Friday, December 18, 2009

Health care reform: The choice between imperfect legislation or no legislation

The entire process over the past several months of reforming the delivery of health care services in this country has been very frustrating to say the least. The American health care system is one of the least efficient in the delivery of services in the West and is one of the most expensive in the world. Despite this, in the current debate about health care, defenders of the status quo warn against any changes at all because of the superiority of the American system!

The legislation that has managed to work its way through Congress has repeatedly been watered down and compromised. The very undemocratic nature of our bicameral legislative system has come to light one more time as one body, the United States Senate -- unrepresentative of the population of the country and bogged down by arcane rules such as filibuster allowing minority rule, holds the final say whether this diluted reform will even pass or not. It is a process, not unlike the making of sausage, that is not particularly pretty to watch.

Many Americans are frustrated with the whole thing and believe reformers should just call the obstructionist’s bluff and hold out for better legislation in the future. The problem is reform rarely happens all at once. For example, there was never any single civil rights legislation that changed the laws and practices of this country in regards to race discrimination. There were a number of different major legislative acts and court decisions preceded by a number of lesser legislative acts and court decisions over three to four decades.

As bitter a pill this is to swallow perhaps the current legislation before the Senate now is still a step forward. Rather than focus on all the things the bill fails to do perhaps it is worth considering what it does accomplish. Paul Krugman explains in the New York Times:
…. let’s all take a deep breath, and consider just how much good this bill would do, if passed — and how much better it would be than anything that seemed possible just a few years ago. With all its flaws, the Senate health bill would be the biggest expansion of the social safety net since Medicare, greatly improving the lives of millions. Getting this bill would be much, much better than watching health care reform fail.

At its core, the bill would do two things. First, it would prohibit discrimination by insurance companies on the basis of medical condition or history: Americans could no longer be denied health insurance because of a pre-existing condition, or have their insurance canceled when they get sick. Second, the bill would provide substantial financial aid to those who don’t get insurance through their employers, as well as tax breaks for small employers that do provide insurance.

All of this would be paid for in large part with the first serious effort ever to rein in rising health care costs.

The result would be a huge increase in the availability and affordability of health insurance, with more than 30 million Americans gaining coverage, and premiums for lower-income and lower-middle-income Americans falling dramatically. That’s an immense change from where we were just a few years ago: remember, not long ago the Bush administration and its allies in Congress successfully blocked even a modest expansion of health care for children.

Bear in mind also the lessons of history: social insurance programs tend to start out highly imperfect and incomplete, but get better and more comprehensive as the years go by. Thus Social Security originally had huge gaps in coverage — and a majority of African-Americans, in particular, fell through those gaps. But it was improved over time, and it’s now the bedrock of retirement stability for the vast majority of Americans.

Look, I understand the anger here: supporting this weakened bill feels like giving in to blackmail — because it is. Or to use an even more accurate metaphor suggested by Ezra Klein of The Washington Post, we’re paying a ransom to hostage-takers. Some of us, including a majority of senators, really, really want to cover the uninsured; but to make that happen we need the votes of a handful of senators who see failure of reform as an acceptable outcome, and demand a steep price for their support.

The question, then, is whether to pay the ransom by giving in to the demands of those senators, accepting a flawed bill, or hang tough and let the hostage — that is, health reform — die.

Again, history suggests the answer. Whereas flawed social insurance programs have tended to get better over time, the story of health reform suggests that rejecting an imperfect deal in the hope of eventually getting something better is a recipe for getting nothing at all. Not to put too fine a point on it, America would be in much better shape today if Democrats had cut a deal on health care with Richard Nixon, or if Bill Clinton had cut a deal with moderate Republicans back when they still existed.

But won’t paying the ransom now encourage more hostage-taking in the future? Maybe. But the next big fight, over the future of the financial system, will be very different. If the usual suspects try to water down financial reform, I say call their bluff: there’s not much to lose, since a merely cosmetic reform, by creating a false sense of security, could well end up being worse than nothing.

Beyond that, we need to take on the way the Senate works. The filibuster, and the need for 60 votes to end debate, aren’t in the Constitution. They’re a Senate tradition, and that same tradition said that the threat of filibusters should be used sparingly. Well, Republicans have already trashed the second part of the tradition: look at a list of cloture motions over time, and you’ll see that since the G.O.P. lost control of Congress it has pursued obstructionism on a literally unprecedented scale. So it’s time to revise the rules.

But that’s for later. Right now, let’s pass the bill that’s on the table.
President Obama said at the Joint Session of Congress in September:
I am not the first President to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last. It has now been nearly a century since Theodore Roosevelt first called for health care reform. And ever since, nearly every President and Congress, whether Democrat or Republican, has attempted to meet this challenge in some way.
Unfortunately, the fight for reform will not be over even if this bill passes.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

More turbulence is likely in Iran’s streets

The upcoming observance of the Mourning of Muharram in Iran will likely see more protests by reformers upset by the election results last June in the nation’s presidential election as well as the country’s general downward spiral in its economy and relations with the outside world. The ruling government elite suffer credibility problems at home due to the contested national 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. Demonstrators and state security forces have clashed repeatedly since last summer.

The Mourning of Muharram is not only rich in symbolism but also marked the final push 31 years ago by the Iranian public to topple the government of the Shah. Gary Sick explains:
The next month in Iran is likely to be extremely hot.

The Shiite mourning month of Muharram begins on December 18. It involves massive street marches of citizens mourning the death of Imam Hossein, the quintessential martyr in the Shiite faith. He was killed on the tenth of Muharram (Ashura) in the year 680 on the plain of Karbala, in what is now Iraq. He and a small band of devoted followers were killed, according to Shiite tradition, while opposing the oppression and the wrongful rule of the Caliph Yazid.

This event is rich in symbolism and is extremely emotional. The life and martyrdom of Hossein is relived in sermons and passion plays that touch all Iranians from their earliest days. It is well known for the sometimes grisly marches of thousands of young men, some dressed in shrouds, who march through the streets rhythmically beating themselves with chains or other instruments, not unlike the “mortification of the flesh” sometimes practiced by Christian believers, with the same intent of purification and as a demonstration of utter devotion.

This year, Ashura, the culmination of the mourning ceremonies, will fall on December 27.

Muharram and the story of Imam Hossein’s martyrdom have obvious political resonance. Hossein’s battle was one of an underdog fighting for his rights, certain of the justice of his cause, and willing to give his life to oppose a much stronger but oppressive monarch who was considered to be abusing the true meaning of Islam. This powerful imagery was used to great effect 31 years ago, when millions of Iranians came to the streets in support of Khomeini and in opposition to the shah’s regime. That moment is widely regarded as the culmination of the Iranian revolution. The shah left the country a month later.

Although no one believes that Iran’s rulers will topple next month, those leaders who helped engineer the massive demonstrations on Ashura in December 1978 now find themselves in the ironic position of defending themselves against a popular movement that sees them very much as they saw the shah.

Iran’s Green Movement has been taking advantage of major holidays and national celebrations to go to the streets in protest. This will be another dramatic opportunity, with the symbolism of protest and even the traditional Islamic green that is part of the pageantry.

The regime is intensely aware of the dangers. In the past few days, Iranian national television has repeatedly shown video clips of Ayatollah Khomeini’s photos being torn and burned by unidentified hands. Was this really the televised work of opposition forces? Possibly. There is certainly no shortage of increasingly radicalized opponents of the government who would be capable of such an act.

But in the symbolic battle of the media, it scarcely matters whether it was genuine or fake. The regime is sending a clear message that it intends to treat any political opposition as a challenge to the very concept of the Islamic Republic, as represented by its founder, Ayatollah Khomeini. The lesson is that any crackdown on demonstrators is justified in the name of the sanctity of the revolutionary regime itself. The video also appeared to legitimize vigilante actions by identifying Green reformists as enemies of the people. The Tehran and Tabriz bazaars closed briefly on December 16 as a show of protest against the desecration. Warring demonstrations between pro-regime and reformist forces are becoming a real possibility.

In the meantime, the war within the regime continues. Pro-regime clerics attacked Ayatollah Rafsanjani, one of the pillars of the Islamic Republic who has moved closer to the reformists. The deputy of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, who was a member of the Iranian negotiating team for the past five years, resigned without explanation. The most senior religious figure in Iran, Ayatollah Montazeri, who was a close associate of Khomeini and was once regarded as his successor, has denounced the current government as un-Islamic and has dismissed it as just another military dictatorship. The crisis of confidence is the deepest since the earliest days of the revolution.

The regime is determined to put on a confident face. In the short run, they hold all the levers of power, and they are willing to use all the force at their command in order to preserve their control.

The opposition, by contrast, has no real leader. Mir Hossein Mousavi is a symbol, but he has been thrust into his central position almost against his will and is not controlling events. Instead, the opposition has gone viral. Like the Internet that is its nervous system, it exists in small nodes and decisions emerge almost spontaneously.

A close friend of mine in Tehran says that the opposition is like “fire under the ashes.” It smolders and pops up at the least opportunity, with the slightest puff of oxygen. If there were a free demonstration, he adds, where people could come without fear, there would be three million people in the streets of Tehran tomorrow demonstrating against the regime.

The Revolutionary Guard and the basij are determined to make sure that Muharram and Ashura will not provide that opportunity. And they will probably succeed.

But the long-range forecast calls for more hot weather.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The modern GOP failing to face up to the reality of what happened to the U.S. economy

The “Party of No” (a.k.a. the modern Republican Party) showed its colors one more time on Friday voting en masse in the House of Representatives against reform aimed at Wall Street.

The problem for conservatives now ruling the GOP is that the economic events of the past year don’t fit the narrative of rigid laissez faire doctrine. So rather than fine tune the ideology to the reality they cling to the ideology and ignore the reality regardless of the consequences for the American people.

Paul Krugman explains in the New York Times:
When I first began writing for The Times, I was naïve about many things. But my biggest misconception was this: I actually believed that influential people could be moved by evidence, that they would change their views if events completely refuted their beliefs.

And to be fair, it does happen now and then. I’ve been highly critical of Alan Greenspan over the years (since long before it was fashionable), but give the former Fed chairman credit: he has admitted that he was wrong about the ability of financial markets to police themselves.

But he’s a rare case. Just how rare was demonstrated by what happened last Friday in the House of Representatives, when — with the meltdown caused by a runaway financial system still fresh in our minds, and the mass unemployment that meltdown caused still very much in evidence — every single Republican and 27 Democrats voted against a quite modest effort to rein in Wall Street excesses.

Let’s recall how we got into our current mess.

America emerged from the Great Depression with a tightly regulated banking system. The regulations worked: the nation was spared major financial crises for almost four decades after World War II. But as the memory of the Depression faded, bankers began to chafe at the restrictions they faced. And politicians, increasingly under the influence of free-market ideology, showed a growing willingness to give bankers what they wanted.

The first big wave of deregulation took place under Ronald Reagan — and quickly led to disaster, in the form of the savings-and-loan crisis of the 1980s. Taxpayers ended up paying more than 2 percent of G.D.P., the equivalent of around $300 billion today, to clean up the mess.

But the proponents of deregulation were undaunted, and in the decade leading up to the current crisis politicians in both parties bought into the notion that New Deal-era restrictions on bankers were nothing but pointless red tape. In a memorable 2003 incident, top bank regulators staged a photo-op in which they used garden shears and a chainsaw to cut up stacks of paper representing regulations.

And the bankers — liberated both by legislation that removed traditional restrictions and by the hands-off attitude of regulators who didn’t believe in regulation — responded by dramatically loosening lending standards. The result was a credit boom and a monstrous real estate bubble, followed by the worst economic slump since the Great Depression. Ironically, the effort to contain the crisis required government intervention on a much larger scale than would have been needed to prevent the crisis in the first place: government rescues of troubled institutions, large-scale lending by the Federal Reserve to the private sector, and so on.

Given this history, you might have expected the emergence of a national consensus in favor of restoring more-effective financial regulation, so as to avoid a repeat performance. But you would have been wrong.

Talk to conservatives about the financial crisis and you enter an alternative, bizarro universe in which government bureaucrats, not greedy bankers, caused the meltdown. It’s a universe in which government-sponsored lending agencies triggered the crisis, even though private lenders actually made the vast majority of subprime loans. It’s a universe in which regulators coerced bankers into making loans to unqualified borrowers, even though only one of the top 25 subprime lenders was subject to the regulations in question.

Oh, and conservatives simply ignore the catastrophe in commercial real estate: in their universe the only bad loans were those made to poor people and members of minority groups, because bad loans to developers of shopping malls and office towers don’t fit the narrative.

In part, the prevalence of this narrative reflects the principle enunciated by Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” As Democrats have pointed out, three days before the House vote on banking reform Republican leaders met with more than 100 financial-industry lobbyists to coordinate strategies. But it also reflects the extent to which the modern Republican Party is committed to a bankrupt ideology, one that won’t let it face up to the reality of what happened to the U.S. economy.

So it’s up to the Democrats — and more specifically, since the House has passed its bill, it’s up to “centrist” Democrats in the Senate. Are they willing to learn something from the disaster that has overtaken the U.S. economy, and get behind financial reform?

Let’s hope so. For one thing is clear: if politicians refuse to learn from the history of the recent financial crisis, they will condemn all of us to repeat it.

Friday, December 11, 2009

President Obama’s Nobel acceptance speech: A vision of moral realism for the conduct of war and peace

President Obama accepted the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize yesterday in ceremonies in Oslo. The award comes a week after the President’s announcement of a more focused strategy and build up of reinforcements in the war in Afghanistan. The irony of accepting an award for peace during an escalation of war was not lost on Mr. Obama nor was the criticism from some that the honor was somehow “premature.” The President rose to the occasion and gave, to paraphrase Fred Kaplan, a clear and complex statement outlining the “vision of moral realism for the conduct of war and peace” reminiscent of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Fred Kaplan explains:
When President Barack Obama sat down with his speechwriters to outline his Nobel lecture, he must have known that his core task would be to reconcile what many of his hosts in Oslo probably regard as irreconcilable—accepting the peace prize while seriously escalating a war in Afghanistan.

There was an easy, or at least obvious, way out of this. He could have cited the time-honored principles of a "just war"—self-defense, proportional use of force, and so forth—and then moved on to the standard bromides about our nobler natures, the oneness of mankind, etc., etc.

But Obama took a harder, subtler path, using the occasion to outline nothing less than a vision of moral realism for the conduct of war and peace in the modern era—as clear and complex a statement on the subject as any American president has delivered in nearly a half-century.

Critics may dismiss the speech as a hodgepodge—a steely invocation of Realpolitik here, a rousing chorus of democracy promotion there—but they would be mistaken.

Yes, Obama's speech is filled with ambiguities, dilemmas, and contradictions. More to the point, it explicitly grapples with them. If there is a single theme to the speech, it's that a philosopher-statesman of our time (which is what Obama is trying to be) must recognize and grapple with both universal principles and contingent realities, with our ambitions and our limits, with—as Martin Luther King Jr. put it in his Nobel lecture (and which Obama quoted today)—the "is-ness of man's present nature" and the "ought-ness that forever confronts him."

Read in its entirety, Obama's speech seems a faithful reflection of another theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, who, during World War II and the Cold War that followed, sought to reconcile the principles of Christianity with the imperatives of national defense. In his influential 1952 book The Irony of American History, he wrote that American idealism must come to terms "with the limits of all human striving, the fragmentariness of all human wisdom, the precariousness of all historical configurations of power, and the mixture of good and evil in all human virtue."

Obama's speech doesn't mention Niebuhr, but back in April 2007, early on in the presidential campaign, David Brooks asked Obama whether he'd ever read Niebuhr. The candidate replied, "I love him, he's one of my favorite philosophers." Asked what he took away from Niebuhr, Obama answered, "I take away the compelling idea that there's serious evil in the world"; that "we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate these things, but we shouldn't use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction"; that "we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naive idealism to bitter realism."

Brooks observed in his New York Times column, "[F]or a guy who's spent the last few months fund-raising, and who was walking off the Senate floor as he spoke, that's a pretty good off-the-cuff summary of Niebuhr's The Irony of American History."

The Nobel lecture that Obama delivered today is a fuller elaboration of the same ideas.

"As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work," Obama said, "I am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence. … But, as a head of state, sworn to protect and defend my nation … I face the world as it is and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. … To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism. It is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man, and the limits of reason."

He made no apologies for this fact. To the clear discomfort of some in his audience, he pointed out that the global security of the post-World War II era was achieved not just by "treaties and declarations" but by the United States of America—"the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms." He added, "So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace." (Has anyone ever spoken like this while accepting a Nobel Peace Prize?)

But then he broadened and deepened the picture. "The soldier's courage and sacrifice," he said, "is full of glory … but war itself is never glorious." The challenge, he went on, "is reconciling these two seemingly irreconcilable truths—that war is sometimes necessary, and war is at some level an expression of human folly."

The answer, he said, quoting President John F. Kennedy, is to "focus on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution of human institutions."

Most important, he said, all nations must "adhere to standards that govern the use of force." This is for practical as well as moral reasons. First, "America cannot insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves." Second, the failure to follow these stands can make our action "appear arbitrary" and "undercut the legitimacy of future interventions, no matter how justified."

He declared, "I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds." But, he added, as if to draw a distinction from George W. Bush's crusader rhetoric, "In a world in which threats are more diffuse and missions more complex, America cannot act alone." In fact, "all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace. … Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice."

War, he allowed, must be avoided whenever possible. But in some cases, he said, "alternatives to violence" must be "tough enough to change behavior, for if we want a lasting peace, then the words of the international community must mean something." Those who break rules "must be held accountable." Sanctions "must exact a real price," and these pressures work "only when the world stands together as one." (Global unity not just to sing "Kumbaya" but to exert economic leverage on Iran and North Korea! Again, extraordinary words before this audience.)

The final section of his speech was the most complex and discomfiting. He said the world must also stand united against "those who violate international law by brutalizing their own people," because a truly just, stable, and lasting peace must be "based upon the inherent rights and dignity of every individual."

However, he then said, "The promotion of human rights cannot be about exhortation alone. … I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation," but "sanctions without outreach—and condemnation without discussion—can carry forward a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door."

To some, he said, Richard Nixon's summit with Mao Zedong, with the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution's horrors, "appeared inexcusable"—yet it "helped set China on a path" of lifting millions out of poverty and connecting with open societies. Pope John Paul II's engagement with Poland "created space" not just for the Church but also for Solidarity. Ronald Reagan's embrace of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika "not only improved relations with the Soviet Union but empowered dissidents throughout Eastern Europe."

The key, he said, is to "balance isolation and engagement, pressure and incentives, so that human rights and dignity are advanced over time."

This recitation raises many more questions than it answers. How does the United States, the United Nations, the West, or anyone pull off this balancing act? When is the right time for sanctions, the right time for summitry? (Nixon went to China entirely for power-balancing reasons; enriching or opening up the Middle Kingdom must have been the last thing on his mind.) And what is Obama hinting at for his own policy toward, say, Iran or North Korea: Does the speech presage the ratcheting of sanctions, the opening to a grand bargain, or—in some still trickier balancing act—both? And what happens if, unlike Moscow under Gorbachev or Poland in the time of Lech Walesa, today's evil regimes are uninterested in openness and impervious to pressure?

"There is no simple formula here," Obama summarized. And that's the point. His speech, like Niebuhr's writing, reflects an active awareness of humanity's ideals but also its imperfections—of our reach and our limits.

It's unclear how Obama, as president, will deal with the tensions and contradictions. But it's good to know that he knows they exist.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Has your cell phone funded the war in the DR Congo?

Congo has a history of over a century of misery. From King Leopold and the Belgian rubber plantations to the current chaos in central Africa, the Congolese people have been victims of those with power who simply take what they want and do as they please. The current and seemingly never ending fighting has included armies from a number of different countries and private militias roving the country raping, looting, enslaving, conscripting children and killing with no one to stop them. The central government is so corrupt and weak it cannot protect its citizens. United Nations peacekeeping forces have failed to protect civilians. The ongoing war is the deadliest since WWII.

It is an impoverished country wealthy with many natural resources (much of it mined by slave labor) such as coltan, diamonds, gold and cassiterite that are exported to the world market and the revenue is used to fuel the ongoing war. For example, Coltan is a metal that conducts heat unusually brilliantly. It is component in our cell phones, lap-tops, and our children’s Playstations. Eighty percent of the world’s supplies can be found in the Democratic Republic of Congo and is mined by men, women and children – many of them digging with nothing more than their hands and many of them slaves.

Sasha Lezhnex, the executive director of Grassroots Reconciliation Group, and John Prendergast, co-founder of Enough, offer this perspective:
Last year, the bus in which a young Congolese woman we met named Mary was riding was stopped by a militia. "They wanted to all have me, to rape me," she related haltingly to us. "I told them no, and then they took off my shirt and beat me. I have terrible marks now."

Mary's story is similar to hundreds of thousands of women's experiences in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where rape is routinely "deployed" as a weapon of war by the armed groups fighting over a nation that has some of the richest nonpetroleum natural resource deposits in the world.

Congo holds the numbing distinction of being home to the deadliest war in the world since World War II -- with more than 5.4 million people killed during the past 15 years.

"This war is caused by the minerals," Mary told us. "Those [armed groups] control the minerals. I hear that they are used in mobile phones. ... If you talk to Obama or the phone companies, tell them what happens here."

Armed groups in eastern Congo that control minerals, mines and trading routes generate an estimated $180 million each year by trading four main minerals: tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold.

This money enables the armed groups to purchase large numbers of weapons and continue their campaign of brutal violence against civilians. Conflict minerals are key components in the manufacture of cell phones, laptops, digital cameras, video games and portable music players.

Because of increasing awareness of the links between electronics products and the worst sexual violence in the world, change is afoot.

During U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to eastern Congo in August, she said: "With respect to companies that are responsible for what are now being called conflict minerals, I think the international community must start looking at steps we can take to try to prevent the mineral wealth from the DRC ending up in the hands of those who fund the violence here."

The U.S. Congress has also initiated a strong bipartisan effort to curb the conflict minerals trade. Senate and House bills on this issue represent a significant step toward having conflict-free cell phones and laptops by setting up a system of audits and minerals-tracing mechanisms.

This would reveal which phones and laptops contain conflict minerals and which ones do not.

Introduced by Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) and Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) on the Senate side, and Reps. Jim McDermott (D-Washington), Frank Wolf (R-Virginia), Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts) and Donald Payne (D-New Jersey) on the House side, the bills already have the support of powerful committee chairmen but still must be moved through committee.

With the Obama administration and Congress taking a strong interest in this issue, and activist campaigning building some momentum, companies have begun to react.

The tin industry has gone the furthest by introducing an initiative to increase due diligence and trace minerals on the ground in Congo. Electronics companies also have a project under way to map out supply chains. And Intel, HP, Dell, and Motorola are hosting a meeting with activists on conflict minerals in San Francisco, California, this month. But it is not enough.

Campus activists -- from New York; to Knoxville, Tennessee; to Nevada -- are taking up this issue with increased vigor, along with major faith-based groups, from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to Jewish World Watch.
Are the government and company actions taken to date enough to stop the conflict minerals trade from continuing? The answer is no.

Electronics companies must invest in a system to certify that the minerals used in their products are verifiably conflict-free. They must work with their suppliers to trace the minerals back to their mines of origin and have independent audits conducted of these supply chains so that we know with verified proof that none has passed through the hands of armed groups.

The Obama administration should help companies develop a certification process for conflict minerals, built on the lessons of the Kimberley Process for blood diamonds.

The administration can also help devise a public-private partnership to work with companies, the Congolese government and other key donor countries to help miners in eastern Congo and improve mining inspection and tracing on the ground.

Companies and the government can take steps today. For a start, electronics companies should have audits conducted of their supply chains for the minerals. And Congress should pass the conflict minerals legislation, to get tracing started.

If you have a cell phone, you can also have an impact.

Ask your senator and representative to sign the Congo Conflict Minerals Act (S. 891) and Conflict Minerals Trade Act (H.R. 4128), and find a creative way to reach your cell phone manufacturer to tell it you want a conflict-free cell phone.

The minerals supply chain involves multiple companies, and the war in Congo will not be resolved overnight.

But if companies and consumers take a stand and say "Give us conflict-free products," we can stop this deadly trade and put real pressure on the armed groups that rape women on a mass scale in eastern Congo. Let Mary's request not be forgotten.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

What and what not to expect from the Copenhagen Climate Conference

The UN Climate Change Conference is underway in Copenhagen, Denmark. The conference is scheduled to run from December 7th through December 18th and includes the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP 15) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the 5th Meeting of the Parties (COP/MOP 5) to the Kyoto Protocol. The conference was preceded by the Climate Change: Global Risks, Challenges and Decisions scientific conference, which took place in March 2009 and was also held in Copenhagen.

There is much disagreement between industrialized nations and developing nations about how to proceed with emissions controls and how rich countries should compensate poor ones in regions expected to bare the brunt of deteriorating environmental conditions as greenhouse gases build in the atmosphere and the sea level continues to rise. Despite the disagreements the delegates are under pressure to come up with some sort of realistic climate agreement.

Here is a rundown from TPM of what to expect and what not to expect:
• First off, don't expect a legally binding agreement along the lines of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. That was once the goal, but, despite the urgency of the issue, expectations have now been reduced. The plan is now simply to achieve a more general political commitment between nations. The details would be worked out at a followup confab next year, where a binding deal would be announced. As White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs put it in this morning's gaggle: "The international hope is that we get an agreement on how to move forward on something that's more binding." In other words, this is a conference to set up another conference.

• Another key point: That hoped-for political deal is being negotiated on two tracks -- one for those countries that ratified Kyoto and one for those that didn't. The former group -- let's call them the honors track -- will try for a new commitment period to reach the goals set out at Kyoto, under which industrial countries that pledged to reduce their emissions, collectively, to 5.5 percent below 1990 levels. But it's the latter group, which includes the world's second largest carbon emitter, the U.S., as well as several developing countries -- the special slows, perhaps -- that's by far the more important. They'll work towards a deal of their own, perhaps to be called the Copenhagen Protocol.

But there are numerous awkward sticking points. For instance...

• The U.S.: The Obama administration has proposed cutting emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2025, 42 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050. Some leaders of the global effort have already said that's not sufficiently ambitious. And yet, given the procedural set-up of the U.S. Senate and the utter inflexibility of the Republican party, it may well be more ambitious than what Congress will ultimately sign off on.

• The developing countries: They're arguing that to help fix a problem they did little to create, they'll need substantial financial help -- perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars -- from richer countries, so that they can bypass carbon-based fuels and start building clean-energy economies.

• China: The world's biggest carbon emitter as pledged to reduce its emissions by 40 percent to 45 percent per unit of economic output. But that promise has been dismissed by some European countries as falling short of what's needed.

• Russia: Perhaps weirdest of all, Russia's success in reducing emissions -- thanks to the collapse of its industrial sector in the 1990s -- could paradoxically work against the global effort. That's because the reductions have left Russia with a surplus of emissions credits, under Kyoto's cap-and-trade program. If Russia sells those credits, it could send the price of carbon plunging in the world's emissions markets. And economists say that a stable and relatively high price for carbon emissions is needed if investments in clean-energy technologies are going to be made.

• The opposition: All these technical issues are being hashed out against the backdrop of efforts by right-wing activists, aided by ratings-obsessed cable news, to obstruct progress. Saudi Arabia -- no fan of moving away from fossil fuels -- has now seized on those hacked emails which show climate scientists discussing how to bury work skeptical of global warming. Though the emails don't come close to undermining the scientific consensus on warming, summit leaders have nonetheless been forced to address the issue.

Politics being what it is, there's little doubt that, whatever actually happens, Obama and the other world leaders gathering at the summit next week will make a show of announcing progress. But it seems likely that, even if things go well, Copenhagen will be as much a beginning as an end.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Afghanistan: Attempting to bring an existing war to a non-disastrous end

There is much second guessing President Obama’s speech last week regarding the decision the administration has reached about the future of the conflict in Afghanistan and the border areas of Pakistan. Faced with only bad choices to resolve the conflict the Bush administration had let fester while focusing attention on the second war it launched in Iraq the President picked the least awful option that hopefully can lead to a non-disastrous conclusion. Hendrik Hertzberg summarizes the dilemma faced by the President:
There are no good options for the United States in Afghanistan. That has been the conventional wisdom for some years now, and this time the conventional wisdom—the reigning cliché—happens to be true. President Obama did not pretend otherwise in his address at West Point last week. His grimly businesslike speech was a gritty, almost masochistic exercise in the taking of responsibility. What he had to say did not please everyone; indeed, it pleased no one. Given the situation bequeathed to him and to the nation, pleasure was not an option. His speech was a sombre appeal to reason, not a rousing call to arms. If his argument was less than fully persuasive, that was in the nature of the choices before him. There is no such thing as an airtight argument for a bad choice—not if the argument is made with a modicum of honesty.

In November, two months into the gruelling, three-month review of Afghanistan policy that culminated in last week’s address, the Pentagon offered the President four options, each accompanied by a number, with each number representing an increase in the American troop commitment. But these were variations on a theme. As Obama seems to have realized, his true choices, of which there were also four, were wider and more fundamental: to begin immediately to wind down the American military presence; to maintain the status quo; to commit to a more or less open-ended, more or less full-fledged “counter-insurgency” war; or to pursue some version of the course he has now charted, in which a fresh infusion of military force and civilian effort is paired with a strong signal that America’s patience and resources, on which there are many other demands, are not unlimited.

Obama did the best he could to make a positive case for the path he has chosen, but—chillingly, bleakly—the principal virtue of his choice remains the vices of the others. Withdrawal, beginning at once? The political and diplomatic damage to Obama would be severe: a probable Pentagon revolt; the anger of NATO allies who have risked their soldiers’ lives (and their leaders’ political standing) on our behalf; the near-certainty that a large-scale terrorist attack, whether or not it had anything to do with Afghanistan, would be met at home not with 9/11 solidarity but with savage, politically lethal scapegoating. Even so, if “success,” however narrowly defined, is truly an outright impossibility, then withdrawal may still be the most responsible choice. But it is not yet obvious that a better result is out of the question. “To abandon this area now,” the President said, “would significantly hamper our ability to keep the pressure on Al Qaeda and create an unacceptable risk of additional attacks on our homeland and our allies.” The consequences could also include a second Taliban emirate, a long, bloody civil war, and a sharp, destabilizing increase in Islamist violence, not only in Pakistan but also in India and elsewhere. The status quo? To “muddle through and permit a slow deterioration,” the President said, “would ultimately prove more costly and prolong our stay in Afghanistan, because we would never be able to generate the conditions needed to train Afghan security forces and give them the space to take over.” Or a full-scale counter-insurgency war—in the President’s words, a “dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort, one that would commit us to a nation-building project of up to a decade”? That, too, must be rejected, “because it sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost and what we need to achieve to secure our interests.” Such a war—such a project—would be hugely out of proportion to whatever marginal security gains it might yield. And it wouldn’t just be beyond “a reasonable cost.” It would be beyond our political, institutional, and material capacity, and therefore impossible.

A dismal process of elimination has left the President to design a strategy that he believes is the only one that offers a chance, in his words, “to bring this war to a successful conclusion.” Or, at least, a bearable one. Deliver a hard punch to the Taliban, break its momentum, and welcome its defectors; throw a bucket of cold water on the hapless and corrupt central government; carve out space and time for projects of civilian betterment and the development of Afghan forces that are capable of maintaining some semblance of security; forge “an effective partnership with Pakistan”—to list the elements of Obama’s strategy is to recognize its difficulty. It is full of internal tensions, most prominently between the buildup of troops and the eighteen-month timeline for beginning their withdrawal. (To the extent that the troop surge weakens the enemy while the timeline focusses minds in Kabul and Islamabad, however, that tension could be a creative one.) The plan does not, of course, guarantee success. The best that can be claimed for it is that it does not guarantee failure, as, in one form or another, the alternatives almost certainly do.

At West Point in June of 2002, George W. Bush proclaimed to the graduating cadets, “Our war on terror is only begun, but in Afghanistan it has begun well.” In truth, it had not begun so well. Six months earlier, the first Taliban emirate had indeed been routed from power. But, at the same time, the perpetrator of 9/11 had been allowed to escape from his mountain hideout; the American forces that could have captured him were held back by an Administration already planning its misguided invasion of Iraq. The evidence, a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report concluded last week, “removes any lingering doubts and makes it clear that Osama bin Laden was within our grasp at Tora Bora.”

That was the speech in which the then President—no doubt with Iraq in mind, though he made no mention of that country—expanded what was already being called the Bush Doctrine to embrace the notion of preventive war. Obama, in the aftermath of his West Point speech, was widely condemned—and grudgingly praised—for allegedly adopting “what sounds like the Bush Doctrine” (Rachel Maddow) and “a rehash of the Bush Doctrine” (Mary Matalin). Not so. Whatever the Afghanistan war’s origins (and they were retributive, not preventive, except in the sense that every war, and every act of statecraft, is aimed at “preventing” something), this is not a preventive war. It is an actually existing war, and Obama’s purpose is clearly to bring it to a non-disastrous end.

The botched war in Afghanistan, like the economic crisis and the broken health-care system, is an inheritance from which Obama is trying to extricate the country. In each case, the institutional, historical, and political constraints under which a President must operate mean that the solutions—or, if there are no solutions, the ameliorations—are doomed to be nearly as messy as the problems. If there is no Obama Doctrine, there is an Obama approach—undergirded by humane values but also by a respect for reality. The most telling signpost in Obama’s speech may have been neither his call for more troops nor his timeline for removing them but his use of a quotation from another President who inherited a seemingly intractable war: “Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs.” That was Dwight D. Eisenhower, in one of the homelier passages from his canonical farewell address, delivered the year Barack Obama was born. President Eisenhower’s point was that a nation’s security is all of a piece—that military actions do not inhabit a separate universe but must be weighed on the same scale, and be subject to the same judgments, as a nation’s other vital concerns. That seems to be President Obama’s point as well.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Demonstrators and security forces clash again in Iran

Today many people were reportedly arrested across Iran following confrontations between government security forces and anti-government demonstrators. The occasion for the public defiance of the government was Student’s Day – a day marking the anniversary of the murder of three students demonstrating against the dictatorship of the Shah in 1953.

Today’s demonstrations are a continuation of protests following allegations of electoral fraud last June by incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against the opposition candidate, Mir-Hossein Mousavi. The movement became known as the Green Revolution and, despite often violent suppression, has rallied people to the streets of Iran’s cities over and over again.

This from the Tehran Bureau:
Justify Full
Thousands of student protesters clashed with basij militiamen and riot police at demonstrations staged at and around universities in Tehran and other cities throughout Iran on Monday, marking the largest anti-government protests since last month's Nov. 4 rallies.

Witnesses said security forces had sealed the main gates and surrounding walls of Tehran University with banners and bus blockades to prevent views into the campus and prohibit students from joining protestors outside the university walls.

Tens of thousands of Basij militia forces, armed with guns, stun guns, paintball guns, batons and tear gas joined thousands of anti-riot and police forces to fight and disperse protesters in squares throughout the Iranian capital, according to witness reports and videos posted on YouTube.

Large-scale demonstrations took place at universities in major cities throughout the country, including Mashhad, Tabriz, Kerman, Hamedan, Arak, Shahr Kord, Zanjan, Karaj, Gilan, Yasouj, Ilam, Hormozgan, Shiraz and Isfahan. In the Iranian capital, protests were held at Tehran University's main campus and College of Art campus, as well as at other major universities, including Amir Kabir, Khajeh Nasr, Sharif, Azad Central, and Elm-o-Sanat (Science and Technology).

Witnesses driving along the streets bordering Tehran University's main campus in central Tehran said it "looked and felt like martial law" had been imposed in the Iranian capital. Security forces also fired gun shots into the air during some of the clashes with protesters, they said.

"I got to Tehran University at 1 pm. Protesters in scattered pockets walked along the sidewalks of nearby streets -- Vesal, 16 Azar, Keshavarz Blvd, and others -- among heavy security presence. Near Valiasr Square, security forces attacked us with tear gas, batons and paint-ball guns, and also fired shots into the air to disperse us," one eyewitness told Tehran Bureau in a telephone interview. "I was seized at some point while running and was clubbed and kicked in the abdomen. I was sure I would be arrested, but surprisingly they let me go," the witness said.

University student protests on Iran's national Student Day -- which commemorates the December 7 killing of three Tehran University students during demonstrations in 1953 against then US-backed monarch Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi -- are traditionally sanctioned by the Iranian government as a means of voicing national anti-Americanism.

But Monday's Student Day rallies were the latest in a string of state-backed demonstrations to be used by supporters of Iran's opposition Green Movement -- who claim the country's June 12 presidential elections were fraudulent -- as an opportunity to hit the streets and voice their opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's administration.

State police officials and Tehran's State Prosecutor warned last week that protests outside university campuses and without a permit from the Ministry of Higher Education would be considered "illegal" and subject to a harsh "crackdown," according to state news agencies and Reformist news websites.

Numerous student leaders were either arrested or expelled from universities in the weeks running up to Student Day, and foreign media reporters were formally barred by Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance from attending street events and reporting outside their offices from December 7-9. Internet services were considerably slowed down during the two days prior to Student Day, and mobile phone service was briefly cut in central Tehran, witnesses said.

"By 11am, students had taken out articles of green [the trademark color of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi] clothing, such as scarves and wristbands (from) their bags as well as green balloons they filled up with air. Some had hid green clothing and shawls stashed away on campus. They began chanting non-radical slogans such as Ya Hossein, Mir Hossein and Allah-o-Akbar ("God is Great")," according to an eyewitness.

Students shouted slogans, including "Basiji go home -- no free meal today" and "Get lost, mercenary," at members of the Basiji forces and student Basiji organizations, who replied with shouts of "Death to Traitors," witnesses said. One eye witness told Tehran Bureau that Basijis on Tehran University's campus were not armed.

As the day progressed, slogans shouted by students and street protesters grew more intense and angry, with shouts of newly coined slogans, including "[Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei should know, he is on his way out," "Our curse, our shame, our incompetent Leader," and "What happened to the oil money? It was spent on the Basiji," witnesses said.

Witnesses said students on Monday also burned caricatures of the Iranian president. Students also carried flags without the emblem of "Allah" -- a coat of arms logo that was added to Iran's flag after the country's 1979 revolution, according to The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Obama decision on Afghantistan

Last week President Obama announced the deployment of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan as part of a new counterinsurgency strategy to secure the population, pressure the Taliban, and train indigenous forces. The Bush administration, after launching a war against Al Qaeda and the host Taliban government following the September 11th attacks in 2001, proceeded to neglect the Afghan situation in favor of the next war it launched in Iraq. The under-resourced allied forces were left in a weak position leading to endless warfare that in turn contributed to the destabilization of Pakistan and war weariness on the part of the public of the United States and its European allies who also have troops on the ground.

Many were (and are) ambivalent about the proposal and the temptation to simply abandon the central Asian country was (and remains) high in many quarters across the political spectrum. However, Steve Coll argues (hat tip to Jeff Weintraub) that abandonment of Afghanistan now would produce a worse civil war than the Afghans suffered in the 90’s, further destabilize Pakistan which could result in a new Indo-Pakistan war, and increase danger to the Americans and British alike. There were no easy solutions for the President to pick from given the rather the serious consequences of simply walking away versus the costliness but unpredictable outcome of pushing forward on the war.

Clare Lockhart, of the Institute for State Effectiveness, writes in the London Times Obama struck the right balance in his decision:
President Obama has got it right. After taking his time to wrestle with the enormous challenge of defining the US national interest in Afghanistan and its region, he has provided a credible vision of ending the war, stabilising the country and handing over responsibility to Afghan self-rule. His move away from fighting, endorsing General Stanley McChrystal’s analysis, will protect the population and provide a security bridge while Afghan forces are trained.

No country can be run by an army alone. Lasting security in Afghanistan will be provided when Afghans can govern themselves. Mr Obama’s speech balances nurturing Afghan governance at all levels with a tough stance on accountability.

This provides a framework for restoring Afghan self-rule. It learns the lesson that bypassing Afghan institutions and spending billions of dollars on a parallel set of organisations run by UN agencies, NGOs and contractors that leach capacity away from core Afghan frontline services does not work.


The key conundrum now is that an effective counter-insurgency strategy requires a legitimate government. In recent years, the Afghan Government has lost the trust of both the international community and its own citizens. Requiring a set of strict accountability standards is an important way to restore integrity. Rather than proclaim the existing Government as legitimate, a better approach is to recognise that legitimacy is earned. Trust should be restored through deeds, not words.

Change needs to come not only from the Afghans, but the way that international actors operate. The aid system requires a thorough revamping, so that it no longer undermines the very institutions it claims to support. This will require measures such as limiting the wages paid to Afghan staff working in the aid system to the same level they would earn in Afghan ministries.
It will also require choices about which Afghans the international actors choose to consort with. A senior Afghan official described to me with dismay how, at an important national meeting, three significant figures walked straight past legitimate representatives who had been sent from their districts, and made a beeline for three warlords standing in the corner. This casual slight was deeply symbolic; the representatives left the meeting crestfallen.

There are three steps that remain: first, Afghanistan needs a peace-building framework. There is already a reconciliation effort under way, aimed at bringing insurgents back within the political fold. A broader approach would seek to build on the broad consensus within Afghan society already expressed through the series of Loya Jirga (tribal councils) and the recent public discussions on the need for a restoration of rule of law and just governance.

Second, the fastest and cheapest way to create stability is to engage Afghanistan’s youth with the skills they need to manage their own futures. There is a lost generation of Afghans, whose education was sacrificed to 20 years of jihad against the Soviet Union and civil war. The new generation — the 60 per cent of Afghans under 25 — fare no better.

Leaving school under-educated at 11, poor pre-teens make rich pickings for madrassas, the Taleban and the opium economy. The most cost-effective way to stabilise Afghanistan would be to invest in the secondary and advanced education and training of the next generation and find out how many medics, teachers, engineers, accountants, lawyers, construction workers and farming specialists are needed.

Third, Afghanistan can and should pay for its own nation-building. The rich potential of the Afghan economy offers not only the basis for millions of jobs for Afghans, but the means for it to collect the revenue to pay its own bills. The recent US Geological Survey report shows that Afghanistan has hundreds of billions of dollars of mineral wealth. It has significant agricultural potential and a thriving textiles and construction industry. It could also collect several billion dollars a year in revenue from trade passing through as well as taxes on business and land. Instead, this money is being collected illegally, furnishing the insurgents’ and warlords’ coffers instead.

Yet the most inspiring aspect of President Obama’s speech is his picture of America maintaining its moral authority in the world through the way that it ends wars and prevents conflict. He speaks of an America seeking not to claim another nation’s resources or target other peoples, but one that is heir to a noble struggle for freedom. And this offers hope to American citizens, their allies and the Afghan people.
You can read Coll’s blog here and Lockhart’s entire article here.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Ambivalence about the troop increase in Afghanistan

The United States invaded Afghanistan three weeks following the September 11th attacks in 2001. The Taliban ruled government had hosted Al Qaeda, the organization responsible for the 9-11 attacks on the U.S., and continued to provide safe haven for them. President Bush stated that U.S. policy would not distinguish between Al Qaeda and those that harbored them.

However, after the Taliban was toppled and some degree of success seemed to be within grasp the Bush administration lost interest in the conflict and turned its attention towards Iraq. In the meantime the conflict spilled over the border into Pakistan, destabilizing that country, and the Taliban resurged in Afghanistan threatening its stability. Afghanistan became the "forgotten war."

President Obama campaigned to turn American attention back towards Afghanistan and the fight against Al Qaeda – to “finish the job” left undone by the Bush administration. The problem is windows of opportunity have shut and the situation on the ground has become much more complex in the past six-to-seven years while Afghanistan was a second tier priority for the Bush administration. Finishing the job will not be as simple as it would have been in 2002 or 2003.

President Obama will present the administration’s plan for the Afghanistan War to the American people in a speech tonight to take place at West Point Military Academy. It is expected that, following long deliberations and exploration of various options, he will announce that an additional 34,000 American troops will be sent to central Asian country bringing U.S. forces to more than 100,000. Additional reinforcements from NATO allies are also expected.

President Obama came to office facing a situation not of his making and with no obvious right or easy solutions. All options have pros and cons but the directionless and under-resourced policy he inherited was the least unacceptable. Still, news of tonight’s expected announcement leaves many with ambivalent feelings. Fred Kaplan explains:
… I've studied all the pros and cons. There are valid arguments to justify each side of the issue, and there are still more valid arguments to slap each side down. And if the basic decision were left up to me, I'm not sure what I would do.

As with confronting most messes in life, the initial impulse is to flee. But if we simply pulled out, it's a near-certain bet that the Taliban would march into Kabul, and most other Afghan towns they'd care to, in a matter of weeks. True, the Taliban are not the same as al-Qaida, but there's little doubt that they would provide sanctuary and alliance (as they did after the Soviets were ousted), and this would strengthen al-Qaida in its struggle against Pakistan, the United States, and others.

One might dispute the significance of this, at least for its direct danger to the United States. Al-Qaida, after all, can plan attacks on U.S. territory from other sanctuaries, even from apartments in Western cities. But it's naive to claim that leaving Afghanistan would have no broader effect.

Another problem with withdrawing is that it would signal, correctly or not, a huge victory for anti-American forces generally. If we left Afghanistan to the Taliban (and, by extension, al-Qaida), especially after such a prolonged commitment (at least rhetorically), what other embattled people would trust the United States (or the other putative allies in this war) to come in and protect them from insurgents? None, and they could hardly be blamed.

I am uncomfortable making this case for two reasons. First, it's reminiscent of the bankrupt rationales, involving "credibility" and the "domino theory," for staying in Vietnam long after that war was widely viewed as a horrible mistake. But Afghanistan is different. The Taliban are not the Viet Cong, and Osama Bin Laden is not Ho Chi Minh; there is no case, this time, that the enemy has a just claim to power. And the stakes are much higher: Communists ruling South Vietnam was never a serious threat to our security; al-Qaida controlling a huge swath of South Asia is.

The second reason I'm uncomfortable about even saying this is that the argument can, and almost certainly will, be used to justify staying in Afghanistan if it turns out that this war is futile, too. It's easy to hear the generals saying, a year from now, "Three more brigades should do the trick, Mr. President" and "If we pull out now, Mr. President, our credibility will be severely compromised."

But this part of the argument is moot, since, for better or for worse, no higher-ups in the Obama administration have advocated a total pullout. Withdrawal is a tempting option only to the extent that all others seem, at best, only slightly less miserable.

Holding at the current level of troops, with perhaps some slight rejiggering, is another tempting option, but it's also the clearest recipe for war without end. The constant refrain one hears from soldiers and commanders in the field—confirmed by any journalist who spends much time with them—is that they're strained by the shortage of resources. No matter what strategy President Barack Obama decides on—chasing terrorists, protecting population centers, or some combination of the two—there aren't enough troops now to pursue it with much chance of success.

The existing troops can probably hold the Taliban at bay and keep Afghanistan from falling apart, but little more than that. The war then becomes a contest of endurance, and we're not likely to win. (Yes, lots of American troops stayed in West Germany and South Korea for several decades—some remain there still—but they were deterring wars, not fighting and dying in one.)

As for fighting from afar: With a mix of special-operations forces and airstrikes, it's appealing in the abstract, but it neglects the mundane realities of warfare—that you need good intelligence to know who and where the bad guys are, and that to get good intelligence you need troops on the ground, and more than a handful of commandos, to cultivate and earn the local people's trust.

The proposal made a few months ago by Sen. Carl Levin, Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to focus more on training than on fighting—and to send no more U.S. troops until the Afghan army has grown substantially—makes sense. Earlier this year, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that enlarging the Afghan army was the key to success (and to America's exit). In March, when Obama ordered another 21,000 troops to Afghanistan, Gates assigned 4,000 of them—the 4th brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division, a highly decorated combat unit—specifically to train Afghan soldiers.

However, in this war, "training" is done on the job—not so much by drilling and exercising the Afghan soldiers on bases (though there is some of that) but rather by leading, observing, and fighting alongside them out in the field. In other words, the line between "support troops" and "combat troops," ambiguous to begin with, is fuzzier still here. And at least in the short run (for the next few years), it's unlikely that enough Afghans can be trained quickly enough or thoroughly enough to secure the country on their own.

So we come to the option that President Obama is reportedly going to take, to some degree, in some fashion, in his speech Tuesday night (though press leaks of this sort haven't always been accurate): to send tens of thousands more troops—maybe not the 40,000 extra that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, wants, but some number not much smaller.

The key question here is not so much how many more troops Obama sends but, rather, what he decides they should do (and we don't yet know his decision on that point, either). Still, some questions can be raised in advance.

If he decides on a counterinsurgency strategy (which emphasizes protecting the population more than chasing terrorists), the Army field manual's calculations suggest that something like 400,000 troops would be needed—and, even under the most optimistic assumptions, there's no way that U.S., NATO, and Afghan armies combined will amass anywhere near that many forces anytime soon, if ever.

This is why much of the strategy will likely involve cultivating Pashtun tribal leaders to fight the Taliban and prodding relatively moderate Taliban groups to turn against the more militant ones—in short, buying key people off, whether through persuasion, money, weapons, ammunition, logistical support, or the supply of basic services.

Gen. David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, has long been saying that success in Afghanistan has to involve, to some extent, striking a deal with enemies. "This is how you end these kinds of conflicts," he said in a speech at the Heritage Foundation in October 2008. There is, he added, "no alternative to reconciliation."

Petraeus is very agile at this sort of enterprise, as he demonstrated in 2003 in Mosul as commander of the 101st Airborne Division, and in 2007, with the "Sunni Awakening," as commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq.

But two concerns arise when mulling the transfer of these notions to Afghanistan. First, Petraeus had something to offer the Iraqi Sunnis. In Mosul, he handed out jobs (for as long as the money lasted, which, alas, wasn't long). In the Awakening, he provided military alliance after the tribal leaders (who initiated the contact) recognized that al-Qaida terrorists posed a greater threat than did the U.S. occupiers. He and McChrystal are now trying to reprise these sorts of deals in Afghanistan, but it's unclear whether they can offer much that's compelling to insurgent or fence-sitting Pashtuns.

Second, as smart as those two generals (and many of their advisers) are, how much do they really know about Afghan tribal politics, which (as they do know) are far more complex than Iraq's ethnic fissures and whose leaders are known to switch sides, and switch back again, at whim or the slightest provocation? (On this latter point, see the opening chapters of Dexter Filkins' 2008 book The Forever War.)

The United States has never fought this kind of war before (unless you count the Philippines, which lasted 40 years and involved a level of brutality that would never be countenanced today). We haven't been fighting this kind of war even in Afghanistan. (As the saying goes, we haven't been fighting for eight years but, rather, for one year, eight years in a row.) Starting to do so now, as even some of the advocates of escalation admit, is a large gamble with short odds.

So here's what it comes down to: This option might be a good idea if it worked, but the chances of its working are slim (though not zero); all the other options seem to be bad ideas, but they might cost less money and get fewer American soldiers killed (though not necessarily).

Which road is less unappetizing? I don't know. That's why I'm ambivalent.
Joe Klein is also ambivalent about Afghanistan but is worried about Pakistan:
… If the U.S. doesn't remain engaged in Afghanistan, the civilian government in Pakistan--already an incredibly shaky enterprise--will probably fall. Certainly, the Pakistani Army will be further empowered and will likely bolster its support for its Taliban allies in order to prevent India from establishing a foothold in Kabul. The possibility of a Pakistani Army coup scares the bejeezus out of expert like Bruce Riedel. It's not impossible that it would be an Islamist takeover. (Indeed, it's happened before: the coup that brought Zia al-Haq to power in the 1980s.)

The scariest national security problem we now face is the prospect of al-Qaeda-linked jihadis controlling the Pakistani nuclear arsenal. Like Fred Kaplan, I'm not optimistic that the U.S. effort can succeed in Afghanistan. But the notion that a U.S. withdrawal might empower the religious extremists in the Pakistani military does give me pause
The bottom line is we have the luxury of being something the President of the United States can’t be – ambivalent.