While Iraq is rightly dominating the headlines and the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan is also occupying the minds of U.S. policy makers and politicians, events in the horn of Africa demand that Somalia is placed on the U.S. foreign policy priority agenda for the New Year. Frankly it is only due to a lack of focus on both sides of the aisle that the downward spiral in a country only a day long boat ride away from Yemen has not been the subject of greater attention. With the Ethiopians and an interim Somali government + warlords (supported by the U.S.) ranged against the Islamic Courts militia (supported by the business community) the situation in Somalia seems as volatile as ever. Despite the fact that interim Prime Minister Ali Mohamad Ghedi entered the capital, Mogadishu, today, it is far from clear whether the Islamic Courts militias have been defeated or whether they have gone to ground. It is also unclear as to the level of support/cooperation the Courts have received from Al Qaeda or other non-government actors from the Arabian Peninsula.
Nevertheless, the reasonable fear among many analysts is that Al Qaeda will be able to take advantage of the turbulence and open a third front. The very real fear is that they will seek to bolster and ally with the defeated Courts militias – radicalizing and enlisting them and turning Somalia into another Afghanistan or Iraq.
Much remains murky re: Somalia at present so I am not going to use this post to prescribe a remedy. Instead I want to strongly encourage the SFRC Committee, Senate Armed Services Committee and Senate Intel Committee to do three things:
1. Establish what the current U.S. role in the horn of Africa is and has been. Carefully ascertain the role of Al Qaeda and other non-Somali actors.
2. Listen to a broad range of regional experts and consider remedies that do not simply rely on a military solution to a crisis. Meet with AU and UN representatives. Determine whether the crisis can be solved via a well structured political strategy.
3. Engage the Administration in a sustained dialogue on Somalia. Urge that Somalia receive high level and coordinated attention.
It is far better for our own interests and the interests of the civilian populace of Somalia if we can stop that country and the sub region from becoming a third front in the fight against Al Qaeda. We may be too late and at best I fear that we do not have much time.
Last time I wrote on Iraq. This time let’s move slightly east to next door Iran. As everyone now knows last Friday the United Nations Security Council voted 15 to 0 to approve Resolution 1737, which impose sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program for the first time, including a ban on acquisition of materials and technology that might be used to build an atomic bomb.
The measure demands that Iran halt uranium enrichment and heavy-water projects that the U.S. and its European allies have said may lead to the development of nuclear weapons. It freezes the financial assets of 12 named individuals and 11 groups such as the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. The resolution also requires the UN’s nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, to report on Iran’s compliance within 60 days. “Further appropriate measures” such as economic penalties and severance of diplomatic relations will be required if Iran doesn’t comply, it says
As a rule in my view sanctions are not particularly effective as instruments for effecting policy change. While they may be a face saving and perhaps even necessary compromise between doing nothing and going to war they usually, with admittedly rare exceptions, don’t accomplish all that much. Some, as this Israeli writes, thinks it is worse than nothing.
But what I really find interesting is an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which was published online Dec. 26. The author, Roger Stern of Johns Hopkins University examines the presumption that is so often cited by those who wish to attack Iran; i.e., that what does a country with so much hydrocarbon resources (oil and natural gas) need with nuclear power? (more…)
One thing that I find interesting watching the politics of the Iraq war is that the anger against this war is not nearly as real as it was before the war even started. If you look back to the moments before this war, there was an unprecedented activism around this war. As someone who marched (with Pro-America, Anti-War signs) in the demonstrations before the war, I can tell you that I have never seen such intense opposition to a policy in my life to date. And yet now that the war has gone far worse than even its critics worried, and the country has clearly united against stay the course, there are hardly any protests. Where did the anger go?
My question is one that I feel very personally because my own vociferous anger over this war has somehow declined even as the urgency for change has increased. I think for me a lot of it has to do with the fact that you feel like you are speaking to deaf ears. Even after our initial protests — and indeed even after the election and the Iraq study group — it is not clear that this democratically elected president really sees himself as much as a democratic leader as a stalwart commander-in-chief. He is “the decider” and somehow his strategy seems to work — tell people you’re the decider and they will believe you and quiet down.
Hopefully, if the President continues to sidestep the ISG report, he may be faced with protests like those that proceeded this war. Of course, these protests would recognize the bravery and courage of our troops. And that’s precisely why we would be out there — to say that their bravery and courage deserves a commander in chief at the top with a coherent plan for victory.
For a long time, President Bush used the same line on troop levels in Iraq: he sent exactly the number that his generals asked for. In the face of leading Democrats’ calls for more troops, generals at CENTCOM and in Iraq itself publicly indicated that they had all the troops that they could use — that the addition of more troops to Iraq would only precipitate more attacks on Americans and otherwise weaken the effort to get the Iraqi government to “stand up” its security forces. And at the time, that was tremendously convenient for the president.
Now, though, bipartisan support is mounting for reductions in the American presence in Iraq (e.g., at a minimum, the Iraq Study Group’s proposal to redeploy combat troops to neighboring countries) — and public opinion is falling into place behind a timetable for withdrawal. President Bush is looking for a “new plan” that will offer hope for the future, and as he has said over and over again, he does not intend to consider withdrawal as part of the new plan.
Unfortunately, the generals are now a political liability. Top generals on the Joint Chiefs of Staff — those responsible for the long-term future of the military rather than the day-to-day combat operations in Iraq — are starting to admit that the situation in Iraq poses a real threat to the military institution (its readiness, recruitment, etc.). But what the President really seems to want to do is “surge” more troops into the theater — troops that might temporarily stabilize the situation, at least until the insurgents adapt. But if a surge is what you want, suddenly the operational commanders’ statements that they have “the right number of troops” become a problem.
I’ve taken great interest in the debate that has transpired here over the past few days regarding the ISG report. I don’t pretend to have the magic answer to this fiasco. However, I’d like to simply mention a few of my thoughts in response to the recent debate.
No Cherry Picking
I think that it’s important to look at a renewed effort in the Israeli-Palestine issue as a necessary, but not sufficient condition. The same goes for talking with Syria and Iran, and many of the other recommendations of the ISG report. Hence, the argument made by the report’s authors that you can’t cherry pick recommendations. None of the recommendations are a silver bullet. Many of them have serious drawbacks and there is much to criticize. Even if we follow the recommendations of the report, a positive outcome is not guaranteed. However, I do believe that taken as a whole the recommendations have a better chance of an acceptable outcome than many of the other options out there.
David and Chris give the impression that they are in support of a more rapid withdrawal or at least a more specific timetable. In my mind the ISG came about as close as one can come to a timetable without using those exact words. The report indictated that combat troops should leave by early 2008. I’m not sure what the correct timetable should be. However, I think that the ISG report makes a strong argument that a premature withdrawal could be disastrous. It is true that American troops on the ground both exacerbate conflict, while at the same time preventing conflict. Which of these forces wins out at different levels of US troop commitments, I’m not sure. Our goal should be to pull out in a way that ensures that a mass slaughter does not happen. There may not be a way to do this. However, I’ve yet to hear a compelling argument from those who advocate an immediate withdrawal, as to how a massive genocide would be prevented. If there’s a way to do it and withdraw quickly, I’m anxious to hear what that is. (more…)
Ben Rhodes and David Isenberg have matched wits on the ISG Report (here, here, and here), and Brian Vogt has offered some great observations as well. This debate might seem tiresome, but there are over 140,000 American servicemen and women in Iraq, plus tens of thousands more serving in other capacities (including foreign service officers and contractors). We are spending $8 billion per month, and the costs in lives lost and disrupted cannot be measured. Iraq is the defining foreign policy challenge of our time. It hangs over every other policy that we might wish to see enacted or changed. We cannot escape this debate. It cries out for bipartisanship, the very principle on which PSA is founded, and it seems appropriate that we would engage the debate right here, even at the risk of overdoing it a bit.
I would like very much to believe that the ISG has managed to do what countless other task forces, committees, and talking-head sessions have failed to do: craft a new policy toward Iraq that can reduce the costs and risks to all Americans, but especially those in Iraq. Alas, I’m generally with David: the ISG failed, and by offering what appears on the surface to be a reasonable strategy, they have dealt a serious setback to what, in my opinion, is the only policy that has a reasonable chance of protecting U.S. national security interests over the long term: a withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Before I get to that, I want to pick up on three smaller points that David and Ben have debated.
I agree with Ben on engagement with Iran and Syria, and largely for the reasons that he lays out (Brian Vogt picked up on these as well). David implies that he is not opposed to talking to either Iran or Syria, and both men seem to agree that the current policy of NOT talking has produced nothing of value. But David is ultimately dismissive because we’ve “been there, done that.”
Actually, no, we haven’t. The key is in framing the basis for this cooperation. If we believe that the Iranians and the Syrians are likely to help us out of the goodness of their hearts, then we are going to be disappointed. On the other hand, Iran does not want to see its dominant position in the region (made possible by the removal of two of its major rivals, the Taliban to the east, and Saddam Hussein to the west) undermined by a civil war in Iraq that spills over the borders. The same applies to Syria. Both countries are perfectly willing to see the United States stuck in a quagmire in Iraq; they would be far less sanguine if they believed that we were going to extricate ourselves from the mess, and that the ensuing chaos would directly threaten them. Unfortunately, by eschewing a withdrawal strategy, the ISG removed this source of leverage.
With respect to the Kurds, it is certainly true that the Kurds have been reliable allies, as David notes, but that, in and of itself, is no reason to shape policy in Iraq in a manner that pleases them. And, lets be clear, they are not pleased. (See Masrour Barzani in yesterday’s Washington Post.) But here I also disagree with Ben: picking a fight with the Kurds over the twin issues of Kirkuk and the distribution of oil revenues is not likely to seriously increase our prospects for success in Iraq, because the Kurds are not likely to budge on either point. Put another way, it might be true that political reconciliation is more likely if the Kurds compromise, but it might be true that political reconciliation is more likely if the Shiite militias stop rounding up, torturing and killing Sunni men. It might be true that I’d be happier if I won the lottery. None of those three things are likely to happen, and we make a serious mistake if we base our policy on a set of unlikely occurrences that are entirely beyond our control.
This leads to my third critique. Ben urges us to read the “other” recommendations, “many of which drew extremely broad support from people we talked to, and most of which need to be done urgently.” In his subsequent post, he writes “all problems in the region are interconnected — you cannot solve them by talking to your friends but not your enemies; and you cannot solve them by talking about what you want to talk about but not what others want to talk about (eg. the Arab-Israeli dispute).” But we have a big enough problem on our hands; we do not improve our prospects for extricating ourselves from Iraq if we take on a host of other tasks that, though reasonable and widely-supported on their own terms, ultimately distract us from the central mission at hand.
Here at PSA Blog Central the powers that be have decided to encourage us bloggers to post more often to fill in the gaps, in order, so to speak, to get more bang for the buck.
So I thought it might at least be amusing, if not actually educational, to see what the establishment pundits and their guests, i.e. weekly Sunday morning talk shows are saying, since they set the news agenda for at least the next couple days.
Looking at this past weekend there is no question as to which was the most important. The winner, by a gazillion miles, was Face The Nation with Bob Schieffer. His guest was former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State Colin Powell. His topic was the Iraq Study Group report, which I wrote about last week.
BOB SCHIEFFER: Well, Mr. Secretary, let’s get right down to it. A lot of people are talking about and assessing the situation in Iraq. We just had the James Baker-Lee Hamilton commission say that, quote, the situation was “dire” and getting worse. What is your assessment? (more…)
The Pentagon has confirmed a policy decision to create a new combatant command for Africa, breaking off those responsibilities primarily from the US military’s European Command (EUCOM), and consolidating authorities now held by Central Command and Pacific Command.
As reported by the Army Times (and raised last Friday at our Stimson Center workshop with African embassy officials), this long-debated idea is to become a reality, possibly “in one to two months.” Reportedly:
at a Dec. 13 awards ceremony for Theresa Whelan, deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said a new command would be created within “one to two months.” In accepting her award, Whelan quietly noted to Rumsfeld that the proposal is on President Bush’s desk awaiting his signature.
Washington Post analyst and blogger Bill Arkin is highly skeptical – seeing this move as an expansion of the Department of Defense’s reach without a real strategy. The comments on his post take the issues further, suggesting US hegemony and poor intentions.
But I’d like to suggest that this new Command might be the right way to go. First, the US needs a more strategic approach to Africa – and a clearer idea of how we spend our time and resources. (more…)
Just a quick aside here today. There’s been much talk recently about a quote that Cheney used the other day at Rumsfeld’s going away party. I still really can’t believe that he actually said the following:
In his regard for our people in uniform, in his unwavering strength through unprecedented challenges, in his example of leadership and patriotic service, I believe the record speaks for itself: Don Rumsfeld is the finest Secretary of Defense this nation has ever had.
Here’s a link to the actual coverage.
It’s simply amazing that in the middle of this tragic war our Vice President still seems extraordinarily out of touch with reality. This is the exact sort of rhetoric that is so far out of the mainstream that voters wholeheartedly rejected it last month. Yet it still continues. There was a bipartisan effort to replace Rumsfeld and his replacement has received bipartisan support. Perhaps Rumsfeld did some positive things in terms of modernizing the military, but in my mind that is completely overwhelmed by the Iraq disaster. If he is the finest Secretary of Defense the nation has ever had, I’d hate to see the worst.
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It’s safe to say that the ISG report did not make a favorable impression on David Isenberg. First, the specific assertions that were “laughable” – The “5,000 civilian contractors” reflect the number directly under the U.S. embassy. That is unclear as stated, though I don’t think it undermines the entire report. The ISG did meet extensively with Kurdish leaders. There are two recommendations that likely bother the Kurds – first, the call to delay the referendum on Kirkuk and have international mediation, and second the call to distribute future oil revenues on the basis of population. On the question of Kirkuk, the ISG heard from many sources and agreed that a referendum in the coming year would likely trigger substantial violence in and around Kirkuk between Sunni Arabs and Kurds, thus deepening and widening the sectarian strife in Iraq. On the question of oil revenues, plans to divide future revenues by region undermine the basis for a central government (since over 90% of government revenue comes from oil), and the economic place of Sunni Arabs within Iraq. In other words, the Kirkuk referendum and regionalized oil revenue distribution could plunge Iraq farther and faster into chaos, and destroy the viability of a unified Iraq. Sadly, that may happen. But the ISG did not think the U.S. should support that outcome.
On Iran and Syria, Isenberg seems to suggest that the difficulty of effectively engaging them means it is a useless recommendation. Well, is our current policy of isolating them proving to be particularly useful? What the ISG said is that all problems in the region are interconnected – you cannot solve them by talking to your friends but not your enemies; and you cannot solve them by talking about what you want to talk about but not what others want to talk about (eg. the Arab-Israeli dispute). And no, the ISG did not think that our friends had “already tried” to bring stability in Iraq. Too many have sat on the sidelines in important ways, particularly on national reconciliation.
On the “false hope” question, the word “victory” does not appear in the report. The ISG recommends a “responsible transition” out of Iraq. Isenberg wants the U.S. to “leave.” But it is not a simple thing to immediately move over 140,000 U.S. troops and an enormous civilian and military infrastructure out of a warzone in the middle of perhaps the most important region of the world to U.S. national security interests (never mind that President Bush would never do that, and he is in charge for two more years). So the ISG recommends a whole range of steps to take to give Iraqis the best possible chance of salvaging order from chaos, chiefly – stepped up training for Iraqi forces as U.S. combat brigades withdraw; pressure on the Iraqi leadership to make political decisions that can salvage their country; a strong and sustained U.S. push for more constructive regional engagement. This won’t guarantee an end to violence in Iraq. But it offers the U.S. a responsible course to protect its interests and give Iraqis a chance at a better future as we reduce our commitment to Iraq.
Finally, the 10 ISG members were not chosen to be the 10 greatest minds on Iraq in the country – they were 10 Americans from across the political spectrum who listened to scores of experts and drew on that expetise to build a consensus. Isenberg chastises James Baker for having experience in the Middle East, and then chastices Jordan, O’Connor, Meese and Panetta for not having experience. That’s beside the point. Ultimately, it is our political leaders who must forge consensus – not our experts (and I think you’d be hard pressed to find 10 experts who could agree on what to do in Iraq – just look at any op-ed page). What the ISG did is listen to every expert they could talk to, convey in clear terms what is going on Iraq, and give American political leaders a choice: come out of your trenches and forge a consensus, or dig in and have two years of more and more polarization and a deteriorating situation in Iraq. The choice is in their hands.
All blog posts are independently produced by their authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of PSA. Across the Aisle serves as a bipartisan forum for productive discussion of national security and foreign affairs topics.