Monday, March 31, 2008

Al-Sadr Joins The Forces of Order

As you probably know, forces of the Al-Sadr militia, the Mahdi Army, got into a tussle with Iraqi Security Forces in Basra and Sadr City last week. Days of fighting have left over 100 dead, and a bad taste in the mouths of the residents of these areas. The Iraqi Security Forces showed prowess and achieved a military victory over the Mahdi Army forces, but it was Al-Sadr that ended the fighting with offers of peace and cooperation, painting himself as peace-maker and patriot.

The reason for his decision is complicated. Stratfor believes Iran has been a large factor in Al-Sadr's decision, and that there may be a greater pact for joint progress on Iraqi Security. Bush called this fight a "defining moment" for the future of Iraqi Security, but the ultimate conclusion may have been a defining moment in a way that he could have never guessed--and may mean an end to the adversarial positioning that the US and Iran have been going through for years.

After six days of fighting, Al-Sadr called his forces to leave the streets. He refused to give up arms, as the Iraqi government demanded, but kept vehemently to the cease-fire he called 9 months ago, and has claimed “Anyone carrying a weapon and targeting government institutions will not be one of us.” He has not only pledged not to fight, but to work together with the Iraqi government: "We have decided to withdraw from the streets of Basra and all other provinces... [and to] cooperate with the government to achieve security.” This is a long stretch from his previous anti-government sentiment, vowing to fight them for their cooperation with American imperialists.

Stratfor believes the renewed calls of cooperation and peace come in part due to Iranian pressure on Al-Sadr. Al-Sadr and the Iranian government likely depend each other for mutual security; Iran is looking for a Shiite-dominated Iraq that will never pose a security risk to it again (given the terror of the Iran-Iraq war of the late 1980's), and Al-Sadr needs outside support to secure his base in Iraq.

But the agreement seems very pro-American, and we must consider why each party seems to be agreeing:

Iran: President Ahmadinejad visited Iraq last month, proclaiming friendliness and cooperation between both governments. Certainly, Ahmadinejad had security on his mind; Iran wants neither an adversarial Iraq nor a refugee or terror problem. How much military meddling Iran is doing to hedge its bets is unclear, but Stratfor believes there may have been a secret US-Iran meeting in Baghdad to talk security concessions--Iran may have given a commitment to helping stabilize the Iraqi government for US concessions in both ceasing action against rival Shiite factions (which have remained fractured for years) and making military and UN resolution moves against the Iranians. Why now? Victory by Ahmadinejad's allies may be pressing his hand to act and achieve regional victory quickly. Finally, Iran may now be a committed advocate of Iraqi security; a dark ally that the US desperately needs as its era of troop presences draws to a close.

Mahdi Army: Al-Sadr's military defeats pressed his hand, in part; there was a danger of a strangle on his power base by the Iraqi Security Forces. But there are two other issues that made this choice easy for Al-Sadr. First, as an ally of the Iraqi government and people, Al-Sadr will enjoy support from the government and its security forces, on top of virtual immunity for his gathering of military and political forces. He may even be winning popular support for seemingly sacrificing his own power to achieve Iraqi unity. His power struggle with other Shiite factions in the south remains broiling, and as an ally of the government and people, he may be tapped as the Shiite leader that will unite the sect. But second, the Iranians may well have levied heavy pressure on Al-Sadr to make him step down for good and put aside his pride in favor of a long-term strategy.

Iraqi Government and Washington: The Iraqi government needs stability as it tries to create political unity and reconciliation. With the Al-Sadr militia on its side, it should be able to quell the anger of the restive southern Shiite regions, and Al-Sadr's Mahdi Army will become an asset, rather than a liability--this way, Iraqi Security Forces should be able to concentrate the bulk of their effort on pursuing Al-Qaeda and securing Baghdad. This advancement will become critical as US forces draw down both this summer and next winter (in particular if a Democrat wins the US election).

This new deal seems like one, long-term, that can help everyone involved. Furthermore, it ties in the security interests of the Mahdi Army, the Iraqi Government, and the Iranian leadership. I am a raging optimist, but this readjustment by the Mahdi Army and Iranian government is an excellent sign for the future security of Iraq.

Friday, March 28, 2008

No More Surrender Jokes, Guys

The French are tough again, and it's official. President Nicholas Sarkozy made a speech today fundamentally shifting French foreign strategy back to cooperative internationalism (a strategy very similar to Mr. Gordon Brown, and also US Candidates Hillary Clinton and John McCain), and toughening France's stance in Iran.

France has, for decades, avoided full NATO integration (since its withdrawal from NATO joint command in 1996), and has shouldered a disproportionately low burden in NATO operations. But Sarkozy has declared that France will become a full member once more, and has started re-integration talks with the Secretary General. As a full member of NATO, France will carry a higher military burden, which Sarkozy is willing to accept; he has offered to increase France's troop presence in Afghanistan.

Sarkozy has furthermore pledged to reduce France's nuclear warhead stock to 300; not that he is not willing to use them. Standing in front of France's newest nuclear attack sub, he said "All those who threaten to attack our vital interests expose themselves to a severe riposte by France.” He is getting tough, and not just in rhetoric.

France is taking a tougher anti-Iran stance, and is pushing for more sanctions against Iran to stop what France believes is a continued nuclear weapons program. In this stance, as well as full-frontal diplomacy in visits to the United States and the United Kingdom, Sarkozy is possibly pushing France to join the United States and United Kingdom's special foreign policy relationship. As the US and UK have been in near lock-step on foreign policy for decades--and particularly after 9/11/2001--Sarkozy may attempt to turn the Big Two into a Big Three.

Finally, Sarkozy's public mullings over boycotting the Chinese Olympic Opening Ceremony is a nearly unilateral attempt at pressuring the Chinese into changing their Tibet policy, as Bush and Brown play "good cop" and encourage dialogue between Hu Jintao and the Dalai Lama.

Ultimately, Sarkozy has thawed the somewhat frosty relationships France has had with the US and UK by showing not only a willingness to work with their leadership, but a toughness on the Middle East and China that the US and UK are likely to appreciate. If he can continue this blitz of policy and diplomacy, French surrender jokes and "Freedom Fries" are likely to be snippets of the past.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The AU Shows its Brass

A tiny African island nation, The Comoros (in the Indian Ocean) has recently asked for--and received--African Union (AU) military assistance in bringing under control its rebellious island of Anjouan. The island was controlled by the country's former leader, Mohamad Bacar, who had been ousted from official power by judicial authorities after he rigged an election, but for a year held out on Anjouan with loyal military elements, administering it separately.

The island was taken in a day by mostly AU troops, who have surrounded Mr. Bacar and are urging his surrender. In all likelihood, his personal guard of a few hundred will surrender, and the Comoros will reassert control over the island (my impression is that the populace was not a big fan of Mr. Bacar), and he will be tried for torture, treason, and fraud.

But the interesting part of all of this is how this reflects the AU's efficacy and will affect its reputation and ability to perform in the future.

The AU does not have the best of reputations for being effective. Its hurdle-laden political structure makes it rather difficult to come to consensus to perform. Even when it has been deployed (like in Somalia and Sudan), it has been mostly useless in its peacekeeping efforts. Its bad reputation put it in some danger of dissolving.

This action, decisive and seemingly effective, should give the AU a legitimacy that it has been desperate for. Regional institutions like ASEAN, NATO, the EU, and OECD have had different, but generally effective, results on stabilizing or improving their regions. The AU has failed in repeating the success of these regional organizations, though this is in large part due to the fact that Sub-Saharan Africa is a mess.

Should the AU gain a legitimacy and mandate to intervene in unstable countries, it could have a massive stabilizing effect on the entire region. Momentum would do the AU well; in regional institutions, success can lead to confidence by member nations, which can lead to increased investment and integration. The AU has not only shown results, but has shown it can perform difficult amphibious landings, which would pose a challenge to many militaries.

The Comoros action is a small step forward, but a step in the right direction for the AU, and a success that might be seen as the first moment of the AU's renaissance as a regional organization.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

China's Taiwan and Tibet Dilemma

China struck a large victory in the Taiwanese presidential election yesterday, with the Guomindang candidate Ma winning with a healthy 58% of the vote. Ma may not be a great fan of China, but he supports increased economic ties, eased travel, and a peace agreement. It may not sound like too much, but the PRC sees it as a great improvement over Chen Shui-Bian's attempts at incremental independence. The Chinese have been patiently courting the GMD, while lambasting the DPP, for years as the DPP held power. Finally, with parliament and executive both secure, the GMD will be able to work on improving ties with China long-term.

But everywhere that the Chinese have gotten the Taiwan situation right, they have gotten it wrong in Tibet. Protests in and around Tibet continue despite brutal PLA crackdowns that have probably killed hundreds; and China seems to be losing control. The courting method used in Taiwan has not been used in Tibet; the PRC keeps thinking that it can continue to crush Tibet into submission. The tactic has repeatedly failed, and beyond the matter of human rights, it strains the Chinese military and shames the Chinese government's face.

Despite the Taiwanese victory, the Chinese government is in for a struggle. The repeated defeats in Tibet and countrywide unrest are a dangerous powderkeg. The Chinese government has justified one-party rule for decades with sustained and massive economic growth. But economic growth is now fragile, and if it should falter, the hotbed of unrest may grow.

China and the United States have both found Chen's pro-independence rhetoric frustrating; the US has been hoping for an extended status quo, and the Chinese have looked for reunification for fifty years. Ma seemed in danger of losing the Taiwanese election due to the Chinese crackdown in Taiwan; the DPP hoped to use the crackdown as a symbol of China's brutality and danger. There was some temporary shift in polls pre-election, but the Taiwanese voted in droves for Ma in promises of improved economic ties to put a kick in Taiwan's economy.

But this PRC victory is one of few in recent months. The Tibet uprising is growing, not shrinking; the PLA crackdown is not only bringing international support for Tibet and risking Olympic boycott, but it is rallying even reluctant Tibetans to the cause of resistance (except, of course, the Dalai Lama, who asks only for an end of violence and increased religious freedom). The PLA is struggling to deal with the wide and dispersed Tibetan resistance. Whether the PRC is planning to use tactics beyond military suppression to deal with the Tibetan uprising is not yet known.

But China's problems may be getting worse. Even with economic growth, China's income gap between its west and its coast is growing dramatically; the Chinese west remains largely left out of the 9% yearly growth enjoyed for decades straight. But the current economic growth is fragile. Oil prices are extremely high, and China's demand for it continues to explode. Inflation is getting out of control: 8.7% in February alone. While Taiwan may be opening economic ties, this won't happen until late May, and China is in danger of boycotts from both its actions in Tibet and its unlucky string of dangerous export incidents (dog food, toothpaste, and Barbies). Finally, US investment banks, facing hard times, are likely to pull back their investments in the near future; knowledge of that may cause smaller Chinese companies to struggle. The combination of the Tibet unrest and potential economic downturn may become a perfect storm come June 4th.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Iraq Stalemate

"Stalemate" is the word all of the news and open-source intelligence sources are using for the current Iraq violence situation; I spent some time trying to think of a better term for it, and failed. So I am jumping on the "stalemate" bandwagon, as disappointing as it is to admit that. The stalemate is expressed in a tapering off of the decline in violence; that is, violence in Iraq is no longer decreasing by month; in fact, there was a significant increase in violence in January.

This stalemate is going to pose a great challenge to the yet highly successful General Petraeus and his controversial surge strategy; as the surge ends through the summer, violence might be in danger of increasing should more political reconciliation not occur. This stalemate is showing the urgency for said reconciliation; the security gains made in the last eight months are indeed fragile, and will not remain in the nearly-inevitable 2009 American withdrawal unless sectarian groups feel enough security that they become stakeholders.

A particularly bad sign in all of this is that violence spikes keep occurring when US troops pull out of an area, in particular Baghdad (which absorbed the majority of the US surge). Baghdad might well get hit, and hard, when the surge ends over the summer.

But there is hope. Besides the post-pullout spikes in violence, which seem to be temporary in nature, the vast majority of the violence increases are due to US and Iraqi offensives, rather than sectarian violence or random attacks. One might call this an "investment," like the increase in violence from February to July 2007. Petraeus may be trying to take advantage of the relative peace to use US troops, while they still remain, to root out remaining insurgent strongholds.

In addition, a serious political step may be taken in the next month. Provincial elections have just been approved by the Presidential Council, largely due to very high US political pressure. The elections first happened in 2005, when Sunnis were still boycotting (and de-Sunnification was still the policy of the day), and Sunnis are still woefully under-represented in provincial-level government. The Shiite- and Kurd-dominated executive branch of the government was reluctant to schedule early elections, but finally succumbed. With the "Sunni Renaissance" of participation, as well as the end of the de-Sunnification policy, Sunnis will likely make proportional gains in the provincial-level government, and secure themselves as stakeholders in the Iraqi government. With that, things may well calm down.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Dissecting the Iran Election

I am often told of a power struggle within Iran; at least the secular part of it. There is evidence of it; Iranian shifts in Iraq policy and shifts in strength of anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiment show that such is clear. Iranian students are often lauded to be more pro-Western and moderate than their parents, defying Iranian dress code law by cutting their hair close and wearing ties. In the late 1990's and early 2000s, moderate reformers swept into power, and in 2004 lost it.

After this election, the conservative/reformist split of seating seems to have not changed much, despite the fact that the cleric-led Guardian Council banned most of the reformist opposition from running due to insufficient loyalty to Islam (that same Guardian Council is calling the election a "Victory Against the West"). But among the conservatives, a fissure is growing. A faction of conservatives is rallying against Ahmadinejad's hard-line stances, which they say are bringing UN sanctions, as well as Iran's faltering economy, suffering from high inflation and unemployment.

The reformers might have done better, had President Bush not encouraged Iranians to boycott; his words likely inflamed Iran's sense of nationalism and anti-Americanism.

The EU and US have condoned the election as unfair due to the banning of reformer candidates, though the protests will go no further than that, and Iran's parliament will press on, functional, for the next four years.

Reformers are also calling this vote a victory, given that they held on to most of the seats they had despite many of the men and women who had campaigned for seats were blocked.

The interesting part will not be what the reformers do, but what the opposition conservatives do. Ahmadinejad is in for a tough next year; presidential elections occur in 2009, and a few conservatives are looking to lead their faction towards a presidential victory, beating out Ahmadinejad.

It should be noted that not all right-wing religious fanatics are the same. While not reformers, these conservatives are likely to do more looking inward, concentrating on economic reform and strengthening cultural and religious unity. What Iraq policy the anti-Ahmadinejad conservatives hold is unknown to me, but it is likely to change.

The US public won't see much in the way of immediate changes from this election, but Ahmadinejad may be forced to make foreign policy concessions; look closely for subtle changes in rhetoric and action in Iran's foreign policy in the next few months. I'll keep my eye on what's to come.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

No Calm Before Olympics Storm

I thought the coming Olympics would lead to relative peace inside of China through August. I was wrong.

Both Tibetan and Uyghur independence-seekers have taken the opportunity of the Olympics to try and re-invigorate their independence and religious freedom movements, but in different ways. Chinese religious freedoms in the past have certainly been poor, and recently, have not improved. But both the Uyghurs and Tibetans took risks that were too large in this highly sensitive pre-Olympic period, and the Chinese have chosen to use force--as quickly and as overwhelmingly as possible--to quell its restive west before any pro-independence momentum gains. The Olympics have not checked the hand of the PRC; it has only grown more stern.

Though Chinese officials or media organs have had very little to say on the subject, Uyghur separatists likely tried to blow up an airplane bound for Beijing by bringing gasoline on board. How they got the gasoline past security is beyond me, but the plane made an emergency landing and two Uyghur suspects were taken off. Soon afterwards, the Chinese cracked down on a Uyghur separatist office (killing 2 and arresting 15) that was allegedly planning to bomb the Olympics in August.

The Chinese government has a long history of trying to stop Uyghur separatism by attacking "terrorists" with police action; there is almost no transparency in PRC actions against the northwestern Muslim region of Xinjiang, and is prone to story-telling in official interpretations of Uyghur action. Regardless of what the Uyghur separatists actually tried, the Chinese government has given itself a mandate to act in keeping the region suppressed.

In Tibet, pro-independence nationalists and monks chose the 49th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising of 1959 to stage protests, originally peaceful, in the capital of Lhasa. Exiled Tibetans in India joined them from afar, starting with vigils and prayers and moving on towards a months-long pilgrimage (which was stopped very short at the border).

The Chinese police (probably the People's Armed Police, a PLA para-military group) came to Lhasa to stop the protests, using tear gas and making an unknown number of arrests. The Chinese government called the situation "under control" Thursday, but the capital then exploded, with lay Tibetans attacking ethnic Han Chinese (sent to Tibet mostly by the Beijing government), burning cars and shops. The PRC responded by sending the PLA--now tanks patrol the streets of the city.

The protests have gone outside of Tibet, as well; protesters have been put down in central China, as well as Paris (around the Chinese Embassy).

China is, ultimately, becoming much more shaken-up than the government would prefer to admit, and these problems may continue to plague them into the Olympics. Students may be eyeing the Tibet situation to gague whether or not they can make any moves along the lines of the June 4th Movement... though students are much more loyal to the state now than they were in 1989.

As for the Tibetans, the independence movement is probably doomed. It cannot get the momentum it needs to make the costs of administration too high for the Chinese-- and they are unlikely to win any moral or normative wars of words against the government. These protests will continue, and they will continue to give the West legitimacy in attacking the Chinese government on human rights issues, but they will not change the status of Tibet.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Why Did Admiral Fallon Really Quit?

Up until the beginning of this week, Admiral William J. Fallon has served as the Commander of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). He'd been doing so since March of last year. On Tuesday, however, he resigned. The big question is why?

Picture of Admiral William FalconThe position of Commander of CENTCOM is an extremely important position in terms of current armed conflict in the Middle East. It stands to reason that Adm. Fallon probably had a damn good reason for stepping down from one of the most powerful positions in the military, especially since he'd been serving as Commander for less than a year.
At first glance this appears to not be the case. In the official announcement given by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the actual reason given for Adm. Fallon's resignation was that he resigned because of the "distraction" caused by public perception and "The current embarrassing situation ... of differences between [his] views and the administration policy." Distraction? It seems extremely unlikely that one would step down from one of the most powerful positions in the United States armed forces simply due to a "distraction" caused by "public perception." What seems more likely is that we haven't been privy to the whole story.

When I first read about Admiral Fallon's resignation, my first reaction was to be somewhat annoyed. If what Robert Gates, and the New York Times, had to say on the matter was entirely true, it would imply that Adm. Fallon had been pressured into stepping down because of what he had to say: it was actually reasonable and Made Sense. This unfortunately also meant that it went against the current party line in the White House.

The apparent cause of all the public misconception and controversy were centered around statements made by Fallon some time ago in which he asserts that the "constant drumbeat of conflict [is] not helpful or useful," and that we really should just try to sort things out diplomatically with Iran instead of pushing for another war.
Again, this makes sense. Wars cost a huge amount of money and resources, they end up creating thousands (if not more) casualties and, most of all, the United States is already involved in two (major) active armed conflicts. The last thing America needs is to begin a war on another front. Really: diplomacy is just cheaper.

And yet, it appeared that common sense and an unwillingness to harm your country (economically) was not a trait that the Bush Administration desired in it's CENTCOM Commander.

HOWEVER after you get past the media spin and scandal it turns out that there's more to the story. Adm Fallon was indeed probably pressured into resigning from his position, but it had more to do a focus shift in conflict in the middle east. Stratfor believes that Fallon stepped down to make way for either Gen. Petraeus himself or Gen. James Mattis.
Both of these men have become extremely important since the start of the armed conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq. They both led various forces in the actual conflict and worked closely with each other to create the new counterinsurgency manual which has been adopted by the military. Both of these men clearly have a great understanding of the current situation in the middle east, have experience in leading the armed forces and show a willingness to adopt new strategies.
Where Fallon has failed (by allowing the situation in Afghanistan/Pakistan to deteriorate so substantially) one of these two men might succeed.

The point being: Fallon stepping down isn't necessarily a case of not staying in line, by publicly saying the 'wrong things' and succumbing to the ensuing media frenzy. It might be a convenient way for Fallon to quit while he's 'ahead' - as opposed to appearing to be kicked out for someone better qualified and more capable. Fallon stepping down creates the potential for things really improving in the middle east, at least as far the U.S. is directly involved, assuming of course that either Patraeus or Mattis takes on this new challenge.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Probably Out for Week

This week's been tough on time. Hopefully I'll be back to posting after the weekend.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Bomb Goes Off in New York... and Nobody Blinks

I am not actually a big fan of how we are running the current War on Terror, particularly at home. We spend too much, scare too much, and infringe on rights too much. All that aside, the national security aspect of it all has some interesting quirks. Given yesterday's bombing, it seems I got some of these quirks wrong.

I have been terrified at the prospect of another terror attack in the United States since 9/11, mostly because I have been worried that the citizens of the United States would lose their better judgments and give in to an excursion into another country or into their civil liberties. History teaches us this happens all the time.

Yesterday's bomb attack was small, and nobody got hurt, but it is still significant. The United States populous and media have not only failed to freak out, but have mostly failed to bat an eye. The attack fell far below Democratic primary discussion in hits on Google News.

Does that mean the US will not snap at a larger attack? No. We have been blindingly fortunate that there have been no terror attacks since 9/11-- this is in large part due to the reorganization and re-focusing of the United States Intelligence Community. But no wall is perfect, and at some point, someone will get hurt by a bomb; maybe even one planted by an Islamic militant.

But ultimately, if the United States' citizenry can keep its head during these small attacks, then the ability to successfully wage psychological warfare against the population drops. With less fear--less terror--felt in the United States population, the damage done by sporadic bombs diminishes significantly.

There really is no way to keep a free society and prevent all terror attacks at the same time. Bomb-making is a surprisingly simple process, and even one or two determined fanatics could pull it off, given a few days and a few hundred dollars. The trick is not to stop these dead, but to minimize them, and stay calm when they happen. This recent bombing has surprised and impressed me; I think the people of the United States may in fact be capable of doing just that.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

US Gains, Iran Gives

Yesterday, even as the UN Security Council unanimously passed new sanctions on Iran (the third round of sanctions on Iran over its weapons program), President Ahmadinejad visited the US-controlled Green Zone in Baghdad, met with Iraqi leaders, and called the "brotherly ties" between Iraq and Iran unbreakable. Such a visit gives legitimacy to an essentially US-created government in Iraq, and improves the likelihood that the US-supported Iraqi government will succeed. Such actions on the part of the Iranian leadership indicate a possible shift in disposition with respect to the United States and the Middle East.

Iran, unsurprisingly, fully denounced the UN sanctions against them, insisting that their nuclear program is peaceful, and that they will move forward with it. The US-supported sanctions are somewhat confusing; the US National Intelligence Estimate of late 2007 insisted that Iran had dismantled its weapons program in 2004, and it appeared that the United States and Iran had cut a deal; it is possible that these sanctions are a sign that relations are deteriorating.

Nonetheless, the Ahmadinejad visit did happen; it was the first Iranian presidential visit to Iraq since 1979, and shows a new shift towards a closer relationship. The visit likely shows that Iran is buying into the government, if not directly in its current form, then into what it hopes the government will become. US suspicions of Iranian military meddling in Iraq have been quiet for quite some time; it is possible the Iranians are more worried about an unstable Iraq than a secular or pro-western one.

Ahmadinejad made important and token gestures against Israel and the United States while visiting. He denounced Israeli action in the Gaza Strip, as well as a continued US presence in Iraq. Both Iraqi and Iranian officials made it clear that US troops were not used for security of the meeting building (even if the meeting was in the US Green Zone); essentially the meeting was planned and executed as if the US was not a major force in Iraq. Ahmadinejad spoke to the US as hurting Iraq with its continued occupation, but also that Iran and Iraq should help each other and stay close.

Iran may be positioning itself to act as a paternal figure in Iraq after the US leaves, or is simply looking forward to a relationship with the 25 million-person country in a post-Saddam Hussein era. Ultimately, the Iranian leadership's anger with the West and the United States may be great, but it is likely not enough that Iran would see more interest in trying to disrupt the Iraqi government simply for the sake of hurting American policy; that, or Iran recognizes that a more successful Iraqi government is likely lead to a more expedient US withdrawal.

In a final note, increased Iraqi security operations during Ahmedinijad's visit were unable to prevent two suicide attacks in Baghdad, which killed 19.

Monday, March 3, 2008

War Drums in South America

Troops are amassing on the Columbian border, and Hugo Chavez is threatening war. Columbia's suspicions that Chavez has been supporting FARC rebels within Columbia have been confirmed, according to Columbian Gen. Naranjo. Ecuador is responding to a Columbian incursion with nationalistic fervor.

Conflict between Venezuela and Columbia has been in the making since Chavez was thrown in jail for an attempted coup in the 1990's, but domestic and leadership politics in Venezuela are exacerbating the issue. Chavez may be trying to kick up patriotic fervor, and thus his popularity, in hopes of continuing his revolution and his grip on power.

FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia) are a left-wing anti-government militia that has given Columbia great difficulty for years. Columbia had known for quite some time that FARC had bases across the border in Ecuador, and in light of recent FARC actions, launched a strike against a safe haven in Ecuador, killing FARC's second-in-command. A laptop recovered from the site revealed a $300 million fund transfer from the Venezuelan government and (obviously) political support for FARC operations. Needless to say, the Columbians weren't happy.

The Ecuadoran response has been angry, which is to be expected. Ecuadoran troops have amassed along the Columbian border, and the Ecuadoran government has pulled its Ambassador. Were Venezuela not involved, this is the kind of crisis that could de-escalate.

But Hugo Chavez is making the situation dangerous. Chavez has begun a massive war of words against the Columbians; Chavez sounds ready for war. Ecuador is one of Chavez' allies, but Chavez is likely taking advantage of the situation for domestic gain. Chavez is calling the Columbian government liars and a "terrorist state" led by a "criminal," closed the Venezuelan embassy in Columbia, and used state-run television to ask his minister of defense to send the air force and 10 tank battalions to the border. He has promised war if the Columbians cross into Venezuela.

The US and Columbian governments are trying to delegitimize Chavez' military posturing by claiming to ignore his comments and actions, and painting the incident as bilateral.

Chavez has been hoping to achieve some sort of revolutionary leadership among Latin America; Chavez has a messiah complex (and has indirectly compared himself to Christ) and often uses sensationalist and brinksman rhetoric to remain relevant. Besides raw megalomania, I believe Chavez is looking for a boost in national support (the International Relations field has a rather well-developed theory of Diversionary War). After a failed attempt at a constitutional referendum to essentially raise himself to dictator status, Chavez has seen his popularity decline. With a failing state-planned economy (massive shortages of staples like eggs and breads are forcing long waiting lines, and old ladies are being arrested in Venezuelan airports for illegally smuggling in powdered milk), Chavez is likely looking to create a national crisis (or diversion) to whip up patriotic fervor, and thus support for his government. Chavez' brinksmanship and personal risk-acceptance has made the Latin American crisis truly risky; if he is to come off as tough as he'd like (he has even been bragging about his newly-bought Su-30's), he may have to show action if the Columbians defy him.

Fortunately, Stratfor tells me that the Columbian military has a significant size and experience advantage over the Venezuelan army; large enough, even, that it could hold the Ecuadoran forces in check to the south. Whether this will act as a deterrent against Chavez is worth asking, but if any fighting happens, it is unlikely to last long.

In a hilarious note, Fidel Castro is blaming the United States for the tension, accusing the US of trying to start a "Yankee Genocide."

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Putin's Dictator Status is Secure

With Medvedev attaining 70% of the Russian vote, the Russian system (and mostly even the people) has given Putin a full mandate to act as dictator. As Prime Minister of a parliament with more than 2 out of 3 seats occupied by his party (United Russia), he can pass any legislature that he chooses. And Medvedev, Putin's long-time Protoge, at the helm of the Presidency, Putin is likely to have full executive support for his plans. At this point, there remain approximately zero political institutions that can challenge him, barring any strange Russian Constitutional Law precedents that I am (admittedly grossly) unaware of.

Medvedev has, of course, been called a "puppet" of Putin, and it may well be true. He has openly offered to step down after 4 years and allow Putin to resume another potentially 8-year-term in 2012, pushing Putin's reign to 20 years. At this point, Putin represents Russia's future, and he has great leeway. Despite clear rigging in the Parliamentary election (Chechnya allegedly voted, at 99% turnout, for United Russia by a margin of more than 90% over any other party) and highly suspicious deaths of anti-Kremlin forces, he remains extremely popular, due largely to Russia's economic growth and Putin's tough stance to the West. He is Time's Person of the Year for a reason.

Twelve more years of Putin means the US is going to just have to get used to him. Is a new Cold War coming? Unlikely. Putin is tough, but he respects other tough statesmen, and is willing to work with them. The EU still towers over Russia both economically and militarily, and, as we addressed earlier, more and more Russian satellite countries are flocking to NATO. But now, it is time to be ready for Putin's Russia. And for most of us in the US, including me, step one is figuring out what that even means.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Setback in Iraq Violence Trends

In February, the death toll in Iraq increased for the first time in over six months, to 721 dead (January was 541). This setback was due largely to two large suicide attacks that had recently been more rare. Nonetheless, the Bush administration plans to continue a troop draw-down throughout 2008 beyond the surge, putting US troop numbers at just under 100,000 by the end of the year.

The increase in violence is likely frustrating for General Petraeus and the Bush Administration--despite large violence reductions and apparent cooperation on the part of Anbar Sunnis and Al-Sadrite Shiites, public opinion in the US has remained bleak. Any setback in progress is likely to make the administration's current fragile shield over the Iraq issue begin to crumble to congressional pressure. Bush will need the month of March to show a return to improvement in rates of violence if he does not want to be pushed into a corner over hastier troop withdrawal.

Nonetheless, Bush certainly believes that victory (as defined in his own mind) in Iraq is not only right, but critical. Given that, we must look at his current actions and policy as an attempt to influence policy long after he leaves. Should McCain be elected, some form of the Bush policy is likely to stay in place for quite some time; a few ten thousand troops will remain in Iraq for decades to come. But if Barack Obama (who is likely to be the presumptive nominee by Tuesday night) is elected, he will carry with him a strong anti-war mandate, and a fundamental shift in foreign policy. Bush will want to secure Iraq's future before January, 2009 as best as he can.

Petraeus and Gates have not changed their previous stance that all 18 of Iraq's provinces could be fully handed-over by the end of the year; given that none of the remaining 9 have been handed over yet (and probably won't until April), much of this handing-over is going to happen increasingly close to the US presidential election in November. Furthermore, Iraqi provincial elections are tentatively slated for October, and us troop counts are likely to stay high until November and December (taking into account, of course, the mid-July end of the "Surge"). Bush is likely hoping to use the next six months to impress the American people enough about Iraq that public opinion finally begins to take a fundamental shift: away from "end" and towards "victory."