The Screaming Pen

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The Final Battle

Iraq at Home (Part 2): Realizing the New 3rd Rail of American Politics

“Congress and the American people will continue to support and protect the members of the United States Armed Forces who are serving or who have served bravely and honorably in Iraq.”House Concurrent Resolution 63 (2/10/07)

“You know education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”John Kerry (11/1/ 2006)

The most crucial factor – in terms of the domestic political battle over Iraq policy – is neither geopolitical nor about precedent and signaling (see the background to this article). The Republicans have owned the concept in recent years and have invoked it time after time in the debates in the House this week; Democrats are trying to wrest it away. It defines the parameters of U.S. policy in Iraq and both parties are grappling to invoke it with great fervor. It’s the first half of H Con Res 63 (stated above): support for our troops.

Literally, speech after speech after speech in Congress the past three days has centered on this concept. Democrats have begun every statement about Iraq along the lines of “I firmly support our troops” before making a segue to an appeal for reason, sometimes citing a concern for preventing the future loss of troops’ lives to reinforce this assertion. In a realm of dodged questions and shifty statements, it’s the new social security, the sole inviolable third rail of American politics. Just ask John Kerry, who found out about the danger of crossing this fine line in November 2006.

Across the aisle, Republicans claim that supporting the resolution undermines our faith in the troops and the job they’re doing. It’s inconsistent to oppose the surge and support the troops in the field, they say. Hearing of the debate back home, morale among troops in the field will be undermined (in truth, this is an unfortunate facet of America’s political system that makes the sustained, unilateral occupation of a country increasingly difficult for a democratic country). In the face of increasing radicalization and violence on the ground, endless months of waiting for Iraqis to “stand up,” and an increasing realization that victory doesn’t mean winning on the battlefield, the last bastion of argument in favor of the war in Iraq is support for the troops. As long as the GOP can link its policies to support for the troops the party ensures that the American people will not turn against them. Democrats are trying to disentangle the two.

The National Narrative
Although they differ as to the policy implications, supporting the troops is perhaps the only thing that the parties squaring off in Congress can agree upon. They do so solely because they know it carries the most weight with the American people. In fact, it cuts deeper than the current political landscape, past the flags waving on the bottom of the screen on MSNBC and FOX News in 2003 to America’s national narrative, which we are raised with and which embraces the sacrifice of our forefathers storming the beaches of Normandy, winning two world wars and the Cold War so that America, guided by liberty and democracy, could become the world’s guiding light and sole superpower. The sacrifice of our troops was integral to all of these, and it’s celebrated in pop culture (Saving Private Ryan, We Were Soldiers), promulgated by our grandfathers, and complementary to our sense of pride and strength. As the amalgamation of many cultures and peoples, the one element shared by all Americans is the belief in this national narrative, which is inherently constructed upon the role of American soldiers.

Moreover, how could one have a friend, brother, sister, father or a mother in the U.S. military and yet oppose the war? Soldiers display a faith in their superiors that is central to the functioning of a hierarchical organization; how then, can you tell them that you don’t believe in the cause for which they are prepared to die? We can’t, of course, and we don’t. Many times it’s far from being so explicit, too; instead of consciously going through this thought process – and faced with a complex, fluid and divisive situation – people eagerly seek out reasons that comport with arguments supportive of their friends and family. Regardless of political ideology, people are likely to gravitate towards the policy consistent with their social relations. It’s the “us” versus “them,” it’s Palestinians versus Israelis, it’s Indians versus Kashmiris. This is a human condition, and is found in all nations.

Thus, opposing the troops would be akin to opposing the national narrative and repudiating our ties among each other. The country has been through this process before. After Vietnam the country went through the same painful process, and many people did turn against the troops, spitting at them and leaving them to beg on the streets after returning home.

We cannot make the same mistake this time. The troops are not to blame. Clearly, opposing the troops isn’t the point, and can’t be. But when support for the troops is linked inseparably to failed policies, how do we separate them without violating our bond with our brothers and sisters?

A Painful Hangover
Doing so requires a national catharsis. Many find it inconvenient now, but on March 29th, 2003 over 70% of America supported the invasion; the figure jumped to 83% when the troops were mentioned (Gallup Poll “U.S. at War with Iraq 2). Compared with the close to 60% who now think the war was a mistake (Gallup Poll “February Wave 1”), resolving this massive shift involves overcoming considerable guilt. We feel shame toward the families of those who’ve died serving in Iraq and to the people of Iraq. We feel embarrassment at having to admit that we were wrong to the original opponents of the war in “old” Europe. Clear-consciences reward those who opposed the war for the right reasons from the start.

It requires absolving ourselves from a process (mobilization for the Iraq war) in which we had only implicit involvement. Catharsis will be painful and involve redirecting blame to political leaders (read President Bush and GOP members unable to scatter in time), under whose leadership the nation has been exploited. It should also involve the government contractors (Halliburton, Blackwater, AEGIS) who made billions in profits while U.S. soldiers had to choose between placing their one bullet proof plate on their chest or back and crucial infrastructure projects went under-funded. Probes into government contracts awarded without competition to private military contractors – along with greater oversight in the future – are in order.

There are clear signs that this is beginning to happen, after the Democratic takeover of Congress, rock-bottom poll numbers for the President and the welcome return of vociferous debate in Congress (and fiery defense of Democrats’ patriotism by Tim Ryan, D-OH), sorely absent in recent years. New members of the legislature (Democrat and Republican) were not on the record supporting the Iraq war in ’03 and can more easily denigrate it as the mistakes of the previous Congress. And we should not feel bad about this: the manipulation of social bonds by political leaders is perhaps the most heinous tactic of all.

The Final Battle
This is truly the “final battle” of the Iraq war. America’s last battle will not occur in Iraq, but the United States. It’s the battle of the national psyche to come to terms with the events of the past four years and the dreadful consequences of the Iraq war. For better or worse, the United States will not withdraw from Iraq unless the country comes to terms with this issue.

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February 16, 2007 Posted by | Author: DML, Congress, Democrats, International Relations, Iraq, Middle East, Politics, The GOP, The War on Terror, United States | 4 Comments

The (ill) State of Iraq

Iraq at Home (Part 1): There’s nothing brave in writing about Iraq in February ’07. We’ll do it anyway.

In President Bush’s January State of the Union Address, he asserted – not for the first time – that the war in Iraq is indelibly linked (no pun intended) to the “war on terror.” He was right. Stop: that statement was not true before America deposed Saddam Hussein. The unfortunate reality is that this is a classic example of saying something enough that it becomes true. Hussein was a secular dictator and, according to available intelligence, had minimal contacts with al-Qaeda before the war in Iraq. Now, as the April 2006 National Intelligence Estimate declares, the U.S. invasion of Iraq:

“has become a primary recruitment vehicle for violent Islamic extremists, motivating a new generation of potential terrorists around the world whose numbers may be increasing faster than the United States and its allies can reduce the threat… The U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the insurgency that has followed, [is] the leading inspiration for new Islamic extremist networks and cells that are united by little more than an anti-Western agenda…Rather than contributing to eventual victory in the global counterterrorism struggle, the situation in Iraq has worsened the U.S. position.”


In Agreement?

Presenting this evidence in February 2007 is no bold statement. The administration botched the rebuilding of Iraq, Bush’s approval ratings are at all time lows, a majority of Americans think the war was a mistake (55% in February 2006, Gallup poll “February Wave 1”); the rest is familiar by now. What needs further examination is not a tired summary of the last few years but the motives and arguments behind the raging in Congress at present about how to proceed.

Iraq in U.S. Politics
Congressional debate is back today; since this morning House Republicans and Democrats have been firing blows at each other over House Concurrent Resolution 63, the proposed non-binding” Iraq resolution, which registers disapproval but does not block funds for the President’s “surge” proposal. For those of you without time for C-Span in your busy lives, the substance of the fiery debate has been predictably familiar. It was illuminating nonetheless.

While the Democrats’ opposition was initially characterized as opposing war for the sake of peace, there is now a tinge of realism to their arguments: the war is further radicalizing large swathes of the world and billions of dollars are being spent while many domestic issues need serious attention. They appeal to the historical democratic tradition of debate and the need for open discussion of policy, especially when it’s flawed. Crucially for the Democratic shift was their minority status during the Iraq war, (despite having largely supported it in ‘03) which makes them less politically tied to its future than the GOP. The Democratic takeover of Congress also brought fresh faces into politics with the luxury of not having gone on record in support of the war in ’03. The party is better able to make a pragmatic about-face (or stand by an initial decision against it) in light of unfavorable developments.

The GOP meanwhile is torn. Some members have rebelled against President Bush and opposed the surge. Conversely, those supporting the surge (and opposing H Con Res 63) wax eloquently but their statements are threaded by several clearly identifiable arguments. One centers on the resolution being non-binding. Opponents call it “political posturing” and “empty talk” that accomplishes nothing. This is insincere. Of course the resolution is politically motivated; everything in Washington is. More importantly, both sides know that symbols matter. Sending the signal that Congress opposes the increase is designed to isolate President Bush for posterity and influence the battle for public opinion and thus policy. Counter to their public declarations, Republicans tacitly acknowledge that symbols matter when they say, correctly, that terrorists will take note of domestic discord and be emboldened. And in case you have any further doubts, when was the last time that almost 400 representatives felt compelled (and were allowed) to make speeches on the House floor?


Quick! What channel is C-Span?

Secondly, they warn that if America withdraws from Iraq the country will ignite, Iran will capitalize, and the region will be engulfed by violence. While fears of a war erupting throughout the Middle East are easily overblown, it’s true that Iraq would likely devolve further into full-scale ethnic cleansing and massive displacement and forced migration. Iran would be further emboldened with first the removal of its neighborly nemesis Saddam Hussein and the failure of the United States to create a self-sufficient Iraqi state. As in past wars (i.e. Korea 1950 – 1953), the stronger power doesn’t have to be defeated in battle to lose the war. Stalemate works just as well if you’re able to outlast the other and wining a direct military confrontation was never a requirement for victory anyway.

President Bush offers a third justification for the war that is less often asserted by GOP members of Congress. On February 15th at the American Enterprise Institute, Bush restated that fighting terrorists in Iraq means that the United States won’t have to fight them at home. This is an attractive argument: a would-be suicide bomber from Saudi Arabia or Yemen finds it far easier to detonate him or herself in Baghdad than Boston.

Yet it’s common sense that the longer that the “war on terror” goes on – and it could be infinite – the more likely it is to happen. In the long run, terrorist attacks will occur regardless of whether or not America is fighting terrorists in Iraq. Both sides use this in support: Democrats ponder the question, “If we’re going to be attacked either way, why spend the blood and treasure in Iraq?” Republicans say that since the terrorists won’t let up if we withdraw, we need to take the battle to them.

An Accusation, Not an Argument
The GOP then asks, disingenuously, what the Democrats strategy is for Iraq. “If you oppose President Bush’s plan, why not propose your own? What is your plan?” they ask while asserting that the Democrats have none. These Republican critiques are accurate; the Democrats have no miracle strategy.

Before rushing to herald the Republican strategists, however, we should recognize that they’re simply making the best of a politically tenuous position, one that is likely to become increasingly unstable with time. And Republicans who are politically unable to distance themselves from their support for the war will – if the Democrats eventually withdraw the United States from Iraq – forever claim that it didn’t have to fail. They’ll be relieved of forging a solution and insist to the last that it could have been won, crowing that the Democrats “lost Iraq.”

The immensely depressing reality, not only for the Democratic Party but for the whole country, is that America is so deep into the war in Iraq that no good option now exists. In the following article I make the case that the country is beginning to come to terms with this and that there is one last political issue, the resolution of which will determine the course of American policy in Iraq.

February 16, 2007 Posted by | Author: DML, Democrats, Dissent, International Relations, Iraq, Middle East, Politics, The GOP, The War on Terror, United States | Leave a comment

Israel’s Fog of War

Guest Author KPC Weighs the Costs of Battle in the Middle East

August 19, 2006 – The Israeli-Lebanese conflict entered a new phase on Monday, August 14 when a cease-fire negotiated by the United Nations came into effect. Now as the fog of war dissipates, Israel must weigh the outcome of the fighting against the objectives of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Despite 33 days of intense bombing of Hezbollah strongholds and a ground assault, which pushed North to the Litani River, Israel may have done more harm to its interests than good.

The most recent Middle East conflict was ignited on July 12 when agents of Hezbollah crossed the Israeli border, killed eight Israeli soldiers and captured two others. In retaliation, Israel launched a military campaign against Hezbollah’s fractious state within Lebanon.

Olmert’s decision to mobilize the military was based largely on his determination to save the captured soldiers, deter future terrorist attacks, cripple Hezbollah and cut off the militant group’s supply of arms from Iran and Syria.


Which way home?

As Hezbollah began to launch hundreds of rockets each day into Northern Israel, Olmert also sought to push Hezbollah out of range of Israel’s densely populated cities.

While Israel has a right to protect its interests and defend itself against attacks, it is difficult to determine how Olmert’s recent military campaign has served these interests.

In the first days of the fighting, Israel seemed to garner support from countries around the world, including moderate Arab states such as Egypt. Even many within Lebanon initially viewed Hezbollah’s incursion as an unprovoked and foolish attack. But as the days wore on and as images of Lebanese civilian casualties flooded the mass media, anti-Israeli sentiment began to spread at a pace that rivaled Israel’s rush to destroy Hezbollah targets.

As sympathy for Israel has declined, support for Hezbollah and its charismatic leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has surged within Lebanon and throughout the region. Nasrallah has galvanized a resistance movement that has spread well beyond Lebanon’s borders, creating a burgeoning group of followers eager to challenge Israel’s military might, if not its very existence.

Israel forged its status as a regional superpower in 1967 when it vanquished a coalition of Arab armies in six days, capturing Gaza, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. But now, unable to claim a decisive victory over Hezbollah, Israel risks tarnishing that reputation, which has long served as a deterrent to militant groups.

In the wake of the fighting, Nasrallah has become an international hero. From Iran to Palestine, followers chant his name, wave his image as a banner of defiance and revere him for defending Lebanon against a Zionist “oppressor.” Not to be outdone, even al-Qaida has issued statements praising Hezbollah and its leader. Nasrallah has become a hero because he is viewed as a man who accomplished what a host of Arab armies failed to do in 1967.

This hero worship will only grow as Hezbollah, with financial support from Iran, begins to help rebuild the areas of Lebanon devastated by Israeli bombing. Hezbollah’s reconstruction project will also have the effect of marginalizing Lebanon’s democratically-elected government.

Contrary to Olmert’s aims, Hezbollah—although weakened—remains in possession of its arms and has gained hero status among hoards of militant groups. Olmert has failed to secure the safe return of the captured Israeli soldiers, and worst of all, Israel has called its own military strength into question.

In the days to come, Israel must fight hard to garner through negotiations what it could not achieve in battle.

August 27, 2006 Posted by | Israel, Middle East, Palestine | Leave a comment

Slippery As an Eel

Momentum Undercut in the World’s Most Intractable Dispute

It was but a mere blip on the radar screen. For just several hours a fortnight ago, an article ran on the major news sites stating that Hamas and Fatah – the two primary groups representing Palestinians – had reached an agreement that could lead to talks with Israel. News watchers will be forgiven if they missed it; as quickly as the story appeared it was buried in the second half of lengthy articles about the latest development: a stout Israeli military offensive into Gaza.

True, Palestinian militants were launching rockets into southern Israel from Gaza for the past month, sporadically costing civilian lives. Spoilers have captured a severely unfortunate young soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit, and held him hostage somewhere in Gaza for ten days while making overblown demands for Israel to empty their jails of Palestinians – albeit more legitimately for women and children – in return for his release. And despite the Palestinian compromise, Hamas hadn’t accepted legitimate international demands that it recognize Israel.


No Messing Around

Israel’s response was swift and effective, and was accomplished as much through the media as on the battlefield. Israeli officials lamented Hamas’ pigheaded refusal to recognize the state of Israel’s right to exist and twisted the screws tighter than at any time since the two-year-old ceasefire began. Israel reoccupied central Gaza, a first since unilaterally withdrawing from the territory last year. Israel arrested some 60-odd officials from Hamas and eight elected government ministers, and purposefully flew bombers over Bashir Assad, the unfriendly president of neighboring Syria (where some of the Hamas leadership resides).

Yet despite Hamas’ intransigence, the Israeli campaign is grossly disproportionate to the offences committed by the group holding the young soldier hostage. Analysts also differ fundamentally as to how much control the political wing of Hamas has over the three factions – one of which is nominally tied to Hamas – that played a role in the capturing raid. Israel’s operation will likely prove counterproductive as well: far from securing the release of Cpl. Shalit, the effective decapitation of Hamas’ leadership in Gaza may only serve to solidify Palestinian support for their embattled leaders.

It would be foolhardy to rush to the support of a group that refuses to renounce terrorism and recognize Israel’s right to exist. Yet as all practitioners of diplomacy know, however depraved, these are sticking points used as bargaining chips in negotiations, and aren’t given up lightly; especially when they’ve been bedrock principles for decades. In just a few short months, however, momentum had been building for change. Since Hamas’ election in January, the Palestinian Authority’s leader, the secular Mahmoud Abbas, had been trying to force Hamas’ into embracing these notions. He called for a referendum in which it looked possible that wearied voters would give Hamas the cover needed to reverse policy and avoiding the appearance of caving under foreign pressure. The reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah was an additionally auspicious development.

Post-reoccupation, these events have no chance of being carried forward. Any opportunity for a referendum, much less recognition of Israel, has evaporated. Under siege, Hamas will maintain support by appearing as the martyred defender against a harsh foreign invader. Hamas won’t be allowed to either achieve change or turbidly stagnate and prove its own deficiencies. Moreover, the timing of Israel’s military incursion was suspiciously close to the announcement of the Hamas-Fatah accord, and peace is as far away as ever.

Of course, it’s beginning to be accepted wisdom that this is actually what Israel desires, as Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas Prime Minister, argues in today’s Washington Post. Suicide-bombings in Israel have slowed to a trickle in the last year and the country occupies all territory vital to its security. In May, President Bush sanctioned Israel’s land claims. States that possess everything they desire and face no pressure to give any of it up have never made for good faith negotiating partners. Squared off against a bitter enemy that does itself no favors in the public debate, don’t look for Israel to prove itself an exception to the rule.

– DML

 2006. All rights reserved.

July 12, 2006 Posted by | Hamas, Israel, Middle East, Palestine, Politics | Leave a comment

Jenga!

How Instability in Pakistan could Create a Perilous Proxy War

With the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi yesterday in Iraq, we’re reminded that it takes just one accurately targeted missile or bomb to make life fleeting. While Zarqawi’s demise is celebrated in America and elsewhere, there are other areas of the world in which such precise targeting would cause not rejoicing but a major headache. Foremost among such places? Pakistan, and not just because of terrorists; the interests of the South Asia’s three largest powers are increasingly converging in what the Washington Post calls “the world’s most politically fragile nuclear power.”

Musharraf the Quisling

Al Qaeda and friends have tried and barely failed to knock off Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf several times. With Musharraf facilitating and aiding U.S. counter-insurgency efforts in the mountainous region along the Pakistan-Afghan border – and thus severely restricting al-Qaeda’s maneuverability – he’s mujahideen target number one. Leaflets distributed in tribal areas of Waziristan in May called for the “lions of Islam to kill the slave of Bush in Pakistan.”


Dude Needs a Chill Pill, and a sh*@l$!d of weapons

Were this to happen, the nature of a successor government looks far from set. As Musharraf himself came to power by coup d’ etat while circling Karachi in an airplane, and the general has gone on to consolidate personal control at the expense of democratic institutions, weak processes to name a successor could be easily subverted. Indeed, in a country in which only one in ten resident is favorably disposed towards America, popular sentiment might result in a noisy extremist assuming the reins of a nuclear-armed nation (thus the location of WMD must be an A-list priority for the CIA here; there have been reports of this). Nonetheless, a state of flux would emerge with foreign spy agencies forcefully vying for influence.

The Wolves Circle

And who would the meddlers be? Pakistan and Musharraf are centerpieces of America’s anti-terror strategy, and the CIA would obviously be supremely concerned with the outcome. Indeed, America has been ramping up efforts to keep Musharraf alive. India will be on the edge of its seat too. Since Britain abandoned its colonies after WWII, India and Pakistan – and Muslim separatists in Indian-controlled Kashmir – have been fighting over contested territory. India enjoys territorial advantage in the status quo, but spoilers and fanatics have prevented a formal peace and violence has spilled over, with sporadic attacks by armed-gunmen and suicide bombings in Delhi. Relations have thawed to an unprecedented degree since Indian Prime Minister Monmohan Singh took over, yet in the absence of a resolution the potential for disruption is ever-present. Moreover, both non-signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty aim nuclear weapons at each other.

The third power in the region, China, is hardly a newcomer in Pakistan. Throughout the Cold War, China sought to offset hostility with India – witnessed by their 1962 border war – through friendship with Pakistan. During the 1990’s China exported weapons to the country and was vital to its acquisition of WMD. Of late, however, China has been further consolidating ties. In May, Pakistan placed an order for 150 Xiaolong fighter planes, a move that will replace the F-16 as the air force’s primary jet.


I Hear the Schools in the Neighborhood are Fantastic!

Before that, a February visit by Musharraf to Beijing saw the rapid-fire signing of 13 bilateral agreements on trade, security, and investment, which crucially included the announcement of Chinese aid in building an energy corridor through Pakistan that would supply China with imports of raw materials. China will finance the expansion of a port on the Pakistani coast at Gwadar, adding nine more berths, an approach terminal, and storage facilities. An oil and gas pipeline would then be built to ship materials from the Middle East directly to China’s western provinces, bypassing the (U.S. controlled) Malacca Straits. Never mind what this says about the domestic implications for minority and outlying areas through which the pipeline would cut – Xinjiang in China and Baluchistan in Pakistan – the external implications are clear: China-Pakistan ties are surging.

But They Sometimes Hunt in Packs

That Musharraf will go –in the near future due to assassination, bringing the return of insecurity, or later on because of time and age – is not in question. Neither is the reality that when he does, China, India, and the United States (with Iran potentially in the mix) will see their interests put to the test. Whether this engenders hostility and confrontation or cooperation is unclear; the signals, however, are not entirely inauspicious. China and India signed a border accord in April and have also just announced a $2b joint bid to develop a Kazakh oil field in an effort by the “world’s two fastest-growing major economies to avoid competing with each other,” according to the China Daily.  America and India agreed to a major nuclear deal in July last year. China and America have reached a consensus – although likely short-lived – on Iran, another rocky concern. Additionally, all three countries will be lothe to see WMD fall into terrorist hands or their economic interests threatened.

Against this backdrop, the most likely scenario is the emergence of another clique from the armed forces, commanding no popular support but receiving logistical sustenance from America, China’s tacit approval, and India’s watchful eye. This would be a stop-gap measure that leaves corrections between the people’s volition and political control for another day, yet is far better than allowing extremists assume control. Unfortunately, such has been the argument for supporting dictators everywhere for the past fifty years, always leaving the patriarch on the wrong side of history and fostering yet more grievances to be paid for in future.

– DML

 2006. All rights reserved.

June 10, 2006 Posted by | Asia, Author: DML, China, India, International Relations, Iran, Middle East, Nuclear Weapons, Oil, Pakistan, Politics, United States, WMD | 3 Comments

This is Chess not Checkers That’s a Warning Shot

The Deadly Paradox of the Big Six’s Iranian Accord

It’s hard to suppress feelings of glee upon reading the headline “Six World Powers Agree on Iran.” This is the exact foundation that any diplomatic solution to the Iranian quandary must be based upon: a united international alliance providing Iran with a choice between carrots if it agrees to halt uranium enrichment and sticks if it doesn’t. A common diplomatic front brings the world one step closer to the chance for a peaceful solution; however, if the chance proves illusory it will also bring the world one step closer to war.

In the run up to Iraq in 2003, there were many arguments against the U.S. invasion, many of which could be reasonably discounted at the time. War is an extreme last resort, but the argument that it should never be used is flawed: when squared off against a murderous dictator conflict can become justifiable. Nor was U.S. belligerence a stand alone sound argument. Despite bellicose rhetoric from George Bush, Saddam Hussein had violated 18 U.N. resolutions and was sidestepping weapons inspectors. The most valid pre-war argument against going to war: that the Bush administration hadn’t exhausted all diplomatic options.


It’s your Turn, Khameini. Whatcha Gonna Tell ’em ya Big Bearded Fella?

The Diplomacy this Time

The Bush administration seems to have painfully learned how to go about building its case without alienating virtually every non-holder of an American passport. It first relied on negotiations led by the “European 3” – Britain, France, and Germany – during which Iran acquiesced to halting enrichment for a time. But Iran knew that the European trio’s silent partner held the key to the only concession vital to its survival: security. So Iran once again began work on its centrifuges.

Steadily advancing its nuclear know-how, Iran’s fiery president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently sent an 18-page letter to George Bush, which was touted as being the first direct communication between the two nations since the 1979 hostage crisis. Accustomed to years of frosty, static relations, Secretary Rice made a knee-jerk announcement that the letter suggested nothing new, and perhaps it didn’t. Then just this week Iran called for direct talks with America, which in the absence of a U.S. response gave Iran the impression of being patient and reasonable. So until the United States replied to these overtures – no matter the political or public relations intentions behind them – Iran would appear to be holding out the olive branch. America had to respond.

With the six-party agreement on Iran it did, and with perfect timing to boot. Iran will be presented with a package of incentives in return for a “verifiable” halt to its enrichment activities. If it continues to pursue nuclear weapons further Security Council action could follow. Clearly, Iran has to make the next move, and crucially, America will appear to have dutifully followed a diplomatic approach supported by the Security Council nations.

This appears to be good news for advocates of multilateralism and supporters of a peaceful, diplomatic solution. It’s good news for those who wanted Europe to face up to legitimate security threats, which due to pride and matters of the heart it could not with Iraq. And it’s good news for those who want to see more than obstructionism and the unbridled pursuit of resources from Russia and China.

The Ball’s in Their Court

Thus, the question now becomes, “What will Iran do?” The preferred choice is for it to accept the incentives offered and abandon its desire for nuclear weapons (merely nuclear energy, it says). This is possible but would likely only come in the form of a comprehensive strategic agreement leaving Iran assured of its own security. Observers should also note that the Iranian issue is not confined to uranium enrichment: Iran plays a powerful role in neighboring Iraq, has long supported insurgents in Lebanon, Palestine, and elsewhere; and exercises more power than many realize. It recently won backing for its nuclear program from Indonesia, and China and Russia usually provide solid political cover. These will have to be addressed.

The true test of the “Big Six’s” solidarity will come if Iran decides to balk: will the world support increasingly tough sanctions, or will views diverge? Governments around the world – now realizing that true threats must be confronted – may be more likely to follow, because they too have played an active diplomatic role this time round. Despite this, these countries’ citizens will have seen Iraq and the gruesomeness of war and are likely to feel much the same as they did before Iraq.

Will Iran stall, varying negotiations with concealment? Probably. This much is true, however: until now, with a dire situation in Iraq and virulent anti-Americanism everywhere, talk of military action against Iran seemed distant. Yet now, if diplomacy is given a fair chance and fails nonetheless, Iranian rejectionism will leave us on the precipice of Iraq redux. And this time – no matter the political logic beforehand– military action would be no more likely to create a stable or friendly or democratic country out of Iran than Iraq.

– DML

 2006. All rights reserved.

Note: The Iranian situation is highly fluid at present, with half a dozen diplomatic developments and announcements (see links below) being made in the past few days alone. Contrast this with the lack of bilateral contact that existed for the past 27 years between the two countries. As stated above, this will either lead to a breakthrough or a serious deepening of the standoff. Keep watching.

U.S. Offers to Join European Three in Talks with Iran
Iran Welcomes Talks, Rejects U.S. Conditions
Iran Considers Offer from Big Six
Washington Post Analysis

June 2, 2006 Posted by | Asia, Author: DML, China, Europe, France, Germany, International Relations, Iran, Iraq, Middle East, Nuclear Weapons, Oil, Palestine, Politics, Russia, United States, WMD | Leave a comment

Sin Padre, Thy Wither

How Venezuela, Iran, China, and Russia are Undermining Human Rights Everywhere

If you’re ever feeling overly happy and want to come down a bit, take a survey of the human condition around the world. Among a sea of rights violators in Africa, you’ll find the worst cases in Darfur, the D.R. Congo, Somalia, Eritrea, and Cote d’Ivoire. Robert Mugabe is systematically destroying Zimbabwe. The Middle East has long seen gross injustice and political repression in Syria, Iran, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Turkey has its Kurdish problem, which flares up from time to time when it feels Europe slipping away. To the north, Russia fights endlessly in the Caucuses and forces compulsory military service on its poor, dehumanizing a generation of young men with beatings and forced labor. Political opponents are jailed and attacked. Andijan and the “Stans” of Central Asia, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Nepal, Burma, and North Korea. Colombia, Cuba, Venezuela, the favelas of Brazil and the poverty of Bolivia and Peru. The folks at Human Rights Watch are depressingly busy.

Depends on How You Look at It

Yet in spite of this dispiriting image and the gruesome confrontations between riot police and protesters caught on tape for everyone see, the news is not all disheartening. To be sure, most of these places were never free, open, or safe. It is only because of modern communication and the existence of vociferous groups like Human Rights Watch and Doctors Without Borders that one can list the egregious examples above. And there are also examples of places where life has improved: autocratic dictators are out in Indonesia, the Philippines, Chile, South Korea, Spain, parts of eastern Europe, and the states of the former Yugoslavia. Something may finally be done about Darfur. And perhaps most importantly, great power war has been avoided for sixty years.


Sportily Taking in a Soccer Match

So between the good news and the bad, what the world needs is a state or organization exerting pressure on countries to uphold human rights. Near-inherent anti-Americanism means that most of the world no longer views the United States as this model, with consequences for both equality and U.S. objectives of every stripe. The United Nations is a misunderstood body that is limited here because it is merely a collection of self-interested states. Europe espouses many of the right ideals but is mostly focused on itself, often has an uncomplicated view of the world, and has its own internal conflicts to settle.

What the world does not need is a provider of money and material through which outcast regimes can sustain themselves in the face of international pressure. During the Cold War the Soviet Union was this source and when it broke apart Syria, Cuba, and other former dependents found it far harder to resist outside pressure. Desiccation of patronage led to the signing of the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians, largely because of a trickle down effect: without Soviet support Syria couldn’t continue to fund Palestinian resistance on par with American aid to Israel. Syria is weak now for this reason; without oil so too would be Iran and other former Soviet clients.

With Friends Like These

But today there is oil, and there are several antagonists capitalizing on anti-Americanism and spreading their largesse with debilitating effects for human rights. Hugo Chavez of Venezuela is using oil profits to destroy institutions within his own country, promote populist movements (see the election of Evo Morales), and reportedly to fund resistance in Colombia. Fidel Castro has found renewed sustenance through friendship with Chavez. Iran – crucially demonstrating that the Iranian issue encompasses more than just the nuclear dispute – is channeling aid to Hamas in Palestine and trying to build ties from Indonesia to Venezuela. In an effort to isolate Taiwan, China is active in Africa (Zimbabwe, Sudan), Asia (North Korea, Burma), and to a lesser degree Latin America. In unison with Russia through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), China helps prop up Central Asian dictators.

Patronage from all of these states allows rights violators to defy international norms while finding support elsewhere and thus avoiding isolation. Minatory characters everywhere find it easy to become eloquent, usurp valid arguments, and draw more reasonable people to their side (see Ahmadinejad’s letter to George Bush). Without a paragon of virtue the debate becomes muddled, the message unconvincing, and gross human rights violations overshadowed.

– DML

 2006. All rights reserved.

May 30, 2006 Posted by | Africa, Author: DML, China, Darfur, Foreign Aid, Hamas, Human Rights, Iran, Israel, Korea, Middle East, Oil, Palestine, Politics, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, United States, Venezuela | 1 Comment

And I Didn’t Even Mention Sharon

Israel Gains while an Incumbent Hamas Calculates its Direction

President Bush’s conference today in Washington with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was noticeable for more than just Bushisms like “suicider,” despite the bland analysis given initially by Wolf Blitzer et al. The chummy repoire between the leaders illustrated once again that Israel has the ear of the United States like almost no other nation. PM Olmert stated that the country would quit “most of the [West Bank] settlements” while annexing major “population centers,” a perhaps geographically logical maneuver but one that conflicts with the international Road Map to peace and is sure to upset Palestinians. Announced at the White House, the move clearly had the administration’s approval. Even more promisingly for Israel, Mr. Bush spoke passionately about the two nations’ shared views and goals, from Palestine to Iraq to Iran.

Mr. Bush put his feelings on display by venting frustration at Hamas’ lack of recognition for Israel’s right to exist. Indeed, Hamas has to recognize Israel along with renouncing the use of terrorism as a legitimate method of diplomacy. Without these steps – already agreed to by previous Palestinian leaders – the peace process cannot proceed. As Hamas has refused to do so thus far, Israel and America have been spearheading efforts to cut funding to the Palestinian Authority (PA), which helps pay salaries, secure fuel, and fund hospitals in the territories. The idea is that Hamas will be forced to capitulate. The reality, however, is much more nuanced.

That is because the Palestinian people voted Hamas into power in January. So despite the legitimacy of qualms about Hamas’ hostile rhetoric, America looks hypocritical: calling for democracy in the region but resisting it in practice when unfriendly parties are elected. Moreover, turning off aid is already showing signs of strangling the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Further starving and depriving the Palestinian people cannot be the result here.


Where to now?

What it Wants to Do

Hamas may put its mettle on display through vitriolic resistance to Israel, taking a martyr’s stand and feeding off of frustration. In this scenario, hardliners would find it easy to exploit the standoff, and the peace process would stall as Israel further solidifies the borders of a final state. Sporadic suicide bombings, Israeli air strikes, and inflammation of opinion throughout the region would continue. Palestine and peace would be the losers.

Resistance to Israel and death to America may make popular campaign slogans, but fanaticism is hardly a policy used to build a strong society be it in Palestine or anywhere else. So while martyrdom may allow Hamas to maintain support for a time, endless penury will cause Palestinians to rethink their allegiance to an unyielding cause. Just as voters cast aside the late Yasser Arafat’s faction Fatah for failing to provide adequate public services, they would do the same to an ineffective, exposed, and incumbent Hamas. Systems defined by opposition – but lacking in constitution – everywhere crumble for the same reason: because they fail to deliver sustainable development and the people living under them tire of stale ideologies. How long this takes depends on the propaganda and guns of the regime, but in the meantime lives suffer.

And What it Should Do

There is chance for a rosier outcome, however, if Hamas reads the runes shrewdly. When Hamas won power it grabbed 76 out of 132 seats in parliament with the support of a majority of electorate. Most Palestinians don’t cling to unrealistic visions of Israel’s total destruction or desire the rejection of the peace process, and it wasn’t for such views that they backed Hamas. Instead, it was a desire for change and a backlash against the corruption and mismanagement of Fatah – without Arafat – that led them to Hamas, which was offering security and basic services, particularly in the Gaza Strip.

Could Hamas begin to court this mainstream segment of its supporters? Hamas may find the realities of power more trying than obstreperously playing the spoiler from the sidelines. Accordingly, it could try to score points through fostering infrastructure and becoming more conciliatory toward Israel. It should reject extremists and move towards normalization. Crazy? Unlikely maybe, but it took Nixon to go to China and Sharon to withdraw from Gaza. Some think it possible because Hamas counts several American-educated operators among its number.

Lantos Lay Off my Jam Toast

Closer to home, Tom Lantos (D-CA) is of indubitable moral character, founding the Congressional Human Rights Caucus and expounding about rights transgressions around the world for decades. He made headlines for getting arrested outside the White House at the Darfur protest rally in April. But the bill he co-sponsored today – which passed 361 to 37 and imposes sweeping sanctions on the PA in response to Hamas’ victory – was pointless, and even the White House said so. As the administration ended funding last month, it was an unnecessary act that accomplishes nothing while portraying the United States as insensitive to the Palestinian people.

How much outsiders can influence the direction Hamas takes is uncertain. But if blocking funds contributes to humanitarian problems within Palestine it will not only enervate the people but arguments for America’s integrity. Despite misgivings about its past, the Quartet must preclude a humanitarian crisis and offer significant carrots to Hamas for recognition of Israel and renunciation of violence. However unsavory, the platform was elected and must be tolerated. If Hamas insists on belligerence, failure and stagnation are guaranteed; yet until the people’s candidates are allowed to govern they will fight to the death for the opportunity to find that out for themselves.

– DML

 2006. All rights reserved.

May 24, 2006 Posted by | Author: DML, Congress, Hamas, International Relations, Israel, Middle East, Palestine, Politics, United States | 1 Comment

Germany’s New Popularity

A Dangerous Precedent: The Price of Paying Ransom for Hostages in Iraq

German nationals in Iraq have reason to be both comforted and disturbed by reports (in Der Speigel magazine and on ARD public TV) that Berlin broke precedent and paid ransom money directly to insurgent groups to secure the release of two engineers this week. German ex-pats can take solace in knowing that, if captured, there may be a monetary incentive in not beheading them on camera. At the same time, Germans are likely to become increasingly prized targets, potentially leading to a spike in abductions.

 
But next time?

At that point, will Germany continue the payments, furthering the crisis, or will the policy’s lack of efficacy lead to a reversal and the bloody sacrifice of future hostages? Will the government consider paying ransom only in Iraq, or in other global hotspots as well? Whatever the answers to these questions – and although this would be difficult to explain to the released captives – the strategic outcome looks gloomy for both German citizens and companies with interests in Iraq and beyond: in Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and every other place where restive groups may look to cash in.

Cruel but Vindicated

Against this backdrop, the U.S. government’s long-standing declaratory policy of refusing to negotiate or barter with terrorists over hostages – however cold-hearted and unfeeling – appears justified. While the sentimental and PR value of capturing an American will remain an impetus to their abduction, at least they can know there is no additional financial motivation in doing so. No matter, some will say: simply being American is enough in some parts of the world.

– DML

Of note: In 2003, German companies spent 190 million Euros of FDI and imported 675 million Euros of products, much of it petroleum, from Nigeria. While imports “dropped sharply” in 2004 (the latest year for which figures were available) according to the German Foreign Ministry, firms doing business in the Nigerian delta – where much of the country’s oil is found and where MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Nigerian Delta), among others, has recently ramped up kidnapping and extortion efforts – should be acutely aware of the risks engendered by claims of ransom payments in Iraq.

 2006. All rights reserved.

May 6, 2006 Posted by | Author: DML, Europe, Germany, Iraq, Middle East, The War on Terror, United States | Leave a comment