Like most of Washington, my eyes were on Columbia University earlier this week as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke to the student body. His visit was of particular interest to me, not only as a follower of foreign policy, but also as a father – my only daughter just began her freshmen year at the university. (I haven’t yet asked whether she was holding the poster that read “Nerd Alert” or “Bringing Sexy Back”) As she is a pre-med student, I obviously had a concern that her classes not be disrupted and that students and faculty alike not be subjected to unnecessary risk. As a citizen, I felt some concern about providing the controversial leader with a public forum on US soil. But in hindsight it was refreshing, to a certain degree, to see that America didn’t let party lines dictate their opinions on the matter, albeit a no-brainer. The crowd was decidedly anti-Ahmadinejad, and folks on both sides of the aisle that I’ve spoken to have shared opinions ranging from absolute approval (of the invitation) to vehement disgust.
I realize, of course, that the State Department could not have legally prevented the head of state from keeping his appointment at Columbia, so it’s hard to argue that its doing so was an effort at foreign policy. But I also accept that Cabinet members, and their departments, are not the only agents for diplomacy this country has to offer. Enter Lee Bollinger – 19th President of Columbia University. Regardless of whether any of us are ultimately for or against the university’s invitation, I think it constituted as much an act of diplomacy as academia. And it effectively highlighted what is a fine line in US foreign relations: engagement vs. compromise. (more…)
In tonight’s Democratic presidential debate, Tim Russert asked each of the candidates a simple question: if Iran develops a nuclear weapon and Israel considers its security threatened, would Israel be justified in attacking Iran to destroy its weapons capability?
Senator Hilary Clinton talked combatively about Syria, classified intelligence, and why we shouldn’t answer hypotheticals. Senator Barack Obama tried to “back up a bit” and gave just about the same answer, though he might have scored a few points with the AIPAC crowd by dubbing the US Israel’s “stalwart ally.” And Senator John Edwards didn’t have much at all to say. He seemed pretty well out of his depth on a life-and-death foreign policy matter in the Middle East where the answer wasn’t simply “bring the troops home.”
Clearly, not one of the three leading contenders got it anywhere near right. Gov. Bill Richardson, the distant fourth place candidate, came the closest. He at least mentioned that Israel might have some say in the matter, and that it probably had a right to defend itself.
I somehow missed Sameer Lalwani’s post at TWN earlier in the week on Bhutto. Sameer takes a few minutes to essentially contrast the PPP record with that of the current military government. His analysis of the current situation in Pakistan and the skepticism he shows for PPP/civilian rule does not strike me as being particularly accurate or well founded and I fear it displayed some of the broad brush stroke approach to U.S.-Pakistan policy that has plagued Washington in recent years.
By way of illustration – Sameer takes issue with the way that the PPP representatives use the madrassas “boogeyman” when they describe the “drastic resurgence of political madrassas” under the military government.
“Because madrassas are an effective boogeyman (though their significance has been challenged), the PPP’s lobbyists don’t hesitate to deploy it. But the madrassa boogeyman has been continually invoked and found to be quite dubious, again with a look at the data as some World Bank and Harvard scholars sought to do. The degree of hyperbole is shocking given that the data shows madrassas only constitute 1% of enrollment in Pakistan and no evidence of dramatic increase in recent years. Moreover, madrassas are a byproduct of an institutional deficit — that is the government’s inability to provide good universal education — and this is something that pre-dates military rule.”
Now we know that Madrassa’s are a boogeyman because they are seen as places where young kids are indoctrinated into fundamentalism. Sameer seems to take issue with the PPP critique that madrassas have boomed in recent years by noting both that their data may be flawed and that the government’s inability to provide good universal education (a problem predating military rule) is the real problem.
Well that is an apples to oranges comparison. In my mind, Sameer’s suggestion that the lack of good universal education is the real problem (I’m guessing because if there was UE kids wouldn’t go to madrassas) skips over a couple of key points.
First, madrassas are also social centers for orphaned/poor kids and the most militant ones are usually well funded by their patrons in the Middle East. These madrassas will always be able to compete with Pakistani schools because of their funding stream. Secondly, while madrassas are only a small part of the over all system, the past few years has seen the entire Pakistani education system develop an increased religious tenor – and that is a direct consequence of the decisions made by the military government.
Fundamentalism always thrives in Pakistan during military rule and it is that broader issue that needs to drive the debate in Pakistan and Washington, DC.
I really hope that Sameer, who is a terrific writer, and others start to look at the situation in Pakistan in a holistic and three dimensional way – the solution to Pakistan’s problems can be found neither in the form of the current military dictator not the flawed head of the PPP. A key component of any effort to rebuild Pakistani society is the creation of political space via the reestablishment of democracy coupled with the broadest range of checks and balances possible.
This weekend Sen., and presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton (D-NY) made the rounds of the shows. One should give the Senator credit for having rehearsed her lines and gotten her stock responses done. It was so well rehearsed one could believe, if you didn’t know better, that her answers were spontaneous.
And rehearsed or not, some of what she said, was spot on. Take, for example, the tempest in a teapot that Republicans are trying to inflate into something bigger; namely, the MoveOn.org ad that supposedly impugned the integrity of Gen. David Petraeus. Here is what she said on Fox News Sunday:
CHRIS WALLACE: Senator, you have refused to criticize the Moveon.org ad about “General Betray Us.” In fact, this week you voted against a Senate resolution denouncing it. President Bush said that you and other Democrats are more afraid, his word, afraid, of irritating the left wing and MoveOn that you are about insulting the American military. Does he have a point?
SENATOR HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY): No, he doesn’t. But I think it’s clear. I don’t condone attacks on anyone who has served our country with distinction and with honor. And I have been very vocal in my support of and admiration for General Petraeus. I did vote for a resolution that made it clear that I do not condone and do condemn attacks on any American, impugning their patriotism, and that includes people like Senator Max Cleland and Senator John Kerry. I think we need to call a halt to any kind of attacks from wherever they come that would go after anyone based on their service to America. But you know, this is not a debate about an ad..
This is a debate about how we end the war in Iraq. That’s the debate that I want to be participating in. And I think a lot of people on the other side don’t want us to have that debate..
The host, Chris Wallace, trying to make a mountain out of a molehill, persisted: (more…)
Once again a tragedy involving Blackwater private security contractors happened in Iraq. This time however, unlike 2004, when four of them were killed at Fallujah while escorting a convoy delivering kitchen equipment, they allegedly were the assailants, who, during the course of a firefight in Baghdad while escorting clients, somehow killed at least 11 Iraqi civilians and wounded at least 13 more.
This reminds me that in my third entry for this blog I wrote back in May 2006:
To date much of the discussion of contractors on the battlefield and war zones has been sensationalistic and not particularly helpful. Either contractors are just patriots helping out their former comrades, as most of them are former military themselves or they are just war profiteering moneygrubbers, who trample on human rights. Neither view is correct.
So I would like to suggest that the time is right for Congress to take one modest step by forming its own caucus on the issue. Surely, if we can have causes devoted to Alzheimer’s, textiles, and alcohol fuels we can have one devoted to an industry deals with an enduring reality of international affairs, namely who gets to use force and under what circumstances.
In light of the current media frenzy over the Blackwater incident I’ve been thinking about this. (more…)
It was a wild day on Wall Street Tuesday as Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke cut interest rates by a surprising .5%. While traders cheered the news, those concerned with the long-term health of the American economy and our security should not have been so pleased. The American dollar is in the global tank and we are losing our competitiveness as we continue to under-save the rest of the industrialized world by leaps and bounds. Our debt as a country and as individuals is unconscionably high and our credit market is partly to blame for this problem. Over the last few years, American citizens and our government alike have taken on obscene amounts of debt.
The sub-prime mess was an awakening to Wall Street and Main Street alike that risky mortgages and re-financing are trouble for both the borrower and the lender. If we are going to have a thriving economy, people need to live within their real means – and not the “means” they invent on paper for no doc loans. This is an important lesson and a first step toward getting the country back on track.
All of the attention to the sub-prime markets over the last month was finally bringing needed attention to resolving this crisis. The U.S. government was beginning to discuss policy alternatives to deal with the situation. Finally, it appeared that the Bush administration and Congress might work together on comprehensive legislation to help those who are at risk of foreclosure and eviction – and, more importantly, to create a set of regulations to avoid this level of easy credit in the future.
While government policy has a role to play, the Fed’s intervention on Tuesday is not the answer to what has been a colossal failure of both the government and markets to properly regulate credit and balance risk. By giving investors a short-term bail-out on Tuesday, the Fed is encouraging a moral hazard. And that decision only makes it less likely that Wall Street and Main Street will take seriously this opportunity to rethink our savings and loans balance. We need to get back to being a country of savers and spenders rather than borrowers and spenders. In the long-run, this is essential to our economic health and security.
PSA Advisory Board member Sandy Berger and Eric Schwartz had a compelling op-ed recently in the Boston Globe on September 5th that I believe deserves more attention. Berger and Schwartz argue that due to America’s foreign policy attention being focused primarily on Iraq, other competing powers are gaining the upper hand in important regions around the world. In some developing countries America is losing influence as Russia and China pick up the slack with new infrastructure development projects and other types of support. In national security terms the short term loss of influence in countries such as East Timor may not be the most pressing item on the US foreign policy agenda. However, we must not forget that once upon a time Afghanistan also ceased to be a priority as Soviet troops departed, only to resurge as an Al Qaeda stronghold. Seemingly insignificant backwater countries can have tremendous impact on the US at the hands of a few determined extremists.
What is concerning is that in the Bush administration’s proposed 2008 budget the USAID foreign assistance component has been slashed by 31%. Granted, some of this money has been funneled into the State Department’s economic assistance fund. Nevertheless, this is no time to be pulling back on our engagement in the developing world.
Berger and Schwartz raise the issue of China gaining ground in the developing world as it exercises its newfound wealth and global influence. Although framing this relationship in adversarial terms can make sense, we may also want to consider how China might be brought into the global community as a responsible citizen. I see this as one of our major foreign policy challenges.
The jury is still out in terms of what type of foreign policy China intends. My belief is that China’s foreign policy will be governed primarily by its interest in expanding both the markets for its products and for raw materials and energy. Instability and conflict are bad for business, which leads me to conclude that although its foreign policy is focused primarily on its economic interests, it is not in the business of empire building. Certainly this is the story that the Chinese are spinning for Western audiences so as to reduce their anxiety about China’s emergence. Although a healthy dose of skepticism is always warranted, I tend to believe that narrative.
See this explanation of China’s foreign policy on its US embassy web site:
Maintaining world peace. China does not participate in the arms race, nor does it seek military expansion. China resolutely opposes hegemonism, power politics, aggression and expansion in whatever form, as well as encroachments perpetrated by one country on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of another, or interference in the internal affairs of another nation under the pretext of ethnic, religious or human rights issues.
Clearly for China sovereignty and economic self interest supersede “pretext” concerns such as human rights. (more…)
Hmm, so maybe that much talked about news last week where supposedly Secretary of Defense Gates was calling for deeper reductions of American troops from Iraq than Gen. Petraeus or President Bush is less than meets the eyes:
Here he is on Fox News Sunday:
CHRIS WALLACE: You made news Friday when you said that you hope we can get down to 100,000 troops by the end of 2008. What would it take? What would the situation on the ground have to be for that to happen?
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ROBERT GATES: Well, first of all, what didn’t get covered was the fact that I indicated very strongly that that developed very much on what happened on the ground. And that if we were to continue draw downs it would be because the situation in Iraq had continued to improve dramatically. The key here, it seems to me, is what kind of conditions we will have in Iraq in March when General Petraeus makes his reevaluation. …
WALLACE: Now, you made it very clear that this was your personal view about the 100,000 troops. But you’re also a pretty careful guy. Fair to say that the president also shares this hope that if things continue you could get down to 100,000 by the end of the year?
GATES: I didn’t actually use the number. Somebody else, one of the people who asked the question jumped to that number. (more…)
Last night, in a focus group convened as part of PSA and Saga’s effort to “forge the bipartisan message” on preventing nuclear terror, I had the privilege of speaking frankly with a group of voters from all sides of the political spectrum. Actually, I did a lot more listening than talking, and what I heard leaves me more convinced than ever that PSA’s call for rational, centrist compromise is indispensable to an effective national security and foreign policy. It was clear that American voters blame both Democrats and Republicans for their failure to come together and get the job done. Amidst deep skepticism about Iraq, the concept of a “war on terror,” and almost any other pithy policy sound bite associated with the current administration, one message came through loud and clear: Get partisanship out of national security policy. No excuses.
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As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ll be participating in a policy forum at Cato this coming Thursday, September 20th, “Assessing the Surge.” It should be a spirited discussion, as there is a range of opinions represented on the panel, and we already have quite a number of people registered to attend, so that should make for a lively Q&A.
I have had numerous opportunities to weigh in on the surge, going back to when President Bush announced the policy in January, but the events of the past week have led me to three unhappy conclusions. On the security front, Gen. Petraeus and others claim that the surge is responsible for reducing violence throughout Iraq, but especially in Baghdad. I’m skeptical, and I’m not the only one. A number of independent sources have questioned the numbers being thrown around. Second, there is no disputing that the surge failed in its stated objective of facilitating political reconciliation. No one, not even the White House, believes that there has been progress on this front. I’ll elaborate on both of these points on Thursday.
My third observation is even less cheery; the surge has established the foundations for a quasi-permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq. The White House implied as much when they stated in their “Benchmark Assessment Report” (.pdf) that the United States and Iraq must “develop the framework for an enduring relationship between Iraq and the United States.” (p. 3)
Contrary to predictions that U.S. domestic politics will force a change of course in 2009, if not before, I believe that there will be a very substantial U.S. troop presence in Iraq for many, many years. No one will want to blamed for the chaos that might ensue following an American military withdrawal. The president, therefore, be he/she a Democrat or a Republican, will spend tens of billions of dollars, and risk the lives of thousands of American soldiers and Marines, in the hope that a series of miracles will happen — that political reconcilation will take root, that violence will subside, that Iran will become weaker, and somehow lose its ability to influence events in Iraq — so that the United States can emerge with its credibility in tact, and so that he/she is not blamed for losing a war. (The parallels to Vietnam are not heartening.)
If you think me too gloomy, if you have more faith in the power of the popular will to shape policy, if you have more confidence in our political leaders to make reasonable judgments about what is or is not in the U.S. strategic interest, ask yourself this: Why are more and more people, on both sides of the aisle, invoking the Korea analogy — in which a 50-plus year military presence is being cast as beneficial to all parties — as a model for U.S. policy in Iraq? Fareed Zakaria hits a similar theme this morning in the Washington Post when he urges us “to go long.”
As is usually the case, I hope I’m wrong; but the evidence that I am seeing points in a very worrisome direction.
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.