Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Is a Cold War the solution to Afghanistan and the global jihadist threat?

As we approach the eighth anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan following the 9-11 attacks in 2001 the Obama administration is divided on the best course to confront Al Qaeda and its allies such as the Taliban that previously ruled that country. General Stanley McChrystal is calling for an additional 40,000 American troops but some critic argue McChrystal’s plan would prolong the war by five to ten years with no guarantee of success. After eights years of exertions, $1 trillion expended and more than 5,000 American troops lost, U.S. forces have yet to win a decisive victory since the toppling of the Taliban government. Alternatively, abandoning Afghanistan might invite chaos in central Asia giving jihadists territory and resources to continue to threaten the West and Muslim countries that do not follow the jihadist line.

Andrew Bacevick argues the problem is not terrorism per se and certainly is not isolated to Afghanistan. He favors a third way. Instead of fighting an endless hot war in a vain effort to eliminate the jihadist threat, the United States should wage a cold war to keep the threat at bay.

This from Sunday’s Washington Post:
In confronting this conflict, the goal of U.S. national security strategy ought to be limited but specific: to insulate Americans from the fallout. Rather than setting out to clear, hold and build thousands of tiny, primitive villages scattered across the Afghan countryside, such a strategy should emphasize three principles: decapitate, contain and compete. An approach based on these principles cannot guarantee perpetual peace. But it is likely to be more effective, affordable and sustainable than a strategy based on open-ended war.

Decapitation -- targeting leaders for elimination -- provides the means to suppress immediate threats to our safety. The violent jihadists who pose those threats are vicious but relatively few in number. They possess limited capabilities. Their aspirations of uniting the world's Muslims into a new caliphate are akin to Sarah Palin's or Dennis Kucinich's presidential ambitions -- unworthy of serious attention. They are rank fantasies.

Without effective leadership, the jihadists are nothing. The aim of decapitation is twofold. At a minimum it will oblige jihadist chieftains to devote enormous attention to ensuring their own survival, giving them less time to plot against the West. Optimally, it will confront jihadist networks with never-ending succession crises, consuming organizational energies that might otherwise find external expression. Decapitation won't eliminate the threat -- Hamas and Hezbollah have survived the Israeli government's targeted assassination campaign -- but it can reduce it to manageable levels.

A crucial caveat is that assassinations must be precise and accurate. The incidental killing of noncombatants is immoral as well as politically counterproductive. The missiles launched from U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles in Pakistan have repeatedly demonstrated the wrong approach. The recent elimination of Saleh Ali Nabhan in Somalia -- in a helicopter-borne raid by special operations forces -- models the correct one.

Containment implies turning to the old Cold War playbook. When confronting the Soviet threat, the United States and its allies erected robust defenses, such as NATO, and cooperated in denying the communist bloc anything that could make Soviet computers faster, Soviet submarines quieter or Soviet missiles more accurate.

Containing the threat posed by jihad should follow a similar strategy. Robust defenses are key -- not mechanized units patrolling the Iron Curtain, but well-funded government agencies securing borders, controlling access to airports and seaports, and ensuring the integrity of electronic networks that have become essential to our way of life.

As during the Cold War, a strategy of containment should include comprehensive export controls and the monitoring of international financial transactions. Without money and access to weapons, the jihadist threat shrinks to insignificance: All that remains is hatred. Ideally, this approach should include strenuous efforts to reduce the West's dependence on Middle Eastern oil, which serves to funnel many billions of dollars into the hands of people who may not wish us well.

During the Cold War, containment did not preclude engagement, and it shouldn't today. To the extent that the United States can encourage liberalizing tendencies in the Islamic world, it should do so -- albeit with modest expectations. Sending jazz musicians deep into the Eastern Bloc in the old days was commendable, but Louis Armstrong's trumpet didn't topple the Soviet empire.

Finally, there is the matter of competition. Again, the Cold War offers an instructive analogy. During the long twilight struggle with the Soviets, competition centered on demonstrating scientific superiority (putting a man on the moon) and material superiority (providing cars, refrigerators and TVs for the masses). The West won.

Competition today still includes a material element. Yet a conflict rooted in a dispute over God's place in human history necessarily extends beyond the material realm. Radical Islamists assert that all humanity must submit to their retrograde version of Islam. Western political leaders declare with equal insistence that all must live in freedom, that term imbued with specific Western connotations.

The competitive challenge facing the West is not to prove that Islamic fundamentalism won't satisfy the aspirations of humanity, but to demonstrate that democratic capitalism can, even for committed believers. In short, the key to winning the current competition is to live up to the ideals that we profess rather than compromising them in the name of national security.

The upshot is that by modifying the way we live -- attending to pressing issues of poverty, injustice, exploitation of women and the global environmental crisis -- we might through our example induce the people of the Islamic world to consider modifying the way they live. Here lies the best chance of easing the differences that divide us.

The war we're fighting can become plausible, sustainable and even morally defensible.

It just has to go from hot to cold.
You can read his entire piece here.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Moving beyond U.S. Cold War hegemony

The preponderance of U.S. military and economic power has defined global politics since World War II. The costs of exerting this power to the American public was significant but considered necessary in the context of the Cold War. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union there was talk of peace dividends and a return to some degree of normalcy on the international stage yet twenty years of the post-Cold War era seems indistinguishable from the Cold War. The opportunity for a reorganization of global politics is here if the Obama administration and other governments are willing. Michael Lind has this analysis:
During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt hoped that the postwar world could be policed by a great power concert or alliance, made up initially of the U.S., Britain and the Soviet Union, along with Nationalist China. Corresponding to FDR's concert-of-power security system would be new global economic institutions that would go beyond setting rules to promoting Keynesian demand management on a global scale in the interest of sustained and shared global growth.

During the Cold War, the U.S. abandoned those plans and improvised a strategy of U.S. hegemony or primacy. America's Cold War hegemony strategy rested on two pillars: dual containment and unilateral free trade. Dual containment meant that the U.S. contained both the Soviet Union and communist China and its conquered, demilitarized allies West Germany and Japan, which could not be allowed to reemerge as independent military powers rather than U.S. satellites. To keep West Germany and Japan as satisfied client-states, the U.S. promised not only to protect their vital security interests but also to practice unilateral free trade, opening its markets to their exports. Throughout the Cold War and beyond, the U.S. turned a blind eye to the aggressive trade policies of its allies, particularly Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and other Asian client-states. They were allowed to protect their domestic markets and subsidize their industries, while enjoying access to American consumers. For half a century the strategic elite in both parties has been willing to sacrifice U.S. industries in order to bribe the other major industrial countries into staying within the U.S. alliance system.

When the Cold War ended, the U.S. could have promoted a version of the FDR-Keynes world order: a great-power concert and international macroeconomic coordination in the interest of sustainable growth. Instead, more out of inertia than by design, the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations sought to keep a version of the Cold War system going indefinitely. Germany, now reunited, and Japan were still U.S. client-states, while Russia and China, though no longer Marxist-Leninist, were still treated as actual or potential threats. The collapse of Soviet power allowed the U.S. to add the Middle East to Europe and East Asia as one of its hegemonic spheres of influence.

Like America's security strategy, America's post-Cold War economic strategy recycled the Cold War policy of unilateral market access. Just as Japan and West Germany had been told to make cars, not Zeros and Panzers, so China was invited to put its energies into producing for the U.S. market instead of building up a rival military machine.

Defenders of U.S. hegemony, a group that includes most of the members of the Democratic as well as Republican foreign policy elites, argue that American primacy is necessary to avert what I think of as the Two Spirals -- the spiral of arms races and the spiral of protectionism. According to what is called "hegemonic stability theory," both world peace and world trade depend on a single overwhelmingly powerful country that provides other nations with the public goods of security, market access and a global reserve currency. If the U.S. were unwilling to sacrifice its soldiers and treasure on behalf of the interests of other nations as well as its own, then the other great powers -- in particular, Germany and Russia in Europe and Japan and China in Asia -- would arm themselves to defend their interests, and mutual suspicion might lead to arms races and regional or global war. And if the U.S. were not willing to sacrifice its own industries to export-oriented countries, other nations might abandon the idea of a global economy and the scramble to lock up markets and raw materials might also lead to regional or global war. The geopolitical parade of horribles invoked by America's foreign-policy establishment always leads back to the same grand marshal -- the next world war, Dubyah Dubyah Three.

Needless to say, this is an extremely pessimistic, if self-serving, view of the world -- only American might and intervention everywhere keep the world from going to hell again the way it did in the 1930s. The hegemonic stability theory suggests that in the interests of global peace and prosperity the U.S. must permanently contain all other great powers, directly or indirectly. By means of bases in Germany, the U.S. prevents Germany from reemerging as a hostile power, even as it contains Russia. By means of bases in Japan, the U.S. prevents Japan from reemerging as a hostile power, even as it contains China. And now by means of bases in Iraq, the U.S. prevents Iraq from reemerging as a hostile power, even as it contains Iran.

The Pax Americana strategy requires its supporters to exaggerate the power and malevolence of the designated enemies of the Pax Americana: Russia, China and Iran. The exaggeration of threats is accomplished in two ways. First, defensive military measures that these nations undertake to deter U.S. attack -- Russia's attempt to intimidate Georgia, China's development of "anti-access" capabilities to reduce the ability of the U.S. to defeat it in a war over Taiwan, and Iran's not-so-disguised attempt to obtain nuclear weapons to deter conventional U.S. or Israeli attacks -- are portrayed by American policymakers and pundits as aggressive. According to this Orwellian double standard, U.S./NATO encirclement of post-Soviet Russia on its borders is alleged to be "defensive," while feeble protest gestures like Russian military flights to Cuba or the bullying of Ukraine are defined as "aggressive" actions that threaten a new Cold War. The knight with the best sword naturally wants to ban the use of shields and armor.

In addition to defining the defensive reactions of Russia, China and Iran to U.S. provocations in their own neighborhoods as diabolical schemes for regional or global conquest, some champions of the Pax Americana have pretended to identify a new global ideological struggle against an "axis of autocracy" or "authoritarian capitalism." In reality, of course, three countries could hardly be less similar to one another than Russia, China and Iran, which seek to benefit from the existing world system on their own terms rather than overthrow it.

In my experience, most members of the U.S. foreign policy elite sincerely believe that the alternative to perpetual U.S. world domination is chaos and war. The benefit to members of the elite is not so much economic as psychic -- it's nice to be a top dog in the top-dog pack. But even though our leaders tend to be persuaded that American hegemony averts the twin spirals of great-power conflict and trade war, they find it challenging to explain the strategy to the public. ….

Even supporters of the hegemony strategy admit that it can't be described candidly to the public, for fear of a public backlash. In his book "The Case for Goliath," Michael Mandelbaum concedes that Americans "have never been asked to ratify their country's status as the principal supplier of international public goods, and if they were asked explicitly to do so, they would undoubtedly ask in turn whether the United States ought to contribute as much to providing them, and other countries as little, as was the case in the first decade of the 21st century." Mandelbaum concludes with the condescending statement that "the American role in the world may depend in part on Americans not scrutinizing it too closely."

It is too early to tell whether there is a real chance in Washington for an alternative to the Cold War Plus strategy of perpetually containing Russia and Germany, China and Japan, and Iran and Iraq that Democrats and Republicans alike have pursued since the Berlin Wall fell. But there are some encouraging signs.

The G-20 looks very much like a nascent concert of power. Its inclusive membership and flexibility might make it a de facto replacement for the rigid, outdated U.N. Security Council in the security realm. The coordination of their stimulus packages by the G-20 nations in the past year was a remarkable exercise in Keynesianism on a global scale. And the Obama administration, unlike its predecessor, has made it clear that the U.S. can no longer be the market of first resort for China and other export-oriented countries. The administration's tariffs on Chinese tires are a signal that the offer of unilateral market access is being reconsidered by the U.S.

While the brutality and militancy of the Iranian regime may foreclose a rapprochement, the Obama administration has backed away somewhat from the policy of encircling Russia by canceling NATO missile defense systems in Poland, whose purpose was to intimidate Russia, not Iran. And following a period of low-key military rivalries among the U.S. and China, Obama seems more interested in partnering with the world's most populous country than in provoking it into a needless arms race.

But there was a chance to move from confrontation to concert back in the early 1990s, as well. Let's hope that President Obama, unlike Presidents Clinton and Bush, will push for a genuine new world order rather than perpetual containment and perpetual cold war.
You can read Lind’s entire piece here.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Tamil refugees suffer in Sri Lankan camps

Reports out of Sri Lanka say two Tamils were wounded when the military fired on dozens of Tamils attempting to escape state-run camps for refugees from the 25-year civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil minority in the north. The war concluded last May with a military victory by the government but only after the displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians who were mostly Tamil. The government set up camps for the refugees. The government referred to them as welfare camps although others see them as concentration camps. The government has promised to resettle the refugees but has been moving very slowly. In the meantime, the government has restricted access to the camps but reports leaking out are that conditions in the camps are pretty bad and not improving.

This from Bart Beeson and Annalise Romoser at World Politics Review:
Everywhere in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, posters featuring smiling soldiers holding rocket launchers and machine guns celebrate the recent end to the nation's 26-year civil war. But in the government-run camps that still house more than 250,000 ethnic Tamils displaced by the war's fighting, the mood is far from celebratory.

In late August, heavy rains at the largest camp, Manik, flooded tents and led to unsanitary conditions. According to aid worker K Thampu, "The situation was heartbreaking. Tents were flooded and mothers, desperate to keep their children dry during the night, took chairs and tables from school facilities for them to sleep on."

Rains also caused toilets to flood, with worms covering large swaths of ground near latrines, says Thampu. At stake, according to local experts, is not only the immediate welfare of camp residents, but chances for long-lasting peace in Sri Lanka.

Most of the internally displaced people (IDPs) have been living in the camps since May, when they fled the intense fighting that marked the final battle between government forces and the insurgent group known as the Tamil Tigers. Publicly, the Sri Lankan government has committed to returning IDPs to their homes by November of this year, and several thousand people have been released from camps to live with relatives. But the government under President Mahinda Rajapaksa also maintains that others must remain in camps until the area around their former homes is cleared of mines. At the same time, government representatives are slowly screening camp residents to identify former combatants.

Aid workers and local experts agree that the government must move quickly, for several reasons. The most urgent among them is monsoon season, which starts at the end of September and will only exacerbate the already difficult camp conditions. More tents and toilets will flood, increasing the risk of communicable and mosquito-born diseases.

"We saw how bad things got after the recent rains, which only lasted 3 or 4 days," says Thampu, who works for the Baltimore-based humanitarian organization Lutheran World Relief. "Imagine how bad they will get once the monsoons are upon us."

In addition to the rains, long-standing tensions between Tamils and the Sinhalese-led government remain, even if the armed insurgency has been defeated. Many worry that if the government does not act quickly to return people to their homes, it will lead to new problems in northern Sri Lanka.

Thampu says that many teenagers in the camps are already frustrated. "Young people have told me, 'We have no freedom to talk, no protection, no education, no recreation and no employment! Everything looks like hell in our life. What do we have to live for?'"

Bernard Jaspers Failer, of the aid organization ZOA Refugee Care, acknowledges that the Sri Lankan government has genuine security concerns. "But," he is quick to add, "those have to be balanced with the fact that the longer people remain in camps, new frustrations are being generated which will have long-term impacts on society."

The Sri Lankan government has strictly regulated access to the camps. But those organizations and governmental representatives who have been able to visit have expressed concern over the conditions. Human Rights Watch, the New York-based rights organization, has said that the government "is threatening [IDPs'] health and even their lives by keeping them there during the rainy season floods."

U.S. officials have also put pressure on the Sri Lankan government to allow camp residents to return home. In comments made on Aug. 19, Eric Schwartz, assistant secretary for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration at the State Department, said the "involuntary confinement is especially a source of concern given the recent rains and given the coming of the monsoon season, and it makes it all the more important that release from confinement be an issue that friends of Sri Lanka continue to raise."

In an effort to expedite the process, on July 27, the U.S. announced an additional $8 million in aid to assist in the return of IDPs to their homes in northern Sri Lanka.

With the monsoon season rapidly approaching, and frustration levels on the rise within the camps, local experts agree that time is a critical factor. For Thampu, it is "a situation where a successful return process would be a giant step towards long-lasting peace. But if these people who were forced from their homes are forced to stay in camps, it could result in increased tensions for the down the road."

Friday, September 25, 2009

Is the damage from climate change now irreversible?

Our planet may now be committed to some damaging and irreversible impacts as a result of the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. The rise in the globe’s temperature by the end of the century may be nearly double what scientists and policymakers have identified as the upper limit of warming the world can afford in order to avert catastrophic climate change. This from a report by the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) released by the United Nations Environment Program. Juliet Eilperin has this in today’s Washington Post:
Climate researchers now predict the planet will warm by 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century even if the world's leaders fulfill their most ambitious climate pledges, a much faster and broader scale of change than forecast just two years ago, according to a report released Thursday by the United Nations Environment Program.

The new overview of global warming research, aimed at marshaling political support for a new international climate pact by the end of the year, highlights the extent to which recent scientific assessments have outstripped the predictions issued by the Nobel Prize-winning U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007.

Robert Corell, who chairs the Climate Action Initiative and reviewed the UNEP report's scientific findings, said the significant global temperature rise is likely to occur even if industrialized and developed countries enact every climate policy they have proposed at this point. The increase is nearly double what scientists and world policymakers have identified as the upper limit of warming the world can afford in order to avert catastrophic climate change.

"We don't want to go there," said Corell, who collaborated with climate researchers at the Vermont-based Sustainability Institute, Massachusetts-based Ventana Systems and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to do the analysis. The team has revised its estimates since the U.N. report went to press and has posted the most recent figures at

The group took the upper-range targets of nearly 200 nations' climate policies -- including U.S. cuts that would reduce domestic emissions 73 percent from 2005 levels by 2050, along with the European Union's pledge to reduce its emissions 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050 --and found that even under that optimistic scenario, the average global temperature is likely to warm by 6.3 degrees.

World leaders at the July Group of 20 summit in L'Aquila, Italy, pledged in a joint statement that they would adopt policies to prevent global temperature from climbing more than 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit: "We recognize the broad scientific view that the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels ought not to exceed two degrees C."

Corell, who has shared these findings with the Obama administration as well as climate policymakers in China, noted that global carbon emissions are still rising. "It's accelerating," he said. "We're not going in the right direction."

Achim Steiner, UNEP's executive director, told reporters at the National Press Club on Thursday that the report aims to update the IPCC's 2007 findings to reflect both new physical evidence and a more sophisticated understanding of how Earth systems work.

"With every day that passes, the underlying trends that science has provided is . . . of such a dramatic nature that shying away from a major agreement in Copenhagen will probably be unforgivable if you look back in history at this moment," Steiner said. He noted that since 2000 alone, the average rate of melting at 30 glaciers in nine mountain ranges has doubled compared with the rate during the previous two decades.

"These are not things that are in dispute in terms of data," he said. "They are actually physically measurable."

Other findings include the fact that sea level might rise by as much as six feet by 2100 instead of 1.5 feet, as the IPCC had projected, and the Arctic may experience a sea-ice summer by 2030, rather than by the end of the century.
The UN press release has further details:
Researchers have become increasingly concerned about ocean acidification linked with the absorption of carbon dioxide in seawater and the impact on shellfish and coral reefs.

Water that can corrode a shell-making substance called aragonite is already welling up along the California coast decades earlier than existing models predict.

Losses from glaciers, ice-sheets and the Polar Regions appear to be happening faster than anticipated, with the Greenland ice sheet, for example, recently seeing melting some 60 percent higher than the previous record of 1998.

Some scientists are now warning that sea levels could rise by up to two metres by 2100 and five to ten times that over following centuries.

There is also growing concern among some scientists that thresholds or tipping points may now be reached in a matter of years or a few decades including dramatic changes to the Indian sub-continent's monsoon, the Sahara and West Africa monsoons, and climate systems affecting a critical ecosystem like the Amazon rainforest.

The report also underlines concern by scientists that the planet is now committed to some damaging and irreversible impacts as a result of the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere.

Losses of tropical and temperate mountain glaciers affecting perhaps 20 percent to 25 percent of the human population in terms of drinking water, irrigation and hydro-power.

Shifts in the hydrological cycle resulting in the disappearance of regional climates with related losses of ecosystems, species and the spread of drylands northwards and southwards away from the equator.

Recent science suggests that it may still be possible to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. However, this will only happen if there is immediate, cohesive and decisive action to both cut emissions and assist vulnerable countries adapt.
The UN has already released a citing a growing frequency and intensity of climate-related natural disasters around the world that drove more people from their homes last year than conflicts. The Obama administration is pressing this week for an end to fossil-fuel subsidies as part of the current G-20 summit in Pittsburgh. That's good but a far more aggressive approach will be needed to preserve a livable planet.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Afghanistan: Defining “winning” as achieving something useful and realistic rather than something grandiose

The focus of most of the attention on the release of General Stanley McChrystal's memo assessing the needs in Afghanistan has been the call for 40,000 more troops. The administration is divided over the course the U.S. should take in the war started on October 7, 2001 following the attacks on the United States on September 11th by Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda had encampments in Afghanistan and the stated purpose of the invasion by the U.S. and NATO allies was to destroy Al Qaeda and topple the Taliban government that has harbored them.

The latter was accomplished but the former was sidetracked by the war in Iraq. In the meantime, Al Qaeda has established strongholds or links elsewhere in south Asia and east Africa but the threat to the new government of Afghanistan remains because the Al Qaeda ally – the Taliban – are fighting to regain control. Many are concerned about the U.S. becoming bogged down in another Vietnam in which a first world nation fights an expanding and seemingly unending war to achieve ill-defined goals.

Fred Kaplan considers the portion of the McChrystal memo that seems to be ignored by the media:
Most of the news stories about the memo have emphasized its conclusion that, without more U.S. troops, the war will probably be lost to the Taliban. But the memo (reprinted in full on the Post's Web site) says many other things, too. In fact, high up in his report, McChrystal emphasizes that focusing only on troop requirements "misses the point entirely."

The point that this focus misses, the general writes, is that this is a war against insurgencies and therefore requires "a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign," in which the main objective is not so much to destroy the enemy but rather to protect the Afghan people—to provide them with security so that the Afghan government can deliver basic services.

When it comes to defeating the Taliban, the memo adds, a "responsive and accountable government"—one "that the Afghan people find acceptable"—is every bit as important as a secure environment.

The Afghan people's allegiance is the object of this war. They aren't choosing between the Taliban and the U.S.-NATO coalition but, rather, between the Taliban and the Afghan government on whose behalf the coalition is fighting. As McChrystal's memo puts it, the war's focus, like that of any classic counterinsurgency campaign, is "the will and ability to provide for the needs of the population, by, with, and through the Afghan government." (Italics added.)

At one point, euphemistically referring to troops as "resources," McChrystal writes, "Resources will not win the war, but under-resourcing could lose it." Another way to read this sentence is: Under-resourcing could lose the war, but more resources won't necessarily win it, either.

This latter phrasing is certainly the way that any sensible president—the person who decides whether to commit more of the nation's blood and treasure to a war—would have to read that sentence. His military commander on the ground is telling him that if he doesn't send more troops, he'll lose—but if he does send more troops, he still might lose.

McChrystal's point is that it's not simply "resources," not just U.S. and NATO troops, that will settle the war. It's also whether the Afghan government earns the trust of its people—whether the Afghan president and his entourage of ministers, governors, and warlords are willing—or are willing to be lured—to clean up their act, end their corrupt practices, and truly serve their people.
When Obama says he needs to review the strategy before he decides on troop levels, he almost certainly means that he needs to assess whether a counterinsurgency strategy makes sense if the Afghan government—the entity that our troops would be propping up and aligning themselves with—is viewed by a wide swath of its own people as illegitimate.

Obama committed himself to a new strategy for Afghanistan this past March. He is now wavering, not so much because many congressional Democrats and a majority of the American people have turned against the war. (Congress would almost certainly vote in favor of appropriations, just as it did in the bleakest days of the Iraq war, if just to "support the troops," and a successful battle or two might well turn public opinion.)

Rather, the big new thing that's happened since March—in fact, since McChrystal and his staff prepared their memo over the summer—is the Afghan presidential election, which, it's turned out, was marred by fraud on a monumental scale, nearly all of it on behalf of the incumbent, Hamid Karzai. Even so, Karzai seems to have barely tipped the 50 percent required to avoid a second-round runoff. If he is declared the winner and offers nothing to the runner-up, Abdullah Abdullah, popular trust in his government will slide still further—and the prospects for a successful counterinsurgency campaign will slide with it.
Josh Marshall wonders if too much has changed over the past eight years for a continuing the current military policy:
… I was one of those many people who thought, for much of the last decade, that one of the many problems with our involvement in Iraq was that it distracted us from a more serious fight in Afghanistan.

I don't know now whether that was flawed thinking then or whether there's just so much water under the bridge now that it's a different situation. Indeed, I wonder sometimes whether the still relatively broad support for our Afghan policy among Democratic policy types and politicians isn't a matter of remaining on a mental autopilot from a stance that made policy but also a lot of political sense in the middle of this decade.

However that may be, the 'safe haven' argument just doesn't seem to add up. The safe havens or rather the training camps in the safe havens, where so many would-be terrorists apparently did an endless stream of calisthenics on those iconic monkey bars, were neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for the 9/11 attacks. They were funded through too loosely guarded global financial networks, planned and organized in cities in Europe and executed right here in the USA. You certainly wouldn't want the Taliban again more or less openly hosting al Qaida or bin Laden and his main associates, which would allow them to operate more openly and presumably more easily communicate with their conspirators. But even if the Taliban again ruled the country, it's difficult to imagine that with our forces in the region and our army of drones, we'd have much problem raining down a ton of ordnance the first time they really put up their head.

In other words, we may or may not be safer than we were ten years ago. But surely the situation in Afghanistan and the organization of al Qaeda is very different.
Mathew Yglesias argues we need to more closely examine our goals in Afghanistan in regards to achieving something useful and realistic:
I don’t think you want to overstate the case against the case against safe havens. Clearly, all else being equal it’d be helpful to al-Qaeda to have an allied group control a substantial contiguous piece of territory in Afghanistan. But still if you want to perpetrate a terrorist attack in a western city a visa to enter a western country or (even better!) a European passport would be a lot more helpful than having an allied group control a substantial contiguous piece of territory in Afghanistan.

It seems to me that we’ve jumped too quickly into a kind of tactical discussion about modalities in Afghanistan. If I want to express skepticism about General McChrystal’s request for forces, I’m supposed to question his military judgment about what is and isn’t necessary. Or I’m supposed to question whether COIN really can or will work in Afghanistan. There are good questions to be asked in those areas, but potentially also some okay answers. But what I really haven’t seen is anyone attempt to seriously lay out some kind of cost-benefit analysis of how important this whole Afghanistan situation really is relative to what I’m being told it would take to “win.” It seems to me not that we should “lose” instead, but rather that we should define “winning” as us achieving something useful and realistic rather than something grandiose and out of proportion to its actual importance.
You can read Kaplan here, Marshall here, and Yglesias here.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Climate-related natural disasters grow as enthusiasm for climate treaty lags

Yesterday, leaders of over 90 nations met at the United Nations for an effort by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to pump up enthusiasm for a global climate treaty that is in trouble. The treaty is supposed be completed in December at a meeting in Copenhagen.

The problem is the treaty isn’t even close to completion because an effective treaty would eventually require the global economy to change directions entirely shifting away from fossil fuels and toward cleaner sources of energy. And discussions of radical changes come at a time when most nations are focused on the immediate problem of shaky economies.

Still, this is an issue that cannot be ignored even in terms of economics. A new UN report issued yesterday cites a growing frequency and intensity of climate-related natural disasters around the world that drove more people from their homes last year than conflicts. This from Reuters:
Floods, storms, drought and other climate-related natural disasters drove 20 million people from their homes last year, nearly four times as many as were displaced by conflicts, a new U.N. report said on Tuesday.

The study tried to quantify for the first time the number of people forced to flee their homes because of climate change.

Global warming is increasing the frequency and intensity of storms and otherwise altering weather patterns, so disasters are now "an extremely significant driver of forced displacement globally", it said.

The study said a total of 36 million people were driven from their homes by rapid-onset natural disasters in 2008. China's Sichuan earthquake accounted for 15 million of these, but climate-related disasters displaced 90 percent of the rest.

The report said many more people were probably being forced from their homes by slower-onset crises like droughts.

The report was compiled jointly by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), a body which normally tracks displacement caused by conflict.

The aim was "to see whether it was possible to put numbers to the problem and come up with a methodology that will enable us to do that over time", said IDMC head Kate Halff.

The answer was a qualified "yes", though Halff warned that the monitoring effort so far "doesn't give us any idea of what time period these people have been displaced or what their needs are. At this stage it's just about a number."

Accurately tracking displacement resulting from slower-onset crises like rising sea levels is also expected to prove difficult, largely because it is hard to judge when voluntary movement from a problem zone becomes forced fleeing, she said.

Determining what role climate change may have played in a natural disaster will also undoubtedly remain controversial.

Still, "an increase in the number of people temporarily displaced will be an inevitable consequence of more frequent and intense extreme weather events affecting more people globally," the report said.

Last year, more than five million people were displaced by flooding in India, attributed in part to changes in that country's monsoon cycle.

In the Philippines, nearly two million people were forced from their homes by severe storms. China and Myanmar also saw large-scale displacements due to storms.

Asia accounted for over 90 percent of disaster-related displacements last year, which the report said "may simply be because Asia is the most disaster-prone region".

By comparison, 4.6 million people were internally displaced last year by conflict, according to Halff's centre.

Altogether 42 million people were living as refugees or internally displaced persons last year because of fighting, she said.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Iran’s downward spiral

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the current Iranian governing elite are pushing their country closer to the brink as the regime suffers credibility problems at home due to a contested election and abroad due to outrageous remarks by President Ahmadinejad. The economy is suffering and will take a turn for the worse as sanctions are tightened in response to Iranian nuclear weapon ambitions. Juan Cole explains:
Iran's hard-liners are pushing their country into a dangerous and perhaps crippling isolation that could, if Tehran continues on this path, eventually make it another North Korea. Having damaged their legitimacy at home with a stolen election, which is still being actively protested in the streets months later, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are thumbing their noses at the international community. The regime is adamant that it will make no concessions in regard to its nuclear research program, even in the face of a threat of increased United Nations sanctions. And Ahmadinejad, on the cusp of his trip to New York this week to speak to the U.N. General Assembly, has veered even deeper into a David Duke-like rhetoric about the Holocaust and the role of Jews in history.

Iran's inflation rate is still over 20 percent. Oil prices have been down this year. Unemployment and underemployment are alleged by regime critics to be massive. The country lacks refining capacity and imports 40 percent of its gasoline, producing occasional rationing. Oil and gas majors such as Royal Dutch Shell and Total S.A. have been scared off from developing Iran's enormous natural gas fields by the threat of U.S. sanctions. The country has been rocked by massive demonstrations by protesters who insist that the June presidential elections were stolen. On Friday, thousands of protesters came into the streets of the capital and of other cities for yet more anti-Ahmadinejad rallies. Although a recent poll suggests that the president has the support of some 60 percent of Iranians, the poll was conducted from abroad by telephone and likely its results were skewed by fear of reprisals on the part of respondents.

Abroad, the president made himself an international laughingstock with his questioning of the full extent of the Holocaust and his expressed conviction that the "Zionist state" in Israel will collapse (widely misinterpreted in the West as a threat to "wipe Israel off the map"). There is increasingly severe talk by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and German Chancellor Angela Merkel of ratcheting up sanctions, over Iran's insufficient cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, especially with regard to its missile development programs.

Iran has the right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to learn how to produce enriched uranium to fuel the reactors it is building. But the centrifuges it is using are an open-ended technology, such that if a nation can learn to use them to enrich uranium to 22 percent (enough for reactor fuel), there is no absolute bar to its learning to enrich to the 95 percent required for a nuclear bomb. Iran can therefore only allay suspicions that it actually wants a bomb by allowing thorough (and even surprise) U.N. inspections and by granting greater access to its scientists, engineers and equipment. Iran was caught doing undeclared weapons-related research in 2002, which is forbidden in the NPT, so it is on a kind of probation from the point of view of the West.

Iran may be counting on Russia and China to come to its aid. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad would be foolish to make that bet. Although Russia's prime minister (and de facto leader), Vladimir Putin, recently spoke out against further sanctions on Iran, President Dmitry Medvedev indicated in a CNN interview on Sunday that Russia's patience is not infinite. He said, "Iran must cooperate with the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency], this is an absolutely indubitable thing, if it wishes to develop its nuclear dimension, nuclear energy program." It is possible that Russia will be more flexible on the Iran sanctions issue now that President Obama has canceled plans to build missile shield facilities in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic, plans to which Moscow had vehemently objected. Likewise, Obama is seeking to blunt Iran's propaganda campaign concerning the nukes of the great powers by pushing for further nuclear disarmament in the U.S. and Russia.

Further unilateral U.S. sanctions and collective UNSC measures should be taken more seriously than they are by Iran. Ahmadinejad defiantly told NBC, "We think for one or two countries to think that they own the world and they are the ones that make the major global decisions and others should follow -- that period has come to an end." But Iraq's economy was ruined by U.S. and U.N. sanctions in the 1990s, and the lack for some period of time of chlorine for water purification and of some medicines is thought to have been responsible for the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children. Targeted sanctions on North Korea interdict military and technological equipment, exclude luxury goods, and constrain the country's finance system. This summer, the UNSC went further and urged member nations actually to board suspect North Korean ships. China, which had earlier blocked such moves, agreed to this resolution because its leaders were furious about North Korea's underground nuclear test. The Khamenei-Ahmadinejad regime risks making Iran a pariah on the North Korea model if it goes on defying the international community. Iran's people will be the real losers if that happens.
You can read his entire article here.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Scuttling Bush’s East European missile-defense plan

Fred Kaplan has a very good article on President Obama’s decision to scuttle the Bush administration’s proposed missile-defense system to be built in Poland and the Czech Republic:
The decision, which he announced this morning after completing a six-month review of the program, removes the biggest obstacle in U.S.-Russian relations—a step that could clear the way for cooperative measures on a wide range of international issues—without scrapping the general idea of some sort of "missile shield" for Europe.

Bush came up with the plan to put 10 anti-missile interceptors and radars on Czech and Polish soil in 2007, and the Russians have been clamoring about it ever since. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused Bush of trying to upset the balance of power.

Bush's top officials, including his (and now Obama's) defense secretary, Robert Gates, tried to persuade Putin that such fears had no basis. The interceptors would be configured to shoot down missiles launched by Iran, not by Russia. And in any case, a mere 10 interceptors were hardly a counterweight to the thousands of offensive missiles in Russia's nuclear arsenal.

The argument was correct but also beside the point. The Russians were worried not so much about what 10 interceptors could do but rather about what they represented—a U.S. military foothold in the heart of Eastern Europe.

Secretary Gates, in a follow-up press conference, emphasized that, contrary to a Wall Street Journal headline, Obama was not "scrapping missile defense in Europe." Rather, he was adjusting the program. Rather than building huge, fixed GBI complexes in Eastern Europe, he would buy more small, mobile SM-3 missiles and place them, initially, on the U.S. Navy's Aegis cruisers.

At some point, no earlier than 2015, the SM-3s might also be deployed on ground bases in northern or southern Europe, "in consultation with allies," Gates said, "starting with Poland and the Czech Republic." (Notice: He didn't say the anti-missile missiles might be based in those two countries—though that's not out of the question—only that those countries would be the first consulted on the matter. A more likely base, if Iranian missiles are the concern, would be Turkey, though Gates didn't say that, either.)

The SM-3s are capable of shooting down short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, unlike the GBI, which is designed to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles. But Obama and Gates said this morning that this feature is appropriate, since recent intelligence indicates that Iran is making faster progress on developing shorter-range missiles and much slower progress on ICBMs.

In other words, Gates claimed, Obama's plan provides "a better missile-defense capability" for Europe—a plan that is more flexible, less vulnerable, and better suited to the actual threat than the plan that he himself advocated three years ago under President Bush.
Is this true, or is it post-hoc rationalization? A bit of both.

For one thing, Bush's plan to put GBI complexes in Poland and the Czech Republic was not meant to defend Europe. Rather, the initial discussions of a European missile-defense plan, in 2003-04, focused on using these weapons to shoot down missiles launched by Iran as they passed over Europe on their way to the United States. The interceptors could provide protection for some parts of Europe, but that wasn't the main intent.

So, yes, to the extent the SM-3s work, they would protect Europe more than Bush's plan would have. Whether they work—whether they really can shoot down ballistic missiles—is another question. Certainly, short-range missiles are easier to shoot down than ICBMs: they travel more slowly, their trajectory is easier to track, their warheads are smaller, meaning there's less room for decoys or other devices to throw off the missile-defense system's radar.

In some ways, though, the question hardly matters. Obama has made little secret of his skepticism about the missile-defense program as it existed under the Bush administration. He has said, in past speeches, that he would support a missile-defense program if it proved effective in tests, knowing full well that the program—the larger program, involving the GBI complexes—has performed rather poorly in tests. (The SM-3s have done better against short-range missiles, though little information has been released about the precise design of those tests.)

Obama also clearly wants to revive relations with Russia—a goal that he and many of his advisers view as critical to the success of his broader policies to fight global terrorism and to curb nuclear proliferation. The plan to put missile defenses in Eastern Europe was seen by the Russians as a threat, an attitude that isn't unreasonable from their point of view. It seems silly to throw a wrench in this relationship—and thus sharply reduce the chance of success in these vital areas—in order to preserve a missile-defense system that doesn't seem likely to work anyway.

However, it is impolitic—it risks rousing accusations of being "soft on defense" or worse—for any president (or most senators and House members) to say out loud that missile defense isn't likely to work and that, therefore, the program should be scrapped. (I'm not saying that Obama thinks this; I'm saying only that if he does think this, he couldn't say it.)

Obama's plan—scuttling the GBI complexes in Eastern Europe and instead putting more SM-3s on Aegis cruisers, which can be put in the Mediterranean or anywhere—manages to undercut the Russians' rationale for continuing their intransigence while, at the same time, it assures the Europeans that the United States will continue to provide a defense against missile attacks, that it will in fact do so more quickly and effectively than the original plan would have.
You can (and should) read Kaplan’s entire piece here.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Is the Vietnam analogy to Afghanistan valid?

The Obama administration is reportedly divided on the issue of whether or not to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. While having not yet made a decision the President has rejected any analogy between Vietnam and Afghansitan. Juan Cole responds to comments by Jamie Rubin who also rejects the Vietnam analogy but uses an Iraq analogy to make a case for a troop build-up:
…Social history, political science and sociology are all premised on our ability to attain at least medium-range generalizations about big social movements and groups. Thus, the process of decolonization after WW II, while it unfolded differently in different colonies/ countries, did have some common or at least widespread characteristics. One of the reasons the Project for a New American Century and the Bush administration failed in their attempt to reinvent 19th-century empire in the 21st century is that peoples of the global south are now politically and socially mobilized en masse in a way they were not in 1850. Some 15,000 British troops could no longer hope to hold all of India. In some important respects, "Vietnam" partook of characteristics of decolonization and one could compare it to Algeria, e.g.

On Wednesday morning, MSNBC's "Morning Joe" had as a guest Jamie Rubin, an adjunct professor at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia U., and a "kitchen" adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the president (also husband of CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour). Rubin also took up cudgels against the Vietnam analogy. He said that in Vietnam the whole world was against the US, whereas in Afghanistan this is not the case. But the extremely wealthy Oil Gulf is against the US-- at least its private billionaires are-- and Pakistan is at least ambivalent. Russia is also ambivalent, worried about a permanent US landlocked aircraft carrier on the doorstep of Central Asia. And, anyway, movements sometimes succeed even if they are based only on one ethnicity in a country and even if they are mainly indigenous.

I was one of the first analysts to warn that Afghanistan could turn into a Vietnam for President Obama, so of course I do not agree with Rubin. And his remarks frankly worry me because he is making an analogy from Iraq to Afghanistan, which just won't work.

First of all, official Washington has never understood the real reason for which rates of civilian deaths fell dramatically in Iraq in late 2007 and through 2008, compared to the almost apocalyptic death rate in 2006-2007 during the Sunni-Shiite civil war kicked off by the Feb. 2006 bombing of the Askariya "Golden Domed" shrine in Samarra.

Beginning in a big way in summer of 2006 and continuing for at least a year, the Shiites of Baghdad and its environs determinedly and systematically ethnically cleansed the Sunnis from the capital. I figure that over a million people were likely displaced. Mixed neighborhoods such as Shaab became wholly Shiite. Baghdad went from being 50/50 Sunni-Shiite, more or less, in 2003 to being perhaps 85%-90% Shiite today. Much of the violence of the civil war period was the result of neighborhood fighting between adherents of the two branches of Islam, so when the Sunnis were expelled (many of them all the way to Amman and Damascus), the violence naturally declined substantially.

Rubin thinks that the violence declined because the US government began being willing to enlist Sunni militiamen to fight radical fundamentalists and Baathists. But the Sunnis took the deal in part because they were losing so badly. And, the main effect of the Awakening Councils or Sons of Iraq was in al-Anbar Province, which only has a little over a million people out of Iraq's 27 million, not in Baghdad. In the capital they probably just stopped the ethnic cleansing of Sunnis.

The reasons the Shiites won the civil war in Iraq include:

1) Shiites were the majority, with 60% of the population;

2) Shiites had militias such as the Badr Corps and the Mahdi Army to carry out the ethnic cleansing;

3) Shiites had gained control of an oil state and had significant monetary resources;

4) Next-door Shiite Iran offered enormous resources and facilities to the Iraqi Shiites, helping them avoid being strangled by the Sunni Arabs of the west and north. In essence, the US caught a big break insofar as its main regional enemy happened to have the same basic objectives in Iraq as did the US, reinforcing Washington's policies.

5) Most Shiites and their Kurdish allies (altogether some 80% of the population) saw the al-Maliki government as legitimate, though most Sunni Arabs did not.

6) Shiites had gained control of the newly trained army and security forces and could deploy them against Sunnis, since the new recruits were largely literate, increasingly well-trained, and motivated to stop Sunni violence against their relatives;

7) US troops disarmed the Sunnis in the capital first, before turning to Shiite militias, leaving the Sunnis helpless before 2) and 3) above; and

8) Most Sunni Arabs in Iraq were and are secular nationalists who resented the religious extremism of many of the guerrillas, and whose tribes began to have a feud with the Islamic State of Iraq because it bombed Sunni young men seeking recruitment into the national police.

Afghanistan differs from Iraq in the following respects:

1) The Pashtuns from whom the anti-government forces derive are some 44% of the population, not a 20% or less minority the way the Sunnis of Iraq are. While most Pashtuns still reject the guerrillas, so did most Sunni Arabs reject the extremist guerrillas; the latter still controlled significant swathes of Sunni Iraq. The Taliban and kindred groups are a significant presence everywhere there are large Pashtun populations.

2) The Tajik and Hazara militias have largely been demobilized and are not available for deployment against the Taliban and other fundamentalist groups. The pro-Kabul Pashtuns typically do not have militias.

3) The pro-Karzai Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazara Shiites and Uzbeks that form the ruling clique are not united, and the government they dominate is extremely weak and poverty-stricken (the GDP in international currency [not purchasing power parity] is only about $9 bn a year, and the government budget is a little over $1 bn.). Iraq has something close to $70 bn. in reserves from oil sales. The Afghan government controls only 30% of the country. The country is resource-poor and there is no prospect of it having a proper tax base for a competent bureaucracy and army any time soon.

4) The Pashtun plurality is backed by the enormous Sunni country of Pakistan, whereas the pro-Kabul Pashtuns have no regional foreign patron to speak of; Iran generally supports the Tajiks and Hazaras, but it is hard to discern that they have pumped very significant resources into the country. In essence, Washington's regional ally, Pakistan, is ambivalent about the Tajik/Hazara/Uzbek takeover of Kabul and not close to Karzai's faction of Pashtuns.

5) In the aftermath of the recent election, probably a majority of Afghans and of Pashtuns sees the Karzai government as corrupt and illegitimate.

6) The Afghan army has faced extreme difficulties in training and expansion. Some 90% of the troops are illiterate, which limits how much they can be trained and even their ability to read street signs when they are sent into an unfamiliar city. (Iraq's literacy rate is 76%). Many Afghan troops lack discipline and some proportion regularly use recreational drugs during work hours. There is no evidence of any great esprit de corps or attachment to the Karzai government, in contrast to the Iraqi army's willingness to fight for PM Nuri al-Maliki and his ruling coalition.

7) US troops have proven unable to disarm the Taliban, Hizb-i Islam, or the Haqqani group. The number of fighters attached to these guerrilla groups has grown from 3,000 a few years ago to 15,000- 20,000 today. They are local, know the terrain, and receive patronage and support from Pashtun tribes who resent the foreign troop presence.

8) Pashtuns are not for the most part secularists, and a combination of religious and nationalist rhetoric such as is deployed by old-time guerrilla leader Gulbadin Hikmatyar and his "Islamic Party" has a great deal of appeal to them. Although the Taliban are only thought well of by 5% of Afghans in polls, that is probably 10% of Pashtuns. And many of the guerrilla groups opposing Karzai are not properly called Taliban (Pashtuns in Kunar Province are not thinking of Islamic Party when they denounce Taliban). Virtually no Pashtuns, who are a plurality of the country and the largest single ethnic group, want US or NATO troops in their country.

So Afghanistan is not very much like Iraq (there are other differences, as in the organization of the tribes), and if Rubin advises H. Clinton and Obama to depend on a "surge" plus a "Sons of Afghanistan" artificial militia policy, I think that would be dangerous advice.

Afghanistan is more like Vietnam than Obama and Rubin suggest. And, it is becoming more like it all the time.
You can read the entire piece here.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Are we heading off the cliff with anti-Obama hysteria?

It was perplexing to read in the local newspaper this morning decisions by local school officials to either not show President Obama’s speech directed to the nation’s school children or setting some sort of system for parents to block their children from hearing the speech. And it isn’t just Virginia, there is opposition popping up elsewhere in the country to allowing children to listen to an address from the President of the United States.

The speech is scheduled for the opening day of most schools next Tuesday and the message to the students is simply that they should stay in school and maximize their educational opportunities. Why is this message so controversial? Other Presidents have addressed school children with little outcry but, of course, other Presidents were white.

Joan Walsh at Salon looks at the irrational paranoia that has become so public:
… I never imagined the outbreak of right-wing crazy that Obama's gesture would provoke, and this time it's hard not to see racism behind the hysteria. The message is "Obama's coming for our children!" the standard cry against scary boogeymen in every culture. I mean, really, what besides Obama's race could make him so scary to these people? That he's a Marxist socialist fascist Nazi? I'd argue that the only reason those extreme epithets have taken hold goes back to reason No. 1: Our first black president is provoking some outsize and irrational reactions.

Especially since, as has now been well-documented, President George H.W. Bush addressed American students in 1991, and Ronald Reagan did so via C-SPAN in 1988. (Bush talked mainly about the importance of education, while Reagan hailed the benefits of low taxes and the line-item veto.) President George W. Bush appealed to "the children of the country" to back the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, to no public criticism. Admittedly, some Democrats accused his father of playing politics in '91, while Newt Gingrich ardently defended him. (Waiting for Gingrich to defend Obama. Still waiting.)

But there was nothing like the frenzied reaction to Obama's planned speech (which school principals are free to ignore if they so choose) to any of the other presidents' statements to students. The Florida Republican Party went into full-tilt crazy against Obama's plan to spread his "socialist ideology," claiming "schoolchildren across our nation will be forced to watch the president justify his plans for government-run health care, banks, and automobile companies, increasing taxes on those who create jobs, and racking up more debt than any other president." State party chairman Jim Greer called Obama the "Pied Piper" -- you remember, the shady guy who lured kids away from home. Since Obama merely plans to tell students to stay in school and work hard -- an early draft of lesson materials that asked them to talk about ways they could help the president was scotched -- Politifact gave the Florida GOP its "Pants on Fire" designation.

But that's not stopping other blowhards of the Pants on Fire Party. Lunatics like Pamela Heller of Newsmax, radio host Brian Fischer and WorldNetDaily's Bob Unruh are trying to organize parents to take their kids out of school for the day. Texas Gov. Rick Perry says he's "troubled" by Obama's speech. Crazy Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin are raging against "indoctrination" while Townhall's Meredith Jessup is calling it "a massive abuse of government power."

And lest you dismiss these rantings as confined to the lunatic fringe and ratings-crazed talk-show hosts, the backlash has had an effect. First, after school administrators in mostly red states expressed concerns about exposing kids to the speech without knowing what's in it, the president's office said he'd make it available on Monday so they can read it in advance. OK, that's nice of the president, but is anybody else a little rattled that some right-wing bullies appointed the nation's unelected school administrators to vet our president's speech? And even that wasn't enough for administrators in six states: Districts in Missouri, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Virginia and Texas are telling reporters they won't show Obama's speech to students on Tuesday. …

Where to start to explain this hysteria? Since the height of Sarah Palin's dishonest and divisive campaign last September, I've been alarmed by the unique way in which Obama's opponents paint him as "the other." For the life of me, I can't think of another American politician -- not even Hillary Clinton, although it's close -- who has spurred such visceral, irrational hatred. …Sure, John Kerry was "French" and Michael Dukakis was Greek …, but only Obama is a Marxist Communist who pals around with terrorists and wants to harm your children.

The hysteria Obama inspires in his far-right foes is primeval, primordial. From the Birthers' obsession with the facts of his birth -- which lets them obsess about his origins in miscegenation -- to the paranoia that he's coming for the children, there's a deep strand of irrational paranoia that can't be anything other than racial. These people don't merely disagree with him, they distrust and dislike him viscerally. He's not merely wrong, he's scary; even terrifying.

I've said this before, to little result, but it's past time for mainstream, responsible Republicans to stand up against this latest irrational attack on the president. …
And Joe Klein, as part of his report on some of the lunacy he observed at a town hall meeting in Arkansas, worries that civil discourse is not working and the nation may be heading for a cliff:
….The amazing thing remains not only the unwillingness of responsible Republicans--a term that is in danger of becoming an oxymoron--to call bull-- on this, but also the willingness of many prominent Republicans to join in the slinging of garbage. Michelle Cottle reports that there are Republican-sanctioned efforts afoot to have parents not send their children to school on September 8 because the President is scheduled to address the nation's school-children that day and they are afraid that he will fill their little heads with socialist propaganda. That is somewhere well beyond disgraceful.

Could I just say that the intensity of this getting pretty scary...and dangerous? We are heading toward a cliff and the usual brakes of civil discourse are not working. Indeed, the Republicans have the pedal to the metal--rushing us toward a tragedy far greater than the California health care forum finger-biting ... I'm usually not one to panic or be overly worried about the state of our country--even when we do awful things like invade Iraq and torture people, we usually right our course before long--but I have a sinking feeling about where we're headed now. I hope I'm wrong.
Just where are the responsible Republicans?

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Torture in plain English

Defenders of torture have the bad habit of referring to it as anything but torture and cite evidence of its effectiveness that is not provable. In a recent post at Commentary, Max Boot refers to “the aggressive interrogation of captured terrorists” as “one of the most effective intelligence-gathering tactics in the war on terrorism.” Andrew Sullivan begs to differ:
"Aggressive interrogation of captured terrorists" needs translation into plain English. It means "the torture of captives suspected of being terrorists." "One of the most effective intelligence-gathering tactics in the war on terrorism" also needs translation, since there is no evidence, as Bush DHS official Frances Townsend and every neutral observer has noted, that the intelligence, if accurate, could not have been achieved by legal, American and ethical means. We also know for a fact that the majority of all those who have been abused and tortured by the US under Bush and Cheney were innocent of any terror offenses. (At Abu Ghraib, one of the test-sites for Cheney's methods, up to 90 percent were completely innocent, according to the Bush administration). We have no idea how many of those captured, abused and tortured at Bagram were and are innocent. And we know that the Red Cross has definitively ruled the Bush-Cheney treatment as torture and, at the very least, illegal "cruel and inhuman treatment" of prisoners.

"Aggressive interrogation" means, in plain English, stripping suspects, hooding them, beating them, putting a collar around their neck and launching their bodies against a plywood wall up to thirty times, subjecting them to sleep deprivation in one case as long as 960 hours over 54 days, shackling them in stress positions used by the Vietnamese against John McCain, denying medical care in some cases, sexually traumatizing them, using Islam as a weapon against them, putting them in upright coffins, threatening to kill their children and spouses, threatening to drill their skulls with power-drills, freezing them in iced water or freezing air-conditioning until near-death, subjecting them to extreme heat, and sensory deprivation in isolation for months until they become mental and physical shells. It means Abu Ghraib, the one place where we have been able to see what neoconservatism has come to stand for: the brutal torture and abuse of Arabs and Muslims. It means murdering over a hundred of such prisoners - merely because they are suspects and Arab Muslims. It means verschaerfte Vernehmung, in which neocons eagerly adopt the precise methods and even terminology of the Gestapo and brandish their cooptation of Nazi standards of prisoner treatment as an American value.
You can read Sullivan’s entire piece here.