U.S. foreign policy

2009 12 09
Walzer on Afghanistan


The other day, Commenter DC mentioned this Michael Walzer piece on Afghanistan. One line in it was irritating enough to rouse me to write a letter to Dissent this morning:

Re: Is Obama’s War in Afghanistan Just?

In support of his position on Afghanistan, Michael Walzer remarks, “I also think that most of these people [that is, Afghans] would agree (they should be asked).” I would like to second Walzer’s proposal that Afghans be asked what they think. If any organization had bothered to conduct opinion polling in Afghanistan, Walzer might have been able to discover its results with a search engine, thirty seconds of spare time, and just a smidgen of curiosity. It is a shame that Walzer was forced instead to speculate about a matter of real importance to his position.


Howls of outrage (7)

2009 12 05
Rashid on Obama on Afghanistan


I thought Obama’s recent speech on Afghanistan was pretty stinky. As I skimmed through it, grumbling to myself, I wondered what Ahmed Rashid would make of it. Answer here, and very much worth reading.

In the lead up to Obama’s decision about what to do about Afghanistan I had drawn some faint comfort from the story that he had supposedly rejected all four of the plans presented to him, and sent his advisors back to the drawing board. I always had the impression that one of the things that made Bush such a wretched decider-in-Chief was that he tended to select only from the options presented to him by his advisors, since he lacked the imagination and the background knowledge to force them to rethink the options they presented to him.

But so much for Obama’s ability to free himself from the conventional wisdom here. His speech was such a disappointment, not just because the arguments were lousy, but because they so clearly failed to really engage the concerns of those of us who feel that an Afghanistan surge isn’t going to help (as Rashid’s post makes very clear). Really engaging the concerns of the other side is the sort of thing that Obama often does very well, so the failure to do it in this case is all the more striking. This makes me worried not just about the decision he’s making, but the process of decision-making that’s getting him there.

I’m not implacably opposed to any sort of U.S. presence in Afghanistan, so long as it’s got a clear exit date. But I don’t see any realistic prospect for success there. I don’t know what most proponents even mean when they talk about success in this context. Even when I do, I really don’t see how the benefits of hanging around (militarily) outweigh the costs, either for the U.S. or for Afghanistan.

I don’t even understand most of the time what people mean when they talk about “the Taliban.” The Taliban movement which consolidated control over a large part of Afghanistan prior to September, 2001, and which was led by Mullah Omar, no longer exists. It has not really existed for years now. Scattered remnants of the original crew remain, but not in a coherent form as a political movement. When people speak now about the Taliban it isn’t clear whether they mean to refer to this original movement, to some remnant of it, to plain old organized crime groups, to disaffected Pashtun nationalists, to disaffected Afghans of any ethnic or religious background, or to something else altogether.

I think this ambiguity is often the result of honest confusion, but it’s worth noting how very useful it is to proponents of the war. The original Taliban movement makes a rhetorically persuasive target. They gave shelter and support to people who attacked us! How could we go wrong making war against them? But when the target morphs into, say, some ill-defined and shifting group of disaffected Pashtun nationalists whose main enemy is the sharing of power with other ethnic groups in the country—well that represents a much less feasible and clearly defined target.

In any case, I think the appropriate response when someone starts talking about “the Taliban” in Afghanistan is to say “Who?


Howls of outrage (7)

2009 08 03
Recently read: Sowing Crisis


Rashid Khalidi. Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East

I read and enjoyed Khalidi’s The Iron Cage back in January, and so got this, Khalidi’s latest book, out of the library shortly afterwards (I’m only getting around to writing about it now). Sowing Crisis is a more sharply polemical book than The Iron Cage and I liked it a bit less, partly because I have a limited appetite for polemic and partly because Khalidi isn’t really great at it. (He’s not awful; just not great.) Nevertheless, there is a lot in this wide-ranging review of American foreign policy to learn from and by stimulated by. Khalidi’s main objective seems to be to try to get Americans to understand how non-Americans see American foreign policy. This is a worthwhile project, and Sowing Crisis is a worthwhile book.


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2009 05 03
Recently read: A Continent for the Taking


Howard W. French. A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa

This is an angry book. On practically every page French has something withering to say about a Western diplomat, or an African leader, or a thug at a checkpoint trying to extort money. They have all contributed in their own way to the lost opportunities and staggering suffering of a continent with extraordinary potential. French, an African American born in Washington, D.C., spent more than two decades in Africa, first as a translator and then as a journalist. He has stories to tell, and a few scores to settle, and in A Continent for the Taking he does both in a compelling way. His book does not range across the whole of Africa, as the title might suggest. Rather, French focuses on a few countries where he has significant experiences to relate, among them Nigeria, Liberia, Mali, the Republic of Congo, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire).

Perhaps the most gripping and interesting part of the book is French’s account of the fall of Mobutu and the rise of Kabila in the DRC in 1997. French won awards for his reporting on this incident for the New York Times, and he offers more than simply a gripping story about the dissolution and chaos of the end of one regime and the rise of another. He argues that the United States, attempting to make up for turning a blind eye to the Rwandan genocide three years earlier, again turned a blind eye to Ugandan and Rwandan efforts to use Kabila as a proxy to dominate their much larger neighbour. French claims that in this they were heavily influenced by the strongly pro-Kagame slant of Philip Gourevitch’s We Regret to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. (I have occasionally wondered whether subsequent events led Gourevitch to revise his opinion of Kagame; I don’t think I’ve seen anything else on the subject by Gourevitch since I read Regret to Inform). Unfortunately, backing Kabila at the crucial moment meant backing away from the most credible democratic figure in the DRC. Once again, the US’s involvement in the region was cynical and counterproductive. The Rwandan and Ugandan invasion-by-proxy of the DRC marked the beginning of an absolutely catastrophic war that claimed the lives of millions.

This book has a lot to recommend it: close observations of people from all walks of life, reflections on the depiction of African issues in the Western media, trenchant critiques of the foreign policies of outside actors in African affairs. But perhaps the book’s greatest virtue is simply that it made me very curious to learn more about the entire continent: about the ancient culture of Mali; the history of Belgium in the Congo; the Ashante and their struggle with the British, and so much more.


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2009 03 04
Recently read: Descent Into Chaos


Ahmed Rashid. Descent Into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia

At roughly 500 densely packed and depressing pages, this not an easy book to read. But it added immeasurably to my appreciation of the current position of the US and its allies in Afghanistan and Central Asia and of how that position came to be so desperate. Ahmed Rashid is an famously well-connected veteran Pakistani journalist. His book takes us from the weeks before September 11, 2001 right up to 2008, pausing from time to time to provide some historical perspective to his main narrative. It’s a valuable book to have on hand as we watch policymakers struggle to discover a way out of their—and for a substantial subset of this site’s readers, our—current predicament in Afghanistan.

Rashid gets his book off to a poor start with a long and unremarkable introduction that reads like just another litany of Bush’s misdeeds. It’s all true, of course, but you can find this sort of thing in any number of places, if you still care to, which I don’t. As soon as the book proper is underway, however, Rashid starts to unpack his case in copious detail and to draw on an almost uniquely broad range of sources and experiences. (When I’m interested in a subject I have an insatiable appetite for detail about it, but it did occur to me that readers who take a less Aspergerish approach to a subject might wish that Rashid’s editor had succeeded in forcing more of these details into the footnotes.)

The main thing I took away from Rashid’s book is how reliably most actors in the region have made a bad situation worse whenever they’ve been given a choice about how to proceed. Afghanistan is a poor, landlocked, and long-troubled country, but it’s been made much, much worse than it ever needed to be by the cascading effects of a series of poor decisions by just about everyone involved.

In the late 70s, the CIA weighed stability in the country against the chance to goad the USSR into a debacle, and chose the latter. On December 24, 1978, Brezhnev took the bait, and the Soviet army blundered into the country, against the advice of his top generals.* Seeing the chance to trap the USSR into a painful “Vietnam” of its own making, the US then poured money into resistance fighters in the region. That decision reflected another ranking of priorities: the prospect of stability and the development of democracy in Pakistan was trumped decisively by the goal of encouraging resistance to the USSR in Afghanistan. Accordingly, the US channeled money and arms through Pakistan, entrenching and legitimizing the military’s intrusions into the country’s political life, and encouraging the slow-spreading poison of radicalism, militarism, criminality and drug-trading in the entire region.

After the withdrawal of the USSR, there followed several years of horrific fighting between rival warlords. The success of the Taliban movement owes something to popular disgust at the instability and corruption sown by these warlords. It also owes something to money and logistical support from the ISI, Pakistan’s highly secretive intelligence agency, which sought to cultivate ties in Afghanistan in order to train and encourage Kashmiri militants and provide Pakistan with strategic depth in the event of a full out conflict with India.

As it happens, after September 11, 2001, it was Pakistan which ended up providing strategic depth to the Taliban, after Taliban forces were routed by US air power and US proxies on the ground. It was there, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan (which are, in fact, anything but Federally Administered), that the Taliban and Al Qaeda found refuge, in some cases with the support of the ISI, which continued to play a dangerous double game of privately supporting and publicly (sometimes) condemning militant groups, for both ideological and strategic reasons. The ISI’s continuing support for the Taliban and other militants was a sore point for US-Pakistan relations, but the Bush administration continued to believe, against all evidence, that Musharif was their man, and refused to push Pakistan too hard on the issue.

The US went into Afghanistan without a clear policy on the issue of “nation building.” Bush had trouble walking back from his earlier campaign pledge to avoid such activities, and Rumsfeld remained, to the end, deeply hostile to the notion and employed all his considerable bureaucratic savvy to thwart the efforts of others in the US administration who wanted a more substantial engagement with the country. After much dithering, there was briefly talk from Bush himself of a Marshall Plan for the country, but the idea quickly slipped away as if forgotten as other priorities loomed into view.

The main other priority looming into view was a new war on a different front. At precisely the moment that the US faced the daunting prospect of stabilizing Afghanistan, it turned its attention to Iraq. I have long seen it written that the war in Iraq provided a distraction from Afghanistan that seriously jeopardized that mission. But until Rashid’s book I had not grasped the details, or understood how much evidence there really is for the proposition. Efforts to establish Karzai’s new government in Kabul were undermined by a policy Rashid calls “warlordism,” that is, providing financial and political support to warlords who then worked to undermine the government in Kabul. With resources diverted to the coming war in Iraq, Washington had clearly determined that nation building in Afghanistan would have to be done on the cheap, and warlordism seemed to offer a shortcut to the difficult and resource-intensive process of establishing and extending Kabul’s legitimacy and reach.

Stand back for a moment and marvel at the various trade offs involved here: The US pursues the Iraq War at the expense of the larger mission in Afghanistan, and loses both. The Bush administration’s uncritical support of Musharif helps set the conditions for the ISI’s continuing support for the Taliban. This in turn vastly complicates the hope of achieving even minimal security in Afghanistan, and plays a role in allowing Al Qaeda figures to escape and plan more attacks (the more recent London and Madrid bombings were almost certainly plotted from within the FATA). Having sacrificed security in Afghanistan to the goal of maintaining solid relations with Pakistan, US policymakers were then forced to watch conditions in Afghanistan destabilize Pakistan, further diminishing their leverage with the country.

There’s much more like this in Rashid’s book, if you can stomach it, buttressed by a wealth of supporting facts and argument. Since the book’s publication conditions on the ground have further deteriorated. As the new administration tries to salvage the mess handed down to it from its predecessors, I hope Rashid’s book gets the attention it deserves.

* I’m simplifying to make a point, at the risk of giving the CIA far too much credit. The decision to invade might well have been made without any CIA involvement, as Brezhnev was intervening in a complicated conflict involving the USSR’s communist allies in Afghanistan and their enemies.


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2009 02 19
Obama in Canada


Obama paid a six hour visit to my home town of Ottawa today. My sources there tell me that the entire city was in a tizzy, with people busing in from hours away on the off chance he would find a moment to wave at them. The CBC sent out nine breathless news alerts (which are usually reserved for when something, you know, happens) in a few hours about now classic moments such as Obama’s plane landing, Obama’s arriving at Parliament, the Prime Minister’s declaring himself “quite confident” that Obama would honour free trade agreements involving the U.S. and Canada, Obama’s meeting the leader of the opposition for 15 minutes at the airport on his way out, and Obama’s plane departing.

It’s difficult to convey to Americans how important U.S.-Canadian relations are to Canadians. We’ve always had a serious love-hate (perhaps more accurately “condescend-envy”) thing going on with the U.S., but it’s a relationship that has been especially tinged with anxiety these last eight years.

We got off to a very rough start with George Bush. Even before he assumed office, Canada’s ambassador at the time said—behind closed doors, I think, but it got out quickly—that we would do better with Gore. Chrétien was apparently disgusted and bewildered when he finally got to meet Bush. Bush reciprocated by making it clear that the U.S. would not longer be our BFF. And the entire relationship entered a deep freeze when Canada announced that it wouldn’t be helping with Iraq. It didn’t help that the U.S. ambassador to Canada for many years, Paul Celluci, was deeply unpopular in a way that struck me as unusual for an ambassador (he may have felt, in turn, that Canadians weren’t very warm).

Obama is so popular in Canada now that there’s really nowhere for him to go but down. There seem to be some pretty significant trade issues between the two countries, which are bound to be exacerbated by the state of the economy, and eventually it’s going to sink in that Obama counts his votes South of the border. Still, it’s wonderful that the U.S. is finally able to send someone who isn’t a fucking moron up North to talk with us. That sound you hear is an entire country exhaling with relief.


Howls of outrage (18)

2008 09 28
A stupid question


Everybody has been so busy recently marveling at the stupidity of Sarah Palin’s statements in her interview with Katie Couric that I think they haven’t stopped to savour the stupidity of some of the questions Palin was asked. How about this:

Couric: When President Bush ran for office, he opposed nation-building. But he has spent, as you know, much of his presidency promoting democracy around the world. What lessons have you learned from Iraq? And how specifically will you try to spread democracy throughout the world?

Bush, of course, has not been “promoting democracy around the world.” Changing this to “attempting to promote democracy around the world” would be almost as bad, implying that Bush’s efforts have at least been sincere, which I doubt, and which in any case Couric is in no better position to judge than I. The question accepts a highly partisan, and totally idiotic, way of framing the entire debate about Bush’s foreign policy.

Palin has no excuse for being so uninformed and unprepared, but at least she can point to the fact that she’s attempting to compose answers on the fly. But that’s Couric’s prepared question. She and her staff had time to think about it. And that’s what she asked.


A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2008 09 03
Recently read: “Heads in the Sand”


Matthew Yglesias. Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats

I enjoy reading Matthew Yglesias’s blog, so it’s hardly surprising that I also found Heads in the Sand such a pleasant read. Because I usually stick to his blog posts, I’ve tended to think of him as a master of the short form post, typically a clear, succinct line of attack against a single idea. But it turns out that he’s also got a knack for holding my attention over the length of a book. If you like reading about American foreign policy, this well-written and intelligent book is well worth your time.

Heads in the Sand reviews the Bush administration’s policies since 2001 and compares them unfavourably to Yglesias’s preferred alternative, liberal internationalism. This is the view that conflicts between states can, and should, be handled by international institutions, rather than raw zero-sum power politics. Moreover, although powerful actors within such an international system may sometimes seem better off if they ignore the shackles and restraints imposed by such a system, in fact adherence to rules agreed upon by all can in fact be very beneficial even to the powerful. The Bush administration, needless to say, has tended to take the superficial view, regarding international laws, norms, and institutions as irrelevant annoyances. The result has been, in my opinion, far less freedom of movement than it might otherwise have enjoyed. (Or perhaps, far less freedom of the kind of movement that the U.S. ought to desire. Had the Bush administration respected international norms and institutions, it would not have had the freedom to invade Iraq. But this freedom was hardly beneficial.)

Yglesias is very hard, and rightly so, on the political and substantive merits of the strategies pursued by the Democratic party’s politicians and strategists in response to the Bush administration, especially since 2001. Perpetually stuck in a “defensive crouch”, they end up conceding keys elements of Bush’s outlook, and tend to quibble about tactics (like troop numbers in Iraq, for example), rather than attempting to reconsider the wisdom of the Bush administration’s overall strategy. The result is that Democrats look weak, uncertain, and incoherent. Electorally, they were punished for this in 2002 and 2004. 2006 was much better, but Yglesias warns that the failure to be clear-headed and honest in offering a genuine alternative to Bush means that the gains are easily reversed. This seems to me absolutely correct, and I frequently found myself hoping that Yglesias’s book was making the rounds within the Obama campaign.

One criticism I’ve heard of Yglesias’s writing is that he rarely engages with positions to his left. Perhaps part of the reason for this tendency is an extremely well-justified frustration on Yglesias’s part (which I share) at the habit of some left and centrist thinkers of training an inordinate amount of attention at very left-wing positions, as though these were actually held by people in positions of power. Because attention (and column space) is finite, the attention qualified as inordinate precisely because it so often left unchallenged toxic, popular, and deeply hawkish views held by people actually in positions in power. Michael Walzer serves as an exemplar of this sort of thinking in the book, but Yglesias has some other fine examples too.

Fair enough, I say. But Walzer-style finger-wagging is hardly the only way to engage with positions to one’s left. Indeed, one might consider . . . engaging them to see if they’re actually worth adopting, or to explain why they’re not to intelligent people of good faith who hold them. In particular, I would have appreciated much more engagement with principled scepticism about the justifiability of certain uses of American power that Yglesias regards as consistent with liberal internationalism. (Yglesias’s preface thanks the wise and venerable Jim Henley for reading a complete draft of the book. And Henley must have given Yglesias shit about this too.) Yglesias, for example, seems to embrace the consensus that the first Gulf War – “a swift and lost-cost victory” – was a fine affair:

The first Bush administration, acting within the internationalist tradition, chose to seize the opportunity [to use the UN to prevent aggressive warfare]. By waging war on Iraq through the mechanism of the UN, and by fighting for the limited objectives of expelling Iraq from Kuwait and forcing it to abandon the research and development of illegal weapons, the Bush administration did more than preserve Kuwait’s independent. It established a new, long-dreamed-of-norm — the principle that aggressive war, long notionally banned by various treaties, would actually be repulsed by concerted international action. This achievement was—and is—fairly remarkable and, though it’s seldom commented on, has held up shockingly well in the intervening years.

It’s here, for example, that I think Yglesias could learn a thing or two from sterner critics of U.S. foreign policy. It’s very true that Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait presented an enormous challenge to a world looking to put aggressive war behind it. And the quality of Iraq’s brief stay in Kuwait left little doubt about what lay in store for Kuwait had Iraq not been forced out. When legitimate concerns about Iraq’s weapons programs are added to the mix, the case for this war deserves a respectful hearing, even if not acceptance.

But in retrospect the case against the first Gulf War looks stronger and stronger to me. First, when Yglesias points to “a swift and lost-cost victory,” of course he means it was a swift and lost-cost victory for the U.S. and its allies. For Iraqis it was anything but. Obviously Yglesias, who tends to be fairly sensitive to these issues, doesn’t mean to imply otherwise, but I often wonder how seriously people weigh this cost when they consider the competing considerations involved in assessing the justice of the first Gulf War. The U.S. systematically destroyed Iraq’s civilian infrastructure, resulting in massive and widespread suffering and death among its civilian population. This was deliberate policy. Because, contra Yglesias, U.S. goals went beyond forcing Iraq out of Kuwait and dismantling Iraqi weapons capacity. It was quite clear throughout both the elder Bush and Clinton administrations that the sanctions imposed would not be lifted so long as Saddam Hussein remained in power, and that the purpose of the original destruction was to discredit him as thoroughly as possible in order to facilitate his overthrow. (And while Iraq was obviously seriously dysfunctional by the time of the first Gulf War, the decade of sanctions, isolation, and suffering have surely contributed to the difficulties Iraqis now face as they struggle to rebuild their country. They are recovering from far more than Saddam Hussein.)

All of this encourages the thought that the case for the war is less obvious than is often assumed. At the very least it serves as a warning that even a war responding to a serious threat to international security is likely to be waged by people with a pathological indifference to human suffering, who are willing to use techniques over an extended period of time that are vindictive, cruel, uncivilized. Yglesias’s book is not about the first Gulf War, and so I don’t want to ding him for failing to go into length about it. But if I’m right that the first Gulf War is seriously morally problematic, then I do think it’s a problem for someone who takes it as naturally flowing from the liberal internationalism that he champions.

Kosovo provides another example of this. Yglesias takes Kosovo as a difficult case for liberal internationalism, but the war at least arguably squeaks by on his telling. But I think Kosovo is problematic for all kinds of reasons. In addition to the wholesale bombing of yet another country’s civilian infrastructure, here’s one: The air war was so damn easy for Americans that it really did play a role in fostering a mentality among many influential Americans that made the Iraq War possible. I’m sorry but that is a serious cost of that war.

Now, just because these wars, which strike me as problematic, are consistent with liberal internationalism as Yglesias understands it, doesn’t necessarily mean that liberal internationalism isn’t an outlook worth adopting. It might simply be the case that liberal internationalism needs supplementing with additional principles about the uncertainty and unpredictability of war and a good helping of scepticism about the people likely to wage it.

Soon enough, with a bit of luck, we may see a return to the American tradition of liberal internationalism. That tradition makes the Bush years look very bad in comparison. But then again, what doesn’t? If we see a return to this tradition, we’re really only getting started in thinking about the proper uses of American power and influence in the world.


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2008 08 09
Recently read: “The Dark Side”


Jane Mayer. The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals

After the scandal of Abu Grieb, the Bush administration insisted that the torture and abuse of detainees had been the work of a few bad apples. But of course the abuse was only a manifestation of a much deeper rot, for which top officials bore primary responsibility. I’ve sometimes had the impression of similar excuse-making in the attitudes of even some of the fiercest critics of the Bush administration, in the claim that the Bush administration represents a radical and unprecedented break with the past. It strikes me as naive to depict the Bush administration as a few bad apples, in an otherwise upright tradition legal and ethical conduct. On the contrary, the Bush administration seems to me part of a larger moral and legal rot that is systemic, and has unfortunately deep roots in American political culture (alongside much more admirable tendencies and traditions).

Jane Meyer’s new book The Dark Side has helped me to reflect on, and to a certain extent, modify, these assumptions. Mayer is familiar with the Church Committee, and with past American abuses of power. She doesn’t base her argument for a significant break with the past on what the Bush administration has done so much as on the legal arguments that the administration has advanced, most often in secrecy, to defend and support its policies. Much of this is new, and its long-term consequences are likely to be wretched.

A great deal of the action in Mayer’s book is, for this reason, legal. The new legal doctrines advanced by David Addington, Cheney’s legal counsel for the period covered by the book, and John Yoo, among others, were fiercely resisted by other lawyers in the administration. Meyer meticulously details the legal arguments and maneuvers used by various parties to this debate against the background of events in the so-called War on Terror.

Mayer book is, as far as I can tell, balanced, careful, and accurate, while rarely engaging in the pointless he-said/she-said style of reporting that so many journalists use to avoid the implications of their reporting. When an official lies, she points it out, clearly and unequivocally. A book like this is difficult to ignore, if you care at all about moral and legal issues surrounding torture and the Bush administration’s policies. If even a quarter of the book is accurate, the United States would only need to be a country serious about following its own laws for hundreds of people, from the President on down, to be put on trial for torture and other serious crimes.


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2008 01 19
Canadian foreign minister Maxime Bernier caves under pressure, lies


Pathetic.


Howls of outrage (5)

2008 01 15
How policies fit together


Smart people keep writing that the leading Democratic candidates have similar domestic policies, and appear to differ mainly in their foreign policies. In particular, Hillary Clinton seems to be widely (and correctly, I think) viewed as more hawkish and militarily adventurous than Obama. But as I’ve said before, it just doesn’t make sense to say that candidates have similar domestic policies but that their foreign policies are different. If they have different foreign policies, and in particular, if Clinton’s foreign policy is significantly more costly (as I think I would be) than Obama’s, then they surely wouldn’t be able to accomplish the same things domestically. It’s one and the same president trying to get both agendas through, and with finite political and economic resources.

This is not to say that this is a zero sum game. While it seems obvious to me that continuing a costly and unpopular war would seriously damage a president’s ability to move on an ambitious domestic agenda, it’s also obvious that foreign policy successes (like getting out of Iraq), or non-failures, would generate more political capital that a president could use domestically.


Howls of outrage (10)

2007 11 22
Getting ready to pressure Iran or getting ready to bomb it?


Commenter Spaz sends me this today, which certainly looks ominous.

Massive, devastating air strikes, a full dose of “shock and awe” with hundreds of bunker-busting bombs slicing through concrete at more than a dozen nuclear sites across Iran is no longer just the idle musing of military planners and uber-hawks.

Although air strikes don’t seem imminent as the U.S.-Iranian drama unfolds, planning for a bombing campaign and preparing for the geopolitical blowback has preoccupied military and political councils for months.

No one is predicting a full-blown ground war with Iran. The likeliest scenario, a blistering air war that could last as little as one night or as long as two weeks, would be designed to avoid the quagmire of invasion and regime change that now characterizes Iraq. But skepticism remains about whether any amount of bombing can substantially delay Iran’s entry into the nuclear-weapons club.

Well, I certainly hope not, since among other awful consequences, it would make me look bad: I’ve staked the reputation of this august blog on the U.S. not bombing Iran any time during Bush’s second term.

I think I’ll stick with my original predictions, though with slightly furrowed brows. I think it’s good evidence that the U.S. wants to try to pressure Iran and U.S. allies into making some sort of progress in talks, not that the U.S. is actually going to bomb Iran. I think there’s a lot of resistance to that course of action in the military, and more resistance to it among America’s political class than you might guess on first encountering the perverse incentives in American political culture to err on the side of bellicose rhetoric. Also, this is nonsense:

Attacked and humiliated, Iran might be tempted, as Mr. Ahmadinejad has suggested, to strike back, although Iran has limited military options.

Not just nonsense, but, even more important, widely understood to be nonsense. Iran has the ability to make the U.S. much more miserable in Iraq than it currently is, and probably has the ability to hit U.S. targets all over the world if it really comes down to it. Indeed, I think I would be somewhat less safe personally in New York if Bush ever did get it into his fool head to do something as rash as order a bombing campaign of Iran.


Howls of outrage (3)

2007 11 04
Pakistan and India


Lots of talk this morning about Musharraf’s decision to declare a state of emergency. The focus in the U.S. is understandably on just how fucked the U.S. is here. But I’d like to take this moment to remind people how totally fucked India is. India’s decision to go nuclear always looked dumb, since prior to going nuclear it already had a balance of conventional power on the subcontinent. Going nuclear forced Pakistan to go nuclear, which had the effect of evening things out somewhat between the countries. But now that Pakistan is teetering on the brink of – what? A coup of some sort perhaps? Some other kind of disintegration? – whatever it’s on the brink of, India has to sit and watch and wonder who will be next to take over this unstable power, which has nuclear weapons in part because of India’s incredibly stupid adventures in strategery. Nice!


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2007 08 04
Domestic and international policies


Here’s a point I’ve been meaning to make for a while now: When you’re looking at the platforms of candidates in the Democratic primaries, you can’t judge the domestic and international policies and priorities of the candidates independently of one another. If a candidate, such as, oh, just to take a random example, Hillary Clinton, favours Bush-li— excuse me, a more aggressive foreign policy posture that is likely to keep troops entangled in Iraq for a long time, that policy is bound to interfere in all sorts of ways with that candidate’s ability to achieve goals on domestic issues. Wars are costly, not just in the funds that need to be appropriated to them, but also in the political capital that they drain away from a politician when they’re unpopular or controversial.


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2007 04 08
North Korea arms Ethiopians as U.S. assents


That’s the big news today. It isn’t that the U.S. (appears to have) actively helped Ethiopia get spare arms parts from the North Koreans; just that it allowed a transaction to go through at a time when it was useful for the U.S. to be able to help Ethiopia out with Somalia.

For this to make sense, you would need to believe that the success of Ethiopia’s Somalia project is more valuable than:

a) imposing an actual embargo on North Korea;
b) retaining U.S. credibility on the issue of nuclear proliferation in general;
c) building support for U.S. policies with respect to North Korea.

U.S. support for Ethiopia’s actions in Somalia didn’t make sense to me before I learned that the Bush administration was willing to engage in this kind policy trade-off. But even if there were good reasons to back Ethiopia, it’s hard to believe it could be worth this price. I just don’t understand why the Bush administration would put so much energy into a Security Council resolution and then undermine it three months later while at the same time acting very huffy about the prospect of anyone else undermining the same resolution. It’s just bizarre and irrational.


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