Assessing the State of the Union

by Judith Oliver | January 28th, 2010 | |Subscribe

Last night’s State of the Union address made clear that the Obama administration has reassessed its priorities in light of recent events. Health care legislation has stalled in Congress, and Democrats experienced the loss of two governorships and Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts to the Republicans. Opinion polls reveal the President’s approval rating hovering around 20 points lower than they were at this same time last year.

These setbacks are a sea change from the expectations put forth for a new way of communicating and governing when Mr. Obama was inaugurated a little over a year ago. He was the transformational candidate complete with a goal to increase bipartisan cooperation on many issues – from fixing the economy, health care, energy and climate change to addressing national security, WMD, terrorism and foreign policy issues.


Time to get the Pakistani public on board

by Brian Vogt | January 27th, 2010 | |Subscribe

Last week the State Department released its Afghanistan and Pakistan Regional Stabilization Strategy.  There is much to like in this comprehensive document that seeks to elevate development and diplomacy efforts alongside that of defense.  Although the troop increase announced in December by President Obama will be integral to success, for too long the military has overshadowed development and diplomacy in this part of the world.  They are all part of the solution.  We’re now moving in the right direction, but there’s more to be done to get the Pakistani public on board.

The strategy in Afghanistan focuses on reconstruction and development, improved governance, rule of law, and an expanded civilian presence.  The Pakistan component deals with the recently passed Kerry-Lugar-Berman legislation that devotes $7.5 billion over 5 years to Pakistan.  It also emphasizes security assistance, communications, and strengthening people-to-people ties.   The strategy isn’t just a list of impressive goals, but rather it lays out measurable milestones that we should all use to hold the U.S. government accountable.

This all sounds great.  So what’s missing?  Here’s my concern, particularly related to Pakistan.  Poll after poll reports that the Pakistani public continues to harbor strong anti-American sentiment.  For example, in an August poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, 64% of Pakistanis viewed the U.S. as an enemy.  Only 22% of Pakistanis felt that the U.S. takes their interests into account when making foreign policy decisions.  There were many references in the strategy about the commitment to a long-term partnership with Pakistan.  Although the Pakistani government might have agreed, I’m quite concerned that the Pakistani people are not yet convinced. (more…)

The Enemy of My Enemy

by Daniel Cassman | January 26th, 2010 | |Subscribe


There was a moment in 2005 when American democracy promotion efforts and national security interests seemed perfectly aligned. Syria announced its withdrawal from Lebanon; Egypt allowed contested elections for the first time in its history; elections were held in Palestine; and Iraq held parliamentary elections. A more secure, more democratic Middle East appeared to be only a matter of time. Then Hizbullah filled the void in Lebanon, leading to war with Israel. Egypt’s elections turned out to be a sham, and the government subsequently cracked down on the opposition. Hamas swept the elections in Palestine the following year, and Iraq was quickly mired in the deadliest year of its occupation. This swift reversal revealed that our democracy promotion efforts and our national security are linked in very complex, and sometimes contradictory, ways. Promoting democracy while protecting national security is always desirable, and in the long term those interests do indeed align. In the short term, however, we often have to make the difficult decision to prioritize one before the other. If we strike the right balance, we will be able to keep our country safe from immediate threats while laying the foundation for stable democracies in the future.

Today, the Middle East is, if anything, less stable than it was in 2005. The government in Iraq clings to the best news it can get—that the violence isn’t as bad as it used to be. In Afghanistan, NATO troops struggle to regain territory they controlled a few years ago and a corrupt government rules the country. The dream of a stable, democratic Middle East seems to be gone, replaced only with a desperate hope that we might be able to withdraw without triggering civil war. Democracy, if it is achievable in either country, will be a long, hard slog. (more…)

Moscow’s Annual Energy Row: ‘Kto Kogo’?

by Volha Charnysh | January 21st, 2010 | |Subscribe


Russia has many interesting New Year traditions, but the most famous one, at least in the Western media, is its annual bickering over energy prices with neighboring states. It was Minsk’s turn to join Moscow in upholding the tradition this year.

No sooner had Belarus finished toasting the New Year than Russia halted oil supplies to Belarusian refineries through the Druzhba, or Friendship, pipeline. Although the Kremlin quickly restored the oil flow to pacify its European customers, the dispute over pricing is far from settled. Russia and Belarus are still arguing over terms of a new agreement on export tariffs to replace the deal that expired on Dec. 31.

Having subsidized Belarus for years on end, Russia is now asking it to pay full import duties for the oil resold abroad. While Russia agreed to Belarus’ continuing to buy crude for domestic market duty-free, the Belarusian government argues that the customs union between the two states obviates the need for duty on all oil imports from Russia, including the 14.4 million tons of oil that Belarus refines and re-exports.

The oil dispute has already driven oil prices to a 15-month high and elicited strong criticism from the Europe Union, which imports thirty percent of its oil from Russia, half of it traveling through Belarus. Were the oil supplies disrupted, Germany and Poland would be hit hardest because Russian oil comprises 15 and 75 percent of their total oil consumption, respectively. (more…)

The U.S. Really Is Doing a Heck of a Job, Thus Far

by David Isenberg | January 19th, 2010 | |Subscribe

Today marks one week since the magnitude 7.0 Jan. 12 earthquake hit Haiti. If there is anything in the world that, at least momentarily, brings people together it is the innate humanitarian impulse to help those who have been struck by natural catastrophe.

In this regard Haiti is no exception. Nations from around the world, not just the United States, are rushing supplies and various specialists to assist in search and rescue, provide food, water, and housing, and begin the effort to assist with what will, of necessity, have to be a long term recovery effort. Early estimates state that one third of Haiti’s nine million people have been affected by the quake. Already 20,000 bodies are estimated to have been recovered. The final toll will undoubtedly be far higher.

The United States, by virtue of its geographic proximity to Haiti, its long term involvement with the country, and its immense logistical capabilities is taking the lead role in coordinating relief efforts. No problem there; as the Haitian government has been almost as destroyed as the housing in Port au Prince.

In terms of domestic politics nobody thus far, aside from the usual rightwing whack jobs, such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are objecting to the U.S. rushing to the rescue. And U.S. efforts are significant. If President Bush had done for New Orleans what President Obama is doing for Haiti the Bush legacy would be significantly different.

This past weekend, in a striking example of bipartisanship, President Obama asked former Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush  to spearhead private-sector fund-raising efforts.

Thus far, the U.S. military is doing a useful job. Whether it has done as much as it could or should will be a question that will doubtlessly be debated.

A three-star general, Lt. Gen. P. K. Keen, the deputy director of the military’s Southern Command, has been tapped to lead a new joint task force devoted to Haiti.

7,500 troops and four ships arrived in Haiti yesterday to join the about 5,000 U.S. military personnel already assisting on the ground and from ships nearby. Reportedly the bulk of the troops will operate off the ships, not on the ground.

Air Force special operations controllers set up an air-traffic control center. It was the beginning of an operation that, by Sunday, had unclogged one bottleneck preventing aid from reaching Haiti’s desperate population. By Sunday, the Air Force had landed some 300 planes, most of them laden with relief supplies.

The 82nd Airborne has established small posts around the city to protect food and water drops. (more…)

Stop Bucking and Start Learning

by Geneve Mantri | January 15th, 2010 | |Subscribe

The President is getting some kudos for the frank and forthright way he stepped up last week to articulate the government failings in the Christmas Day attack. After much media noise he announced that no one would be fired, and he took full responsibility for the mistakes. Loyalty is a good if an uncommon virtue in DC. But just saying the buck stops here too often means it stops nowhere. The President had a few good lines and not much else to follow through. What is really alarming about the Christmas Day attacks is not that they happen, or that we dissolve into a wave of recrimination, but that we learn nothing.

The US government is built on agencies with generally poor political and bureaucratic leadership. We have a semi feudal system, rife with patronage and a club mentality. Political appointees as a class are well educated, underqualified, and woefully unprepared for office. Senior bureaucrats, usually neglected by Congress, are subject to Darwinian selection to remove all evidence of any spine, humanity, imagination or leadership skill. If you really want something done on time, under budget, and is well led and executed – would you really give it to the US government, or worse subject it to a current USG contract?

When it comes to homeland security we really maximize our critical weaknesses. As one example there has been some discussion of moving the visa function out of State Department, and there has been predictable push back from Foggy Bottom. But regardless of who takes up the function, the requirement for juniors officers to sit on a visa line on a rotating basis creates an in-built weakness at every embassy around the world.

For those who are down on America, the longest lines in the world are still often found outside US consulates, of eager people looking for a visa. Along side of every queue is a cottage industry of people selling information or a quick way to cheat the lines complete with “information” on the new officers at the windows, and their behavior patterns. (more…)

Next economic stimulus: immigration reform

by Brian Vogt | January 13th, 2010 | |Subscribe

2009 was the year of health care reform.  Although that process is far from over, I’m hopeful that 2010 will be the year of comprehensive immigration reform.  Last week two organizations from opposite sides of the political spectrum released studies on the issue.  Interestingly, they both concluded basically the same thing – comprehensive immigration reform would be a huge boost to the U.S. economy.  As we gear up for the intense debate that is likely to come later this year, these two studies dispel many of the economic arguments of those who seek to maintain the status quo or institute an enforcement-only approach.

This is an issue both of foreign and domestic policy.   The ease with which illegal immigration takes place, provides another entry point for terrorist elements.

There is the opportunity for a bipartisan approach to immigration reform.  Senators Kennedy and McCain laid the blueprint for that approach in 2005.   However, that effort and several later iterations died in Congress.  Today, Kennedy is no longer with us and McCain’s quest to attain the Republican presidential nomination led him to reject the compromises that he had previously supported.   The issue has been quite divisive, but also has the potential to bring people together – as long as we get the facts straight.  Unfortunately, in some instances, the facts have been overtaken by raw emotions.  These two studies from opposite sides of the political spectrum will hopefully bring some more reasonable dialogue into the process. (more…)

Thomas Kean: How 12/25 Was Like 9/11

by PSA Staff | January 8th, 2010 | |Subscribe

On Tuesday, PSA Advisory Board member and chairman of the 9/11 commission Thomas Kean, along with 9/11 commission senior counsel John Farmer Jr., published an op-ed in The New York Times on what must be done in the aftermath of the attempted Christmas Day bombing.  Gov. Kean and Mr. Farmer called the thwarted attack a “systemic failure” to effectively analyze available intelligence.  Therefore, they insist that:

“First, we should dismiss the partisan bickering over the issue. Both parties have presided over security failures and successes; systemic failures cannot be ascribed to the stewardship of a political party.  Any effort to take partisan advantage of this unfortunate event, moreover, can only mask the more serious underlying issues, which President Obama raised squarely in yesterday’s remarks: are lapses in information gathering and sharing like those that occurred here endemic, or fixable?”

What Congress and the administration really must ask themselves, they say, is “whether the system we have in place has reduced the likelihood of human error to an acceptable, if not irreducible, margin.”  Gov. Kean and Mr. Farmer say that finding the solutions to the lingering failures of 9/11 that led to the 12/25 attempted attack require that President Obama and Congress “resist superficial sound-bite solutions and undertake the harder task of reinventing our national security system.”  Human error and an “element of judgment” will always exist in intelligence, but partisanship will only impede the procedural and structural changes necessary to prevent another systemic breakdown like the one that occurred on Christmas Day.

Click here to watch an interview of Gov. Kean
speaking about the importance of bipartisanship

Next Steps on Iran

by Raj Purohit | January 7th, 2010 | |Subscribe

I have to admit that I am struggling to judge the Obama administrations approach to Iran over the past 12 months. At times the President and his team have got the tone and approach right (e.g. the early restrained comments as the election dispute escalated and the way Sec. Clinton engaged the Iranians at an Afghanistan conference in early 2009) but at other moments the administration has seemed to be clumsy or guilty of following a flawed game plan (e.g. the unwillingness to push for a holistic dialogue with Iran spanning issues ranging from nukes to Afghanistan to Iranian security concerns).

I don’t feel ready to prescribe a specific 2010 game plan at this moment but wanted to share one of the more interesting pieces I have reviewed on the internal dynamics in Iran.  Michael Fischer outlines four possible ways in which the internal situation could evolve in the months ahead….it makes for interesting reading and this request from Michael is a very reasonable one:

It is important for Iran’s future and that of the world that more attention be focused on these alternative outcomes, so as to avoid the worst of them. Iran needs less our intervention or sanctions than an insistent questioning of who the players and their connections and alliances are.

What do you think about the scenarios outlined by Michael? Are there others that the administration needs to consider?

The game of nuclear rearmament/disarmament a-la Kremlin

by Volha Charnysh | January 6th, 2010 | |Subscribe


A new year, a new beginning. While Washington discusses proposals like eliminating one leg of the nuclear arms “triad” and adopting a “no-first-use’’ policy, Moscow plays up the role of nuclear weapons in its national security and hypes its work on the new generation of nuclear weapons.

With viewpoints so different, it is not surprising that US and Russian experts are still haggling over a new strategic arms reductions treaty – already four weeks past the initial goal of Dec. 5. As if to make the negotiators’ task even more difficult, 40 Republican Senators and Joe Lieberman are urging the Obama administration to follow Moscow’s suit. They stress the need for a large-scale nuclear-warhead modernization program at a time when Washington is already spending approximately $30 billion per year to maintain and upgrade its arsenal for the next 20-30 years.

Russia’s expensive and unnecessary modernization plan neither threatens the United States nor necessitates intensification of the US modernization program, however. The Kremlin’s most recent saber rattling is scarcely more than an attempt to play hardball on the START negotiations issues. In fact, if Russian modernization of strategic nuclear forces continues in the direction it seems to be going, its nuclear deterrent may actually weaken. (more…)

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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.