Friday, November 28, 2008

On the Mumbai Attacks

You've read the news: Muslim extremist militants have attacked Mumbai, India with small arms. Well over 100 dead, and multiple days of carnage in some of India's wealthiest hotels.

The attack was clearly directed at Americans, Israelis, and Britons--gunmen took tourists (in multiple locations, including the Taj Mahal Hotel) hostage and started demanding the turnover of civilians with US and UK passports, and started executing them. They also attacked a Jewish house. But these terrorists were ruthless, and carelessly gunned down anyone that didn't strictly follow rules, or appeared to be a threat. They were undisciplined, highly outnumbered, and hope to instill fear into the group to behave. What happened was well over 100 deaths, mostly Indian.

The attack was clearly designed to terrify Americans and Britons. But the attack has brought little in the United States or Britain but sympathy for Indians. The terrorists largely failed to hit the large number of US and UK citizens that they were hoping, and created such lasting carnage in India that the Indians took the vast majority of the impact. Now--nutjob fundamentalist Islamists have no problems with terrifying Indians and assorted Hindus.

But Pakistani fundamentalists have now incurred the wrath of their neighbors. India and Pakistan have gone to war 3 times since 1947, and almost went to war in 2001 over a bombing then. A nasty 2006 train bombing in Mumbai was blamed on Pakistani militants, and this attack already has been blamed on them as well.

The Indians are outraged--they are calling this "India's 9/11"--but their response is not obviously clear. They are angry at the US and UK--I remember seeing a live report interrupted by a hysterical man running by and asking why Indians had to die, why it wasn't the US getting bombed. But the Indians also hate the Pakistanis, and are very used to placing blame on them.

Pakistan's Intelligence was very involved in Indian terror networks before 9/11, but those relations have strained (in part due to US pressure and in part due to Pakistan's own Islamist problems). But if this attack was coordinate in a Pakistan "safe haven," then the Indians may start sharing the same attitude the US has about Pakistan's ability to police its own territory. There is some International Law precedent that a government unable to administer and police its own territory has forfeited its sovereignty. But this will require many months of UN deliberations to happen, if it happens at all.

On the other hand, the US and India could just go ahead and drive in. But even if they were ready to take the political beating for such an attack, they would have to make it quick and decisive--a prolonged war with Pakistan would only strengthen the Islamists. But it's ultimately unlikely to happen.

Pakistan's Intelligence chief is visiting Mumbai, likely to try and keep relations from going sour. But the Indian government, which barely has a stable majority, can't afford to do nothing. If they don't blame Pakistan, then they take the blame themselves. They're unlikely to blame the US and UK for bringing the heat into India--they're so used to anti-Indian attacks that the specific target of these terrorists is mostly immaterial. The Indians will need a target to blame, and decisive action to take, probably targeting Pakistan in some way. How they'll manage their domestic politics and neighborly relations is a tough question that New Dehli will have to be quite clever to figure out.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Iraq: One Fewer Worry for President Obama

The Status of Forces Agreement (SoFA) has passed Iraqi parliament, with 75% of parliament approving. This sounds like a pretty darn big number, but it's about as low a number as the US can politically get away with--a substantial majority against the bill would give a lot of legitimacy to continued anti-American resistance, continued factionalization, etc.

Iraq's fate is sealed; Petraeus and Gates (locked in for the next while at least) should be able to handle the situation quite well. And with this agreement (which must be finalized by the 3-person Iraqi Presidential Council--it will), Obama has no Iraq policy left to make. He need only say, "stick to the plan, Mr. Gates," and the troops will come home in a timeline he can appreciate. It should be a weight off the new president's shoulders.

But with Russian challenges, Somali pirates, Afghanistan falling apart, and now a major, in-progress anti-US/UK terror attack in India, Mr. Obama needs all the relief he can get.

And now, Turkey.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

NATO May Be Out of Afghanistan Sooner than Thought

Afghan President Karzai is starting to become war-weary--as is his populace. His re-election is coming up, and he's starting to become emboldened about his sovereignty thanks in large part due to the negotiations between the US and Iraq in Baghdad. Karzai has asked for a timeline for foreign troop withdrawal--but interestingly, he asked the UN Security Council Delegation, not NATO.

Karzai's frustration is understandable. NATO Counter-Insurgency (COIN) operations are often heavy-handed and humiliating for Afghan citizens, most of whom are much more pro-government than many of the folks in Iraq. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), much of southern Afghanistan remains in control of the Taliban. As the Army COIN manual states, the more force that is used in COIN operations, the less effective the force is.

Because the US has very limited operational ability in Pakistan, and Pakistan has been impressively inept at squeezing the Taliban itself, much of NATO (which has no operational capability in Pakistan at all) concentrates its efforts on rooting the Taliban from Afghan villages. The consequences of this, at minimum, are war-weariness. Worse consequences include insurgency formation.

Such a declaration by Karzai is likely quite scary to a US that believes its reputation can't afford a recapturing of Afghanistan by the Taliban. And surely, Karzai doesn't want to timeline his own government into overthrow and his own family into the gallows. It's not what he's looking for--Karzai is a smart, shrewd politician, and his idea has some tricky potential.

So, why a timeline? Looking like a Western colonial tributary is a terrible way to gain legitimacy for your state among the average Mohammed. Remember, Afghanistan is a state of Muslims, has almost no economy to speak of, and very little ability to project power throughout its mountainous terrain. It needs a sovereign legitimacy in the eyes of its people to counter the Taliban--luckily, the Taliban's previous brutal regime alienated such a large proportion of the population that they will not have unanimous support.

But a Taliban opposition will always exist. And yes, they are rather extremist Muslims, but they are not themselves al-Qaeda. They allied with al-Qaeda to keep control. Karzai has a plan to drive a wedge between them. Karzai will make a political deal with members of the Taliban that are willing to openly reject al-Qaeda and accept the Afghani Constitution. For many Taliban, these aren't huge concessions to give in exchange for some military relief--it will be easier to sleep at night knowing that American missiles are less likely to whack them in the middle of the night.

Getting the Taliban to buy into the government has the potential to be akin to the Sunni Awakening. The Sunnis that the US was dealing with in Anbar province were allied with al-Qaeda, extremist in nature, and quite happy to kill civilians. To think that the Taliban cannot be dealt with for these reasons is overly simplistic and idealistic. Smart negotiations can not only keep many Afghani Taliban from making life worse, but they may (given enough incentive) help to hunt down al-Qaeda and cut off cross-border support from Pakistan. Afghanistan is the kind of place where these local militias are a natural steady state, and the government is unlikely to do well by trying to apply thumbscrews to disarm them. Certainly, it is better to ally with them; if the economy can grow, regional divisions will fade in the long-term.

Can a state live with a large extremist Islamic minority? Certainly--even if it's not easy. Saudi Arabia has is Wahabbis, Egypt has its Muslim Brotherhood, Lebanon has all sorts of extreme minorities, as does Iraq, and Jordan has lots of Palestinian refugees to deal with--there is some variation in their success, certainly, but they can hold it together with this model if they negotiate well. It's hard to beat extremism out of a population with a hammer.

On the other hand, the war in Afghanistan is not being won, and the Afghanis are taking quite the brunt for it--as are NATO soldiers and taxpayer dollars. But!

NATO should not encourage reconciliation and peace talks only after it withdraws. NATO troops should act as peace enforcers, trainers, and facilitators to the deal. The US should help forge the Afghani government demands and goals, including Afghani army oversight of any local militia operations.

Like in Iraq, the first thing that needs to happen is a creation of serious security--which at this point probably cannot be done without a peace and reconciliation agreement with parts of the Taliban. Like the Sunni Awakening in Iraq, this will have a payoff of not only reducing violence from these groups, but turning guns against the serious dead-enders.

Once security has been established, long-term political deals need to be made. This is a highly complex process that should be able to bring in many Taliban in the south of Afghanistan--for the right price. Afghanistan will have to be tough and keep power-sharing from overwhelming the Afghani democracy, but minority protections and limited autonomy are common provisions in civil war termination.

If the political deal holds, then economic development and administrative distribution will be the priority of Kabul--but these will be much easier if it's not fighting a war. With a growing economy, working healthcare and garbage collection, more electricity, better roads, and (importantly) fewer doors getting bashed in by foreign infidels, regime security is likely to get a lot better in the long-term.

NATO should be open-minded enough to Karzai's idea to try and support initial talks with the Taliban--testing the water to see what their demands are can't hurt. The US and Afghanistan alike have been taking a beating over the past 7 years, and frankly, things are getting worse. Luckily, Gen. Petraeus is now head of CENTCOM, and his experiences in Iraq should provide him with great wisdom into how to best design the proper carrots and sticks for Afghanistan's Anbar-like southern rural extremists. Hopefully the US will look for a way to deal with Afghanistan that is a bit more effective than continuing to beat its head against a brick wall.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Winning The Second Cold War Before It Starts

Oh, the Russians. Becoming more and more terrifying, no? Moscow's domestic and international politics alike are worrying the West, and for good reason.

The Duma (Russian parliament) has backed a 6-year presidential term, almost certainly leading to a 12-year Medvedev presidency--and thus an even greater extension of Putin's power. Apparently, the bill means that Putin will be eligible to run for President again in 2012 or 2018, whenever Medvedev decides he's done... giving Putin yet another 6-12 years afterwards. He'll have ruled longer than any post-revolution leader of Russia.

And Russia's leadership is not ruling with a bunnies-and-kitties fist. Russia's habit of intimidating dissenting reporters (usually by sending the mob) has been ratcheted up by Moscow's declaration that it would close the murder trial of Politkovskaya to the public. The Kremlin is signaling that it would rather appear opaque and shadowy than let whatever terrible truth is afoot here get out. Justice for future murders is unlikely.

Internationally, he presidents of Poland and Georgia had to duck from fire at a South Ossetian checkpoint over the weekend, and the Russians are waving it off as a setup by the Poles. How the Poles might have put agents into South Ossetia to fire on their own president is unclear.

Russia's launching itself towards new superpowerdom, and quickly. It is sending a naval fleet to South America to deal with Brazil, Venezuela, and Cuba--almost certainly to boast that it can steamroll the Monroe doctrine at its pleasure, and to put pro-Russian sentiment into the back yard of the US. It's threatening to set up offensive ballistic missiles against its former satellite countries that won't cow to its will. It's trying to force Finnish paper industries to move to Russia with crippling timber tariffs. The invasion of Georgia was a clear signal to NATO to back off. Russia has threatened to cut off gas supplies to France and Germany if NATO accepts the Ukraine.

With Putin and Medvedev likely in power for approximately forever (in government terms, looking three or four administrations away is such--Could Gerald Ford plan for Bill Clinton's tenure?), they're likely to only turn the heat up as Russia's GNP and military continue to grow. Western governments likely want to (and if they don't, should want to) launch preventative measures to keep Russia from becoming big enough to actually do damage to Western interests. I have some simple (but not easy) suggestions on how to relegate Russia to being a tinpot regional power, able to terrorize only the people of the Central Asian Stans (which we Westerners don't care much about anyway):

1) Show NATO Has Guts.NATO was formed for one reason: to contain Russia. In the 1990s, Russia's internal collapse meant NATO found itself bored and poking around in the civil wars of small Balkan and African countries. In 2001, it came to bat for its largest benefactor, the US. NATO has grown aggressively throughout the 1990's and 2000's. It has shown strength, unity, and cooperation. It should make sure not to splinter, and see what it can to do supports members in most dire need of help: the Czech Republic, Poland, Turkey.

2) Subsume Georgia and the Ukraine.The Russians clearly meant to terrify NATO by smashing Georgia up so thoroughly--they hoped to make Georgia such a liability that NATO would reject it as an ally. But if NATO is going to contain Russia, it should invest in taking the blow now to keep a knife close to Russia's underbelly. But the Ukraine is even more important. The Ukraine is the Russian heartland, and provides Russia with massive supplies of grain. In addition, Sevastopol is Russia's only deep warm water port, which it rents from the Ukraine. Losing its lease would mean a deep retraction of the Russian navy, particularly in the winter. Seasonal power projection is barely better than no power projection, and Russia would lose great influence in the Eastern Mediterranean and elsewhere. If the Ukraine and Georgia enter NATO, Russia's last two European allies will be the paltry Serbia and Belarus--staunch, but ineffectual. Russia will be pushed out of Europe forever. If it goes on to develop Central Asia to give itself a sphere of influence, than all the better.

3) Come to bat for Germany and France. If Ukraine and Georgia are admitted to NATO, then Germany and France are likely to lose access to Russian oil and gas. But luckily, oil and gas are necessarily fungible, unless Russia chooses to hoard that gas and lose all the revenue, rather than sell it... but this is unlikely. Let's assume they sell it to the Chinese, instead. That means the Chinese demand less Middle Eastern hydrocarbon, and the price goes down. The Americans and British can buy up these cheaper Middle Eastern resources, and then re-sell them to the French. Now, will it all be as cheap as normal? Clearly not. But everyone can take some hit in prices to support French and German stands against Russian resource blackmail, and it will have to be temporary if the Russians don't want to lose lots of money over their own inefficiency (currently, they make the most possible money by selling to Europe). It will be temporarily costly to test Russian resolve, but the long-term savings in not having to deal with Russian weight-throwing are immense.

4) Accelerate the Mediterranean Solar Plan. Sarkozy's MedU plan to stick a bunch of thermal solar plants in North Africa to replace oil and gas dependency for power-generation has a few excellent effects for Europe in the long-term. The first is a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, which will help them sleep at night. The second will be a less volatile source of electricity, which will keep shocks from busting up the economy. The third benefit will be relief from dependence on Russian gas and oil. Imports are fine, unless you're importing from someone who's willing to jump from a cliff just to take you down with him. Putin may be ready to do that. In the long-term, the more the Europeans reduce their dependence on Russian gas and oil, the more irrelevant the Russians will become. France's high-speed construction of nuclear power plants is a great example of these efforts--even if nuclear power is currently more expensive than the gas and oil. The French and German power grids are integrated, and if the Russians do turn the gas off, a combination of solar in North Africa, wind in Germany, and nuclear in France should soon be able to sop up enough of the slack to keep the economy from faltering as the Americans and Brits scramble to deliver the necessary hydrocarbons.

If the Russians lose Ukraine and Georgia, and also (in the long-term) lose their hydrocarbon monopoly in Europe, they will become irrelevant very quickly, unless they actually want to initiate a full-scale war with NATO. But the Russians are smarter than they used to be, and weren't foolish enough to launch such a war in the 20th century, when they owned half of Europe. If NATO claims the Ukraine and Georgia, its conquering of the Russian empire will be complete, and in the long-term, Russia will be relegated to its own icy home.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

China's Recession Crisis

While Western powers are worrying about a six-month recession and the belt-tightening it entails, the Chinese are worrying about much greater consequences. Rather than simple approval ratings declines, the Chinese are facing a crisis of legitimacy that may undermine the very fabric of the Communist Party's authority.

For decades, the Communists have been terrified of large-scale unrest and demonstration. They frequently underplay the number of local demonstrations in the country and tightly control information to prevent potential dissenters from hearing that there is momentum. When times are good, there are hundreds of large protests in China per year, according to the CIA. Even if it's significantly fewer than hundreds (only dozens), it's still more than Beijing admits, and still more than they're comfortable with.

The Chinese diaspora tends to be highly nationalistic and defensive of their nation of heritage, and many wealthy Chinese are happy to protest against the Japanese when the state tells them to. But in this very group-oriented country, the state has not managed to make itself the only source of authority, as much as it has tried to do so.

With a global economic slowdown, China is going to get hit hard. Its wealthy customers--the US, Canada, the EU, Japan, Australia, etc--are going to trim their budgets down to essentials, and many Chinese products are going to be the first to go. Exports are already falling, and factories in China are already closing their doors. Luckily, oil is cheap--otherwise, imports from China would be so expensive that production would re-localize, and that's a trend the Chinese can't afford.

The world may be impressed with China's 8% sustained growth, but Chinese economists see it as a bare minimum to sustain. Beijing's biggest worry is unemployment, and extremely rapid growth is necessary to prevent it from shooting up--as technology, supply chain efficiency, and competition from Latin America and Southeast Asia make Chinese labor obsolete, the Chinese government tries to expand its economy laterally (that is, with simply more factories) to incorporate laborers. It has kept the official rate down to 4%, but this only includes registered workers--hundreds of millions of rural farmers and migrant laborers are underemployed and unemployed, and the Chinese cannot currently afford an extensive welfare program to keep these people sated in bad times.

Worse, the Chinese have continued to rely on expanding export production to keep the economy going--it's quick-and-dirty, but inefficient, and discourages sustainable national consumption-based economies, skilled labor, etc. It also leaves the economy very vulnerable to fluctuations in spending by Westerners and oil prices--both of which have been extremely vulnerable in the past few months. Beijing has been sweating.

But news for them is getting worse. Nation-wide taxi cab driver protests have taken hold, and while they are unlikely to become a nationwide uprising, it's a sign that the Chinese are starting to lose control over the population. The official unemployment rate has gone above 4.5%, and the minimum wage has not increased in years--fine during good times, but bad when costs of living stop decreasing, as they're doing. There are a whole lot of people that might latch onto a movement by taxi cab drivers, or day laborers, or factory workers, or textile makers, or all sorts of people, if they manage to get organized. Unemployed and underpaid labor is a serious threat to the Chinese government as a potential source of mass dissent.

The Chinese Communist Party retains its legitimacy through promising economic growth and a better tomorrow for China. "Don't change horses when you're winning the race" has been a fine line to repeat since 1979, but what happens if China's unemployment goes up and its GDP growth slows too much? Dissent that starts by calling for reform may start calling for new leadership if the current leadership cannot deliver. The earthquake-Olympic honeymoon of the summer faded faster than Beijing would like, and they need to keep reform and growth chugging along to hold on.

China's economy has been zooming along a teetering precipice for years, and Chinese economists have had to manipulate with pure genius to keep its export-led plan from crashing. But if the world economic slowdown deepens, there will be nothing even they can do. To achieve sustainable, hands-off growth and economic stability, the answer is to follow the West--liberalized, privatized economies that increase efficiency with domestic consumption and comparative advantage will keep the GDP growing on its very own. But China can't easily switch into such an economic stance. Decades of kicking the economy into an export-on-steroids stance have created massive inequalities between the coast and the west, creating huge demographic pressures that would turn into chaos if Beijing took the lid off. The transition to a liberal domestic consumption economy would mean a temporary closing of many factories that are literally exporting at a loss and subsidized by the government, the temporary unemployment of those workers, and a decrease in the minimum wage to try to encourage investors to sop up the newly unemployed. It would be a mess, but Chinese state controls have set up the economy for a transitional disaster unless the transition occurs during an economic boom.

But these are not good economic times, and massive economic liberalization would likely lead to enough temporary chaos to lead to an unseating of the CPP's monopoly--if not a revolution. China faces a serious crisis if its economy gets a lot worse, and there is little Beijing can do to satiate its population. Its economic controllers have set it up for failure in this kind of market.

What this means for the US--Chinese GDP growth is not going to be sustained. The Chinese economy will not overtake the US economy in the next 20 or 30 years, as many pro-protectionist policymakers in the US suggest. Either the Chinese will successfully bounce out of this crisis and continue down the road of WTO integration (whence their GDP growth will slow into a more sustainable, free, labor-inclusive, and income-equalized market with lots of domestic consumption), or the Chinese economic controllers will falter, leading to a short chaos followed by a new regime (with a honeymoon and new mandate to make tough changes).

The former is very good for the US--Chinese domestic consumption and a lowering of import tariffs will mean that, as the Chinese grow, they will be able to afford American exports. A China of free trade and liberal policy will be one that US labor interests should encourage to grow, such that it becomes a market of high-quality US goods.

The latter is bad for everyone (besides, perhaps, the Tibetans). A collapse of the 4th-largest economy in the world will lead to a deep global depression, particularly in East Asia. The US can almost afford to live without Chinese imports (though many US manufacturers, construction firms, retailers, and financial institutions will dry up), but much of the rest of the world is likely to go down with China.

Therefore, the likely consequences of all this is that the EU and US may have to work to bail the Chinese out--they will try to crank up imports of Chinese goods with "stimulus" packages and consumer support, but hopefully in return for concessions by China to reform in the medium-term.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Sri Lanka Breaking Stalemate With Tigers

Current civil war theory suggests that civil wars are tough to end with negotiated settlements; victory tends to stick better. Attempts to intervene from outside have largely failed to end the 25-year-old Sri Lanka civil war, in which the LTTE (popularly known as Tamil Tigers) have fought for independence from Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka's not a big state, nor a rich one--the disruption has been devastating to its population, and quite a thorn in the side of India (who has a large Tamil minority in its southeast). The rebels, who claim a large swath of northern coastal territory in Sri Lanka as "Tamil homeland," are on the US and EU terror lists for their treatment of civilians during the conflict. But to be truly fair, the Colombo government hasn't been much nicer.

The rebels have been surprisingly well-armed during the entire ordeal, able to strike Sri Lankan military installations multiple times in the last year with a fighter-bomber wing that the Sri Lankans have struggled to destroy. But a renewed offensive, in which the Sri Lankan military has taken heavy casualties, recaptured the central-eastern part part of the country and the critical Jaffna Pennensula at the northernmost part of the island. The rebels have been collapsed to a defensive pod (the pink shown in the picture to the right), and have held strong. But a recent three-day battle with heavy casualties has broken the rebel front lines on the north-facing side of the Tamil stronghold.

The territory is jungle, and thus very friendly to the local Tamils, who are likely able to move rather freely throughout the area; this will make fighting here not only tought, but a Vietnam kind of tough. The government may have to resort to seriously heavy-handed tactics througout the last phases of the operation to smoke out the Tigers once and for all--even if this will make reconstruction and reintegration more difficult.

I mean to emphasize that there will not be a quick and easy victory in store for the Sri Lankan military-- but the momentum is certainly theirs, and their casualty-acceptance has gone up significantly as morale increases. The ability of the Tigers to launch air strikes or move in major formations without being hit by Sri Lankan air power has diminished significantly, and the Sri Lankan military should begin to assume flanking operations on one side of the front if it has kept reserves properly ready. It must sieze the initiative.

If it does not, the Tamils may resort to trying to stretch the conflict out through a Maoist insurgency--of the style used by the Chinese Red Army in the 1930's, the Viet Cong in the 1960's. Such a style of asymmetric warfare has a surprisingly high rate of success against local governments when the purpose is to stretch their supply lines, decrease their morale, and generally increase costs.

That said, the likelihood that the Tigers will be able to turn the tide in full at this point is very low. They do not have a large population to continually draw fighters from, and their area of operation has shrunk so low that they will struggle to avoid decisive battles like this most recent one--Maoist-style insurgencies can only succeed if the rebels have the ability to continually retreat and regroup--hit-and-run tactics against patrols between long-term rests in relatively friendly territory are essential in being able to carry out a protracted conflict. The Tamils' ability to do that is quickly shrinking; the Sri Lankan military's superior manpower, training, and resources should bring them victory in the next few months.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

India Takes Pirate Problems Into Own Hands

The Indians have had enough of Somali pirate hubris. After having a ship almost hijacked last week (among a slough of others), the INS Tabar, confronted a pirate "mothership," and told the men on board that the ship was going to be searched. Now if you've ever seen Waterworld, think of the undead Exxon Valdez, but all the crew have RPGs.

When the Indians tell these guys they're going to be searched, they start firing their RPGs and light arms. Now I don't know if you've ever seen a missile frigate, but if you did, I bet you would know better than trying to scare it off with light arms. They're not only armed to the teeth with surface-to-surface missiles, but have a bow and stern cannons and heavy machine guns bristling from all corners.

The Tabar was pleased to have an excuse to open fire. The details are few, but it likely tossed off a few SS missiles and hit a few weapons caches, and the "mothership" went down. A few speedboats ran off, but they likely lost their supplies and leadership.

Of course, there are many pirate factions in Somalia. The Mogadishu government is mostly... nonexistent. The Indians, Russians, Americans, Brits, and Saudis will have to start policing the waters themselves, and continue this kind of anti-pirate offensive--if they do, Somali thieves may decide the occasional oil tanker isn't worth the risk of taking SS missiles in the face.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

New Pieces in Place in Iraq

Two major events have happened in the last day that are going to make Mr. Obama's life significantly easier when he enters office. The first is the passing of the Status of Forces Agreement (SoFA) in the Iraqi Cabinet. The second is the setting of a date for provincial elections in 14 of 18 provinces of Iraq.

The Status of Forces Agreement is a treaty that the US has tried to acquire for many months, granting US forces some form of extended stay in Iraq (after the UN Mandate runs out on Dec 31, 2008). The issue has been hotly debated and altered many times; US troops will have less freedom to operate, a tighter Rules of Engagement (ROE), more oversight, and more deadlines than before. Earlier, Shiites in parliament had stated that they would not agree to the previous version of the pact, which granted US troops too much leeway. Most parliament members will probably publicly oppose the pact, but vote for it anyway, and claim that there was little else they could do--ultimately, Iraqi parliament knows that it needs the US for security more than the US needs Iraq for its reputation and values. This has become very clear in the past two weeks, which have carried a rise in violence.

In its first major step towards ratification, the pact got 27 of 28 votes in cabinet to be moved on to the legislature for approval. The legislature is unlikely to be as one-sided as Maliki's hand-picked cabinet--parliament is indeed made up of many factioned parties--but the near-unanimous approval of the cabinet will be a push for any fence-sitting legislators. In addition, Maliki has managed to forge a comrpomise with Cleric Al-Sistani, the most powerful religious figure in Iraq, to avoid openly opposing the pact. This should put most Shiites on board with the Kurds in parliament and, along with pro-US Sunni forces, they should likely make up a majority.

Provincial elections are complicated. In 2005, boycotts led to very lopsided victories, which led to Sunni worries of domination, which led to bombing a few mosques here and there, which led to reprisals, which led to civil war. Today, the provincial appointments remain lopsided, but the new elections aim to change that. Currently, Tamil and the three Kurdish provinces will not be voting on January 31, when everyone else votes. There are not yet sufficient rules for Kurdish semi-autonomous provinces for parliament to be able to deal with their vote, and Tamil's status is under contention by Arabs, Turkmen, and Kurds as to whether it should be semi-autonomous or not. Because no agreement on rules for these 4 provinces could be made, the elections--originally slated for October--were pushed back. The compromise so far has been to allow for elections in 14 provinces and figure the other ones out later--probably a pretty good idea. Of the 4 left-our provinces, only Tamil has serious potential for the ethnosectarian makeup of its leadership to change--the Kurdish provinces are mostly happy with their leadership.

After the 31st of January, 2 effects should be seen: First, an increased confidence rating by local citizens about their government's ability to act fairly and effectively. Disproportionate election results have meant a sense of oppression for many Iraqis, and that is likely to change. Second, a sense of compromise is likely to take hold in Iraqi leadership. Previously, parties with a disproportionate majority had incentives to try and brute-force their interests, and disproportionate minority parties had an incentive to block anything trying to go through. With more pluralistic representation, decisions will require multi-party support, and the incentive will be to start by compromising.

Both decisions will make President Obama's life easier. The first means he has a guide to troop withdrawal, and can avoid doing anything politically risky by making serious decisions one way or the other. The second will lead to long-term political reconciliation in Iraq, which will reduce violence and leave a more functional country upon US withdrawal--and he will be able to take all the credit.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Sarkozy Comes to Obama's Rescue

Nicholas Sarkozy, Diplomatic Rock Star, has made an appearance to reduce Mr. Obama's list of foreign policy challenges by at least one--to great effect.

Hours after McCain conceded the American Presidential election to Obama, Russian President Medvedev announced that Russia, in response to US anti-missile shields in Poland , would be building offensive missile capabilities right outside of Poland.

Allow me to first digress into how silly this is as a foreign policy scheme. "If you install anti-missile technology in Poland, we will install offensive missiles next to Poland!" seems unnecessarily bellicose. Of course Russia can overwhelm almost any missile shield with sheer volume--which means it's rather unlikely the missile shield was meant to defend against Russia, rather than Iran. But anyway.

Sarkozy led an EU-Russia meeting that caused the Russians to agree to back off of the claims--giving Obama some much-needed pressure relief. The Russians are asking Mr. Obama to attend an EU-Russia security meeting in the summer, but it may be a largely face-saving measure on their part--the longer that these missile shields are the norm, the tougher it will be for the Russians to overturn their existence (even though they are not yet installed).

Sarkozy's meeting and convincing has helped Obama avoid an early bout of brinksmanship, in which he would have to act in a way that might either be perceived as aggressive on one hand or weak on the other. This double-bind was probably the intent of Mr. Medvedev, who would benefit from either. Mr. Sarkozy has bought Mr. Obama some much-needed time to make a consistent foreign policy materialize before he faces any serious great power challenges. The Americans owe the French some thanks on this one.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Taiwan's Independence Movement Takes a Blow

Chen Shui-Bian, former Taiwanese president and proponent of independence from China, has been jailed on charges of embezzlement of millions of dollars of public funds. His anti-corruption credit (and his survival of a possibly-staged assassination plot) was a big reason his party won elections in the 1990s--but along with pro-Chinese sentiment, these charges (especially if they lead to a conviction) will cast a dark spectre over the DPP for many years to come--and give the KMT enough seats to act as they please.

In short, these corruption charges are the final blow to an already-sick and weakened DPP. KMT hegemony--and a slow leaning back towards China--will dominate the next many years of Taiwanese politics. Luckily, it is likely to make US-Chinese relations a whole heck of a lot easier for an inexperienced Mr. Obama.

Monday, November 10, 2008

So Long, Gitmo

Obama has put his project to restore the US image in the West into action, less than a week after election. He's announced that he'll order the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility as soon as he is sworn in.

The move will almost certainly help Bush in negotiations with Iraq. There remains a 3-week gap between the end of the UN Mandate for US presence in Iraq and Obama's first day in office, which means they won't be able to make the pact with him--but knowing he'll be around is likely to soften the edge on the negotiations a bit.

Worries from the right that things will get too soft are, of course, worth thinking about.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Not So Fast, Tehran

Don't book your tickets to Iranian vacation spots yet. Obama's cautiousness towards Iran is becoming apparent, and there is unlikely to be a diplomatic honeymoon between the US and Iran.

But this makes sense. With Iranian elections coming up, Obama has no intention of appearing to support president Ahmadinejad. If Obama were to respond with glee to Ahmadinejad's congratulation on victory, it would be a signal that Obama was fond of the Iranian president, and would probably help Ahmadinejad's chances in the June election.

Obama will have to toe a careful strategy of showing openness to negotiation and embassy in Iran, while still criticizing the hardline policies of its presidency, to convince Iranian moderates--hopeful for a good relationship with the West--that Ahmadinejad has to go in the June elections.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Ahmadinejad Under Fire

The Iranian election (in 8 months) has been, and will continue to be, overshadowed by the American and Israeli elections. Ahmadinejad is up for re-election then (after a 4-year term); his election will be (in part) a referendum for his very brinksman-style policies on Israel, the West, the US, and nuclear "power." It looks like things are not going to go his way.

First, religious conservatives in Iran don't really like him. They're relatively insular, and more concerned with Islam and the Shia Ummah than with regional power-grabbing and conflict. He's faced pressure from the unelected religious leadership to tone down and look inward. International sanctions have hurt him with these groups.

Parliament has started targeting his allies. A cabinet member was dismissed for having faked his educational credentials, by large margin in parliament.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly: Ahmadinejad has depended in large part on the fact that the US is seen as an enemy, as unreasonable, as controlled by war-corporations. Whether merited or not, the election of Obama has changed the perspective of many Iranians about the US attitude, its democracy, etc. This is in large part due to the fact that Obama's black--if a black man can win, then the democracy must be real. The results are undermining years of messages by Tehran state media, trying to reinforce beliefs of US corruption, capitalism-evil, white dominance, etc etc. Tehran's anti-Westerners are going to struggle in the next election as people catch onto the fact that state media has been lying.

From the LA Times: "“Let me tell you that now I believe in American democracy,” [a man in Tehran] said excitedly. “Honestly, I did not think that Obama would be president. I thought that the invisible hands of the big trusts and cartels would not allow a black man to be president of the United States.”" Iranians tuned into Voice of America to hear Persian translations of Mr. Obama's victory speech.

Even Obama's reaching-out to Tehran might undermine Ahmadinejad. If the US appears to be open-minded and diplomatic in the Middle East, moderate, pro-West parties will begin to look more attractive (because warming up to the West will have fewer cons than previously thought).

All this means that Ahmadinejad has a tough 8 months in front of him. Expect a moderate alternative to start looking popular in the next few months in Iran.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Another Election Digression

I must apologize for not getting this out earlier, but I was busy watching the election.

It is clear at this point that I'm a Libertarian, so I have no shame in publishing the following picture, made by the wonderful Kathleen Clark-Adams:

Monday, November 3, 2008

Ballot Box Special: Candidate's Foreign Policies

This isn't a terribly exciting post--what I'll mostly be telling you is that both candidates have approximately the same foreign policy plans.

The Washington Post provides an excellent summary.

Differences:

Trade: McCain wants more Free Trade Agreements, Obama doesn't. That said, the Democratic majority in congress wouldn't let McCain sign a free trade agreement with North Carolina, so none of that is going to happen in the near future, anyway.

Iraq: Notable differences here include rhetoric, largely, but not much else. McCain thinks Iraq is a battleground for terror, Obama thinks it's a distraction. McCain thinks the surge worked, Obama... didn't, but then quietly stopped commenting on it when he saw the polls were going the wrong way. Obama wants a 16-month withdrawal timeline, McCain... wanted to stay long-term (like South Korea, Germany, etc), but quickly voiced his support for an Iraqi-proposed 2011 deadline for withdrawal.

Iran and Russia: John McCain's unmasked hate for both countries means diplomatic relations would sour. McCain wants to even boot Russia from the G8, push hard for expansion of NATO, and generally relegate Russia to a permanently castrated former power. Obama wants to hold hands and talk. It's actually somewhat unclear what's a better idea, as far as I can tell.

Similarities:

Afghanistan: Both want to add 2 combat brigades to Iraq, and use their fresh mandate as a new president to improve ties with Pakistan, helping build Pakistan's economy and democracy. Interestingly, both support attacks into Waziristan without consulting Pakistan, first. While I may have a lot of criticisms of such a seemingly mutually undermining policy package, I'll save that for later.

Georgia: Both supported Georgia in its war with Russia, but both are letting it fade into the background.

Energy Security: They both want it, neither will get it. Really, the way to be energy-secure in the near term is to mandate CO2 catchers on power plants and use clean coal--we've got lots of it, and it's really darn cheap. But the word "coal" terrifies people. McCain wants more drilling, but probably wouldn't get any more than he already got in this last year, so both would be pushing renewable energy, electric cars, etc. It's a bit more complicated as to exactly what tax breaks and incentives and subsidies would go where, but it'll mostly work out in the wash.

Ethics: Both want to close Guantanamo Bay, end torture as a US-sponsored practice, and repeal other nastier aspects of the Bush regime. Bravo, gentlemen.

Ground forces: Both want to increase them, but with what money, and what recruits? The Iraq war has sucked the country dry of potential warriors and has crushed demand. Maybe their charm and charisma can lure more young rural kids into the armed forces.

Climate change: Both want to fight it. Hello, Kyoto; goodbye, US manufacturing industry.

So if you're sweating foreign policy, don't. It'll mostly be the same either way. And if the Democrats get their unbreakable majority in Senate, which is possible, then the president (either way) won't do much but hold pom poms or pitchforks for whatever they decide they're doing.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Intrigue and Betrayal at Damascus

The London Times has reported that the Syrian government had approved the US raid within its borders that it is now protesting--but it's a bit more complicated than that.

The Syrians allegedly gave the OK for US commandos to quietly pop in, kidnap a big al-Qaeda leader operating in Syria (that the Syrians sure as heck don't want there), leave, and interrogate him. Clearly, things didn't go to plan, and a number of Syrians died. Now there are pictures of crying family members all over Middle Eastern news.

What can the Damascus government do? They're already taking a fair amount of heat from the more conservative elements of their state for their Westernization efforts--but they've been smart. Their Westernization has been towards less-antagonizing powers like France, and their joining the MedU has allowed them to work with Israel and the European Union under the guise of economic construction. Syria's ties to the West are important mostly because the US is in Iraq--which Syria isn't terribly thrilled about, anyway.

So the operation got botched, and crying Syrian women are on the news--the Syrians, of course, are going to deny that they let such a terrible thing happen. And sure, they didn't really approve the US coming in and shooting people up, that wasn't part of the deal at all. So the Syrians have protested heavily. They've closed the US embassy--at least for now. Quietly, they are probably saying, "Sorry, there is nothing else we can do."

But they're also withdrawing troops from the Iraqi border--which is going to make the border more porous. Early in the war, Syria was quite happy to have a porous Iraqi border--their jihadists and extremists all left to fight and die in Iraq, which was quite fine with them (remember, they're a secular Ba'athist regime). But during the Surge and the Sunni Awakening, Western Iraq became less friendly to al-Qaeda and company--so they all started going back to Syria, so they would have a safe haven from which to conduct operations. Damascus had to finally get troops on the border to prevent arms and men from going out, so that the incentive for bad guys to hang out in Syria would be lower.

Now that the Syrian people are up in arms against the US, the Syrian jihadists are likely to be freshly motivated to go hit the US in Iraq as retribution--so under the guise of diplomatic outrage, the Syrians are quietly letting their jihadists in once more, and they're likely to re-seal the border in a week or two, to make sure that the bad guys don't try to come back after they find that Western Iraq is, once again, not a terribly friendly place to be for terrorists.

The US, obviously, feels somewhat betrayed. Sure, they botched the operation, but to be called out for being "aggressive" or violating Syrian sovereignty, is just untrue. A frustrated Washington is facing an Iraqi parliament using this incident as a new bargaining chip in sapping more concessions from the US in the extended US-Iraqi security pact. There will certainly be some sort of pact by December--moderate Iraqis and Americans know that neither side can tolerate the pact not happening, but many factions in Iraqi parliament are much more willing to play brinksmanship with the pact and get concessions for their particular party/sectarian group--all they need is just enough diplomatic legitimacy to do it, and the Syrian raid incident has given it to them; the US military will ultimately bear the brunt of this foul-up.

But the Syrians did make one mistake. If it's clear to US allies that Damascus gave the go-ahead for the raid, then US allies that Syria depends on are likely to make Assad's life difficult. For example: The UK quickly canceled a joint conference in London with the Syrian government after the raid--a confusing move at the time, but one likely meant to show Syria that London is not as quick to sell out Washington as Damascus may be. More importantly in the long-term, the ascent of Sarkozy in France has turned Paris into a strong Washington ally (and Bush ally, even). As head of the Mediterranean Union, and the key to Syria's entry into the Western fold, Sarkozy's voice has a lot of sway in Damascus.

Nothing terribly decisive is likely to happen until Bush is out of office, and puzzle pieces can't really fall into place until the Israeli election happens, either. But the decision in Damascus to sell out the US to keep itself from facing heat domestically is likely to have unforseen diplomatic consequences, for both the US and the Syrians, independently of each other. All in all, it was probably a bad decision. The Syrians could have claimed that there was a miscommunication, and that the US had mistakenly come over the border. Clearly, Damascus can't admit that it gave the US the go-ahead to enter Syrian territory, but to put the maximum possible blame on the US was not necessary to save face. If Damascus wants to Westernize, it needs to be able to take a stand with the friends it wants to make, and not sell them out at first convenience. Friends don't always get along, and the US in particular is a friend with liabilities in the region. But it comes with the territory--one has to take it or leave it.
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