Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Progress on three fronts – Iraq, Iran and Pakistan

When the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced President Obama as winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize there were some Americans who claimed he had not earned it. A few rather condescendingly came up with lists of things he could do to earn it.

Yet in the eight and a half months this administration has been in office the President has made solid accomplishments in foreign policy and started movements on different fronts that can lead to real peace and stability. Barack Obama campaigned on a platform of withdrawing troops from Iraq, engaging the Iranians on their nuclear program, and persuading the Pakistanis that the Taliban and Al Qaida operating on their soil was their problem. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the war in Afghanistan are still up in the air but progress in Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan are real. Juan Cole grades Obama’s progress in Salon:
When Obama came into office in January, 142,000 U.S. troops were in Iraq, conducting regular patrols of the major cities. His Republican rivals were dead set against U.S. withdrawal on a strict timetable. He faced something close to an insurrection from some of his commanders in the field, such as Gen. Ray Odierno, who opposed a quick departure from Iraq. Moreover, Obama assumed the presidency at a time when Iran and the U.S. were virtually on a war footing and there had been no direct talks between the two countries on most of the major issues dividing them. In February, the government of Pakistan virtually ceded the Swat Valley and the Malakand Division to the Pakistani Taliban of Maulvi Fazlullah, allowing the imposition of the latter's fundamentalist version of Islamic law on residents, and Islamabad had no stomach for taking on the increasingly bold extremists.

Eight months later, it is a different world. While it is still early in his presidency, and there is too much work unfinished to give him an overall grade, it's already apparent he's outperforming his predecessor.

Iraq: B Obama has decisively won the argument over Iraq policy. Despite the massive bombings in Baghdad on Sunday -- the most deadly since 2007 -- the U.S. troop withdrawal is ahead of schedule and seems unlikely to be halted. One reason is that the security situation in Iraq, while shaky, did not deteriorate when U.S. troops ceased their urban patrols on June 30 (a date Iraqis celebrated as "Sovereignty Day"). Occasional big explosions obscure the reality of reduced guerrilla attacks. According to the Pentagon, civilian casualties have been steadily declining since late summer. Even John McCain said that Sunday's carnage should not delay the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq -- a 180-degree turn in policy for the former presidential candidate.

The process of U.S. disentanglement from Iraq has been gradual, generating no big headlines, no "Obama brings 22,000 troops out of Iraq, cuts war spending by $30 billion." But, in fact, troop levels are down to about 120,000 from 142,000 early this year, and spending on the war has fallen, from $180 billion in 2008 to $150 billion this year. Many things could still go wrong in Iraq, affecting the ability of the U.S. to meet the current timetable, but so far the Iraqi security forces are generally keeping order (there were horrific bombings when the U.S. was in control, too). He can be faulted for not working closely enough with the Nouri al-Maliki government to ease the transition, hence a grade of B instead of an A.

Iran: A There has also been movement on Iran. On Oct. 1 the administration fulfilled its campaign pledge by joining other members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany in Geneva to jawbone with Iran on the nuclear issue. As a result, Iran accepted that a United Nations inspection team would visit the newly announced enrichment facility near Qom, and on Monday inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency arrived at the Fardo plant. The acceptance of inspectors is an excellent sign. As long as Tehran remains willing to allow U.N. inspections, both at Natanz near Isfahan and at Fardo (which is not operational but could eventually house 3,000 centrifuges), neither facility can be used to produce fissionable material. Obama has changed the West's dynamics with Iran by direct negotiation, something that 63 percent of the American people support.

Pakistan: B Then there is Pakistan. The Obama administration came into office determined to whittle away the "state's rights" prerogatives of the Pashtuns, who form about 12 percent of the Pakistani population, of which the tiny minority of Taliban had taken advantage. From its inception, the Pakistani federal government had inherited from the British Empire a policy of not attempting to rule the tribal Pashtuns too heavy-handedly. In addition, the Pakistani military uses some Taliban and other guerrilla groups to project influence in the Pashtun areas of neighboring Afghanistan, making the generals reluctant to move against them. In spring-summer, the Obama administration convinced the Pakistani government to launch a major military operation against the Taliban in the Swat Valley. Despite temporarily displacing 2 million residents, the operation enjoyed substantial success and gained wide popular support from a Pakistani population -- including most Pashtuns -- increasingly appalled at the brutality of Taliban rule. In October, the military launched a similar operation against the Taliban in South Waziristan, despite a raft of bombings aimed by the militants at deterring the federal government from coming after them.

Obama has, moreover, signed a $7.5 billion civilian aid package that encourages economic, educational and medical development and puts pressure on the civilian government to keep the military under its control. The Bush administration gave most of its aid in the form of military weaponry or support, something of which polling shows the Pakistani public disapproves. Obama intends to build clinics and schools and to develop an infrastructure that might help fight militancy more effectively than any drone strikes can.

Obama's Pakistan approach, of building state capacity and improving the economy and basic services, while dealing with the Pakistani Taliban through large-scale military operations, may or may not succeed. But compared to his predecessor's policy of just handing over billions to corrupt military officers, some of whom have links to factions of militants, Obama's policies have been far more coherent. His use of unmanned predator drones to kill suspected al-Qaida operatives and the aid bill's demand for the supremacy of civilian rule over the military are both unpopular in some quarters, because of fears that the U.S. is turning the country into a sort of colony and infringing against its sovereignty. Obama may need to be less heavy-handed in the future to avoid a popular backlash. If not for this insensitivity to Pakistani popular opinion, he might deserve an A. The Swat and South Waziristan campaigns, at least, appear to have the support of the Pakistani public.

… Far from accomplishing nothing in his first eight months, Obama has been a whirlwind of activity and has already gained a place in the Iraqi, Iranian and Pakistani history books. …
You can read the complete article here.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

White House decision on Afghanistan: Take your time but don’t dither

Tom Ricks lays out four simple rules for the White House internal debate on the future of the war in Afghanistan: 1) the generals are not necessarily right, even about military operations, and especially about strategy; 2) presidents should take all the time they need; 3) presidents should not take any more time than they need; and, 4) the debate should be kept as quiet as possible. Ricks writes:
In the summer of 1942, FDR had his most serious disagreement with his military leaders. He wanted to get the U.S. military into action against the Nazis. Fearing that Stalin might cut another deal with Hitler, FDR wanted to show Stalin and the Soviets that the Americans were getting into the fight, and not just letting Russians bleed. Also, Roosevelt had congressional mid-term elections coming up, and feared that his Democrats would lose heavily. Roosevelt believed that an American-led invasion of North Africa was just the ticket. He pushed endlessly for it-only to find his top generals, along with his secretary of war, deeply and even bitterly opposed to him.

Army Gen. George C. Marshall, who was effectively chief of two of today's services, the Army and the Air Force, not only was against the invasion of North Africa; he distrusted FDR's motives, thinking the president was pushing for the move for cheap domestic political reasons. In Europe, Eisenhower was equally opposed. He privately called July 22, 1942, the day of FDR's decision to go ahead with the invasion, dubbed Operation Torch, "the blackest day in history."

What bothered the military men most of all was that invading Africa in 1942 meant that a cross-Channel invasion of Europe wouldn't take place in 1943. There just weren't enough troops, tanks, aircraft, and supplies available to fight in both places. So Roosevelt's determination to invade North Africa meant that D-Day couldn't take place until sometime in mid-1944; Eisenhower calculated probably August of that year.

The irony of all this is that we now know the generals were wrong in opposing Operation Torch—not just strategically but militarily. Roosevelt was right on both counts. It was important to Stalin that we get into the war, and doing so directly aided the Russians, by pulling German aircraft from the Eastern Front to the taxing task of supplying the Africa Corps across the Mediterranean by air. We also know now that the U.S. military was hardly prepared to fight a seasoned enemy on the ground in Europe and that it needed to take several small steps, such as amphibious landings in Africa, in order to learn how to get across the beach in Normandy much later. The defeat of the U.S. Army by the Germans at the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia (remember the early scenes of the movie Patton?) provided a needed shock to the Army. Training was tightened up, and lackluster generals like Lloyd Fredendall were replaced by aggressive officers like Patton. Even then, the invasion of Sicily the following summer provided another needed shakedown, and gave American soldiers more valuable seasoning.

Crossing the English Channel in 1944 instead of 1943, the Americans were a year better, and the Germans were a year weaker-especially in the air. Had the American, British and Canadians invaded Normandy in 1943, they might well have been hurled back into the sea. Eisenhower then would have been compelled to issue that famous note he drafted taking the blame for the failure. It began, "Our landings have failed and I have withdrawn the troops."

Of course, the conflict in Afghanistan isn't World War II. Even so, I think there are multiple lessons to take away from this, especially because both FDR and Obama had to consider taking risks with people's lives:

First, the generals are not necessarily right, even about military operations, and especially about strategy, which in a democracy must make political sense. In the Afghan case, I think Gen. McChrystal's plan, which calls for a major troop increase in order to carry out a counterinsurgency campaign, is better than any alternative I can see (especially a return to whack-a-mole counterterrorism, supposedly advocated by VP Biden). But the president shouldn't just go along with military advice, even if it is nearly unanimous.

Second, presidents should take all the time they need. The U.S. military wants to have Obama and the people behind this decision. But you need to make a decision and stick to it-not re-open the debate. Even after FDR made his decision, Marshall continued to try to oppose it quietly, or at least re-visit the issue, but was ignored by the president.

Third, don't take any more time than you need. That is, don't dither. Troops need time to train for where they are going. Iraq and Afghanistan are very different places, with remarkably different cultures and terrains, and so units preparing to deploy would like to know months beforehand where they are going. In this case, I thought President Obama had made his decision back in March, and so did a lot of officers. He has some 'splaining to do to the military and to the American people. It matters not just what Obama decides on Afghanistan, but how he does it. He needs to bring the country along with him.

Finally, keep the debate as quiet as you can. We know now how much Marshall and other generals opposed the president on this key step in World War II, but we didn't know it back then. Whoever leaked McChrystal's assessment did President Obama no favors, and made the decision-making process far more difficult. As Marshall angrily wrote in a different context, "If everything pertaining to the Army has to be put on a town meeting basis, we might as well quit before we start."

Bottom line: The Torch debate, while intense, happened behind closed doors. And Roosevelt didn't do it twice. Even then, he took a big political hit. On Nov. 3, 1942, the Democrats lost 101 seats in the House of Representatives, leaving them a majority of just 14. Despite Marshall's suspicions, Operation Torch kicked off five days after the election, much to the disgust of the White House press secretary, Steve Early. The attack went slowly but, ultimately, successfully. I hope Obama is as lucky.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

McDonnell’s style-and-stealth campaign in Virginia’s race for governor

It used to be that Virginia’s suburbs were leaning or solidly Republican. Changes in demographics have now made the suburbs – particularly those in Northern Virginia – the battleground for swing voters. That is where Tim Kaine won the governorship in 2005 and where Barak Obama was able to carry the state in both the 2008 primary and general Presidential elections. For Creigh Deeds to carry on the Democratic trend his campaign needs to focus on swing suburban voters as well as motivate those hundreds of thousands of first-time and irregular voters the Obama campaign successfully turned out last year. So far it does not look promising. The Washington Post endorsed Deeds this past Sunday but the speculation is the endorsement will not work the same magic for Deeds as it did in the spring primary.

Bob McDonnell, 55, makes little mention of his conservative beliefs in his run for governor. In response to questions raised about the master’s thesis he wrote while a student at televangelist Pat Robertson’s Regent University in which he described working women and feminists as "detrimental" to the family and said government policy should favor married couples over "cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators" he has tried to change the subject saying he should be judged by what he has done in office, including efforts to lower taxes and stiffen criminal penalties. Despite an initial drop in his poll numbers following publicity about the thesis, he seems to have successfully distanced himself from the document.

The 93-page thesis culminates with a 15-point action plan that McDonnell said the Republican Party should follow to protect American families -- a vision that he started to put into action soon after he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. Over a decade in the Virginia General Assembly, McDonnell pursued at least 10 of the policy goals he laid out in that research paper, including abortion restrictions, covenant marriage, school vouchers and tax policies to favor his view of the traditional family. In 2001, he voted against a resolution in support of ending wage discrimination between men and women.

The McDonnell campaign so far has done exactly what it needs to do – run a stealth conservative campaign in which the right-wing rank and file are satisfied with a wink and a nod so as not to scare off suburbanite swing voters or motivate the Democratic base into turning out in larger numbers than they appear they will at this point two weeks before the election. Of course, what these swing voters and unmotivated Democrats fail to appreciate is that a significant McDonnell win will have coattails carrying in more unsavory candidates. Max Blumenthal examines the campaign:
Last summer, after Virginia state Senator Creigh Deeds crushed his rivals in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, a veteran Democratic consultant named Lowell Feld offered the Deeds campaign some advice. Feld told me he urged Deeds to immediately launch an attack campaign painting his Republican rival, state Attorney General Bob McDonnell, as “Pat Robertson’s Manchurian Candidate.” If Deeds wavered, Feld was convinced McDonnell could make inroads in the liberal-leaning but fiercely competitive suburbs of Northern Virginia.

“Virginian independents vote on who holds a drink better, who can converse with a wide variety of people in a clever way,” says Professor Larry Sabato. “So whoever passes what I call the suburban cocktail party test usually wins. And McDonnell passes with flying colors.”

While many Republican candidates pander to the Christian right to win elections in evangelical-heavy states, McDonnell has done exactly the opposite in the Virginia governor’s race: He's appealing to the sensibilities of comparatively moderate Northern Virginian voters. But that’s not because he’s a moderate. In fact, McDonnell is a consummate culture warrior; a graduate of Pat Robertson’s law school, Regent University, and a personal friend of the far-right televangelist, who donated heavily to his past campaigns.

During an appearance on Robertson’s 700 Club in 2007, McDonnell said his four years at Regent “gave me the insight about what our Founders believed about government and about their view of the Constitution that I’ve been carrying with me on the job today.”

Instead of following Feld’s advice, the Deeds campaign spent the dog days of June and July raising money. By the time Deeds engaged McDonnell on abortion in August—the Republican has opposed the practice even in cases of rape and incest—the smooth-talking, telegenic McDonnell was already scoring big with swing voters on transportation and economic issues. McDonnell’s success has instilled the national GOP with newfound confidence, prompting Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele to hail him as the “flower of new leadership” and the vanguard of a “Republican renaissance.”

Deeds appeared to gain new life when McDonnell’s damaging graduate thesis surfaced in early September. The candidate himself, perhaps in a moment of pride, mentioned it in passing to a Washington Post reporter, a foolish mistake that sparked her curiosity. Voters were thus exposed to an impassioned manifesto that read like a manual for implementing theocracy. In the 93-page document, McDonnell denounced working women as “detrimental for the family,” called on the government to favor married couples over “cohabitators, homosexuals, or fornicators,” and attacked a Supreme Court decision legalizing birth control for married couples. [W]hen the exercise of liberty takes the shape of pornography, drug abuse, or homosexuality,” McDonnell proclaimed, “the government must restrain, punish, and deter.”

Despite a concerted effort by the Deeds campaign to present McDonnell’s thesis as his “blueprint for governing,” McDonnell remains the clear favorite to win. With only two weeks until Election Day, he is leading by as much as seven points in most recent polls.

Unlike many Christian-right candidates, his image is easily relatable to suburban independents. During his appearance on the 700 Club, McDonnell revealed himself as a stealth candidate who learned through Robertson’s mentoring to conceal his hard-right ideology behind a moderate veneer. “[Regent] taught me the real importance of being a Christian elected official,” he remarked. “It’s not just what you say but it’s also the style of how you say it and acting in a degree of civility…without compromising principle.”

According to Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, McDonnell has successfully exploited his genial image to outmaneuver Deeds in the state’s key swing districts. “Virginian independents vote on who holds a drink better, who can converse with a wide variety of people in a clever way,” Sabato told me. “So whoever passes what I call the suburban cocktail party test usually wins. And McDonnell passes with flying colors.”

Sabato added that historic trends favor Republicans in Virginia the year after Obama’s victory. “You can call it a Republican resurgence if you want,” he remarked, “but if we had a presidential turnout this year, Deeds would win. Instead, the Republicans are excited because they’re tired of losing and they want to send a message.”

Sabato predicted that as many as 1 million of the Democrats—primarily first-time voters, the young, and minorities—who showed up to deliver Obama a record number of votes, will not even bother to vote this year. Because Virginia is a competitive political environment with a diverse population, this year’s governor’s race may reflect broader national trends heading into the 2010 congressional midterm elections.

While Obama has stumped for Deeds and plans to make another trip to the Old Dominion, many local Democratic insiders have all but given up on him. They worry that if he loses by more than three points, hard-right Republican candidates will dominate down-ticket races. Among the new crop of right-wing upstarts is Barbara Comstock, a conservative flack running for the House of Delegates. While in Washington, Comstock helped run Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s defense fund and served as the communications director for George W. Bush’s Department of Justice, working with Regent University graduate Monica Goodling to install political cadres as U.S. attornies throughout the department.

“Comstock is bringing tons of money in,” Feld said, “and if Deeds gets his ass kicked, she is very likely to win.”

Even more worrisome for Virginia Democrats is the prospect of Ken Cuccinelli winning the attorney general’s race. Cuccinelli is a Catholic traditionalist who has accused pro-choice advocates of “killing…the children.” He recently boasted that he is the most conservative candidate to run for statewide office in his lifetime. An outspoken ally of the Tea Party Patriots, Cuccinelli has announced he was “considering” not getting Social Security numbers for his eight children because the government program “is being used to track you.”

“If McDonnell wins big,” Sabato stated, “Cuccinelli gets in on his coattails.”

Whatever the margin of victory is on November 3, McDonnell is likely to interpret a victory as a blessing from heaven—and set his sights on higher office. “There are other opportunities out there,” he told Robertson in 2007. “But what I can do now is be the best attorney general I can be. If I do that, the Lord will open other doors for me.”

Monday, October 19, 2009

Drawing police and military personnel into a world of false conspiracy theory

It’s never clear as to how serious to take political fringe groups that peddle paranoia. They are nothing new to the political scene of any country and in this one they have an absolute First Amendment right believe and say what they wish. On the other hand, the nonsense they promote can sow seeds of violence by convincing those without a firm grasp of reality that they are in danger and must act. Timothy McVeigh, a Gulf War veteran, was one who became convinced of the tyranny of the American government and acted on this conviction by killing 168 people by bombing the Federal office building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

News comes of a new group, the Oath Keepers, urging military and law enforcement personnel to disobey orders they deem unlawful. Their list of orders they would refuse include a few that sound downright civil libertarian such as the refusal to conduct warrantless searches and refusal to detain American citizens as “unlawful combatants” but others are completely loopy such as refusal to turn American cities into concentration camps and assisting foreign troops on U.S. soil against the American people. The suggestion of these latter points and similar items is that the country is on the verge of this actually happening.

The group is planning a national conference in Las Vegas later this month. The Las Vegas Review-Journal has this:
… Oath Keepers bills itself as a nonpartisan group of current and retired law enforcement and military personnel who vow to fulfill their oaths to the Constitution.

More specifically, the group's members, which number in the thousands, pledge to disobey orders they deem unlawful, including directives to disarm the American people and to blockade American cities. By refusing the latter order, the Oath Keepers hope to prevent cities from becoming "giant concentration camps," a scenario the 44-year-old Rhodes says he can envision happening in the coming years.

It's a Cold War-era nightmare vision with a major twist: The occupying forces in this imagined future are American, not Soviet.

"The whole point of Oath Keepers is to stop a dictatorship from ever happening here," Rhodes, a former Army paratrooper and Yale-trained lawyer, said in an interview with the Review-Journal. "My focus is on the guys with the guns, because they can't do it without them.

"We say if the American people decide it's time for a revolution, we'll fight with you."

That type of rhetoric has caught the attention of groups that track extremist activity in the United States.

In a July report titled "Return of the Militias," the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center singled out Oath Keepers as "a particularly worrisome example of the Patriot revival."

The Patriot movement, so named because its adherents believe the federal government has stepped on the constitutional ideals of the American Revolution, gained traction in the 1990s and has been closely linked to anti-government militia and white supremacist movements.

The movement is blamed for spawning Timothy McVeigh, who bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people.

"I'm not accusing Stewart Rhodes or any member of his group of being Timothy McVeigh or a future Timothy McVeigh," law center spokesman Mark Potok said. "But these kinds of conspiracy theories are what drive a small number of people to criminal violence. ... What's troubling about Oath Keepers is the idea that men and women armed and ordered to protect the public in this country are clearly being drawn into a world of false conspiracy theory."

The group's Web site, www.oathkeepers.org, features videos and testimonials in which supporters compare President Barack Obama's America to Adolf Hitler's Germany. They also liken Obama to England's King George III during the American Revolution.

One member, in a videotaped speech at an event in Washington, D.C., calls Obama "the domestic enemy the Constitution is talking about."

According to the law center, militia groups are re-emerging in this country partly as a result of racial animosity toward Obama.
As mentioned above, the Southern Poverty Law Center is concerned about the group. Here is what they have to say about the Oath Keepers in a recent SPLC report on the resurgence of far-right militias:
Oath Keepers, the military and police organization that was formed earlier this year and held its April muster on Lexington Green, may be a particularly worrisome example of the Patriot revival. Members vow to fulfill the oaths to the Constitution that they swore while in the military or law enforcement. "Our oath is to the Constitution, not to the politicians, and we will not obey unconstitutional (and thus illegal) and immoral orders," the group says. Oath Keepers lists 10 orders its members won't obey, including two that reference U.S. concentration camps.

That same pugnacious attitude was on display after conservatives attacked an April report from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that suggested a resurgence of radical right-wing activity was under way. "We will not fear our government; they will fear us," one man, who appeared to be on active duty in the Army, said in an angry video sent to the Oath Keepers blog. In another video at the site, a man who said he was a former Army paratrooper in Afghanistan and Iraq described President Obama as "an enemy of the state," adding, "I would rather die than be a slave to my government." The Oath Keepers site soon began hawking T-shirts with slogans like "I'm a Right Wing Extremist and Damn Proud of It!"

In April, Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes — a Yale Law School graduate and former aide to U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (a Texas Republican and hard-line libertarian) — worried about a coming dictatorship. "We know that if the day should come where a full-blown dictatorship would come, or tyranny … it can only happen if those men, our brothers in arms, go along and comply with unconstitutional, unlawful orders," Rhodes told conspiracy-minded radio host Alex Jones. "Imagine if we focus on the police and military. Game over for the New World Order."

He's not the first to think so. In the 1990s, retired Phoenix cop and conspiracy enthusiast Jack McLamb created an outfit called Police Against the New World Order and produced a 75-page document entitled Operation Vampire Killer 2000: American Police Action Plan for Stopping World Government Rule.

It's not known how large Oath Keepers is. But there is some evidence beyond the group's mere existence to suggest that today's Patriots are again making inroads into law enforcement — the leak of the DHS report, along with those of a couple of similar law enforcement reports, was likely the work of a sworn officer. Rhodes claims to know a federal officer leaked the DHS report, and says Oath Keepers is "hearing from more and more federal officers all the time."

The group does seem to be on the radar of federal law enforcement officers. In May, a member complained on the group's website of a visit to his farm by FBI agents who asked him, he said, about training he provides in firearms, survival skills and the like.

One Oath Keeper is longtime militia hero Richard Mack, a former sheriff of a rural Arizona county who collaborated with white supremacist Randy Weaver on a book and who, along with others, won a U.S. Supreme Court decision that weakened the Brady Bill gun control law in the 1990s. "The greatest threat we face today is not terrorists; it is our federal government," Mack says on his website. "One of the best and easiest solutions is to depend on local officials, especially the sheriff, to stand against federal intervention and federal criminality." Mack's views echo those of the Posse Comitatus, which believed that sheriffs are the highest law enforcement authorities in America. "I pray for the day that a sheriff in this country will arrest an IRS agent for trespassing or attempting to victimize citizens in that particular sheriff's county," Mack said in a video he made for Oath Keepers.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Restricting legal and safe abortions does not reduce abortions – contraception does

A report from the Guttmacher Institute shows that increased use of contraceptives has pushed global abortion rates down, but unsafe abortions kill 70,000 women each year and seriously harm or maim millions more.

Those fighting to restrict or ban outright legal and safe abortions work on the assumption that they are reducing the number of abortions taking place. Wrong. Illegal and unsafe abortions simply fill the void with many women left injured or dead. If the goal is to reduce the number of abortions then the solution is to make contraception easily available. It’s just that simple.

This from the BBC:
The Guttmacher Institute's survey found abortion occurs at roughly equal rates in regions where it is legal and regions where it is highly restricted.

It did note that improved access to contraception had cut the overall abortion rate over the last decade.

But unsafe abortions, primarily illegal, have remained almost static.

The survey of 197 countries carried out by the Guttmacher Institute - a pro-choice reproductive think tank - found there were 41.6m abortions in 2003, compared with 45.5 in 1995 - a drop which occurred despite population increases.

Nineteen countries had liberalised their abortion laws over the 10 years studied, compared with tighter restrictions in just three.

But despite the general trend towards liberalisation, some 40% of the world's women live amid tight restrictions.

On some continents this is particularly pronounced: well over 90% of women in South America and Africa live in areas with strict abortion laws, proportions which have barely shifted in a decade.

Researchers also noted that while liberalisation was a key element in improving women's access to safer terminations, it was far from the only factor.

Even in countries where abortion is legal, lack of availability and cost may prove major obstacles. In India for example, where terminations are legally allowed for a variety of reasons, some 6m take place outside the health service.

The costs of unsafe abortions, which can include inserting pouches containing arsenic to back street surgery, can be high: the healthcare bill to deal with conditions from sepsis to organ failure can be four times what it costs to provide family planning services.

Every year, an estimated 70,000 women die as a result of unsafe abortions - leaving nearly a quarter of a million children without a mother - and 5m develop complications.

In the developed world, legal restrictions did not stop abortion but just meant it was "exported", with Irish women for instance simply travelling to other parts of Europe, according to Guttmacher's director, Dr Sharon Camp. In the developing world, it meant lives were put at risk.

"Too many women are maimed or killed each year because they lack legal abortion access," she said.

"The gains we've seen are modest in relation to what we can achieve. Investing in family planning is essential - far too many women lack access to contraception, putting them at risk."

Western Europe is held up as an example of what access to contraceptive services can achieve, and the Netherlands - with just 10 abortions per 1,000 women compared to the world's 29 per 1,000 - is held up as the gold standard.

Here, young people report using two forms of contraception as standard.

Even the UK, which has a relatively high rate, fares well in comparison to the US, where the number of abortions is among the highest in the developed world. The institute says this rate is in part explained by inconsistencies in insurance coverage of contraceptive supplies.

In much of eastern Europe, where abortion was treated as a form of birth control, abortion rates have dropped by 50% in the past decade as contraceptives have become more widely available.
And globally, the number of married women of childbearing age with access to contraception has increased from 54% in 1990 to 63% in 2003, with gains also seen among single, sexually active women.

But there were still significant unmet contraception needs, and a lack of interest among pharmaceutical companies in developing new forms of birth control that provide top protection on demand, the institute said.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The struggle for women’s rights in Iran

The rights of women under Iran’s Islamic Republic have been a roller coaster. Cultural and legal restrictions are imposed, are eased over time, and then resurface in one form or another. It is all the more frustrating for Iranian women because the pre-revolution culture of education for women continues to this day. The educated female population is all too aware of discrimination in the workplace, of the unfair legal disadvantage women experience in marriage, and how adult women are treated as children in how they choose to dress.

Saeed Valadbaygi at Revolutionary Road discusses the treatment of women during the last few years of the Ahmdinejad government:
In 1386 (2007-March 2008), Ahmadinejad’s government entered a new phase in the treatment of women. With the change of the police commander of Greater Tehran, comprehensive efforts were made - in the name of public security - to limit the way women cover-up in public more than ever. The first phase of the Social Security Plan started at the beginning of the month of Ordibehesht, according to General Raddan, the head of the police forces of Greater Tehran, and was designed to confront women who were inappropriately dressed. At his first press conference, in 1386, General Raddan announced that bad dress consisted constituted wearing short trousers, short scarves and shawls and other short, tight or revealing clothing. According to him, bad dress disturbs society psychologically. But instances of bad dress were not limited to these items. Other long fabrics with slits on the side or back were a “New style for some women” which would be challenged. In the execution of this plan many women were arrested by police forces and taken to detention centers until their families brought them longer, "more appropriate" dress. There were numerous cases of women getting in trouble for the way they were dressed and even being by the police forces, prompting Hashemi Shahroodi to announce: “Bringing women and young adults to police stations only produces social harm”. This plea was ignored and the public prosecutor of the Revolutionary Court of Tehran, announced: "Many of the women have come to Tehran from the provinces and if they don’t obey the law here they will be dealt with by the courts in their own home towns.

However, the oppression of women wasn’t limited to their cover. In the autumn days of that year there were whispers of a plan for "improving" gender quotas against female students. By implementing this plan, there would be 40 percent quotas for men without any competition for places, to prevent female students. Protest and gatherings took place against this decision, which made the head of the organization responsible to confirm gender acceptance in universities for entrance exams in 87, and a minimum acceptance of 30 percent male and female for the following year.

… announcement of the details of a bill named the “Family Support Bill” launched a new phase in the public confrontation of the government against women. According to article 23 of this bill, which was reviewed by the Guardian Council on 4 Shahrivar, remarrying of men would be dependent on his wealth, the permission of the court and the first wife’s consent. This bill which was a bigger step to oppress women rights further, was added and submitted to the judiciary and parliament by the government illegally. Continued protest against this bill caused the 7th parliament to ignore the bill in the final months of its review. Their excuse for not reviewing this bill was the existence of other more urgent bills.

In the past year of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, the Social Security plan and the severity of restricting women's clothing, took a broader dimension. According to this plan, the Interior Ministry and chastity legislation are responsible for controlling bad dress and other crimes, and 88 people were arrested for committing these types of crimes. Harsh confrontations and the beating of a few women by police forces, raised public sensitivity to society and media objection, forced the president to send a letter to Sadegh Mahsooli, the Country Minister demanding the respect of citizens' rights in the last few months of his presidency. However, General Radaan, who was the patron of this plan, in many statements after the president’s letter announced: "The performance of police forces in this field is acceptable and other cultural units are responsible for lack of work and neglect". These continued statements prompted a rumour that government and police forces were in disagreement on this plan. As a result Ahmadi Moghadam, Head of police forces had to react and in a short interview with said: "Government and Naja (police forces) have no disagreement". Some political analysts believe that the government's retreat from implementing this plan was just an election tactic, otherwise they would’ve taken action during the past two years. Despite continued objections even by the Head of Judiciary, Ahmadinejad has never considered the freedom of women’s cover and their presence in society and public places, such that the very same women whom he doesn’t consider equal to men, but as a ornamental objects, to be put down even more because of their gender and end up at police forces detention centers.

Despite all the hard work during the presidency of Ahmadinejad to marginalize women from the public and social spaces around them, the wave of freedom supporters against female discrimination in social and legal rights was so extensive that for the first time in the last 30 years all three presidential candidates, in detailed statements talked of eliminating such discriminations. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the only candidate who did not make any promises to women and did not present any statement or plan in this regard.
You can read her entire blog post here.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

President Obama and the Nobel Peace Prize

There is no question that the choice by the Norwegian Nobel Committee of President Obama as winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize came as an almost universal surprise. The bewilderment came as to how the third standing U.S. President (Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were the first two) could receive the award so early in his term. That said, many Americans are proud their President was chosen. Others, particularly those who cheered the American loss of the 2016 Olympics, were outraged. It seems that people who would have difficulty naming the last ten Nobel Laureates have become overnight experts on the criteria for winning the award and how the Norwegians clearly made a mistake.

The award indicates recognition and appreciation for a new approach towards international relations by the world’s dominant player – a movement away from unilateralism and self-serving jingoism masquerading as “American Exceptionalism” of the past several years towards engagement with the world community working to solve common problems. It is a win-win move that will benefit the world community and, contrary to right-wing critics, the American people. According to the statement from the Nobel Committee:
Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play. Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts. The vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations. Thanks to Obama's initiative, the USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting. Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened.
Steve Clemons explains the significance of the award:
…the Nobel Committee's decision to make Obama the only sitting U.S. president since Woodrow Wilson to receive the Nobel Peace Prize shows the committee's clear-headed assessment that Obama's "unclenched fist" approach to dealing with the world's most thuggish leaders has had a constructive, systemic impact on the world's expectations of itself.

Obama has helped citizens all around the world -- including in the United States -- to want a world beyond the mess we have today in the Middle East and South Asia. They want a world where America is benign and positive, and where other leaders help in supporting the struggles of their people for better lives rather than securing themselves through crude power.

Obama has found a way in this interconnected world of cell phones, Twitter, Facebook and other social networking to reach a majority of the world's citizens with his message of hope for a better world. He speaks past the dictators to regular people and has, on the whole, raised global political expectations about everything from climate change to nuclear nonproliferation in ways that no one in history has done before.

Americans tend to look at everything from a U.S.-centric lens, and many woke up this morning shocked that Obama, who just saw a lot of his political capital wasted on trying to secure the 2016 Olympics for his hometown of Chicago, has gotten a fresh injection of sizzle to fill the Obama bubble.

The world has been mesmerized by Obama since he started to run for the presidency. The battle between Hillary Clinton and Obama for the Democratic nomination did more to educate the rest of the world about real political choice -- and about a system in which no candidates had an automatic lock on victory -- than any USAID program could have achieved.

Obama's decision to make the ulcerous Israeli-Palestinian negotiations one of the first foreign policy challenges of his administration, rather than the last, defied most seasoned analysts' expectations. His message to Iran's citizens, marking the Persian new year holiday of Nowruz, and his powerful and captivating speech in Cairo, Egypt, communicated to Muslims all around the world that their lives and their faith and their expectations for a better world were vital and as valid as any others.

From his perch in the White House, Barack Obama affirmed the humanity of Muslims and told them that America does value Muslim lives.

Obama's posture and rhetoric have reversed the collapse of hope and trust that the world's citizens had in America and stopped the degradation of America's image during the tenure of George W. Bush and Richard Cheney.

Should a U.S. president get the Nobel Peace Prize if he's about to send more U.S. troops, armed drones, bombs, tanks and other military hardware into the war-ripped zones in Afghanistan?
Or should Obama get the prize if he hasn't even succeeded in getting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations going? Or if he hasn't gotten Iran to drop its nuclear ambitions and to re-enter the international system on constructive terms?

The answer is yes.

I think that given how the odds were already so stacked against Obama on the global economic and security fronts, one can only be amazed at what this unlikely and fascinating president has done with "optics."

The night before Obama's inauguration, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel accepted my congratulations and responded, "It's going to be tough, and right now we can only change the optics," meaning that political perceptions and appearances could be changed more quickly than hard realities.

What is brilliant about Obama and why he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize is that he is a global leader who clearly saw the gains that could be made in changing "the optics" of the global order, upgrading the level of respect between the United States and other nations, making a point of listening to other leaders.

Obama saw that before the world could move to a more stable and better global equilibrium, it had to believe it could -- and this is what Obama has done in ways that no other leader has in memory.

Obama will still make mistakes. Leaders will still wrestle with him. Hard choices and the gravity of war will still generate challenges for Obama's leadership.

But the Nobel Prize Committee has shrewdly given a key down payment for a kind of leadership it wants to see from the U.S. for many more years and given Obama another tool to help craft a new global social contract between the United States and other responsible stakeholders in the international system.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

A legitimate Afghan partner means a legitimate Afghan election

A significant factor in the decision about what strategy to pursue in Afghanistan is whether or not there is a competent and legitimate government in place. As the US learned in Vietnam, siding with a corrupt government does not advance the cause. Hamid Karzai came to power several following the toppling of the Taliban government to much fanfare. However, his administration has been plagued with corruption and he was reelected as President of Afghanistan in a process that was plagued by ballot stuffing and other means of electoral fraud.

Peter W. Gralbraith was dismissed as the United Nations Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan in September by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. He had held the position since March and had serious disagreements with the UN’s Special Representative, Kai Eide, over the fraud in the 2009 Afghan presidential election.

He wrote in Sunday’s Washington Post:
Afghanistan's presidential election, held Aug. 20, should have been a milestone in the country's transition from 30 years of war to stability and democracy. Instead, it was just the opposite. As many as 30 percent of Karzai's votes were fraudulent, and lesser fraud was committed on behalf of other candidates. In several provinces, including Kandahar, four to 10 times as many votes were recorded as voters actually cast. The fraud has handed the Taliban its greatest strategic victory in eight years of fighting the United States and its Afghan partners.

The election was a foreseeable train wreck. Unlike the United Nations-run elections in 2004, this balloting was managed by Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC). Despite its name, the commission is subservient to Karzai, who appointed its seven members. Even so, the international role was extensive. The United States and other Western nations paid the more than $300 million to hold the vote, and U.N. technical staff took the lead in organizing much of the process, including printing ballot papers, distributing election materials and designing safeguards against fraud.

Part of my job was to supervise all this U.N. support. In July, I learned that at least 1,500 polling centers (out of 7,000) were to be located in places so insecure that no one from the IEC, the Afghan National Army or the Afghan National Police had ever visited them. Clearly, these polling centers would not open on Election Day. At a minimum, their existence on the books would create large-scale confusion, but I was more concerned about the risk of fraud.

Local commission staff members were hardly experienced election professionals; in many instances they were simply agents of the local power brokers, usually aligned with Karzai. If no independent observers or candidate representatives, let alone voters, could even visit the listed location of a polling center, these IEC staffers could easily stuff ballot boxes without ever taking them to the assigned location. Or they could simply report results without any votes being in the ballot boxes.

Along with ambassadors from the United States and key allies, I met with the Afghan ministers of defense and the interior as well as the commission's chief election officer. We urged them either to produce a credible plan to secure these polling centers (which the head of the Afghan army had told me was impossible) or to close them down. Not surprisingly, the ministers -- who served a president benefiting from the fraud -- complained that I had even raised the matter. Eide ordered me not to discuss the ghost polling centers any further. On Election Day, these sites produced hundreds of thousands of phony Karzai votes.

At other critical stages in the election process, I was similarly ordered not to pursue the issue of fraud. The U.N. mission set up a 24-hour election center during the voting and in the early stages of the counting. My staff collected evidence on hundreds of cases of fraud around the country and, more important, gathered information on turnout in key southern provinces where few voters showed up but large numbers of votes were being reported. Eide ordered us not to share this data with anyone, including the Electoral Complaints Commission, a U.N.-backed Afghan institution legally mandated to investigate fraud. Naturally, my colleagues wondered why they had taken the risks to collect this evidence if it was not to be used.

In early September, I got word that the IEC was about to abandon its published anti-fraud policies, allowing it to include enough fraudulent votes in the final tally to put Karzai over the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff. After I called the chief electoral officer to urge him to stick with the original guidelines, Karzai issued a formal protest accusing me of foreign interference. My boss sided with Karzai.

Afghanistan is deeply divided ethnically and geographically. Both Karzai and the Taliban are Pashtun, Afghanistan's dominant ethnic group, which makes up about 45 percent of the country's population. Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's main challenger, is half Pashtun and half Tajik but is politically identified with the Tajiks, who dominate the north and are Afghanistan's second largest ethnic group. If the Tajiks believe that fraud denied their candidate the chance to compete in a second round, they may respond by simply not recognizing the authority of the central government. The north already has de facto autonomy; these elections could add an ethnic fault line to a conflict between the Taliban and the government that to date has largely been a civil war among Pashtuns.

Since my disagreements with Eide went public, Eide and his supporters have argued that the United Nations had no mandate to interfere in the Afghan electoral process. This is not technically correct. The U.N. Security Council directed the U.N. mission to support Afghanistan's electoral institutions in holding a "free, fair and transparent" vote, not a fraudulent one. And with so much at stake -- and with more than 100,000 U.S. and coalition troops deployed in the country -- the international community had an obvious interest in ensuring that Afghanistan's election did not make the situation worse.

President Obama needs a legitimate Afghan partner to make any new strategy for the country work. However, the extensive fraud that took place on Aug. 20 virtually guarantees that a government emerging from the tainted vote will not be credible with many Afghans.

As I write, Afghanistan's Electoral Complaints Commission is auditing 10 percent of the suspect polling boxes. If the audit shows this sample to be fraudulent, the commission will throw out some 3,000 suspect ballot boxes, which could lead to a runoff vote between Karzai and Abdullah. By itself, a runoff is no antidote for Afghanistan's electoral challenges. The widespread problems that allowed for fraud in the first round of voting must be addressed. In particular, all ghost polling stations should be removed from the books ("closed" is not the right word since they never opened), and the election staff that facilitated the fraud must be replaced.

Afghanistan's pro-Karzai election commission will not do this on its own. Fixing those problems will require resolve from the head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan -- a quality that so far has been lacking.
You can read the entire article here.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Rewriting the Bible so even conservatives can believe in it

The Conservative Bible Project, brought to us by those fine folks at Conservapedia, is worried that the Bible is too liberal and new conservative version needs to available to set things right. One of the biggest problems they see is “translation bias in converting the original language to the modern one.” They see the solution here by simply retranslating the King James Version into modern English. (Maybe they don’t know the King James Version is itself a translation.) The new Bible would need to meet certain guidelines to be correct:
As of 2009, there is no fully conservative translation of the Bible which satisfies the following ten guidelines:

1. Framework against Liberal Bias: providing a strong framework that enables a thought-for-thought translation without corruption by liberal bias

2. Not Emasculated: avoiding unisex, "gender inclusive" language, and other modern emasculation of Christianity

3. Not Dumbed Down: not dumbing down the reading level, or diluting the intellectual force and logic of Christianity; the NIV is written at only the 7th grade level[3]

4. Utilize Powerful Conservative Terms: using powerful new conservative terms as they develop;[4] defective translations use the word "comrade" three times as often as "volunteer"; similarly, updating words which have a change in meaning, such as "word", "peace", and "miracle".

5. Combat Harmful Addiction: combating addiction by using modern terms for it, such as "gamble" rather than "cast lots";[5] using modern political terms, such as "register" rather than "enroll" for the census

6. Accept the Logic of Hell: applying logic with its full force and effect, as in not denying or downplaying the very real existence of Hell or the Devil.
7. Express Free Market Parables; explaining the numerous economic parables with their full free-market meaning

8. Exclude Later-Inserted Liberal Passages: excluding the later-inserted liberal passages that are not authentic, such as the adulteress story

9. Credit Open-Mindedness of Disciples: crediting open-mindedness, often found in youngsters like the eyewitnesses Mark and John, the authors of two of the Gospels

10. Prefer Conciseness over Liberal Wordiness: preferring conciseness to the liberal style of high word-to-substance ratio; avoid compound negatives and unnecessary ambiguities; prefer concise, consistent use of the word "Lord" rather than "Jehovah" or "Yahweh" or "Lord God."
They want to “identify pro-liberal terms used in existing Bible translations, such as ‘government‘ and suggest more accurate substitutes” as well as correct socialist terminology used in current English translations of the Bible such as the word “labored” (15 times) and “fellow” (55 times!).

Rod Dreher at Beliefnet sizes it up:
…the insane hubris of this really staggers the mind. These right-wing ideologues know better than the early church councils that canonized Scripture? They really think it's wise to force the word of God to conform to a 21st-century American idea of what constitutes conservatism? These jokers don't worship God. They worship ideology.

Friday, October 02, 2009

American imposed regime change in Iran – a particularly ridiculous and odious notion

Joe Klein offers a little push-back to those advocating American imposed regime change in Iran:
This is a particularly ridiculous and odious notion--not that the Iranian regime isn't disgraceful and badly in need of a thorough, internal cleansing. It is ridiculous because the vast majority of Iranian dissidents have no intention of overturning the Islamic Republic, but want to reform it. They are joined now by a significant slice of the theocracy, which is appalled by recent events and have no desire to live in a military dictatorship quietly dominated by the Revolutionary Guards. They have made it clear that they are opposed to foreign economic sanctions, to foreign interference of any sort. Mir Hossein Mousavi came out against sanctions a few days ago, on the ground that they would hurt ordinary people more than they would hurt the regime.

What makes the call for regime change particularly tone-deaf and odious is history. Iranians--all Iranians--are extremely aware of past US meddling in their country's internal affairs. There was the CIA involvement in the 1953 coup against Mossedegh. There was also the not-so-covert US support for Saddam Hussein, including the provision of chemical precursors for the poison gas Saddam used in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. The Iranian opposition knows that any association with the Great Satan will fatally taint their movement; they know that Barack Obama's low-key strategy has made life particularly tough on those, like Ahmadinejad, who feast on American bellicosity and overreach.

Finally, there is the question of standing. The idea that the U.S. has any right to push regime change anywhere, much less in a country that has taken no direct bellicose action against us, seems a neo-colonialist vestige. Two of the three similar situations that Kagan cites--the Philippines and Nicaragua--are banana republic examples from a different era; the third, Poland, was not achieved by U.S. actions, but by a global movement (of which we were a part) led by the Catholic Church. It should be understood: we are no longer in the coup business, Thank God. The era of self-delusional US imperialism, camouflaged by high-minded freedom slogans, should be safely put in the past as well. We should, of course, promote democracy wherever we can. The era of us imposing it must end.

Muddling through Afghanistan

Marc Lynch argues that the time is not right to be making key strategic decisions about Afghanistan and there is a lot to be said in favor of “muddling through” Afghanistan for the time being:
I've been hearing two things a lot about the President's choices on Afghanistan strategy: first, that it's time to either "go all in or get out", the second that he is "dithering" in the face of an urgent decision. Both seem to me profoundly unhelpful, driven more by political positioning than by serious analysis. Sending more troops may in fact be the right call -- I'm open-minded on that question -- but the attempts to bull-rush the process are problematic on their face.

"All in or get out" is a typical false choice offered by advocates of any position who support the "all in" option in question, since it's so much easier to argue the risks of "getting out" than it is to argue against intermediate options. And as for the rush, why make such a momentous choice precisely at a moment of total political chaos in Afghanistan and the near complete absence of a legitimate partner on which to build due to the rampant fraud which eviscerated the Afghan election?

This is particularly problematic because, as the President's advisers clearly understand, there is absolutely no reason to think that Gen. McChrystal's current request is really "all in". McChrystal’s review is admirably clear and quite honest that even with such changes, the policy may not succeed.

The overwhelming odds are that if the escalation option is chosen, in a year or two we will be confronting the exact same questions. More troops will once again be needed, a new strategy will once again be demanded, we’ll still be reading about how the Taliban is out-communicating us and about how the corruption of the Karzai government poses a serious challenge. And then the exact same debate will recur… the Kagans will demand more troops, dark mutterings about tensions between the administration and the generals will roil the waters, the Washington Post editorial page will publish debates where everyone is on the same side, the smart think-tankers will agonize over the tough choices but ultimately come down on the side of escalation. Might as well have this debate now, and get it right.

I'm skeptical about the ambitious goals on offer because the odds of it succeeding on those terms are exceedingly low. If the goal is the creation of a functioning, effective, legitimate Afghan state then I would say the prospects are close to zero. Not with 40,000 troops, not with 400,000 troops, not in twelve months and not in twelve years. Afghanistan has gone through nearly thirty years of non-stop war and is as close to a functional anarchy as most anyplace on Earth. I am unmoved by arguments that there was once a decent state fifty or a hundred years ago. Thirty years of continuous war and anarchy are not so easily overcome – with or without the Afghan election fiasco. If the goal is lower than that – local level security, keeping the Taliban on the ropes, etc – then maybe this can be done for a while. More troops would help do it in more places, but I doubt it would add up to the national level.

Which brings me to a serious question: what’s so terrible with muddling through for a while, giving the new tactics a chance to work at the local level while preventing the worst-case scenarios from happening? Why choose between escalation or withdrawal at exactly the time when the political picture is at its least clear? Why not maintain a lousy Afghan government which doesn’t quite fall, keep the Taliban on the ropes without defeating it, cut deals where we can, and try to figture out a strategy to deal with the Pakistan part which all the smart set agrees is the real issue these days? Why not focus on applying the improved COIN tactics with available resources right now instead of focusing on more troops? If the American core objective in Afghanistan is to prevent its re-emergence as an al-Qaeda safe haven, or to prevent the Taliban from taking Kabul, those seem to be manageable at lower troop levels.

Good for the President's team to take the time to have a serious debate about this and not give in to the politically expedient path (in either direction). The readouts on yesterday's big Afghan strategy meeting reflect exactly what you want to see from a President making a tough call. I would urge them to set aside both of these corrosive, misleading notions -- that the choice is between "all in" or "getting out", and that the time for decision ins now. Why is this not the right time to muddle through, avoiding the worst outcomes and changing strategy at the local level where possible, while waiting for the political situation in Afghanistan to clarify? Muddling through might not make for sexy headlines, but it’s probably good enough for what the U.S. needs to accomplish in Afghanistan for now and is closer to the resources actually available.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Iran – myths and reality

Today diplomats from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China begin talks with Iran. The hopes are that among other things the talks will eventually rein in Tehran's nuclear ambitions. The meeting may include the first high level bilateral meeting between the U.S. and Iran in years.

The relations between Iran and the U.S. have not been friendly for over half a century beginning with the CIA overthrow of the elected government of Iran in 1953 followed by U.S. support of the repressive regime of the Shah. The Shah was finally toppled in a revolution that included the taking of hostages of personnel from the American Embassy in Tehran. Diplomatic relations were severed and never rejoined after three decades.

Active diplomacy is important for a variety of reasons and whatever the immediate outcome of the meeting starting today it is important that talks are at least beginning.

However, given the bumpy relationship between the United States and Iran it is important to be clear on history and known facts and try to avoid statements and positions generated for domestic consumption that do nothing (or worse) advancing national interests. As someone said this past week (I can’t remember who at the moment) machismo is not foreign policy, grandstanding is not leadership. Nations must never underestimate dangers potential adversaries present but it is also folly to overestimate them.

Juan Cole, a critic of the current regime in Iran, thought it is important to sort out myths about Iran from the reality. He writes:
Belief: Iran is aggressive and has threatened to attack Israel, its neighbors or the US

Reality: Iran has not launched an aggressive war modern history (unlike the US or Israel), and its leaders have a doctrine of "no first strike." This is true of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, as well as of Revolutionary Guards commanders.

Belief: Iran is a militarized society bristling with dangerous weapons and a growing threat to world peace.

Reality: Iran's military budget is a little over $6 billion annually. Sweden, Singapore and Greece all have larger military budgets. Moreover, Iran is a country of 70 million, so that its per capita spending on defense is tiny compared to these others, since they are much smaller countries with regard to population. Iran spends less per capita on its military than any other country in the Persian Gulf region with the exception of the United Arab Emirates.

Belief: Iran has threatened to attack Israel militarily and to "wipe it off the map."

Reality: No Iranian leader in the executive has threatened an aggressive act of war on Israel, since this would contradict the doctrine of 'no first strike' to which the country has adhered. The Iranian president has explicitly said that Iran is not a threat to any country, including Israel.

Belief: But didn't President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threaten to 'wipe Israel off the map?'

Reality: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did quote Ayatollah Khomeini to the effect that "this Occupation regime over Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time" (in rezhim-e eshghalgar-i Qods bayad as safheh-e ruzgar mahv shavad). This was not a pledge to roll tanks and invade or to launch missiles, however. It is the expression of a hope that the regime will collapse, just as the Soviet Union did. It is not a threat to kill anyone at all.

Belief: But aren't Iranians Holocaust deniers?

Actuality: Some are, some aren't. Former president Mohammad Khatami has castigated Ahmadinejad for questioning the full extent of the Holocaust, which he called "the crime of Nazism." Many educated Iranians in the regime are perfectly aware of the horrors of the Holocaust. In any case, despite what propagandists imply, neither Holocaust denial (as wicked as that is) nor calling Israel names is the same thing as pledging to attack it militarily.

Belief: Iran is like North Korea in having an active nuclear weapons program, and is the same sort of threat to the world.

Actuality: Iran has a nuclear enrichment site at Natanz near Isfahan where it says it is trying to produce fuel for future civilian nuclear reactors to generate electricity. All Iranian leaders deny that this site is for weapons production, and the International Atomic Energy Agency has repeatedly inspected it and found no weapons program. Iran is not being completely transparent, generating some doubts, but all the evidence the IAEA and the CIA can gather points to there not being a weapons program. The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate by 16 US intelligence agencies, including the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, assessed with fair confidence that Iran has no nuclear weapons research program. This assessment was based on debriefings of defecting nuclear scientists, as well as on the documents they brought out, in addition to US signals intelligence from Iran. While Germany, Israel and recently the UK intelligence is more suspicious of Iranian intentions, all of them were badly wrong about Iraq's alleged Weapons of Mass Destruction and Germany in particular was taken in by Curveball, a drunk Iraqi braggart.

Belief: The West recently discovered a secret Iranian nuclear weapons plant in a mountain near Qom.

Actuality: Iran announced Monday a week ago to the International Atomic Energy Agency that it had begun work on a second, civilian nuclear enrichment facility near Qom. There are no nuclear materials at the site and it has not gone hot, so technically Iran is not in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, though it did break its word to the IAEA that it would immediately inform the UN of any work on a new facility. Iran has pledged to allow the site to be inspected regularly by the IAEA, and if it honors the pledge, as it largely has at the Natanz plant, then Iran cannot produce nuclear weapons at the site, since that would be detected by the inspectors. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted on Sunday that Iran could not produce nuclear weapons at Natanz precisely because it is being inspected. Yet American hawks have repeatedly demanded a strike on Natanz.

Belief: The world should sanction Iran not only because of its nuclear enrichment research program but also because the current regime stole June's presidential election and brutally repressed the subsequent demonstrations.

Actuality: Iran's reform movement is dead set against increased sanctions on Iran, which likely would not affect the regime, and would harm ordinary Iranians.

Belief: Isn't the Iranian regime irrational and crazed, so that a doctrine of mutally assured destruction just would not work with them?

Actuality: Iranian politicians are rational actors. If they were madmen, why haven't they invaded any of their neighbors? Saddam Hussein of Iraq invaded both Iran and Kuwait. Israel invaded its neighbors more than once. In contrast, Iran has not started any wars. Demonizing people by calling them unbalanced is an old propaganda trick. The US elite was once unalterably opposed to China having nuclear science because they believed the Chinese are intrinsically irrational. This kind of talk is a form of racism.

Belief: The international community would not have put sanctions on Iran, and would not be so worried, if it were not a gathering nuclear threat.

Actuality: The centrifuge technology that Iran is using to enrich uranium is open-ended. In the old days, you could tell which countries might want a nuclear bomb by whether they were building light water reactors (unsuitable for bomb-making) or heavy-water reactors (could be used to make a bomb). But with centrifuges, once you can enrich to 5% to fuel a civilian reactor, you could theoretically feed the material back through many times and enrich to 90% for a bomb. However, as long as centrifuge plants are being actively inspected, they cannot be used to make a bomb. The two danger signals would be if Iran threw out the inspectors or if it found a way to create a secret facility. The latter task would be extremely difficult, however, as demonstrated by the CIA's discovery of the Qom facility construction in 2006 from satellite photos. Nuclear installations, especially centrifuge ones, consume a great deal of water, construction materiel, and so forth, so that constructing one in secret is a tall order. In any case, you can't attack and destroy a country because you have an intuition that they might be doing something illegal. You need some kind of proof. Moreover, Israel, Pakistan and India are all much worse citizens of the globe than Iran, since they refused to sign the NPT and then went for broke to get a bomb; and nothing at all has been done to any of them by the UNSC.