Thursday, December 31, 2009

Bush's mentor, the Dementor

There's been no shortage of denunciations of Dick Cheney for  his series of  attacks on Obama , and he deserves all of them. But today, Gail Collins dispatches "the demented vice president" (Dowd, 2004) with a throwaway line worth a dozen polemics:
No matter how difficult the issue, Obama has been sensible, deliberative. Just look at Dick Cheney swooping around like a dementor from Harry Potter, and you have to appreciate how much things have improved. Times' report on the army's own official history of the failure of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan since early 2002 sheds an interesting light on Cheney's October charge that Obama was "dithering" over Afghanistan:

When Obama stole a line from Cheney

One of the defining moments of the 2008 campaign came in the wake of the Lehman Brothers collapse, when John McCain announced that he was suspending his campaign and called on Obama to postpone their upcoming debate while al hands were called on deck to deal with Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson's request for $700 billion to bail out the megabanks. Obama's response - a President has to be able to do more than one thing at a time -- exposed McCain for the shallow showboating bully that he is.

Who noticed at the time that Obama was quoting his distant cousin, Dick Cheney?  I just stumbled on this exchange in a Tim Russert interview with Cheney on March 16, 2003, days before the U.S. attacked  Iraq:
MR. RUSSERT: In order to pay for this war, would the president consider suspending his proposed tax cut?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: We don’t believe that’s the right course of action, Tim. This is one of those times when as important as the war on terror is and as important as the problem of Iraq is, we’ve also got a lot of other balls in the air. And an American president these days doesn’t have the choice of focusing on only one thing. We’ve also got to deal with the Middle East peace process, with Israelis and Palestinians which we did this week. We’ve got to deal with the domestic economy. It’s very important to get the economy growing again. And one of the reasons we’ve had a fall-off in revenue, obviously, is a slow economy and we need to get growth started again....

I imagine that in one form or another, the observation that a President has to focus on many issues simultaneously is a truism going back many decades, if not a couple of centuries.

BTW, a look back at the Russert interview highlights what we lost with his untimely death.  He asked Cheney every question he should have -- whether he disagreed with the International Atomic Energy Agency's assessment that Iraq had no nuclear program, whether the U.S. was alienating allies, whether the invasion would stimulate anti-American feeling and terrorism among Muslim populations, whether we would need hundreds of thousands of troops on the ground to secure the country after invasion, whether the war mightn't cost $100 billion, whether Brent Scowcroft's vocal criticism of the rush to war gave him pause -- and, per above, whether war might require scaling back tax cuts..   You can't accuse Cheney of being unwilling to engage these questions, either -- though you may marvel how wrong he was about everything.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Are the Taliban and al Qaeda "symbiotic"? A famed jihadist says no

What's all this about "symbiosis" between the Taliban and al Qaeda?

Robert Gates told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Dec. 3:
While Al Qaeda is under great pressure now and dependent on the Taliban and other extremist groups for sustainment, the success of the Taliban would vastly strengthen Al Qaeda’s message to the Muslim world: that violent extremists are on the winning side of history. Put simply, the Taliban and Al Qaeda have become symbiotic, each benefiting from the success and mythology of the other. Al Qaeda leaders have stated this explicitly and repeatedly.

Richard Holbrooke made substantially the same point to the Counsel on Foreign Relations on December 15 (George Packer reports):
Holbrooke called the nine weeks of recent White House meetings on the war “the most careful, detailed, methodical policy review I’ve ever been involved in.” The basic conclusion: “You can’t separate the Taliban from Al Qaeda at this point. Our judgment is that if the Taliban succeed in Afghanistan, they will bring back Al Qaeda with them,” as well as score an enormous psychological victory for extremists worldwide.

According to a legendary Jihadist, counselor and confidante to Mullah Omar and at times to Osama bin Laden, they're completely wrong.

Noughty and nice

Mein Gott but the zeitgeist is sour. Paul Krugman has (already famously) dubbed the decade past "the big zero" -- "the decade in which we achieved nothing and learned nothing." Simon Schama looks back cheerfully on "the book-ending of the decade by two immense calamities--mayhem and meltdown, mass murder...and mass unemployment."  Transported by the irrational exuberance of his own eloquence, Schama paints an almost gleeful picture of Dystopia Now:
Give me a sceptic and I will take him to Shanghai or São Paulo on a day of ripe smog and see how sceptical he remains while coughing his guts into a mask and peering at brown sunlight as if through a dome of begrimed glass. Lake Baikal is a saline puddle and the Sahara is heading for Timbuktu. If the earth is not yet in its terminal death rattle, it sure ain’t looking good. Population pressure on shrinking and degraded resources in the poorest parts of the world is unrelenting and no mega-city – Lagos, Caracas, Rio, Mumbai – is without its mountain range of trash on which humans can be seen like skeletal goats picking over the black plastic for something to eat. Along with drought and famine, pandemics have returned: in which, like some as yet unwritten scripture, the animal kingdom – avian, porcine, bovine – is a bellwether of human perishability.
All of which seems to put the nail in the coffin of a collective optimism born 200 years ago, when the Enlightenment envisioned a world illuminated by reason, banishing the afflictions of ignorance, poverty, war and disease. hat the arch-prophet of this smiley-faced secularism, the Marquis de Condorcet, perished while imprisoned by French revolutionary authorities should have told us something.
Whew. Well, key up the guillotine for Condorcet Jr. -- that is, me, a.k.a. Pollyanna the Fukuyaman, giving way to a fit of knee-jerk contrarian optimism. I'm used to this.  My poor mother (born in 1933 and still commuting to Manhattan 3x a week) witnessed the crumbling of WTC Tower #2 with her own eyes on 9/11. I've been trying to convince her ever since that humanity remains on an upward trajectory, that the Soviet Union was a more dangerous adversary than al Qaeda, etc. etc.  So for what it's worth, a reality check on the last decade:

Monday, December 28, 2009

Exhorting the Iranian people, denouncing the regime

An opposition leader finds "proof of life" in the Iranian people's protest:
As we are gathered here, according to the information reaching us, all the major cities of Iran are closed down: Tehran, Tabriz, Mashhad, Qum...

The people have identified the true criminal. It was obvious before, it is true, but some people didn't recognize him as such or didn't dare speak out. Thanks be to God, this barrier of fear has collapsed and the people have discovered the true criminal and come to understand who is responsible for the misery of our nation.

The center for religious learning in Qum has proven its vitality; the people of Qum and the respected students of the religious sciences have fought the government...with their bare hands, with a courage rarely equalled in history, and yielded their martyrs. When the agents of the regime spilled into the streets and alleyways of Qum and attacked the people--according to the reports we have received--the people resisted them to the utmost degree possible, both before and after the massacre, thus proving how alive they are. They proved that they were alive, not dead!
- Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini
  "In Commemoration of the First Martyrs of the Revolution"
   February 19, 1978

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Wiping the slate

First attempt at mobile.blogging...

As Iran erupts, another flashback from Ray Takeyh's 2006 study, Hidden Iran:

...The legacy of the hostage crisis continues to extract a price from Iran. An indelible image of the Islamic Republic was imprinted on the psyche of the American people.Iranians were seen as fanatical, reactionary fundamentalists enchanted by their peculiar culture of martyrdom and impervious to reason. To a cross-section of the public, a theocratic anachronism steeped in its ossified ideology had managed to humiliate America with impunity. The chants of "Death to America," mullahs in their strange clerical garb,and a population seemingly united in its hatred of America would be the enduring picture of Iran.

It's remarkable the extent to which the current revolt is both replay and rewrite. Another generation, another Ashura with the present superimposed on the culture's defining ritual...a population still enchanted by martydom and remembering well how a prior "Yazid". was brought down -- but putting their bodies on the line this time for democracy, rule of law, modernity.

And in the U.S.and the world at large, that "indelible image" is transmogrified.

Save the filibuster, cont.

The Times' Reed Abelson today recalls the debacle of the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act, passed in 1988 and repealed in 1990 after an uproar from Medicare beneficiaries who saw their premiums rise to pay for coverage they had already bought for themselves.

The analogy with pending health care reform legislation is obvious: taxes begin right away while the signature benefits, subsidized health insurance offered on the exchanges, won't kick in until 2013 or 2014.

"The specter of repeal is going to be around for awhile," says one scholar of the Catastrophic Coverage Act, UCLA's Thomas Rice.

May I humbly refer HCR supporters to my warning of a few days ago: save the filibuster, protector of the Patient Protection Act?

War of the snapshots

Ever been to a wedding where half the guests are standing and snapping photos as the couple walks down the aisle?

One of the odd features of the videos documenting the current antigovernment demonstrations marking Ashoura in Tehran: it seems that half the people there, including police, are circling the action, holding up their cameras, and snapping away.

One one level, it's a battle of snapshots: Iranians struggling to get their photos out to be viewed around the world; law enforcement targeting people for future persecution. (Gaza too was a war of perception, which continued after the shooting stopped.)

It seems, too, as if the line between participating and recording is disappearing.  How long before someone documents his own murder?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

When Abu Walid met Leah Farrall

Steve Coll recently apologized to Leah Farrall, a former intelligence analyst for the Australian federal police and current Ph.D. student, for his response to a series of exchanges between Farrall and jihadist journalist Abu Walid al Masri. Abu Walid is "a legendary figure in mujaheddin circles" according to Farrall, and also a prolific author who wrote for Taliban magazines when the group was in power.

Coll apologized because Farrall complained on her blog that he highlighted the flirtatious tone that Abu Walid adopted in taking up Farrall's invitation to correspond. Coll had noted Farrall's blond portrait photo and Abu Walid's apparent interest in her appearance -- or at least, his rhetorical exploitation of it.

While it's gracious to apologize to a perfect stranger who takes offense at one's first notice, Coll need not have done so. For whatever complex of reasons, Abu Walid quite loudly and obviously sexualized the correspondence from the outset, and that's not insignificant.  Here's the passage from his first response to Farrall that Coll cites:

Friday, December 25, 2009

2006 flashback: the enrichment of Iran's Revolutionary Guards

UPDATE: Iran said today that it would be willing to swap nuclear material with the West in Turkey, as opposed to Russia. Cf. Ray Takeyh, 12/21, below: "In Tehran, no deal ever dies. So it's entirely possible that the LEU export proposition could be resurrected..."
In the wake of Iran's stolen election last June, observers including Gary Sick and the Times' Neil MacFarquhar  brought attention to a stealth militarist takeover of Iran's religious establishment over the past several years, emphasizing that Ahmadinejad had packed key government posts with Revolutionary Guard officers and veterans.

In Today's Times, Michael Slackman cites "the rise of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as the most powerful decision-making bloc in the country" while reporting that Iran's intransigence on the nuclear issue has reached a new level, as the post-election crackdown has "made it nearly impossible for anyone to support nuclear cooperation without being accused of capitulating to the West." Ironically, on this issue Ahmadinejad has reportedly been more pragmatic and conciliatory than political opponents inside and out of power, including Mousavi.

The militarization of Iran's theocracy is not a new story. Ray Takeyh's account of the Guards' economic empowerment in  The Hidden Iran, published in 2006, sounds very like reports that have reached the newspapers in recent months -- and would have provided a basis to forecast the regime's reaction to the outbreak of demand for reform that crested so suddenly in the runup to the June election:

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Christmas gift from the Senate

A moment to savor and celebrate:

Senate Passes Health Care Overhaul Bill

WASHINGTON — The Senate voted Thursday to reinvent the nation’s health care system, passing a bill to guarantee access to health insurance for tens of millions of Americans and to rein in health costs as proposed by President Obama.

The 60-to-39 party-line vote, on the 25th straight day of debate on the legislation, brings Democrats a step closer to a goal they have pursued for decades. It clears the way for negotiations with the House, which passed a broadly similar bill last month by a vote of 220 to 215.
 For those who dismiss the bill as a giveaway to insurance companies,  Pear serves up a deadpan rebuttal:

The bill would establish stringent federal standards for an industry that, since its inception, has been regulated mainly by the states.

Under the bill, insurers could not deny coverage because of a person’s medical condition; could not charge higher premiums because of a person’s sex or health status; and could not rescind coverage when a person becomes sick or disabled. The government would, in effect, limit the profits of insurers by requiring them to spend at least 80 to 85 cents of every premium dollar on medical care.

The specificity of federal standards is illustrated by one section of the bill, which requires insurers to issue a summary of benefits that “does not exceed four pages in length and does not include print smaller than 12-point font.”

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Save the filibuster, guardian of health care reform

Andrew Sullivan trusts that health care reform will remake the country's political landscape:
I don't think this is about a short term five point bump. Here's what has happened: a liberal Democratic president has just passed universal health insurance. No Democratic president has done something like that since Johnson. It is designed to show that government can do something real and tangible for the working poor. And in that respect, its impact on the political culture will be deep and lasting, unless the opposition can stop it, demonize it, or jump up and down enough to make it seem as if Obama is out of step with the times rather than them.
My suspicion is that they will fail in the end to achieve this; and that this new landmark for liberalism will reorient American politics the way Reagan's first year did - profoundly.

I agree with this read in principle and in fervent hope. But it worries me that the health care exchanges won't power up until 2014 (if HCR passes) -- while cuts to Medicare Advantage start right away.  Couple this with Democrats' flirtation with weakening the filibuster, and that leaves me chewing a few cuticles about a worst-case scenario: Democrats lose lots of seats and maybe a chamber of Congress in 2010, and the Obama administration goes into a Clintonian holding pattern. The asset bubble bursts in China, or there's some other second wave economic tsunami, or a successful terrorist attack, and the Republicans win the presidency in 2012.  With the filibuster weakened -- and the precedent set for weakening it further -- Republicans repeal health care reform before the exchanges ever get started.

It's always easy to spin out worst-case scenarios.  But I still think that the Democrats, having (almost) squeezed health care reform through the eye of the needle, should regard the filibuster as the bulwark against rollback.

The best cure for the legislative sclerosis blamed on the filibuster is a change in political culture, effected once the Republicans reap the long-term whirlwind for their obstructionism.  Meanwhile, guarded by the filibuster, health care reform will probably have the long-term effect that Andrew envisions.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Eight rebuttals to "10 reasons to kill the Senate bill"

Responses in italics to Jane Hamsher's  10 Reasons to Kill the Senate Bill. I concede the points about giveaways to pharma, but they're hardly dealbreakers.
  1. Forces you to pay up to 8% of your income to private insurance corporations — whether you want to or not. "Up to" is marketing language. It's true that the relatively small sliver of Americans who make upwards of $80,000 and have no access to insurance outside the exchanges will be "forced" to spend 8% of their income on insurance. But right now, their option is to have no insurance -- and therefore risk bankruptcy or death if they get seriously ill -- or pay about 22% more than they will pay on the exchanges -- if they have no preexisting conditions or other budget-busting characteristics, like middle age. The mandated insurance will also have fewer coverage loopholes than individual market policies now offer.  Other "mandated" buyers will pay much less; those under 150% of the poverty line will pay less than $2000 for a family of four.
  2. If you refuse to buy the insurance, you’ll have to pay penalties of up to 2% of your annual income to the IRS. A mandate is the necessary cost of ending discrimination on the basis of pre-existing conditions.

Theocracy in America

A lot of people are angry that Senate rules and Republican intransigence give Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson life-or-death power over the health care reform bill.  I am angry that the Catholic Church also has a near-veto:
Leadership aides say progressives are prepared to take it on the chin and will vote for a final bill without a public option. But they say pro-life Democrats will seek direction from the U.S. Conference of Bishops as to whether they can support an amendment weaker than Rep. Bart Stupak's, thus setting up what will likely be the most difficult negotiation before a final vote.
Catholic bishops have about as much credibility on matters of sexual and reproductive morality as Iranian mullahs have with respect to vote-counting.

Interrogation "light"

“I’ve seen man at his worst, and man at his best.  I can tell you that in the darkest of moments, there are those who provide a light.  Never forget that a small beam of light is enough to overpower a whole room of darkness.  Never underestimate the impact that you alone, sticking to your principles, can have.”
      - Ali Soufan, former FBI rapport-based interrogator extraordinaire, nemesis of the Cheney torture regime
       Commencement Address, Mansfield University, Dec. 19 [?], 2009

Bubble Alert: $400/sq ft in Shunyi County, China

Forbes' Gady Epstein warns that the mother of all asset bubbles is building in China:
A speculative frenzy of borrowing and bidding up is at work. If and when prices crash, there will be hell to pay.

Signs of the times: government bureaucracies funding themselves by foisting debt on state-owned business enterprises; local governments raising capital by selling land at sky-high prices to corporations they own; and a People's Bank of China lavishing liquidity on the entire system in a way that makes Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke look downright stingy.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Attention, filibuster-busters: remember 2002-2006?

"I just look at this institution as really the last bastion of protecting the rights of the minority, and we should be very careful before we try and make any changes."
         - Senator John Warner (R-VA), April 19, 2005

Warner was one of a majority of 55 Republican senators when he made the statement above. He was also a member of the so-called Gang of 14 who forged a compromise over Democrats' hold on some of Bush's judicial nominees, averting a Republican move to end the filibuster specifically for judicial nominees (perhaps because they still remembered that during Clinton's presidency, they blocked far more judicial nominees than the Democrats did under Bush).

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Obama the anti-crusader

As with many of his major speeches, Obama's Nobel address is structured around a series of paradoxes, anomalies and conundrums: winning the prize when he's at the beginning rather than the end of his labors; accepting a peace prize when he is fighting two wars; engaging repressive regimes while supporting their people's struggles for freedom; upholding and renewing an international "architecture to keep the peace" when that architecture is "buckling under the weight of new threats"; promoting values he affirms as universal while protecting the national interest.

He lays out one paradox in particular, though, that encompasses all the others, insofar as it is actually a shot fired in the wars Obama argues that he as a man of peace must fight. It's a bid to knock al Qaeda's favorite weapon out of Osama bin Laden's hands. It recalls the dictum that the way to win a holy war is to refuse to fight it. It's this:
And most dangerously, we see it in the way that religion is used to justify the murder of innocents by those who have distorted and defiled the great religion of Islam, and who attacked my country from Afghanistan. These extremists are not the first to kill in the name of God; the cruelties of the Crusades are amply recorded. But they remind us that no Holy War can ever be a just war. For if you truly believe that you are carrying out divine will, then there is no need for restraint -- no need to spare the pregnant mother, or the medic, or the Red Cross worker, or even a person of one's own faith. Such a warped view of religion is not just incompatible with the concept of peace, but I believe it's incompatible with the very purpose of faith -- for the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.
Osama's favorite label for U.S. and western forces is "crusaders." Obama pointedly puts the European Crusaders of old on the same side of the ledger as Islamic extremists.  No holy war can ever be a just war.  One rule lies at the heart of all religions.  Obama is simultaneously taking on the militant understanding of jihad and denying any fundamental clash of civilizations. Mullahs of the world, mull that.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Herszenhorn misrepresents the fading public option

In his assessment of the still fluid-and-fuzzy Senate health care compromise, I believe that the estimable David Herszenhorn misrepresents the rationale for the public option (though perhaps capturing the rhetoric and emotion of many supporters):
Supporters of the public option want it to remove the profit motive as an obstacle to medical care, and also to menace the private insurance companies that they generally view as greedy and mean. At times, some lawmakers seemed to favor the public plan simply because private insurers hate the idea.
The point of the public option is not to punish or necessarily weaken the private insurance industry. A strong public option would aim its firepower at providers more than at insurers. That is, by tying repayment rates to Medicare rates, it would bring a wider swath of this country's patchwork of health care payments under the aegis of the Federal government.  In other words, it would move the U.S. health care market one step closer to monopsony, the sine qua non of universal health care in every country that offers it -- a market in which the government sets the prices (and coverage rules) for all health care services. That ultimately should improve the pricing power of private insurers competing against a public option; for all the industry's cries about "cost-shifting," the net result of increased government pressure on pricing is likelier to be more pricing power for all buyers.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

A public option that isn't? What's the tradeoff?

(12/9 update at bottom)

The Times is reporting tonight that the "Gang of 10" Democratic senators designated to come up with a health care reform bill that can pass has agreed to put the public option on ice. It's not entirely clear what liberals got in return yet but here's the outline as picked up by Robert Pear and David Herszenhorn:

Monday, December 07, 2009

Clive Crook is off-kilter on Obama

I don't think the FT is going to publish this one, so I'll let it fly here:
While alleging that unforced errors have undermined support for President Obama's domestic agenda, Clive Crook asserts with regard to the health care reform bills in Congress that "the administration has not yet credibly accounted for the costs or said how it will meet them."

Come again? The CBO has scored both House and Senate bills as deficit-reducers. Obama has stressed cost control throughout the process, and the Democrats' fiscal responsibility in crafting this bill stands in dramatic contrast to Republicans' ramming through the deficit-financed Medicare drug coverage bill in 2003 (not to mention their reckless tax-cutting in war time).

Mr. Crook simply has not faced up to the effect on public opinion of the Republicans' relentless lying about the health care reform bills. And still, after witnessing Republicans' bad-faith stonewalling on both the stimulus and health care reform, he dreams that Obama might work with a coalition of Republicans and centrist Democrats on tax reform. If he thinks that Republicans would join with centrist Democrats to work with Obama on anything he is truly a brother from another planet where American politics is concerned.

Obama is "remoulding" America, as Mr. Crooks suggests he might if he'd only follow Mr. Crook's prescriptions. No one ever said it would be easy. His poll numbers will go down as Reagan's did until the economy unmistakably turns around and the effects of passing health care reform sink in. Then watch the battleship turn.

Iranian students chomping at the bit?

Interesting dynamic in the Student Day protests in Iran noted by Alireza Ronaghi, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Tehran:

"Opposition leaders are trying to calm them [the students] down and prevent any kind of violent clash that could harm the movement in a way that could be irreversible... it seems like the students are moving ahead of their leaders and it's not going to be easy for anyone to control the situation."

Meanwhile, the lead article in the "Iran" section of PressTV, the English-language Iranian government-controlled news outlet, is "Paris exhibits Emdadian paintings". Three quarters of the 123-word article allotted to today's student protests describe the historical foundation of Student Day, the killing by the Shah's regime of three students protesting a Richard Nixon visit in 1953. Today's substantial protests are described as "sporadic clashes" with "anti-government protesters" who have "attempted to hijack the occasion."

Move along, not much happening here....

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The rougher road to health care cost control

There may be an ironic turn of the screw in the argument of an Urban Institute health policy paper by Robert Berenson, John Holahan and Stephen Zuckerman that a "hard trigger" for a strong public option may have a better chance of controlling health care inflation than the weak public options currently included in the House and Senate bills (an argument that Ezra Klein calls "as clear-headed on the public option as anything I've read').

The core argument is this: health care costs are out of control mainly because hospitals and doctors have undue pricing power in many markets. The main potential of a public option for controlling costs lies in exploiting Medicare's pricing power by tying public option payment rates to Medicare's - which neither the House nor Senate public option does. The current weak public option provisions could be negotiated away in favor of a well designed "hard trigger" -- one that goes into effect automatically if either plan pricing or overall health care cost control targets aren't met. Such a trigger would presumably mandate a strong public option with the right kind of pricing power.  Moreover, that trigger should go into effect by 2014, when the exchanges have barely got started -- so little or no time would be lost.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Obama's Afghan course: risk or risk management?

The Times has an in-depth reconstruction of Obama's exhaustive Afghan policy review -- and the alchemy Obama wrought on the options presented to him. The crux of the change he forced, recounted below, reminds me in particular of one key moment in the speech:
There was no consensus yet on troop numbers, however, so Mr. Obama called a smaller group of advisers together on Oct. 26 to finally press Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Gates. Mrs. Clinton made it clear that she was comfortable with General McChrystal’s request for 40,000 troops or something close to it; Mr. Gates also favored a big force.

Mr. Obama was leery. He had received a memo the day before from the Office of Management and Budget projecting that General McChrystal’s full 40,000-troop request on top of the existing deployment and reconstruction efforts would cost $1 trillion from 2010 to 2020, an adviser said. The president seemed in sticker shock, watching his domestic agenda vanishing in front of him. “This is a 10-year, trillion-dollar effort and does not match up with our interests,” he said.

Still, for the first time, he made it clear that he was ready to send more troops if a strategy could be found to ensure that it was not an endless war. He indicated that the Taliban had to be beaten back. “What do we need to break their momentum?” he asked.

Four days later, at a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Oct. 30, he emphasized the need for speed. “Why can’t I get the troops in faster?” he asked. If they were going to do this, he concluded, it only made sense to do this quickly, to have impact and keep the war from dragging on forever. “This is America’s war,” he said. “But I don’t want to make an open-ended commitment” (my emphasis).
Here is the part of Obama's speech that lays out the thinking behind this change of plan:
As President, I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests. And I must weigh all of the challenges that our nation faces. I don't have the luxury of committing to just one. Indeed, I'm mindful of the words of President Eisenhower, who -- in discussing our national security -- said, "Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs."

And now for something completely different: Clare Lockhart cheers Obama's Afghan effort

Clare Lockhart, director of the Institute for State Effectiveness and an adviser to the UN and the Afghan Government from 2001 to 2005, provides an insider's view in The Times (UK) of what went wrong in Afghanistan:
In my years on the ground in Afghanistan, I witnessed the catastrophic under-resourcing of civilian rule. In 2001, there were 240,000 civil servants in place in Afghanistan, staffing schools, clinics, irrigation departments and ministries across Afghanistan’s provinces. The decision taken in 2002 was to ignore these public servants and the services they ran, by putting only $20 million in the Afghan Government’s first-year budget.

This barely paid fuel costs for a month, let alone salaries of $50 per month or the costs of schools and clinics. Instead, billions went into a parallel aid system and into supporting warlords to run militias that daily undermined the rule of law. The net result was to dismantle functioning Afghan institutions; teachers and nurses left their jobs in droves to become drivers, assistants and translators...

Change needs to come not only from the Afghans, but the way that international actors operate. The aid system requires a thorough revamping, so that it no longer undermines the very institutions it claims to support. This will require measures such as limiting the wages paid to Afghan staff working in the aid system to the same level they would earn in Afghan ministries.
According to Lockhart, the Afghan government had "a broad measure of trust" from the Afghan people from 2001-2005 but was starved of resources and capacity by the channeling of development aid to international NGOs. (A bit of context: Ashraf Ghani, Lockhart's colleague at the Institute for State Effectiveness and co-author with her of Fixing Failed States, was Afghan finance minister from 2002-2004.)  She offers a measure of enthusiasm and hope that jars with the rueful "mission-all-but-impossible" attitude of most informed  insiders making themselves heard in English-language media.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Steve Coll notes three conundra for the U.S. in AfPak

There have been few more eloquent advocates of McChrystal's proposed surge in Afghanistan than Steve Coll. Coll has hardly been gung-ho; he has authority because he has considered in depth the experience of the Soviets, the Vietnam analogy, the weaknesses of the Afghan government, the likely  impact of various courses of action on Pakistan -- and because he has recognized (and evinced) the need for humility from advocates of all positions.

So it's all the more sobering that immediately before and after Obama's unveiling of his strategy, Coll has acknowledged or highlighted several keys ways in which U.S. policy is walking a tightrope at best, undercutting itself at worst.   Coll's thinking on three conundra is below. The first two are published in an online chat at Foreign Policy (12/1); the last is from Coll's blog today (12/2).

1)  Combat vs. protection 
Tired Soldier: Won't increasing numbers of U.S. troops lead to more contact (combat) and further alienate the civilian population? In my experience in Afghanistan, more contact has always meant more fire support gets used, which means more civilians get killed, which turns the local tribal elders against us and multiplies our enemies. General McChrystal hasn't been able to break that cycle yet. Any sense that the new strategy avoids this trap?
Steve Coll: It's a good question. The McChrystal report suggests that he expects more contact and more violence initially, but then hopes to "hold" and "build" in a more passive manner in the major population centers, once they are cleared of Taliban cells and networks. The level of violence in the big cities even now is not very intense, but that may change as international forces try to make themselves more felt in places like Kandahar. Apparently the new strategy will also recommit to rural Helmand province, a poppy-growing region. I'm not sure whether the Taliban will see it as in their interest to go all out there, given that they have other targets that will be less heavily defended, but in the short run, I would expect violence in Helmand to rise for the reasons you suggest. Already, however, the international community has some tribal and other allies in Helmand to work with on their side of the conflict.

Obama channels Gates to defend timeline

There may be a bit of Gates-think -- or at least, Gates-speak -- in Obama's response to the chief Republican line of attack on his AfPak strategy, as reported in the WSJ:
The American military has long resisted hard and public timetables for ending military missions, on the assumption that a deadline merely lets the bad guys know how long they have to wait out American troops before moving in. That precise criticism was immediately heard from Republicans.

Mr. Obama, in a lunch at the White House with a few columnists hours before he delivered his nationally televised speech on Afghanistan policy, countered that in this case the deadline for an American withdrawal is crucial to create leverage on Mr. Karzai to move with real urgency to improve his government and its security forces so they can take over the task of fighting the Taliban.

"That's exactly why we thought a timetable was so important," Mr. Obama said. "Because in the absence of a time frame, if the view in Afghanistan is this is an open-ended commitment or an indefinite commitment, then I think we have very little leverage" over the Afghan leader.
In April 2007,  when Republicans partisans were crying treason at Democrats seeking to impose a timetable on U.S. troop presence in Iraq, Gates famously said,  “Demands in the U.S. Congress for a timeline to withdraw American troops from Iraq are constructive because they exert pressure on Iraq’s leaders to forge compromises.” He added: “The strong feelings expressed in the Congress about the timetable probably has had a positive impact . . . in terms of communicating to the Iraqis that this is not an open-ended commitment.”

Obama, as it happened, seized on this perspective from Gates in a press release:
“After the President has repeatedly ignored the will of Congress and the American people, his own Secretary of Defense now recognizes that the only way to pressure the Iraqi government toward a political settlement is to make clear that American troops will not be in Iraq forever.
The cross-fertilization in the thinking of Gates and Obama has been going on for quite some time.

Obama skates past a strong counter-proposal on Afghanistan.

President Obama stuffed a bit of straw into one opposing view of the right course in Afghanistan in his lunch with reporters yesterday.

As reported by Marc Ambinder, Obama, in a rundown of alternative courses to the one he's chosen, said:
The other argument is that we can sort of stand pat, whether it's at 30,000 or 40,000 or 50,000, you have some platform there, you're basically pulled back and hunkered down but you're able to prevent Kabul from being overrun; you can still project some counterterrorism operations in the region. The problem there is whether that level is 50 or 60 or 70, you have sort of a flatline, where there is no inflection point, there's no point at which, we can say conditions have changed conditionally sufficiently so that we can start bringing our troops home.

Note the escalation in Obama's presentation of the troop level needed for this "option": 30-40-50-60-70. Perhaps there have been advocates for all those levels.  But compare the fully articulated strategy of one dissident from the outlines of the McChrystal plan, Rory Stewart:
The best Afghan policy would be to reduce the number of foreign troops from the current level of 90,000 to far fewer – perhaps 20,000. In that case, two distinct objectives would remain for the international community: development and counter-terrorism. Neither would amount to the building of an Afghan state or winning a counter-insurgency campaign. A reduction in troop numbers and a turn away from state-building should not mean total withdrawal: good projects could continue to be undertaken in electricity, water, irrigation, health, education, agriculture, rural development and in other areas favoured by development agencies. Even a light US presence could continue to allow for aggressive operations against Al Qaeda terrorists, in Afghanistan, who plan to attack the United States. The US has successfully prevent Al Qaeda from re-establishing itself since 2001 (though the result has only been to move bin Laden across the border.). The US military could also (with other forms of assistance) support the Afghan military to prevent the Taliban from seizing a city or taking over the country.

The core of Stewart's argument is that such a commitment would be sustainable -- and calibrated to a realistic time frame for Afghan development:
While, I strongly oppose troop increases, I equally strongly oppose a total flight. We are currently in danger of lurching from troop increases to withdrawal and from engagement to isolation. We are threatening to provide instant electro-shock therapy followed by abandonment. This is the last thing Afghanistan needs. The international community should aim to provide a patient, tolerant long-term relationship with a country as poor and traumatized as Afghanistan. Judging by comparable countries in the developing world (and Afghanistan is very near the bottom of the UN Human Development index), making Afghanistan more stable, prosperous and humane is a project which will take decades. It is a worthwhile project in the long-term for us and for Afghans but we will only be able to sustain our presence if we massively reduce our investment and our ambitions and begin to approach Afghanistan more as we do other poor countries in the developing world. The best way of avoiding the mistakes of the 1980s and 1990s – the familiar cycle of investment and abandonment which most Afghan expect and fear and which have contributed so much to instability and danger - is to husband and conserve our resources, limit our objectives to counter-terrorism and humanitarian assistance and work out how to work with fewer troops and less money over a longer period. In Afghanistan in the long-term, less will be more.
 The alternative to Obama's surge put forward by Stewart is not, per the argument framed by Obama, maintaining a mid-sized force too small to improve the status quo until we get exhausted. It's to keep a force (and aid effort) that we can maintain for decades to foster a development that will take decades. Stewart might argue (he hasn't) that his strategy is comparable to securing one's financial future with a $1000 yearly term life insurance payment, whereas Obama's is comparable to slapping down six figures in a risky derivative bet.

Obama could argue that Stewart's course is seductive but false: that a Taliban thriving long-term in large parts of Afghanistan will destabilize Pakistan; that with 20,000 troops the U.S. can't sustain intelligence operations; that there's no viable mission for 20,000 troops. Here, he didn't.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Unfinished business: Obama's case for renewed effort in AfPak

A few structural notes on Obama's speech at West Point laying out his strategy for Afghanistan:

1) Obama made an interesting dual use of the U.S. experience in Iraq.  First, he used it to explain why "the situation has deteriorated in Afghanistan" --  because "Throughout this period [of Taliban resurgence] our troop levels in Afghanistan remained a fraction of what they were in Iraq."  At the same time, he used the template of what he characterized as a successful surge in Iraq to build out his vision of success in Afghanistan: 
Taken together, these additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011. Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground. We will continue to advise and assist Afghanistan’s Security Forces to ensure that they can succeed over the long haul. But it will be clear to the Afghan government – and, more importantly, to the Afghan people – that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country.
This analogy was Obama's chief device for arguing the claim that the swiftness of an envisioned drawdown of forces in Afghanistan will be almost directly proportional to the swiftness of the coming troop buildup.

On trusting Obama: the Af/Pak review

A friend who has read my posts on Afghanistan challenged me yesterday: "So what should we do?  I don't want to just read your presentations of what other people think. Take a position."

I responded that in this blog I try to remain conscious of my limitations. I am obviously no expert either on Afghanistan or on military strategy. My training, such as it is, is in literary criticism.  Don't laugh. That does equip me to assess the quality of evidence and analytical rigor that various informed commentators bring to the table, as in assessments of Matthew Hoh filtered through James Fallows here, an Oxfam survey of ordinary Afghans here, and Rory Stewart vs. Steve Coll here. In my view Coll, who has effectively expressed support for the outlines of McChrystal's proposed surge, and Stewart, who recommends that the U.S. and allies cut back to 20,000 troops and provided only targeted, decentralized aid for select projects in Afghanistan, have been the most effective advocates for the two poles of debate.

In limiting myself to close reading, perhaps I've equivocated. I took some comfort yesterday in confessions of ambvialence from Fred Kaplan and Joe Klein. Throughout Obama's long policy review, one has heard many variations from honest commentators of the theme, "I'd hate to be in his shoes."

Still, for the record: as indicated if not expressed outright in the posts of above, I find Coll's argument more convincing than Stewart's.