Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Well, Maybe the Surge is Working

On today, the last day of July in Iraq, the US troop death toll has rung to 12, after
Staff Sgt. Faoa L. Apineru died of a wound suffered on July 2. If this holds (barring some terrible event today or wounded soldiers dying later), it would be a death toll less than 2/3 of the previously lowest month in Iraq (May: 19 deaths). So the by-far two lowest death tolls since the beginning of the war have been in the past 3 months, and this most recent one has come after the end of the surge.

Recorded Iraqi deaths are also at an all-time low: 393 (lower only than June, at 450, which was lower only than May, at 506). A pattern is emerging, and it's one of steadily, reliably increasing security and safety.

It is thus time to face a simple fact down a dark alley that most of us have been trying to avoid: The Surge worked, General Petraeus is not an unpatriotic, treasonous Bush lackey, and the Iraq war is winnable.

Now, Mr. Obama's campaign boat has a lot of wind behind its sails right now, because even Mr. McCain is agreeing to the sixteen-month timetable for withdrawal. This vindicates Mr. Obama, right? He was right all along?

No, not at all. Mr. Obama has spent the entire surge saying that it was not working. In July, his website was smart enough to remove his consistent, zealous opposition to the Surge from their Iraq page, but he has not come out to say that it has worked. Does he still think that it hasn't? Or is he simply as stick-to-your-guns consistent in his ideological stances as Mr. Bush?

Mr. Obama has not only opposed the surge since the beginning, but his 16-month withdrawal plan came around not because of successes in Iraq. His withdrawal plan has been the same, from the absolute worst conditions in Iraq (in 2006 when the violence was over 10 times what it is now) to today. The 16-month timetable was a strategy for easy defeat, not one for actually winning. But, quite luckily for Mr. Obama, he was wrong about the surge. His being wrong about the surge makes his 16-month timetable look entirely reasonable, as long as you are not willing to think about it too hard.

Unfortunately for the future of US foreign policy, Obama's political stars-and-moons lining up is nothing but luck, and has absolutely nothing to do with his ability to make judgments and decisions as Commander in Chief. He was wrong--and still is wrong--about the Surge, and his being wrong about the Surge is the only reason his years-old 16-month withdrawal timetable looks like anything more than a bloody white flag strategy. His policies and stances have not changed at all, regardless of wildly varying conditions in Iraq. This would mean an even more inflexible and ideological foreign policy than that of Mr. Bush, who was at least smart enough to consider Mr. Petraeus' plan for changing strategies.

But, even more unfortunately for the future of US foreign policy is that the McCain campaign camp is completely incompetent, and will not be able to capitalize on this glaring flaw in Mr. Obama's shining moment. If they can't, then Mr. Obama will win this election, and the American people will spend at least four years knowing that they truly had no idea what they meant when they spent the last 8 years complaining about idealistic and inflexible foreign policy. I have yet to see an Obama foreign policy point that shows any shred of good judgment or consideration for earthly realities, particularly in regards to military matters.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

India, and Pakistan's Control Problems

The Pakistani civilian government is weak. It has the support of most people, but not the support of many of Pakistan's hardline military forces, and not the peace with militants in its country that it has hoped to gain. It would surely like ot have the overwhelming force to deal with its militants, but it doesn't.

One of these reasons is India. Pakistan and India have been enemies since 1947, during the first of three wars of Independence. They have quarreled over Kashmir for decades, and a ceasefire was enacted in 2003. Nonetheless, each side has had to keep large military forces on their borders, more concerned with each other than the movements of potential militants through the sparsely-populated region.

This has escalated the India problem. Bombs in Bangalore and Ahmedabad are being blamed on Pakistani militant groups, and unexploded bombs were found in Surat of similar type. If more bombs begin to rip through Indian cities, the Indian government will face growing pressures and mandates to act--but the problem lies within Pakistan's borders.

A bomb in Kabul's Indian Embassy is being blamed on the Pakistani Intelligence Service--indicating that the Pakistani government still does not have control of its military.

Furthermore, and most worryingly for the Pakistani civilian government: A twelve-hour gun battle between Indian and Pakistani troops erupted along the Line of Control in Kashmir. A few men died on each side, and it seems relatively small, in comparison to many of the other issues surrounding Pakistan, but hard-line elements in Pakistan may take this as a sign that they need to launch attacks. All this is sign to the Indians that they must beef up their border security even more--which means even more troops that could be used in counter-terror missions in Pakistan must be used to defend from India. A security spiral is forming--each side, seeing a threat in border instability, is arming itself, and in doing so, making the other side less secure.

But Pakistan has more problems from India than simply a forced shift in military resources. India is now starting to face some of the dilemma that Afghanistan has faced--if it leaves Pakistan alone, it will continue to be attacked by militants (or in India's case, even Pakistani regulars) from inside Pakistan's borders. If the Pakistani civilian military cannot control its own military, on top of not being able to stop militants, then diplomacy becomes useless. No amount of agreement with a head of state can fix a problem that he has no control over. And militants and hard-line military units don't care for diplomacy, they quite like the situation they have now.

If Pakistani-caused problems in India and Afghanistan persist, it will be very tempting for Singh and Karzai to be convinced by the Bush administration that the best option will be to send troops into Pakistan to deal. More interestingly, the weak civilian government still has a pro-Bush wild card in their midst--if the Bush administration tells Musharraf that his only chance at not losing power is to rally troops loyal to him in a NATO/Indian/Afghan alliance to drive out anyone standing between the alliance and the end of Pakistani militants, then war in Pakistan would look like the best option.

Nobody is rattling too many sabres. But when sabres are being rattled, it's a warning. Who is there to warn in Pakistan? Would threat of invasion make the hard-liners and militants any less aggressive? Certainly not. Would it give the weak civilian government more power to act? No. It would only warn them that such an invasion might be coming, which can do nothing but make that possible invasion harder--it cannot be used as a diplomatic chip.

That is the most frustrating realization in Pakistan, and maybe the reason Gilani was willing to visit Bush in DC--because he knew that he had no choice but to show he had some sort of control over his country, or else the largest military alliance in the world might decide that dealing with him is a complete waste of time. Nobody is seriously considering invasion yet, but the conditions are becoming such that the Global War on Terror coalition may have no other good options left. And if this invasion does happen, it will be the first ever invasion of an openly nuclear state. NATO uncertainty over whose finger is on the nuclear trigger in Pakistan may be the only thing between Gilani and a nightmare.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Tamil Tigers, and a Note on Terror

Recently, the Sri Lankan government's military captured a satellite base from the Tamil Tiger rebels, prompting analysts all over the world to ask, "why the heck did the Tamil Tigers have a satellite base?"

The US, EU, and India all put the Tigers in their lists of official terror groups, but nobody seems to care too much about the group, as they're mostly nobody's problem but Sri Lanka's (who nobody cares too much about).

Ultimately, the Tigers are a separatist movement that uses terror tactics, which makes them fundamnetally different from Islamic Extremists in a few ways (that have been sadly conflated by the wanton use of the word "terror" in the past 7 years). The first is that they have a limited and well-defined political agenda (the separation of a certain geographical area from a government), which makes them plausibly reasonable to deal with at negotiating tables. The second, is that they're a problem for a very limited number of people (in this case, Sri Lankans), so it's very easy for other countries to ignore them. This is in contrast to, say, Al-Qaeda, which seeks revenge on innocent non-Muslims for the deaths of any Mulsim at the hand of non-Muslims in history; or Hamas, which seeks to irradicate the Israeli people. "religious genocide" is not a goal that one can negotiate with.

The Tigers may be on their way out, thanks to the persistence of the Sri Lankan military and token help from a few friendly countries like India. They are definitely bad dudes that do bad things to good people. My primary worry is that cases like the Tigers are going to increase the terrorist-separatist conflation, allowing countries like China to brutally crack down on anyone in Xinjiang or Tibet thinking about waving a flag of their own.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Checking Up on Pakistan

Fed up with the deteriorating military situation in Afghanistan, Bush has finally raised an eyebrow high enough to politely request the company of new Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani to visit in Washington and discuss the current strategy.

To be frank, Gilani's commitment to fighting the Taliban appears rather weak, most clearly by his desperate insistence that his commitment is strong. President Karzai does not have to make clear his commitments to fighting terror because he actually does it. His claims to the US that the War on Terror is a war in the interest of Pakistan is largely at odds with the opinion of his constituents: that "doing the bidding of the US" is what's causing their problems in Northwest Pakistan. Sorry, guys, but it turns out that radical Muslim extremists are going to try to occupy your country and subvert your rule of law even if you're not a US ally.

Gilani's primary problem is that he's not willing to ruffle any feathers. His refusal to confront Musharraf over the Supreme Court left him without a key Minister in his cabinet, and lukewarm support from the DPP. His refusal to anger the Taliban into full scale warfare has let them grow and prosper in the Northwest, and has pushed Americans to the verge of withdrawing their support for the existence of the Pakistani government, and--if Mr. McCain is elected--possibly invade Northwest Pakistan to take care of the Taliban themselves. Mr. Gilani's indecisiveness and need to please has left him paralyzed as the security situation in his country spirals out of control, and insurgent problems spread into India (a now-close ally of the US that, if fed up with such attacks, might work together with the US in invading Pakistan, or at least leaving enough troops on Pakistan's southeast border and enough aircraft carriers off its coast that it would be crippled from being able to fight American forces).

So Gilani is in trouble. It's unclear whether he knows whether further inaction is going to lead to crisis, but the Bush administration is almost certainly trying to convince him that he has no choice but to move.

The US is also throwing in some bones to make it easier. Bush asked congress to shift over $260 million from anti-terror operations in Pakistan to upgrade their ageing F-16 wing. Bush may also be willing to make diplomatic concessions--something, perhaps, to the effect of denouncing Musharraf (which would mean that opposing Musharraf would now be the US-backed and party-backed option, making it easy for Mr. Gilani to please the public).

Gilani has had one good idea that the US has employed in Iraq--using local pro-government militias to convince enemy militants to lay down their arms. Hearts-and-minds is an important part of any counter-terror campaign. But alone, it is useless. Alone, it simply an appeasement policy. Throwing carrots at an extremist enemy is not going to do much unless one has a stick poised ready to fall down. Hopefully, for the sake of US troops in Afghanistan and its government's future, Bush will convince Mr. Gilani to bring the stick to bear.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

More Taxpayer Dollars to Mediocre Financing Companies

The House enthusiastically passed a bill today to bail out Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae (why do they have such similar names? That makes no sense!) using your hard-earned taxpayer dollars. It's a "loan," but cheap enough that the US Government will be losing a fair amount of money on it. Note that no reputable lending institution was willing to give them the money to keep going.

Sometimes I wonder why the economy's not doing great. Then I remember one of the reasons is we use dollars you could be saving/spending and putting them in the pockets of failed and irresponsible big business execs.

Now I'm told that a Fannie/Freddie collapse would be devastating for the US economy. That's also what I was told about Bear Stearns, somewhat passionately and loudly by a few of my fed-loving friends. But after we so enthusiastically spent US taxpayer dollars to keep Bear Sterns afloat, they still collapsed. And the world didn't end. Why?

Turns out, when a company with assets goes down, those assets become very cheap to acquire by other rival companies. Mortgages, for example, can be bought for chump change by banks or other lending institutions. We call this an "investment." If one of Fannie or Freddie collapsed, Bank of America, Wachovia, Citigroup, Morgan-Stanley, or any number of fine US money-manipulating institutions would gladly acquire those mortgages. But some of the mortgages are bad, you say? Well, they'll sell for cheaper. They would almost certainly be sold as a package deal, instead of piecemeal.

And then, these mortgages would be backed by lending instutions A) not run by fools, and B) not on the verge of collapse. I should note that one major reason cited for the collapse of the Soviet economy was the absolute refusal to let failing companies die. One of the reasons any economy works is that companies that cannot make profit don't survive. If they don't make profit, then they're either not offering anything of value or are not running efficiently enough (or some arbitrary regulation is choking off their ability to profit, but I know that's not a popular fact to admit).

And in case it wasn't clear that Congress was trying to help "Homeowners," they are trying to pass a law limiting how much money the Fannie/Freddie execs can get paid. So the Feds are financing a falling company and telling them how much to pay their employees? This sounds like an acquisition.

Ultimately, keeping failing businesses running prevents better businesses from increasing their market share over the burning hulks of the dead ones. So who hurts, ultimately? Consumers. Any talk of all these mortgages disappearing and homes being repossessed is foolishness. Who would repossess them? Fannie and Freddie owned them. If they bleep out of existence, they can't just show up and start throwing people out of their houses as a last dying breath.

If the government feels obligated to act (which it does, because election season is just around the corner!), the best thing to do would be to help manage the transfer of assets from Fannie/Freddie to institutions of less failure, like it's doing with Bear Stearns--when Fannie and Freddie finally collapse from their own poor business practice. But instead, Congress is doing what it does best: ineffectually spending the money of the middle and upper classes for all sizzle and no steak. It's not like the money in the pockets of these productive Americans would help the economy, right?

On the foreclosures: many of these foreclosures are still going to happen. Some people signed onto bad loans that they simply could not afford (you know the whole sub-prime thing by now), and keeping Freddie and Fannie afloat is not going to make them magically able to afford these mortgages. It's possible new lending institutions may be able to restructure or consolidate some of these loans so be more manageable. But if you're broke, it doesn't matter who your lender is, you're not paying him back, and you're losing your house. The bailout really won't help these folks.

Singh-Bush's Bittersweet Victory

Indian Prime Minister Singh and US President Bush have worked together so long on a nuclear power deal that it seemed as silly as Israeli-Palestinian peace. But recent breakthroughs--a deal that is ready for the IAEA--have shaken things up.

A confidence vote came to parliament (which could have ousted the Prime Minister and forced a new parliamentary coalition to form) when the Communist party left the coalition over the US deal (citing something about imperialism on their way out the door), and Singh's future--as well as the deal itself--hung in the balance.

Congress won by a small margin. But accusations of bribery are rampant, opened flamboyantly by a BJH (opposition party) march into the well of parliament, literally waving money that they claimed had been given to them as bribes... only 2 hours before the vote. Sick and imprisoned members of the ruling coalition were pulled out for the vote, and some members of the opposition abstained or failed to arrive at all. The vote was certainly fishy, and Indian papers are very displeased. Indian politics has gotten ugly, even if the vote victory has given Singh the go-ahead on the nuclear deal. Parliamentary elections happen in May, which means he has but 9 months to recover from this PR mess and try to rally the country behind the Congress party, lest a strong socialist opposition take over and derail his economic growth plans for India.

From here, the deal has only a few months to be approved by the IAEA and the US Congress, before Bush leaves office. The move would be a jab in the opposite direction of the US' typical anti-proliferation strategy. India's development of a nuclear bomb made it--according to the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty--a nuclear rogue state (along with Pakistan, maybe Israel), and the US has not required India to give up its weapons program for help in its peacful nuclear program. Surprisingly, Europe is not making a great fuss about this--possibly because Europe's diplomatic leadership are Brown and Sarkozy, and possibly because Europe wants to see a strong India counter a strong China. If Bush keeps Europe's support, the deal is likely to sqeak through before he leaves office.

But the bitterness left in the throats of Indians will not be forgotten quickly. The Opposition will try to use bribery allegations as a sign that the US is trying to use India as a pawn. If the Indian public takes these allegations to heart, the US is going to struggle keeping India along as an ally in the near future.

That said, the way the world is taking a liking to Mr. Obama, they may quickly change their mind if he becomes president.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Iraq Goes to Obama

Months ago, McCain called on Obama to go to Iraq to educate himself on the ground situation, in a mark of criticism against his 16-month withdrawal plan. He probably hoepd to put Obama in a double-bind: if Obama did not go, he could be painted as ignoring facts. If he did, he might be painted as admitting ignorance.

Obama went with the second option, and the plan has backfired for McCain in ways he could not have previously imagined.

Contrary to my previous thoughts on the subject, it looks like Bush and al-Maliki are actually in a very deep row over the status of American troops in Iraq.

Obama has visited Iraq, and met with Gen. Petreaus and top Iraqi officials. In open acknowledgment that "the Surge worked," the Iraqis have shortened their proposed timeline from 2012 to 2010--right in line with Mr. Obama's 16-month withdrawal plan. The quick change is a bit surprising, but it's possible the Iraqi government is actually trying to use its own fate as a bolster for Obama (Mr. Obama has found himself quite a warm welcome in Iraq so far, and they may be looking forward to 8 years of working with him). In addition, a photo-op by General Petraeus' side is just what Obama needed to extend his run to the center.

The last few days have been a crippling defeat to McCain, whose Iraq policy centered on being a practical solution for Iraqi security, even if it was tough on Americans. But now, with the Iraqis siding with Mr. Obama, even McCain has to give a bit: he has admitted he could imagine US troops in Iraq for only 2 more years.

Now Mr. Obama has won the initiative on foreign policy--an area that he has seemed weak, before. Such a victory is likely to win him key undecided moderates and make Mr. McCain's bid for the White House become a long shot.

Obama's race towards the center is likely to work for him, as long as he is able to shake from his tail his involvement with the American ultra-left:

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Detente

A detente is among us--at least, according to the rhetoric of the Iranian and American leadership. After all the hype, the dozens of news reports scremaing that a Bush attack was imminent, missile tests, Iranian flyovers, Syrian defection, UN sanctions, everything--the two sides are finally ready to hammer out a deal. The deal's not there, but the intent signals a true detente.

First: The Americans have offered to be a part of nuclear negotiations with Iran, a policy reversal that has probably come with some quiet knowledge that Iran is willing to barter with its nuclear program, rather than keep it against all costs. Such a change in policy came when the North Korean regime made the same quiet decision, and has led to the de-Axisification of Kim Jong Il. More importantly, the Iranians have agreed to the deal, and claim to be looking forward to the talks.

Second: The US is now very likely to get an interests section in Tehran--and an Iranian one would likely be placed in the US, later. Not an embassy, and not any sort of rapproachment. But, it's an open overture by both countries to their own people and the people of their adversaries that they are willing to talk, on a relatively equal level.

This is not a random policy-change by Bush. Bush sticks to his guns, and does not change his mind. He does not believe his previous policy was wrong, but that it worked. How it worked is unclear. It is likely that the Iranians either A) were willing to give a great deal on Iraq or B) quietly admitted that they could trade away their domestic nuclear program for something tempting--like Western assistance in building protected nuclear power plants (with tamper-proof centrifuges), to reach a middle-ground on the issue that has been glaringly obvious for years.

If Iran did make a sudden shift in strategy, there is a reason as well. Unlike Bush, Ahmedinejad has to worry about public opinion, and in particular about the religious leadership of his country turning on him (and essentially stripping him of his power). He's got to keep more people happy than Bush, and it's possible the psywar of the last few years, the Syrian departure, and security successes in Iraq have shaken Iranian confidence in the "brinksmanship" strategy just enough that they are going to deal, whether Ahmedinijad and Bush want to or not.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Good Cop/Bad Cop Game in the Middle East

There is a pattern to policies in the Middle East going on, and it is beginning to look like the work of not competing polities struggling for power, but a quiet agreement and cooperation that looks primed to make peace in the Middle East look like a vague possibility for the the first time in a long time. I believe that Bush, Sarkozy, and Brown are playing a Good Cop/Bad Cop game with respect to Iran and all important regional players involved, that might just get things to go their way.

We should note that Iran's most significant lever of power is through its support of regional terrorist/political organizations: In Iraq, Al-Sadr and Shiite militias. In Lebanon, Hezbollah. In Palestine, Hamas. Iran's primary polity ally in the region continues to be Syria, which still exercizes great influence over Lebanon. Iran does have long-range missiles, but Israel is their only possible target, and Israel is bristling with anti-missile interceptor technology. Iran can't afford to start an air-war with Israel--the combined Israeli-US air forces are not accessible to Iran by land or sea, and would be able to retaliate--with terrifying effects--mostly unadultered. If Iran was actually going to fire its missiles at Israel, it might have to be prepared to try to invade Iraq.

But Iran's primary lever of power has taken serious blows lately. In Iraq, Al-Sadr and other Shiite groups are at peace with the central government after months of raids and negotiations. Iran is trying to rein them in, because it is seeing it is unlikely to win the victory it wants in Iraq, so it is likely taking the victory it can get--a democratic, but Shiite-dominated state. The US and Iran are likely to open diplomatic posts in each others' countries, but mostly as signs of goodwill in their Iraq negotiations. Iraq, believe it or not, is mostly in cleanup-mode at this point.

Syria is primed to jump Iran's ship--its inclusin into Club Med, peace talks with Israel, and ambassadorial relationship with Lebanon means it is suddenly reaching in a very pro-West manner, after decades of jihadist rhetoric and isolation, not to mention support of anti-Israeli terror groups and former invasions of Israel. It looks like all of this is about to change. And that means...

Hezbollah will lose one of its primary benefactors. Syria's lack of cooperation will even make it difficult for Iran to support the southern-Lebanese terror group, and Syrian support for the current Lebanese government will likely decrease the popularity of Hezbollah as a political force.

Syria's recognition of Israel, and peace with it, will strike another blow to the legitimacy of the Hamas terror front's fight for a Palestinian state that replaces the entire Israeli one. The more that the Middle East lines up behind Abbas and the two-state strategy, the more hopeless Hamas' political goals will become, and they will be relegated to the realm of extremists in the minds of fellow Muslim Arabs, causing them to lose cash and political support.

All this means that Iran will have very little to threaten Western interests with, if it all works out. A weak Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iraq Shiite movement will mean it can't threaten to shake up Israel, Lebanon, or Iraq at a moment's notice. Without that power, Western and pro-Western states will raise eyebrows when Iran uses brinksmanship instead of cooperation as its means of convincing other states to do what it wants. This is certainly the "good" scenario of the current situation, but how did we get here?

Bad Cop: Of course, George Bush, doing what he does best, has put a lot of fear into a lot of folks that might otherwise feel comfortable. For example: although war with Iran has now become more clearly a psychological tactic to cause the Iranians to lose confidence in their president, this years-long psywar has fooled even the American media into worrying that US troops were about to leap into Iran (even though the military deployment in Iraq and carrier deployment around the world showed no evidence of that ever being the case). Conservatives and moderates in Iran, alike, have started to get very worried bout their president's brinksmanship with an American president known for making quick decisions and sending military forces against good advice. Even now, Israeli planes are flying over the mediterranean and over Iraq, making clear that they are practicing for a strike on Iran. Bush is leading calls for sanctions against Iran in the UN. Bush's hard line against anything resembling terror has lost him respect, but has made those that support terror think twice.

Good Cop: Nicholas Sarkozy, great French diplomat, president of the EU. His elaborate diplomatic blitz early in his career patched up relations with the US, UK, and Germany in a very short period of time. Even the Russians are a bit warm to him, even if the Chinese aren't. He is now courting the Syrians--who are probably the biggest remaining key to the entire situation in Israel/Lebanon/Palestine--in a truly fantastic, Romanesque way. He has invited them to Club Med, given his support to peace talks with Israel, and even held the Syrian president as a guest of honor at Bastille Day, depsite the fact that this raised a few eyebrows in his own country. Syria is responding well to Sarkozy's courting, and if Syria acts well, the dominoes may begin to fall.

Where does Brown fit into all this? By giving his goodwill. The UK's massive military and political power could be put to use here, but they are mostly being kept in check. The UK doesn't want to play bad cop, and can't afford to play good cop due to having so many troops in Iraq. Brown likely gave his permission for Club Med, and is likely exercizing his political strengh to silence people like Merkel, who are most likely to object. The Big Three are working in concert, as they had the potential to as soon as the French and British elections had happened, and each his doing his own part.

Sarkozy's carrots to Bush's sticks are making cooperation a very tempting alternative. One can imagine Assad's eyes light up during his visit to France on Bastille Day, when Sarkozy told him "This is what the cool kids get."

Monday, July 14, 2008

Obama and McCain's Delicate Dance with Contradiction

Obama's line about Iraq has been: It is a failure, a disaster, and the Iraqi Army will be on its feet next year, and the country will stable--we should pull out as soon as possible.

McCain's line about Iraq hs been: It is a slow, tough success, and the Iraqi Army will be on its feet next year, but it's not ready, won't be ready for a long time--let's wait to pull out.

The arguments for each of them have self-defeating qualities. For Obama, insisting that Iraq will stand and that the Iraqi Army can take over during a 16-month pullout defeats much of the punch in his claims that the war has been a disaster. He admits serious success and progress in saying that the Iraqi Army will be able to take over next year, and hampers his own ability to criticize the Republicans.

McCain, on the other hand, contradicts his own calls for an extended stay by saying the situation is good and improving, that there has been success. Why keep the troops there, if the Iraqi Army is almost ready to go? McCain's stance is a bit more "flexible--" he wants to keep troops there "based on conditions," but this largely means he is largely dodging the problem of having a position altogether.

And Obama, of course, is sticking to his timeline, even before meeting with Iraqi commanders. McCain refuses to have a solid answer, and Obama is back to refusing to alter his based on pretty much anything.

Maybe that's why the Iraqis are taking matters into their own hands.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Mediterranean Union

Sarkozy is starting his presidency of the EU off with a very strange bang. His attention has quickly turned south, away from the EU that he is supposed to be safeguarding, and towards an entirely new Union, formed just this weekend: The Mediterranean Union. Sarkozy clearly has the role of "leader" at this point: he made the negotiations for the Union, and heads the largest and most powerful country in the Union. Having primary leadership precedence over the Union would give the French a renewed international standing that they have lacked since their thrice-licking by Germany in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Syria, Israel, Lebanon, and Egypt, are of great importance to peace and stability in the Middle East. And keeping them bound by agreements for peace and cooperation in a particularly pro-Western manner (in which they have pledged their support for democracy and human rights in the Union already) will mean that Sarkozy could thrust a united front at Iran to keep it in line, and keep the Middle East stable.

Sarkozy also hopes to preside over the development of massive solar farms in North Africa. He would likely be able to achieve precedence to French alternative energy companies to begin development there, if he strikes the deal. But the implications of all this are not entirely rosy. Sarkozy is now presdident of the EU, and has a great responsibility to the largest economic bloc in the world, even if he does not have great power over it (particularly thanks to the crippling defeat of the Irish "No" vote). His warm embrace of the Mediterranean Union is not making all members of the EU happy, particularly Germany. The EU is an institution where each country has very little say in the entire operation of the bloc, and without a strong presidency, Sarkozy himself will be able to do little for the bloc besides try to influence monetary policy. EU countries see the Mediterranean Union largely as a way for France to distance itself from the possibly-failed politics of the EU and start a bloc of countries both large enough to be important and small enough that France can lead. And surely, this is part of what they are doing. But would Med.U members get access to EU markets through access to France? Would there be a leaking in, a hole through France where the economies of these two blocs start to meld? EU countries are concerned, and it depends largely on what the southern cousin of the EU plans to do with its policy. So far, it is even less powerful than ASEAN, but it hast just started. If Sarkozy can get these countries to cooperate, there may be huge economic impact. Interestingly, Turkey's acceptance to the Med.U may hurt its chances in the EU, but it may be hedging its bets.

Nonetheless, what Sarkozy has done is pretty impressive. For all his failings in his home economy, he has done wonders with Diplomacy, in that classic French style that was completely missing from the Chirac presidency. Even modest leadership power over such a region would start to largely resemble the Roman Empire--the only thing missing at this point is England and some Balkan states. But the Med.U could mean great power for France and Sarkozy in the future, and could make them the continential powerhouse of Europe once more--when there has been none since the second World War besides the Soviet Union, and then only through conquest. Furthermore, bringing Israel, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco into a Western-style bloc will turn them to re-focus their viewpoints and foreign policies, and leave the Middle East rifted enough that Iran will be unable to dominate it. Not only will the Med.U resist Iranian intervention, but the Union is likely very bad news for Hamas and Hezbollah, which have been Iran's tools of terror and control for decades in the western part of the Middle East. Iran's day may be coming to a close--this, along with a potential Syrian peace deal and an agreement on Iraq are likely to leave Iran a long-term small-dog on the international scene.

So in one swift stroke, Sarkozy has defied the EU, given himself a legacy and France great power, cut the legs out from under Iran, and given the Middle East the potential for peace that it has not had in millennia. Not quite the Roman Empire, but not a bad start.

Syria is Preparing for a Major Shift

Syria accepted a visit by French President Sarkozy this weekend, and started making noise about major policy shifts that are likely to set the balance of the Middle East well in favor of the West.

First, they accepted a visit by Sarkozy at all. Sarkozy, of course, has been on a foreign policy blitz since he took over for Chirac. Counter to all his economic impotence, he has deeply improved ties with the US, UK, and Germany, re-entered NATO as a full member, taken his own tough stance against Russia and Iran in a way that Europeans have been highly averse to for a very long time. He has proposed a Mediterranean Union, one in which France would likely lead states like Morocco, Algeria, Italy, Turkey, Greece, and other middle-sized states. Syria is a small-but-critical piece of making a great deal of French geopolitical re-positioning possible. For the Syrians to accept them shows an opening-up to their former colonial overlords, despite years of almost-jihadist rhetoric coming from the government.

Second, they are upgrading to full diplomatic relations with Lebanon, for the first time since they declared independence. Such a move, even if it does include Hezbollah as a political party, likely shows an intent to work together with the anti-Syrian majority that ousted the Syrians in multiple bloody steps, ending in 2005. Such cooperation would make it difficult for Hezbollah to make gains from its minority position, and also much harder to acquire weapons. The Syrians are investing in the success and stability of the Lebanese government, and are thus helping to assure it. A willingness to deal with the ruling party in Syria means that Hezbollah will no longer be their only option, and so they are likely to put their limited eggs in multiple baskets.

Finally, the Syrians are seriously looking to continue peace talks with Israel--as soon as the US election is done. This not only shows us how important the US is in such things, but also that it is weighing the timing of the decision seriously, even if it is not clear exactly how. Would McCain scare them into siding with the West? Or would Obama convince them that a friendlier, more regionally hands-off US presidency makes the next 8 years a better time to experiment with pro-Western stances? Or is it as simple as they state--they want either candidate that is not George Bush to work with? I simply don't know. But the sign that they are waiting for the US election shows serious policy consideration on the issue--it is not a matter of whim, but of real conditions. The Syrians want this peace deal. They just need the conditions to be right.

And so they are planning something big. Peace with Israel would mean an Israel secure from any land invasion except by Hezbollah insurgents from Lebanon--and combined with good relations with Lebanon, peace with Israel would lead to a Syria much less excited about supporting unpredictable Shiite insurgent groups that are likely to both destabilize Lebanon and anger Israel. This would also necessitate a moving-away from an Iran that would feel abandoned by its ally. No doubt, the Iranians are likely screaming at Syrian policymakers to reconsider, which may be why they are waiting until the US election. The move would leave Iran relatively isolated by--if not an enemy of--the Middle East, much in the same way that Japan is the black sheep of East Asia. The Syrian abandonment is likely going to give the next US president bargaining power with Iran to come to a deal in Iraq favorable to the US. Iran knows that Iraq will be a Shiite-dominated country, the only question is how much. They may be willing ot hedge their bets on Iraq and ensure a friendly neighbor rather than use brinksmanship to create an idealistic ally, at risk of alienating their last chance in the region.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Petraeus to the Rescue Again

The Senate confirmed General Petraeus to lead Central Command (covering the entire Middle East), 95-2. His deputy General, Lt. Gen. Ray Ordierno, has been promoted to General of Iraq operations, ensuring that Petraeus will have a strong say and a competent, experienced sidekick for the US' biggest war since Vietnam.
Going to Save All Our Other Messes, Too

I'll bet that the Senate is hoping, like I am, that Petraeus has enough magic in his bag of tricks that he can pull Afghanistan out of the terrible mire it's run into, just as he did Iraq. It will be harder, much harder. For all that Bush complains of Iran's intervention in Iraq, they are a stable state with control that can rein in their own hounds--and they largely have. Pakistan has no power over the Northwest, and won't let the US operate there. The Taliban literally have an impervious fortress from which to operate in Pakistan's northwest. I don't know how Petraeus plans to deal with this.

The Superhero Cred

But Petreaus now also gets to watch over Iran. His recent successes do not prove that he knows how to manage Iran's entire repritoire of threats and irritations, but he has certainly beefed up the US Army's credibility against insurgent warfare that Iran can't depend on Hezbollah or its other Shiite puppets for free pecking of US interests any longer.

The Senate's confidence in him is well-founded, surely. And it shows a surprising ability to change opinions based on reality. I'm sure many of us remember the left-wing response to Petraeus' initial appointment:
Destroying America with Victory!

But those days might be over. Not only is this man finally getting a shred of the respect he deserves, but the US Senate is not so ideological as to shoot its own military policy in the foot to make a point. And who knows: maybe he'll come to the rescue for us once more.

China's PR Mess

China's PR machine is struggling seriously.

China killed 5 "militants" today in Xinjiang. Now, these guys might actually be bad guys, but they were not rounded up for trial, just shot. The Chinese PR machine did not make any attempts to say that the "militants" were hurting other people or even resisting arrest when shot, just that they were shot. This makes a lot of Westerners feel queasy about the state's way of dealing with its internal problems.

Now, my Chinese friends, I know you are going to say "these are our problems! You should not care about how we deal with them!" It's true there's no cassus belli for such things, but it's the sort of thing that still makes people uncomfortable. We didn't like the Soviets for starving their own Ukranians to death or slaughtering their own political dissidents, and we're not going to like wanton killing without a justice system, and we're going to reserve that right. Anyway.

China has proudly announced, further, arrests of lots of individuals trying to sabotage the Olympics. Chinese media are very short on details of the plot, of the particular crime committed (though we can guess it's conspiracy to do something). They also announced the "three evils" of "terrorism, separatism, and extremism." Now, most Westerners don't like terrorism or even extremism, but we don't tend to think of people who want their own country (that is, separatists) as necessarily evil. Terror tactics to get it? Totally. But not just standing against the unity of a set of borders described by the government. The Chinese government and media's branding of anyone-who-wants-a-different-country alongside terrorists sounds like very crude political exploitation. Using the "terorrism" brand to win US support for something hasn't worked since 2002. Using "the Olympics" as an public excuse for human rights abuses has never worked.

So I am not sure who is orchestrating the Chinese Public Relations machine. But the Chinese government clearly is in a state of reassurance to its neighbors (along with a tough stance on what it sees as threats to its own interests), but its media blunders are not helping this policy. Further, angry reactions to Western perceptions caused largely by such media blunders make the Chinese state look aggressive and adolescent.

Here at Foggofwar, we suggest finding a new PR team. Email me if you've got an offer.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Iraqi Timetable May Be More Than it Seems

The Surge is ending: The final brigade is on its way out of Iraq right now, after tremendous security success. For the next few months, we will have to hold our breaths and see if the situation keeps improving with fewer forces.

The Bush adminsitration has wanted a "long-term" US presence in Iraq, including permanent bases (like in Korea, Japan, Germany). Al-Maliki, the Prime Minister, has suggested a counter-proposal: A withdrawal timeline. At first glance, this would be a crippling defeat for George Bush, vindicating all of his political opponents that have been demanding such a thing for years.

But more likely, it is a compromise proposed by the administration itself, after realizing that permanent bases were not feasible. If Al-Maliki told Bush "we don't want permanent bases, and even if I did, I couldn't make them happen," then a withdrawal timeline is the immediate second choice.

Al-Maliki mentioned that the timeline would stretch until 2011 or 2012--2 or 3 years into the new presidency. At this point, I think most people in the administration are betting that Obama is going to win the election, and are hedging against him. That, or they could be trying to defeat him.

Stealing the initiative: If the Administration agrees to a 2012 withdrawal timeline and Obama wins the election, he will be hard-pressed to implement his 16-month withdrawal plan, given a previous treaty arrangement with the Iraqis (which he is bound by the Constitution to obey). If the Bush administration's war thinkers are worried about a speedy withdrawal, setting their own timeline with the Iraqis is the best way to prevent it.

Influencing the Election: This move has clear implications in the election that Obama will have to deal with very carefully. He could be caught in a double-bind. If this timeline agreement goes through, Obama will have to choose whether or not to dramatically change his policy. Should he obey the timeline, and try to delicately drop his 16-month withdrawal plan? He might draw serious criticism for flip-flopping, discourage his base, or lose his anti-war cred with moderates. Or should he defy the treaty, and stick to the plan? The Republicans may try to snatch moderates back by calling him out-of-touch, idealistic, unwilling to deal with reality, ignoring international treaties, etc. This timeline may make his Iraq stance an automatic liability, which is definitely a win for an administration that wants someone who is going to stick closer to its foreign policy aims into the future.

Whatever is happening, it is likely very thoroughly-thought long-term planning by the Bush administration. Al-Maliki is a close enough Bush ally that he almost certainly would not publicly request a request for a withdrawal timetable unless it had been already agreed-upon (or unless the administrations were at a deadlock, but it does not appear so at all). And, having been already agreed-upon, the intuitive thing for Bush to do is announce it himself, to show the public he is dedicated to changing his policy with changing times. But he gave the initiative to Al-Maliki, allowing the US press to call it a defeat for him. When he agrees to the timetable, it will appear as if he "caved to pressure." This is exactly what he wants. If it looks like he fought this timetable tooth-and-nail, then the Democrats will be politically forced to rejoice when he signs it, and won't be able to criticize it. Bush, once again, is going to get (almost) what he wants, despite a Democrat congressional majority. Sometimes, Bush is more clever than most give him credit for, and it is this very reputation for lacking subtlety that will allow him to outsmart the Democrats in congress once again.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Iraq-Afghanistan Contradiction

Most of the country still supports a withdrawal from Iraq on a very short timescale. Most of the country also has rather ambivalent leanings towards staying in Afghanistan "until the job is done." Why?

Iraq has shown serious progress for the last year--violence is more than 80% lower than when the surge started, the Sunnis in the west are our closest allies, Al-Qaeda in Iraq is being obliterated by the combined Sunni Awakening, Iraqi Security Forces, and Multinational Forces. The government is making slow political compromise progress, and more is likely to be made after the fall elections equalize representation in parliament. The Iraqi Army's stand-along capabilities are increasing... but the majority of forces still need training. The Iranians are finally starting to help curb the violence among Shiite militias. The American people support withdrawal.

But at the same time, Afghanistan is an increasing disaster. More and more American troops are dying each month--last month, 40 died, compared to 29 in Iraq. The Taliban's /Al-Qaeda's virtual safe haven in Northwest Pakistan makes it impossible for US troops to competently fight them; if the Pakistani government continues to be as unhelpful as they have been since 2001, there is little that US and Afghani troops can do to stifle the growth of the Taliban except try to invade Pakistan's northwest. Without help from Pakistan, this venture is becoming a complete waste of time, and a useless shooting ground for American troops. Americans support staying.

Do we think Pakistan is going to buck up and start fighting the Taliban soon? Or are we, as Americans, so wrapped up in our preconceived notions of morality that our military presence does not depend on results? The military situation in Afghanistan is bad, and getting worse--and there is little our military can do about it without violating Pakistan's sovereignty and possibly setting off another war. But in Iraq, our troops and General Petraeus have shown that smart leadership and good policy can lead to lasting results. Iraq's economy is booming, and its people feel increasingly safe. The end of a US presence in Iraq should come when the Iraqi Security Forces are able to operate independently to keep the security that the US has gained. The end of the US presence in Afghanistan is the one that shows "no end in sight," with a situation slowly and painfully degrading into oblivion.

So why the inconsistency?

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Obama "Preparing the Battlefield" for a Good Iraq Policy

Obama's earlier remarks on Iraq have been highly political and devoid of much consideration of actual military/political force in the country. His high-speed withdrawal plans came without a single conversation with a US military commander involved in the theatre, and has had no good answer (that I can find) for media that have proposed the question that a quick withdrawal may lead to a surge in violence.

But Obama his changing his tune. He actually plans to sit down with military commanders, and might "refine" his Iraq stance in light of evidence. What a novel idea!

But an idealistic young senator running for president is not going to change his long-defended Iraq stance before the election--even if it is a good idea--unless there is a public opinion reason involved. Obama's remarks are preparing the base of the Democratic party--many of them ardently opposed to any coninued US presence in Iraq--for a shift away from telling them what they want to hear, and a shift towards some deeper thought on the subject.

Is Obama trying to make sure he does not end up on the wrong side of the Iraq debate? Maybe, but polling is currently in favor of his old stance--70% of Americans either want troops removed right away or within a year.

Interestingly, Americans are starting to change their idea of just how effective the surge has been:

Does this change in assessment mean a change in opinion is also coming? Why does Obama now want to soften a hard stance that has seemed to work for him so well? Is he simply looking to try to catch moderate Republicans without losing his left-wing base?

Or is he simply so confident in his victory (he shouldn't be--old "comeback McCain" still has a few tricks up his sleeve) that he can actually afford to ignore politics and pursue a more rational strategy in Iraq?