven by total world supply and pays world prices. If a crisis occurs in the Gulf, the US will compete at the same increase in prices as every other importing nation, if world price rise on a longer-term basis, the US will pay for the same increase, and if supplies are cut by a major conflict, the US must share the oil left for import with other OECD states.
  • Second, the US is steadily more dependent on the overall health of the global economy and the global economy is steadily more dependent on the stable flow of oil and gas exports. Oil prices are not simply a matter of increases in gasoline or home heating costs. They affect every job in America.
If one combines these strategic priorities with the need to deter and defend again Iran’s overall threat in the region, and aid all of our other allies to build their security in the face of the threat from terrorism and extremism, it is clear that we are several decades away from any ability to ignore Iraq or the needs of other friendly states.
So, boys and girls, keep yourselves strapped in.  The ride's not over.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Republican Fury over the "Ground Zero Mosque"

. . . which, by the way, is neither a mosque nor at Ground Zero.  And as Tony Karon reminds us in The National, it can hardly be called "holy ground" when that bit of land now hosts a strip club, sex shop, and beauty parlors (although all of those, I suppose, are reflections of what so many Americans refer to as "our freedoms" - and the American way of life).

But TK's essay really hits home at the end, as he draws a notable parallel between America now and another once-upon-a-time Western power:
As Germany in the 1930s showed, people watching their whole way of life crumble amid social and economic crises can be more vulnerable to demagogues blaming their plight on “outside” forces.

So, whether it’s furore over the downtown mosque or suspicion that the President is somehow secretly a Muslim, the mainstreaming of Islamophobia is less about religion than it is a symptom of American society feeling as though it is in decline.

Porn offers window into Iraq's chaotic politics

So, this is progress, eh? 

Sunday, August 22, 2010

about Petraeus' argument to extend the "Surge"

A little more evidence of the US's lengthening commitment in Afghanistan, the WaPo's Walter Pincus reports -
Three $100 million air base expansions in southern and northern Afghanistan illustrate Pentagon plans to continue building multimillion-dollar facilities in that country to support increased American military operations well into the future.

Despite growing public unhappiness with the Afghan war -- and President Obama's pledge that he will begin withdrawing troops in July 2011 -- many of the installations being built in Afghanistan have extended time horizons. None of the three projects in southern and northern Afghanistan is expected to be completed until the latter half of 2011. All of them are for use by U.S. forces rather than their Afghan counterparts.

And by the way, according to Pincus, much of the rationale for these air base expansions are intended to better support Special Operations operations in Afghanistan.  You know, those brave and lusty lads who sneak into Afghan villages under cover of darkness, eager to get some (Hooah!), bust down doors, assassinate "bad guys" (who all too often turn out to be innocent bystanders, including women and children), terrorize the locals . . . winning all those hearts and minds . . . .

And all this courtesy of my shiny-bright president, the one who promised me so much "change."  I recommend highly Andrew Bacevich's new book, Washington Rules, where he makes it plain: nothing's changed.

I've concluded that the moniker "BO" suits Mr. Obama very well.

George Will on the Upcoming "Direct Talks"

A few days ago I took a swipe at George Will's latest unbalanced piece on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.  Courtesy of Mondoweiss, a much more detailed deconstruction . . . highly recommended!

The Financial Times on "Mission Unfulfilled" - and then, Afghanistan?

From the editorial essays in today's Financial Times (hardly a bastion of liberal thinking), a comment on the Iraq war's consequences:
The reality is that the political space the surge was meant to open up created a vacuum  that remains unfilled. Iraq’s elections are the Arab world’s freest, but nearly six months on from the last polls politicians have still not managed to form a new government. And not only the state, but Iraqi society is broken. One in six Iraqis, disproportionately middle-class professionals, have fled their homes, around half for other countries.

This is the result of two neoconservative conceits: that shock and awe made an extended presence of large troop numbers superfluous; and that liberal-democratic states spontaneously spring up where old institutions are razed even if new ones are not built.

Beyond human suffering, the collateral damage includes America’s stature. Humiliated in Iraq, the US is less feared by enemies and less loved by friends. Another casualty was the case for liberal interventionism. Though the US rid Iraq of Saddam’s tyranny, the incompetence with which it did so makes it harder to defend future military action even when the cause is just.

In a better world, the US would stay to fix what it broke. As it has proved itself incapable of that, a slow withdrawal is the least bad option. A brighter Iraqi future now depends on two unlikely things. A regional modus vivendi must be found that lets Iraq prosper and does not turn it into Tehran and Riyadh’s battling ground; and Iraqi leaders must stop the politics of spoil-splitting, and work to make the country attractive to the professional class – Iraq’s true wealth.

And now we move on (well, except for those huge embassies and consulates, and those 50,000 "advise and assist" sitting ducks troops, to "fix" Afghanistan.  And, as Ahmed Rashid argues (also in the FT), General Messiah Petraeus is making the case for a stay much longer than July 2011.  Lucky Afghans.

More on the Friedman "Opportunity" for Iraq

Don't know if TF reads the LA Times - but he should.  In today's editorial comment, "Mission accomplished?", the conclusion:
Iraq may recover. Its sectarian communities may overcome centuries of distrust and violence and find a way to unite the nation. But if they do so, it will be to the credit of the Iraqi people, and will be despite the U.S. occupation, not because of it. The war can be considered a victory in just one sense: It removed Hussein. In all other respects, the war in Iraq was a misadventure that compromised U.S. national interests, and was too costly for too little return.

Thomas Friedman on the Opportunity We Gave Iraq

The guy amazes me, truly.  He can write such wonderful essays (here's one, and another) on the need to counter global warming, move away from fossil fuels, develop alternative energy sources.  He deserves both thanks and praise for such stuff - a true public service.

And sometimes he can cut right to the chase when he delves into his putative area of expertise: international relations, and especially as they involve US policy in the Middle East.

But too, too many times he pens stuff that is so essentialist, so simplistic, so misleading, in his quest to be direct and incisive, that he does major damage, not only to the cause of shaping American public opinion, but to the general cause of American public diplomacy, of how people in the Middle East assess the wisdom of our pundits.

Case in point: today's Friedman piece in the NYT ("Surprise, Surprise, Surprise"), about how nice it would be for Middle Eastern leaders - and specifically, Iraq's current political leadership - ti surprise us all by stepping up and doing something truly courageous to put their country on track - a la Nelson Mandela in South Africa, or Anwar Sadat in the late 1970s, or Yitzhak Rabin at the time of the Oslo Accords (no mention, of course, of Yasser Arafat in that connection - so much for courage on Friedman's part).  Again, in itself, a good point to make: Iraq's politics will remained mired in stalemate unless either Nuri al-Maliki or Ayad Allawi (or perhaps both men) agrees to take less than he originally wanted in the wake of the March elections.

But why then pipe up with this?:
The reason the Iraq war was, is and will remain important is that it created the first chance for Arab Sunnis and Shiites to do something they have never done in modern history: surprise us and freely write their own social contract for how to live together and share power and resources. If they could do that, in the heart of the Arab world, and actually begin to ease the intra-communal struggle within Islam, it would be a huge example for others. It would mean that any Arab country could be a democracy and not have to be held together by an iron fist from above.
This is, first of all, simply a rebaked version of George W. Bush's now-busted freedom agenda.  (Never mind that that agenda was a shiny veneer of brightly burnished bullshit to cover the neocon agenda to promote American - and Israeli - predominance in the Middle East.)  Because of American selflessness and best wishes for all (in Friedman's world, whenever the rest of the planet is involved, we are always and everywhere "the good guys"), we magnanimously gave Iraqis a huge and wonderful gift: an opportunity to fix their society, and to make themselves into a little America, as that Reaganesque beacon on the hill for the entire Middle East.

Secondly, how can Friedman - or anyone else - be talking about this wonderful chance to "surprise us and freely write their own social contract for how to live together and share power and resources" after the war that we brought to the country in 2003 (and the sanctions that we so rigidly enforced during the 12 years before then) caused more devastation, death, and human misery than the country had seen since the time of the Mongol conquests by Hulegu and Tamerlane?

And it might surprise Friedman to know (and with his graduate degree in Middle East studies from Oxford, he should know better) that when the secular Arab nationalist Baath party came to power in Iraq in the late 1960s, they did indeed reach out to the Shiite community, and to the Kurds in the north.  The early Baath leadership in Iraq actually included some prominent Shiites.  It's true that Saddam later on hammered and brutalized the Kurds (and nothing can excuse his genocidal treatment of them in the late 1980s), but they have been  prone to separatism and rebellion against the central authority in Baghdad for centuries.  Saddam brutalized the Shia as well (and again, nothing can excuse his mass executions and burials), but the Sunni vs. Shia struggle in Iraq in the 1990s was largely grounded in Saddam's response to a threat from conservative Shiite religious leaders, encouraged from Iran, who wanted to overthrow him as much for his secular, "Godless" Arab-nationalist regime as for his "Sunniness."

All of this has engendered, with all the bloodshed, a chasm of distrust among Iraq's many ethnic and sectarian communities.  That Friedman sees the US invasion and occupation as having produced a golden opportunity to fix all that, and to "write a new social contract," is staggering in its naivete.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Rami Khouri, George Will, and America in the Middle East

Even with turmoil rising in Afghanistan and Pakistan, American media are chirping with stories about "Iraq in the rear-view mirror" and the homecoming of "the troops"  (even if their return will be marked by a spike in domestic disturbances, divorces, and veterans facing joblessness in a poor economy).  Americans will begin to relax in a warm, comfortable feeling that their job is done there, Iraq is "over," don't worry, be happy, it's up to the hajjis to mend their own country.

Which we broke.  And the welfare of which - despite all of Obama's talk about our commitment to Iraq - we're effectively disowning - in violation of  Colin Powell's 2002 invocation of the "Pottery Barn" rules - you break it, you own it.  Yes, we'll have our largest embassy in the world in Baghdad, and bases elsewhere in Iraq, but their job will be to safeguard American "interests," not fix the Iraq that we broke.

And it's not only Iraq that we've broken.  Rami Khouri writes of how the Anglo-American invasion and its aftermath have fundamentally changed the situation both in Iraq and in the Middle East:
The full impact of the mayhem and devastation unleashed by the American-led invasion will only be measured in calculations across the entire region – and globally in some instances, like the spread of networks of trained-in-Iraq terrorists – for many years to come. To mark the withdrawal of US combat troops as a great milestone is to engage in new forms of intellectual colonialism and self-deception – standard procedures when countries send their armies to the other side of the world for imprecise goals based on false pretenses.

The tensions and attacks between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq reflect a troubling phenomenon that is relatively new in the region, and emanates largely from the Iraq war. Shiites and Sunnis have always had theological and even social-cultural differences, but they rarely fought or ethnically cleansed each other in modern times. Now the Shiite-Sunni demarcation has expanded into a major new regional political divide and battle line that reverberates across the entire Middle East and parts of Asia.

[And BTW, along those lines, check out the Foreign Policy piece on the "King of Iraq," Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shii mullah - once a nemesis of the US - who's now sitting in the proverbial catbird seat as a potential kingmaker (or more) in Iraq.  Back to Rami Khouri . . . .]

This is exacerbated by another Iraq war consequence, which is the heightened regional role played by Iran after the demise of the Baathist regime and state in Iraq. Iran’s more assertive role inside Iraq and regionally helps shape the new ideological, cultural and strategic confrontation defining much of the Middle East. Iran’s close links with Syria, Hizbullah, Hamas, as well as elements in Arab public opinion create a new constellation of forces that is actively opposed by conservative Arab governments, Israel, the United States and other foreign powers.

Tens of thousands of Iraqi, American and other dead, and many more injured, cannot rationally be calculated in any meaningful terms, given the nature of invasion and war that sanctions such cruelty as a normal operating procedure. Those on the receiving end of curtailed or destroyed lives, however, feel the pain and instinctively, silently, do the cause-and-effect calculation of who is responsible for their loss and what should be done about this. Another 4 million refugees and internally displaced Iraqis generate their own challenges, both for the Iraqis whose lives have been shattered and for the host countries and regions that have to absorb them. Such sustained displacement, exile, and refugee status are a radicalizing force that may further damage Iraq and the region in the years ahead. . . .
The Middle East and the world are far more unstable, violent and dangerous today than they were a decade ago, partly as a result of the Iraq war and partly because of other indigenous factors – including assorted thug-based regimes like the one Saddam Hussein ran in Baghdad for nearly 30 years. The American combat troops leaving Iraq should remind us, above all, of the many and terrible consequences of their having entered Iraq in the first place.

But, our real work is done there, no?  Well then, let's what the US is doing to "help out" somewhere else in the Arab world.  How about Palestine?  You'd think that by now the US's unflinching, joined-at-the-hip support for the Israeli occupation of the West Bank (and devastation of Gaza)  had done quite enough, thank you, to destroy the lives and hopes of thousands of Arab Palestinians.  But no, Mr. Obama is determined to try his hand at the "peace process."  So, he's shanghaied the Palestinian Authority's president, Mahmud Abbas, into so-called "direct talks" with Israel that have absolutely no chance whatsoever of producing any truly meaningful - or, more importantly, just - solution.  The NYT's Ethan Bronner captures very well the feelings going in:
there is a resigned fatalism in the air. Most analysts view the talks as pairing the unwilling with the unable — a strong right-wing Israeli coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with no desire to reach an agreement against a relatively moderate Palestinian leadership that is too weak and divided to do so.

“These direct negotiations are the option of the crippled and the helpless,” remarked Zakaria al-Qaq, vice president of Al Quds University and a Palestinian moderate, when asked his view of the development. “It is an act of self-deception that will lead nowhere.”

And Nahum Barnea, Israel’s pre-eminent political columnist, said in a phone interview: “Most Israelis have decided that nothing is going to come out of it, that it will have no bearing on their lives. So why should they care?”

That such a dismissive tone comes not from the known rejectionists — the Islamists of Hamas who rule in Gaza and the leadership of the Israeli settler community in the West Bank — but from mainstream thinkers is telling of the mood.
One of those "mainstream thinkers," I fear, is George Will, from whom so many right-thinking Americans take their thought cues.  And he has penned for us today in the Washington Post a successor to his earlier warning about Netanyahu's warning  (about Iran's "threat" to Israel) - which was followed within days by another blatantly one-sided, cherry-picked piece about skipping the lecture on Israel's risks for peace - to now instruct us all about how Israeli concessions to Mr. Abbas in the upcoming "talks" would be "suicidal."  Here's some of what he has to say, with a few comments of my own:

Rhetoric about a "two-state solution" is de rigueur. It also is delusional, given two recent, searing experiences.

The only place for a Palestinian state is the West Bank, which Israel has occupied -- legally under international law -- since repelling the 1967 aggression launched from there.
Legally under international law?!  Which handbook are you consulting, GW?  The entire world - even the US, officially - regards Israel's West Bank settlements as illegal, based precisely on international law that prohibits such occupation.  And as for that 1967 aggression, have you forgotten that the whole 1967 war began with an Israeli surprise attack on Egypt?

 The West Bank remains an unallocated portion of the Palestine Mandate, the disposition of which is to be settled by negotiations.
Oh, OK, this must be your rationale for calling the Israeli occupation legal - because the European powers during and after World War I somehow didn't get around to "deciding" - as if it was their right to decide - who got the West Bank?  That makes it OK for Israel to colonize it, and to dispossess thousands of Arabs in the process?

 But with constructive -- because illusion-shattering -- bluntness, Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States, puts aside diplomatic ambiguity:

"There is no Israeli leadership that appears either willing or capable of removing 100,000 Israelis from their West Bank homes -- the minimum required to make way for a viable Palestinian state even with Israel's annexation of its three main settlement blocs. (Those blocs effectively function as the suburbs of Jerusalem.) The evacuation of a mere 8,100 Israelis from Gaza in 2005 required 55,000 IDF [Israel Defense Forces] troops -- the largest Israeli military operation since the 1973 Yom Kippur War -- and was profoundly traumatic."
Israel, in violation of international law - and UN resolutions - encourages and funds illegal settlements for more than 40 years - in effect, creates the problem that Oran now - with "constructive bluntness" - says that Israel can't undo - and therefore cannot be held accountable for having created that problem?!  Again, GW, which school of international law did you attend?!

Twenty-one Israeli settlements were dismantled; even the bodies of Israelis buried in Gaza were removed. After a deeply flawed 2006 election encouraged by the United States, there was in 2007 essentially a coup in Gaza by the terrorist organization Hamas. So now Israel has on its western border, 44 miles from Tel Aviv, an entity dedicated to Israel's destruction, collaborative with Iran and possessing a huge arsenal of rockets.
Deeply flawed election?  By whose estimation?  Observers on the ground - including Jimmy Carter's organization - attested that the election was conducted fairly.  The "coup in Gaza" came about after a US-backed effort by Fatah's militia to take power there sputtered, and Hamas's forces kicked them out.  Here's the lede to David Rose's 2008 expose in Vanity Fair:
After failing to anticipate Hamas’s victory over Fatah in the 2006 Palestinian election, the White House cooked up yet another scandalously covert and self-defeating Middle East debacle: part Iran-contra, part Bay of Pigs. With confidential documents, corroborated by outraged former and current U.S. officials, the author reveals how President Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and Deputy National-Security Adviser Elliott Abrams backed an armed force under Fatah strongman Muhammad Dahlan, touching off a bloody civil war in Gaza and leaving Hamas stronger than ever. 

Rocket attacks from Gaza increased dramatically after Israel withdrew. The number of U.N. resolutions deploring this? Zero.
OK, but recall that (1) Richard Goldstone's UN-commissioned report about the IDF's war against Gaza did indeed lay some blame on Hamas for those rockets; (2) the damage caused by those rockets pales in comparison to the Arab lives Israel has destroyed in Gaza; and (3) just prior to the IDF invasion in Dec. 2008, rocket fire from Gaza had virtually stopped during the mutually agreed cease-fire.

The closest precedent for that bombardment was the Nazi rocket attacks on London, which were answered by the destruction of Hamburg, Dresden and other German cities. When Israel struck back at Hamas, the "international community" was theatrically appalled.
Are you saying that the IDF ought to demolish Gaza they way the Allies fire-bombed Dresden?  Are you implying that the impact of rockets from Gaza compares even mildly to the thousands killed by the V1 and V2 rockets that hit London?  And gee, did you notice that you're implicitly equating the Hamas "threat" to Israel with the Nazi threat - the Holocaust, perhaps?  Did you really mean to cheapen the Holocaust like that?  Oh, OK, thought not.

A senior cabinet member -- Moshe Yaalon, strategic affairs minister and possible future prime minister -- says "our withdrawals strengthened jihadist Islam," adding, "We have the second Islamic republic in the Middle East -- the first in Iran, the second in Gaza: Hamastan.". . . .
So, we're to equate Yaalon's over-the-top hasbara with reasoned discourse?

Because upward of a million immigrants have come from the former Soviet Union, today one-sixth of Israelis speak Russian. Israel has Russian-language newspapers and television. Russian Israelis are largely responsible for Avigdor Lieberman being foreign minister. Yoram Peri, professor of Israel studies at the University of Maryland, says these immigrants "don't understand how a state that can be crossed in half an hour by car would be willing to even talk about relinquishing territories to its seemingly perpetual enemies." These immigrants know that Russia's strategic depth -- space -- defeated Napoleon and Hitler.
Are you unaware of the controversies that have been raised by the very marginal "Jewishness" of many of these immigrant Russians?  That many of them have only a slim sense of Judaism as a religion?  That their presence in such large numbers has inserted a major new fault-line that may fracture Israeli society and, in time, the cohesion of the Israeli state? No?  Check out some of the excellent work by the late Israeli sociologist-historian Baruch Kimmerling.

Netanyahu, who is not the most conservative member of the coalition government he heads, endorses a two-state solution but says that any West Bank Palestinian state must be demilitarized and prevented from making agreements with the likes of Hezbollah and Iran. To prevent the importation of missiles and other arms, Israel would need, Netanyahu says, a military presence on the West Bank's eastern border with Jordan. Otherwise, there will be a third Islamic republic, and a second one contiguous to Israel.
That makes a Palestinian state into a bantustan, GW (which, I sense, you wouldn't mind in the least).  And as for the West Bank becoming a new Islamic republic - how do you figure that?  Fatah, which is the dominant party in the West Bank, is founded on secular Palestinian nationalism.  Also, Palestinians are, per capita, among the most highly educated Arab community - not exactly fodder for radical fundamentalist imams, especially when provided opportunity for economic development, political self-determination, and life liberty and the pursuit of happiness?  Or are you just hyping the Islam=terror bit to keep your public scared?

So, again: Negotiations about what?
Well, with "mainstream thinkers" like you shaping American public opinion, I suppose you have a point.  What indeed is the point of negotiations if you've succeeded in stacking the deck.

I have a suggestion for GW: read Rami Khouri more often, learn something about Middle Eastern realities (and the US's role in creating them), and don't declaim on subjects with which you are poorly suited to declaim.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Attacking Iran - A Bullet Dodged?

The NY Times is reporting that US and Israeli officials have agreed that Iran is farther from acquiring the possibility of highly enriched uranium than was previously thought.  Ergo, the Israelis have less reason at this point to launch the air-strike that everyone's been talking about in the wake of Jeffrey Goldberg's Atlantic piece.

And this also gives Obama perhaps one less crisis-issue to worry about going into the November mid-term elections.  So, will he use the seemingly diminished imminence of war with Iran to re-focus on Israeli settlement building and the ever-popular "peace process"?  Or will he back off that issue as a token of gratitude for Netanyahu cooling (perhaps literally) his jets?  It's also being reported now that direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian (read "Fatah") negotiators are set.  (But without some representation for Hamas, what's the point?)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Juan Cole on Iraq's political impasse

Even by Prof. Cole's high standards, an excellent informed comment on Iraq's political impasse, and how the US seems to be trying to manipulate the situation to get what it wants: letting Nuri al-Maliki hang on as prime minister, but set up the US's favorite, Ayad Allawi, as head of the national security council and then fatten up the council's power (at the expense of the Iraqi constitution, as well as the prime ministership).  Maliki's people aren't buying it - which also suits the Iranians just fine.

What might be waiting down the line?  Perhaps a military coup? - an already well-established Iraqi tradition, actually, going back to before World War II, during the Hashemite monarchy.  And then, civil war?

And notes Prof. Cole, in a very elegant turn of phrasing, this constitutional crisis is much more dangerous for Iraq's future than are incidents like today's suicide bombing, which killed around 50 and wounded around 120. 
The guerrillas, once having had a serious political agenda, have become nothing more than serial killers taking revenge on reality for their irrelevance.

Karzai Demands Security Firms Disband

As reported by Dexter Filkins in the NYT.  It remains to be seen - and IMHO it's highly unlikely - if Karzai can actually enforce this, or even has the intention of trying.  Too many people, too close to him, make too much money from current arrangements.

John Bolton advocates immediate IDF strike on Iran's Bushehr reactor

As reported in the Jerusalem Post, from an interview with (you guessed it) Fox News.  The reason?  Russia, which has promised the Iranians the fuel for the reactor, will begin to load that fuel in eight days- after which point, any airstrike would likely disperse deadly radioactive material that would kill or sicken many, many people.  This was discussed a few days ago at some length by Marsha Cohen at Asia Times, who noted then that this deadline might fuel speculation about an imminent strike.  She notes further that the Iranians had run an air-defense drill (which caught locals by surprise) over Bushehr.  And, as she also notes, there's nothing whatsoever illegal about Iran's possession of a working nuclear reactor: 

The prospect of Bushehr becoming operational coincides with the proliferation of public statements that claim an attack on Iran by Israel or the US is impending and inevitable. Bushehr is strategically located in southwestern Iran on the Gulf coast, directly across from Kuwait. 

An aerial assault on Bushehr would have to take place before any nuclear fuel arrives at the site. Beyond that point, an attack on the reactor would release deadly radioactive fallout into the entire Persian Gulf region and beyond. Besides the catastrophic human and environmental toll of such an attack, the sea lanes through which much of the world's oil supplies pass would be endangered.
The Iranians know this. In 1980, Iran bombed Iraq's Osirak nuclear power plant before it contained any radioactive material. Osirak was quickly repaired by the French contractors who built it. Eight months later, Osirak was partially destroyed by Israeli jets, aided by Iranian intelligence. 

Nothing about Bushehr violates any international agreements to which Iran is a party. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was created to promote the use of "atoms for peace". The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which Iran signed in 1968 and ratified two years later, obligates the five nuclear-weapon states (the US, Britain, France, Russia and China) to assist non-nuclear weapon states that signed the NPT in acquiring and utilizing nuclear technology for energy production and other peaceful purposes. 

Under the NPT, Iran has the right to produce its own nuclear fuel for civilian projects such as Bushehr. However, suspicions have been raised for nearly two decades that Iran might try to convert low enriched uranium for electricity generation into highly enriched uranium. 

The IAEA's approval of Iran's nuclear energy program is contingent on Iran buying its fuel from approved suppliers abroad, and exporting its nuclear waste back to its source so that the radioactive material it contains can't be diverted for use in weapons of mass destruction or fall into the wrong hands. Russia qualifies as an approved supplier. 

Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of the Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom), also told the Russian news wire service Interfax on July 27 that Bushehr would not be affected by United Nations Security Council sanctions against Iran. 

He said, "No one is against the development of Iran's civilian nuclear program; the construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant is being carried out under the control of the International Atomic Energy Agency." 

Russia has guaranteed that it will supply all the nuclear fuel needed by Bushehr, and that its nuclear waste will be reprocessed in Russia. 

Israeli military and politicians usually equate Iranian access to nuclear fuel for electrical generation with Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon. A light water reactor, Bushehr won't be capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium (unlike Israel's heavy water reactor at Dimona). 

However, Bushehr's becoming operational would affirm Iran's right to develop and utilize nuclear technology, and give Iran the status and prestige of a nuclear power. Israelis claim this would pose an "existential threat" to the Jewish state. 

Once Bushehr's nuclear fuel arrives from Russia, whatever military options against Iran that may be "on the table" that include Bushehr will have to come off. Israel and the US have only a few weeks to launch an attack on Iran before Bushehr has the means to begin generating electricity. 

Israeli sources have often hinted that a strike against Iran might be conducted with precision-guided drones, in order to minimize casualties among Israeli soldiers. It's a possibility for which Iranians feel they need to prepare, which may explain the report of drones over Bushehr as the nuclear facility prepares to come online. 

Monday, August 16, 2010

Jeffrey Goldberg's Credibility on Attacking Iran

Unless you're completely oblivious to the blogosphere, you know that Jeffrey Goldberg's new report in The Atlantic about the supposedly high probability of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear sites within the next year has been drawing huge attention.  Although Goldberg claims to be ambivalent as to whether or not there ought to be an attack, many see his piece as a blatant attempt to prepare the American public for one and predispose them to accept it as both inevitable and just.  In any event, commentators across the political spectrum have been weighing in (among them, George Will in the WaPo, whose piece bears the ominous title "Netanyahu's Warning"), and The Atlantic's website is now hosting a series of comments on Goldberg's piece from various "experts" - including today's installment from Robin Wright.

A major issue that several have brought up is Goldberg's credibility, both as a reputable journalist  and as an impartial observer.  (He was, once upon a time, Corporal Goldberg of the IDF, in which capacity he served as a prison guard during the First Intifada.)  Both Tony Karon and Juan Cole have addressed the latter issue.  But as to Goldberg's method of research, here's a little perspective from Harper's Mag's Ken Silverstein, from 4 years ago, examining Goldberg's role in building the case for the disastrous invasion of Iraq:

. . . . Goldberg was, in the year leading up to the war, a strong proponent of invading Iraq, and wrote a number of articles that echoed the administration's arguments for toppling Saddam Hussein. That was no coincidence, since his reporting relied heavily on administration sources and war hawks (and in at least one crucial case, a fabricator).

Goldberg and his friends predicted that events would unfold smoothly in Iraq, and now that they haven't, he wants to make sure that U.S. troops stay put and fight the war that he helped promote. The Democrats, he told the Washington panel, can regain power only by reaching out to their conservative wing (and to voters even further to the right who over the years have migrated from the party to the G.O.P.). He's been interviewing members of this vital voting-bloc, he said, and he was able to report that they would “like to leave Iraq but they'd really like to win Iraq” and are looking for “a party and leadership” that can lead the way to victory.

Prior to the American-led invasion of Iraq, Goldberg wrote two lengthy articles in the New Yorker which argued that there were extensive ties between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Much of what he wrote in a mammoth March 2002 story was based on the testimony of Mohammed Mansour Shahab, a prisoner in a Kurdish-controlled town in northern Iraq. Jason Burke of the London Observer later demolished Goldberg's story when he spoke to the same prisoner and found that he couldn't even describe the city of Kandahar, where Shahab had claimed that he'd traveled on Al Qaeda-related business. “Shahab is a liar,” Burke concluded. “[S]ubstantial chunks of his story simply are not true.” Goldberg also peddled the Iraq–Al Qaeda connection during a February 2003 interview on All Things Considered, delivering the grim news that Saddam's agents had some years earlier helped Al Qaeda “in the teaching of the use of poison gas.”

Goldberg's hysteria peaked when it came to his claims regarding Saddam's “weaponization” of a biological agent called aflatoxin. Aflatoxin, he wrote on October 3, 2002 in Slate, “does only one thing well: It causes liver cancer. In fact, it induces it particularly well in children.” (In this same Slate item Goldberg attacked Slate contributors who opposed the war, saying the critics had “limited experience in the Middle East” and that this led them to “reach the naive conclusion that an invasion of Iraq will cause America to be loathed in the Middle East, rather than respected.”) Within an hour of President Bush signing a congressional resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, Goldberg was on CNN and again claimed that Saddam had “weaponized aflatoxin, which is a weapon that has no military value. Its only value is to cause liver cancer, primarily in children.”

Saddam, to state the obvious, was indeed an evil man, and any experimenting his regime was doing with aflatoxin would have been cause for concern. But the September 2004 report from Charles Duelfer, the Bush Administration's chief weapons inspector in Iraq, stated that Iraqi scientists conducted experiments with aflatoxin, possibly as a means to “eliminate or debilitate the Regime's opponents,” but concluded that there was “no evidence to link these tests with the development of BW [biological weapons] agents for military use.” (His broader conclusion was that there was “no direct evidence that Iraq, after 1996, had plans for a new BW program or was conducting BW-specific work for military purposes. Indeed, from the mid-1990s, despite evidence of continuing interest in nuclear and chemical weapons, there appears to be a complete absence of discussion or even interest in BW at the Presidential level.”)

Whatever Saddam's regime intended to do with aflatoxin—and Duelfer's report reached no conclusion on that subject—it did not involve wholesale tot-slaughter. But it seems to me that Goldberg was out to prove that Saddam was singularly evil—a man who would kill kids with cancer, no doubt cackling with glee as he watched them expire—because the American public might be less willing to support war if he was merely an evil dictator, which are a dime a dozen.

In urging war on Iraq, Goldberg took highly dubious assertions—for example, that Saddam was an irrational madman in control of vast quantities of WMDs and that Iraq and Al Qaeda were deeply in bed together—and essentially asserted them as fact. From these unproven allegations, he demonstrated that an invasion of Iraq was the only rational policy.

It is truly amazing - and disheartening - that "experts" of Goldberg's ilk - who argued repeatedly and vociferously about how wise and just an invasion of Iraq would be - are still afforded platforms as lofty as The Atlantic from which to peddle their nonsense.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Obama defends "Ground Zero mosque"

The NYT reports:

“I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. Ground zero is, indeed, hallowed ground,” the president said in remarks prepared for the annual White House iftar, the sunset meal breaking the day’s fast.

But, he continued: “This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are.”

In hosting the iftar, Mr. Obama was following a White House tradition that, while sporadic, dates to Thomas Jefferson, who held a sunset dinner for the first Muslim ambassador to the United States. President George W. Bush hosted iftars annually.


Bravo, Mr. President.  I recommend this commentary from Glenn Greenwald.  The president has taken a courageous stand, and done the right thing as well, even if he may incur some political cost.  (I imagine there are a few southern Democrats this morning who feel that their (re-)election chances in November are toast.) Would that he extend that courage to matters like Israel's blockade of Gaza, settlement construction in the West Bank, and pushing harder for a withdrawal from Afghanistan.

He might do well to read Margaret Atwood's essay in today's Haaretz - on how Middle East peace needs prophets, not yes-men.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Did Israel's Case for Bombing Iran just become more urgent?

UPI publishes a report that Turkey has signed a deal with Iran that will open a direct route of contiguous countries to supply arms to Hezbollah.  If so, how does Turkey respond then to any Israeli - or US -attack on Iran?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Future US Presence in Iraq - and the Threats to Iraq Security

Several reports today reflect the US's growing dilemma in Iraq, where Mr. Obama has been touting his honoring of his promise to withdraw all US forces by the end of 2011.  The NY Times notes, however, that other US officials (including General Odierno) and Iraq officials are advocating a more extended US presence:
Even as that deadline was negotiated, he said, a longer-lasting, though significantly smaller, presence of American forces had always been considered to be likely.

At the moment, five months after national elections, there is still no Iraqi government to begin talking about what any post-2011 arrangement might entail. But many Iraqi officials deem it quietly necessary on a number of fronts: Iraq is buying more and more sophisticated American weapons, like tanks and warplanes, and will need Americans here for training and maintenance. At the same time, training is intensifying for the Iraq Army to learn not only how to battle internal insurgents, but also how to protect its national borders — a project that will take many years.

And many Americans, most notably Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., have long argued that it is not in America’s interest to withdraw completely — even if Mr. Obama rose to national prominence opposing the Iraq war and ran for president promising to end it.

The decision will bear directly on the payoff America could yet reap for all its spent blood — more than 4,000 American lives — and treasure, in the form of a democratic ally in a combustible region that would be a check on Iranian power and offer American access to Iraq’s vast oil reserves.

Why does this look so much like what the Brits did after World War I, under the Hashemite monarchy that they installed? The one that less than 40 years later was overthrown - violently - after decades of simmering resentment of the British presence and Britain's continuing influence in Iraqi affairs.

And by the way, one of the reasons why the Brits had to reduce their presence after the war was its huge expense, which they could no longer afford.  The US is now running into the same problem, evidently complicated by State Department mismanagement.  The feds cannot afford the huge price ticket of maintaining DoS program in Iraq (according to the WaPo).

Meanwhile, security problems continue to plague Iraq.  One of then is of the government's own making, as members of the Sunni Awakening (who were at least as responsible for the dampening down of violence as was the famous Petraeus "surge") are beginning to peel off and rejoin al-Qaeda groups in Iraq.  Reasons?  They've been abandoned by the hostile Shii-dominated government whose bacon they saved; they're not being paid, as promised, whereas al-Qaeda can offer them salaries; and because the government won't protect them, they fear for their lives.

Two long-term members of the Sons of Iraq revealed to the Guardian that they had been approached in recent weeks by local men whom they knew to be al-Qaida leaders and told they would be paid more to defect.

Both admitted to be entertaining the notion, largely because they feared what would happen if they did not.

Mohammed Hussein al-Jumaili, 25, from Dora, said: "My salary is very low – it is about $300 per month and sometimes they delay paying me for two months or more.

"Ten days ago, I was in a cafe with another person from my neighbourhood. He was working with us also. Two people came to me. I knew them. They were from my area. They said: 'You know the Sons of Iraq experiment has failed and they will be slaughtered one after the other.

'If you work with us, we will support you. We will give you a good salary and you can do whatever operation you want to do. You will get extra money for anything that you do that hits the Americans, or the Iraqi forces.' "

The second member, Sabah al-Nouri, 32, from west Baghdad, said he too had been approached by Sons of Iraq members who were acting as double agents.

"I am responsible for leading a group in al-Haswa district in Abu Ghraib," he said. "Two months ago, al-Qaida contacted me through people who worked with me. They gave me a good offer, a reward for each operation and a pledge to support me and protect me.

"They said they would give me a weapon, a licence to carry one. There were a lot of promises. They said I would have more authority than I have now. They said: 'We have not hurt you, why are you working against us?' "

As if these problems weren't enough, two more developments:
  • A pipeline carrying Iraqi crude oil from Kirkuk into Turkey was sabotaged inside southeastern Turkey, evidently by the Kurdish rebel PKK.  Almost all of Iraq's desperately needed revenue comes from oil.
  • Pirates are now preying upon American merchant ships in Iraqi waters at the head of the Persian Gulf, near Basra - in waters supposedly guarded by the US military.
  •  Pirates wielding AK-47 machine guns boarded and robbed at least two cargo ships, one of them American, that were anchored in Iraqi waters early Aug. 8. The daring criminal operation has exposed the security problems that still threaten Iraq and its economy.

    The ships were near the Umm Qasr port and the al-Basra and Khor al-Amaya oil terminals, which combined account for more than 95 percent of the country’s income. In this critical commerce hub, such robberies and criminal impunity could undermine the economy – and a successful terrorist attack could cripple the country and cause massive environmental damage.
Again, note the threat to Iraq's all-important oil.  No revenues, no reconstruction.  No security, no foreign investment.  This doesn't bode well.

Jeffery Goldberg: Expect Israel to Attack Iran

This is the conclusion reached by commentator (and former IDF soldier) Jeffrey Goldberg (in The Atlantic, but whose work often appears in the usuallyvery pro-Israel The New Republic).  The Daily Beast's summary:

Well this doesn't sound good: In an upcoming article, national correspondent for The Atlantic Jeffrey Goldberg argues that the odds of a unilateral strike by Israel on Iran are greater than 50-50 in the next year. Goldberg bases his estimate on dozens of conversations with senior members of Israel's national security team and members of the Obama administration. Goldberg writes, "[O]ne day next spring, the Israeli national-security adviser, Uzi Arad, and the Israeli Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, will simultaneously telephone their counterparts at the White House and the Pentagon, to inform them that their Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has just ordered roughly 100 F-15es, F-16is, F-16cs, and other aircraft of the Israeli Air Force to fly east toward Iran—possibly by crossing Saudi Arabia, possibly by threading the border between Syria and Turkey, and possibly by traveling directly through Iraq's airspace, though it is crowded with American aircraft."
Not good, indeed.  I also recommend the critiques from Steve Clemons at Huffington Post and Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett at Foreign Policy.  Clemons is hopeful that saner, cooler heads than those calling the shots in Jerusalem will find an alternative to war:
Goldberg's piece makes it clear that Israel's national leadership - while not in complete consensus on a strike - is nonetheless dominated by those who believe that the Israeli narrative as a nation, as a "safe haven" and refuge of first resort for Jews from around the world, will be undermined if Iran's nuclear program is not confronted and rolled back. There is widespread consensus in Israel that Iran having a nuclear weapon comes as close to repeating the conditions of a shoah, or Holocaust, as Nazi Germany.

But Israel is less and less, if at all, a refuge of first resort today -- even without a war with Iran. Russian Jews are increasingly trying to go to Germany instead of Israel, and the ongoing tensions over the unresolved situation with Palestine and the fear of rockets or terrorism keep the nation on edge.
Reading his essay a second, and then a third time, I sense that Israel's and America's leadership won't be "bombing boys" but rather will act like them until a "third option" to bombing or appeasement appears. That third option could be provided by Iran's Supreme Leader himself, or could be normalization between Israel and the Arab Middle East, or something else.

But it seems to me just as likely, if not more so, that real leadership in this showdown will be exhibited by those who demonstrate strategic restraint and generate possibilities not seen at the moment.

When Eisenhower reined in John Foster Dulles and Curtis LeMay and forged a containment strategy of the USSR, he used their flamboyant desire to engage in war as part of his tool kit.

Both Obama and Netanyahu would be wise to do the same and to think through ways to halt the dysfunctional, paranoiac escalation between Iran and Israel.

What Jeffrey Goldberg has put out for us is an early treatment of what may be Barack Obama's "Cuban Missile Crisis" moment -- in which tensions are high, in which many in the room on all sides are engaged in extreme brinkmanship, and in which disaster looms for all parties.

The Leveretts note:
In other words, Israeli elites want the United States to attack Iran's nuclear program -- with the potentially negative repercussions that Goldberg acknowledges -- so that Israel will not experience "a dilution of quality" or "an accelerated brain drain." Sneh argues that "if Israel is no longer understood by its 6 million Jewish citizens, and by the roughly 7 million Jews who live outside of Israel, to be a ‘natural safe haven', then its raison d'être will have been subverted."

To be sure, the United States has an abiding commitment to Israel's security. But, just as surely, preventing "dilution of quality" or bolstering Israelis' perceptions regarding their country's raison d'être can never give an American president a just or strategically sound cause for initiating war. And make no mistake: Bombing Iran's nuclear facilities would mean war.
. . .
Israeli elites want to preserve a regional balance of power strongly tilted in Israel's favor and what an Israeli general described to Goldberg as "freedom of action" --the freedom to use force unilaterally, anytime, for whatever purpose Israel wants. The problem with Iranian nuclear capability -- not just weapons, but capability  -- is that it might begin constraining Israel's currently unconstrained "freedom of action." In May, retired Israeli military officers, diplomats, and intelligence officials conducted a war game that assumed Iran had acquired "nuclear weapons capability." Participants subsequently told Reuters that such capability does not pose an "existential threat" to Israel -- but "would blunt Israel's military autonomy."

One may appreciate Israel's desire to maximize its military autonomy. But, in an already conflicted region, Israel's assertion of military hegemony is itself a significant contributor to instability and the risk of conflict. Certainly, maximizing Israel's freedom of unilateral military initiative is not a valid rationale for the United States to start a war with Iran. Just imagine how Obama would explain such reasoning to the American people.

So, what should Obama do? Goldberg concludes with a story told by Israeli President Shimon Peres about Israel's founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. When Ben-Gurion met U.S. president-elect John F. Kennedy in late 1960, Kennedy asked what he could do for Israel. Ben-Gurion replied, "What you can do is be a great president of the United States."

Regarding Iran, what constitutes "greatness" for Obama? Clearly, Obama will not achieve greatness by acquiescing to another fraudulently advocated and strategically damaging war in the Middle East. He could, however, achieve greatness by doing with Iran what Richard Nixon did with Egypt and China -- realigning previously antagonistic relations with important countries in ways that continue serving the interests of America and its allies more than three decades later.

Monday, August 9, 2010

"America is now on the unlit, unpaved road to nowhere. "

Money quote from Paul Krugman's recent essay in the NY Times.

Washington is providing only a trickle of help, and even that grudgingly. We must place priority on reducing the deficit, say Republicans and “centrist” Democrats. And then, virtually in the next breath, they declare that we must preserve tax cuts for the very affluent, at a budget cost of $700 billion over the next decade.

In effect, a large part of our political class is showing its priorities: given the choice between asking the richest 2 percent or so of Americans to go back to paying the tax rates they paid during the Clinton-era boom, or allowing the nation’s foundations to crumble — literally in the case of roads, figuratively in the case of education — they’re choosing the latter.

Krugman unfortunately makes no mention of the drain that is Afghanistan, and Iraq, and the tons of dollars lavished on the Israeli military.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Israel's permanent insecurity masquerading as armed peace

A must-read from Paul Rogers (via Open Democracy) that highlights how Israel's actions and policies toward its neighbors guarantee a perpetually imperiled existence:

Israel has developed over the sixty-two years  of its existence into a state that is defined by conflict and the risk of war, and has learned no other way but to maintain security through overwhelming military power. It is an outlook  made possible because it can depend on a superpower’s unstinting support; it is also a recipe for permanent insecurity masquerading as armed peace (see “After Gaza: Israel’s last chance”, 17 January 2010).

A minority in Israel recognises this and advocates a different path involving negotiation and compromise; but it is very much on the margins of public debate. So dominant and powerful is the prevailing security mindset in Israel is that only pressure from external forces - in the United States , especially - could in principle induce a change of outlook. In practice, that does not seem likely - even with Barack Obama in the White House (see “America and Israel: a historic choice”, 22 March 2010).

A situation of this kind is potentially dangerous at any time; it is even more so in a period of multiple tensions across “greater west Asia” - involving Iran, Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. The chances of Israel waging another war in the coming months are in the balance. But a war will not release Israel from entrapment in a military doctrine that cannot deliver security, a predicament that its closest ally too is unable or unwilling to help resolve.

Jordan: It wasn't Hamas that fired rockets into Israel

Along with the incident along the Israel-Lebanon border, the recent firing of Katyusha rockets at Aqaba and Eilat has received considerable attention the last few days.  Many - including Mr. Netanyahu - have jumped to the conclusion that Hamas was responsible.  But Zvi Barel reports in Haaretz that Jordanian intelligence is pinning that, not on Hamas (and the Jordanian government is no friend of Hamas) but instead on an Islamist group (perhaps an al-Qaeda affiliate) that actually opposes Hamas' control in Gaza.

I say that Netanyahu jumped to that conclusion.  Actually, as far as he was concerned (and, I imagine, many of Israel's supporters in the US), it was a foregone conclusion.  That's a pity, because the situation is much more complicated than Hamas = Gaza = al-Qaeda.  Hamas is a movement that combines Islamism with Palestinian nationalism.  Unlike al-Qaeda, it has never attacked Americans, nor is it likely to.  But Israelis and Americans ought to keep in mind that to the extent that they revile, blockade, and weaken Hamas, they not only tear at the fabric of Gaza's society, they also help clear the way for the rise there - and beyond - of other groups, enemies of Hamas, with agendas potentially much more dangerous to Israel - and certainly more dangerous to the US.

The continuing Costs of the US occupation of Iraq

I've made the point repeatedly here that Iraq isn't "over" as far the US is concerned.  The costs will continue to be huge, as these comments from economist Linda Blimes (via the Common Ills blog) suggest:

Along with all the deaths, the Iraq War has had other costs.  "So thinking about the war in Iraq, America, you already bought it -- but do you have any of the price?"  John Hockenberry asked that question today on PRI's The Takeaway.  He and Lynn Sherr (sitting in for Celeste Headlee) spoke to economist Linda Blimes.
John Hockenberry:  You know, when we spoke quite awhile ago, your estimates [for the financial cost of war] were theoretical.  We're much less theoretical now.  Is there a running tally of what's actually gone out the door and -- versus what we're committed to?
Linda Blimes: Well I think that people are familiar with the fact that we've already spent close to a trillion dollars in real terms on combat operations in Iraq. But what is less well known is that there are still trillions of dollars of costs more that we have already incurred but not yet paid out.  So drawing down the number of troops doesn't save nearly as much money as you would think.
John Hockenberry:  And when you say what we're committed to, when you say trillions, is that two trillions or is that going to be six trilliion?  You know, you used plural.
Linda Blimes: Well when you think about the costs that we still have ahead -- There are several costs which are going to add.  We have estimated a minimum of two trillion dollars more ahead.  And first of all we should just be clear that we're still going to have 50,000 troops or so in Iraq for the next year and a half.
John Hockenberry:  Right.
Linda Blimes: And we also have troops, thousands of troops stationed in Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar and our Navy ships in the region who are not being withdrawn and who are supporting them.  So it costs billions of dollars every month just to keep them there. But there are at least five big costs that are still ahead. First of all veterans disability claims.
John Hockenberry:  Right.
Linda Blimes: And two million US troops have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and already about 450,000 of those who have returned have filed for disability compensation.
John Hockenberry:  And that's a huge fraction.
Linda Blimes: I mean, that is huge fraction because --
John Hockenberry: It's 20%.
Linda Blimes: Well it's more than that because half of the troops are still deployed.
John Hockenberry:  There you go.
Linda Blimes: So it's about 40%.
John Hockenberry:  Wow.
Linda Blimes: And the vast majority of these claims will be approved and the government will be paying out benefits for many decades.
Lynn Sherr: And you're saying that figure is not counted in up front?  That's a -- that's a lag figure?
Linda Blimes: That is a lag figure, that's a good way of putting it.  That is not counted up front.  Even though we know from previous wars that the peak year for paying out disability payment comes many, many decades later.  But in this war we have fortunately a much higher survival rate, so that means we have a much higher rate of those who are wounded or for whom something happens to them during their period of service.

Exiting one quagmire; entering another?

Time's Joe Klein, on the supposed end of the US combat mission in Iraq, signing off with "Requiem for a Profound Misadventure"  as a "moment for reflection and humility in the face of a national embarrassment."  He also offers a kind of apology for his assertion, years ago, that invading Iraq might be a good thing:
The issue then was as clear as it is now. It demanded a clarity that I failed to summon. The essential principle is immutable: we should never go to war unless we have been attacked or are under direct, immediate threat of attack. Never. And never again.
Indeed.  But why, then, are the useful idiots in Congress - both Republicans and Democrats - urging Israel to launch a military strike against Iran?  Newly introduced HR 1553 signals to Netanyahu that Congress is behind him if (when?) he decided to send in Israeli bombers.  Blessedly, the resolution is non-binding, but Mr. Obama can hardly ignore it, especially with mid-term elections approaching.  (And you can also bet your bottom dollar that AIPAC and its buddies are counting on the timing here.)

Such a strike, they surely must know, will bring in the US when the Iranians respond?  And make no mistake, they will.  Please, please read today's piece ("A Cakewalk against Iran") from former CIA officer (and Ron Paul advisor) Philip Giraldi, who takes on the bomb-bomb-Iran views recently promoted by William Kristol and Reuel Marc Gerecht .  Giraldi says it plainly: an attack on Iran would be an "unmitigated disaster."
The reality is that an Israeli attack on Iran will trigger an all-out war in the region, which will quickly include the United States.  It might or might not eliminate Iran’s technical ability to build a nuclear weapon and it would almost certainly accelerate that process.  It would not bring down the Iranian regime and usher in reformers who would embrace Israel and the United States while singing "Kumbaya" around the campfire.  It would be extremely nasty, would not solve any problems in the Middle East, and would kill tens of thousands of innocent people, if not more.  It could easily lead to the use of nuclear weapons by either the United States or Israel.  For the neoconservatives, it is easy to dismiss the possible downside while emphasizing the upside that they perceive, which is protecting Israel by damaging Iran’s nuclear program and possibly bringing about some version of regime change.  But we have seen too many times in the past how the neoconservatives can be wrong — think only of the "cakewalk" that has been Iraq now seven years on and still running.  A new war in the Middle East would be an unmitigated disaster for Iran, the United States, and even for Israel.  It must be avoided at all costs.

If you need more argument to that effect, read Paul Rogers' recent report for the Oxford Research Group on the consequences of war with Iran.  (By the way, this is the same Paul Rogers who so accurately predicted - in 2002 - the disasters that an attack on Iraq might bring.)

Finally, remember that an Israel+US attack on Iran would completely put paid to any remaining shred of hope that Mr. Obama's 2009 Cairo-speech outreach to the Muslim world can bear fruit.  Indeed, it may already be too late. Laura Rozen reports on a new Arab public-opinion poll (by Shibley Telhami, an enormously well-respected expert in the area):

The most striking finding is that while early in the Obama administration, in April and May 2009, some 51 percent of those polled expressed optimism about American policy in the Middle East; in the 2010 poll, only 16 percent were hopeful, while a majority, 64 percent, were discouraged.

The data leaves little doubt that the deciding factor in the shift of opinion toward the Obama administration is disappointment on the Israeli-Palestinian issue," Telhami said by e-mail.

"Basically, Arabs have concluded that he can't deliver on his promises at best, or that he's just like Bush at worst," George Washington University Middle East specialist and writer Marc Lynch said. "But there's still considerable residual hope at this point that they're wrong and that he'll come through in the end."

Finally, another key finding of the poll: "a slight majority of the Arab public now sees a nuclear-armed Iran as being BETTER [my emphasis] for the Middle East."  That "slight majority" will no doubt skyrocket if Israel+USA attacks - maybe enough so that "moderates" like Mr. Mubarak in Cairo and King Abdullah in Amman will find themselves in permanent exile.


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