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Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.

Save Tariq Aziz!

Lots of people have weighed in to condemn the planned execution of Tariq Aziz, the former Iraqi official who was condemned to death this week, including the Vatican, Russia, and Amnesty International. Let me add my voice to theirs.

The hanging judge in this particular kangaroo court is a former aide to Prime Minister Maliki, who ran for election on Maliki’s misnamed State of Law coalition. It’s clear that Maliki wants to use the execution of Tariq Aziz, a Roman Catholic, to build support for his party among the most extreme Shiite partisans. Like Maliki’s support for the pre-election shenanigans in January, when Iran and Ahmed Chalabi maneuvered to exclude hundreds of legitimate candidates from running over charges of connections to the old Baath Party, Maliki wants to wave the bloody shirt of Tariq Aziz to rally his supporters. The fact that he’s not a Muslim makes that even more popular among Shiite radicals.

Anyone who dealt with Iraq from the 1970s through 2003 knows that Tariq Aziz shouldn’t be put to death for crimes committed during the Saddam Hussein era. As a civilian official, he was often a moderating voice within Iraqi councils, including during the first Gulf War in 1990-91, and he certainly wasn’t responsible for internal repression by the secret police. The biggest irony in the whole affair is that the very people who’ve condemned him to death, led by functionaries of the secretive, Islamic fundamentalist Dawa party led by Prime Minister Maliki, are themselves responsible for atrocities at least on the scale of the repression visited on the Shiites and Kurds in the old Iraq.

Since taking over in Baghdad in 2003, the Shiite majority has been responsible for tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths, carried out by Shiite death squads under the command of the Badr Corps, the militia of the former Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Sadrist Mahdi Army, now allied to Maliki’s political bloc, and by Dawa fanatics, too, who helped run infamous prisons in Iraq where many innocent Sunnis were tortured or killed. It should be noted that in 1980, soon after becoming Iraq’s deputy prime minister, assassins from Dawa, backed by Iran, threw a grenade that almost killed Aziz and did kill a number of others. At the time, the new regime of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran was bent on expanding its power by toppling the government of Iraq, and Dawa—which had been responsible for other terrorist acts in Iraq, too, over the years—helped raise tensions that provoked the eight-year Iran-Iraq was that began in September 1980.

A spokesman for the Vatican, Federico Lombardi, said, “We really want the sentence against Tariq Aziz not to be carried out.” Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, warned that killing Aziz “will only worsen the situation in Iraq.” Part of the reason why Iraq wants him dead, and why the United States hasn’t intervened on his behalf, is that Aziz reportedly plans to spill secrets about Iraq’s diplomacy over the decades that he served as foreign minister, including American contacts with Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, when Washington tilted to favor Baghdad over Tehran.

Aziz, who has been in prison since 2003 after surrendering to US forces, is frail, ill, and harmless, and he's someone who has a lot of history to tell. He can appeal his sentence, and his execution can be avoided. But given Maliki's desperate scramble to hold onto his job, it's looking like Aziz will be a human sacrifice.

Afghanistan: Are We Succeeding or Not? Does It Matter?

The report in the Washington Post today—and it’s stunning headline, “Taliban unscathed by US strikes”—raises critical questions about the choices facing Obama going forward in Afghanistan. The Post’s key point is that US intelligence agencies have concluded that the Taliban is “maintaining its resilience,” that it has been able to “reestablish and rejuvenate,” that it replaces its killed or captured commanders “in a matter of days” or melts away safely when under concerted attack, and that the Taliban’s leadership is convinced that its winning and that “the end is near.”

This report directly contradicts rosy assessments from General David Petraeus and the military command that the United States has the Taliban reeling in Kandahar as a result of the current offensive there. My question, concerning Obama’s paradoxical escalate-and-withdraw Afghanistan strategy,  is: Does it matter?

In other words, if General Petraeus’ 100,000-plus troops are succeeding, does it make a drawdown in Afghanistan more likely—or less likely?

This isn’t a random question. During the worst of the war in Iraq, the same question arose: if the 2007 “surge” succeeded in damping down violence and stabilizing Iraq, did that mean that the United States could claim victory and leave? Or did it mean that the military would argue that because the additional troops stabilized the conflict, it would be necessary to keep them there far longer in order to preserve the gains that were made?

In Iraq, in the end, violence did decrease during 2007-2008—for many reasons, including the fact that tens of thousands of Sunni insurgents switched sides and because Iran pressure Shiite insurgents to stand down. The result was the 2008 accord, signed by the Bush administration, that fixed a three-year timetable for the withdrawal of all American forces. At the time, many hawks warned that a too-rapid drawdown would jeopardize those gains, even as Obama was arguing (during the campaign) for a sixteen-month timetable for the removal of US combat forces. (On taking office, those sixteen months extended to nineteen months, until August 2009, when the last brigade of US combat forces was removed.) 

On Afghanistan, here’s the question: In December, 2010, the White House has promised to review progress (or lack of it) in the war, with a view to policy going forward, including how many troops will start to leave Afghanistan next July, how fast, and on what timetable.

 If Petraeus comes into that meeting arguing that the surge is working, that the Taliban is on the run, and that Afghanistan’s rebellious provinces of Kandahar and Helmand are being pacified, what does that mean for Obama’s strategy? Does it mean that the president can say, “Okay, we’ve kicked butt, and now we can get the heck outta there?”  Or does it mean that Petraeus will argue that precisely because of these successes, the United States needs to hang in there, for the long haul, or risk a Taliban comeback?

Or, the opposite: if Petraeus, the Pentagon, and the US intelligence community come into the December review with a bleak report, admitting that the Taliban is still strong across the entire country, that neither Kandahar and Helmand are pacified, that the Afghan National Army can’t fight the insurgents even in relatively stable districts, when then? Does Obama say to the military—as implied in Bob Woodward’s latest book, Obama’s Wars—“Okay, you generals had your chance, and it can’t be done. We’re getting outta there.” Or will Petraeus argue that he needs more time, more troops, more money?

The question answers itself. Either way, whether Petraeus claims success or not, Obama can order the troops home, with a handy rationale for doing so. And either way—success or failure—Petraeus can make his case for staying. So it’s clear that the decision that Obama makes between December 2010 and July 2011 will be the result of politics and policy choices.

Crocker on Iraq: Baghdad Will Ask US to Extend Its Military Role

If nothing else, Ryan Crocker is an optimist. Speaking to a conference sponsored last week by the National Council on US-Arab Relations (NCUSAR), Crocker laid out what can only be called a rosy, if not Pollyanna-like, view of Iraq's future as a friend and ally of the United States.

Crocker, of course, was ambassador to Iraq from 2007–09 (the "surge years") and, before that, ambassador to Pakistan (2004–07). He's a longtime Arabist, having also served as America's ambassador in Syria, Kuwait,and Lebanon, as well as posts in Egypt, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East. Currently, he's the dean of the George Bush School of Government at Texas A&M, which, it should be pointed out, is named after Bush 41, not the bungling, neoconservative-bewitched Bush 43 ("W."). The audience that Crocker addressed was very establishment, since NCUSAR is sponsored by the US military-industrial complex (Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman) along with Exxon Mobil, Chevron, and their allies in the oil-rich Gulf Arab states.

In his remarks, Crocker downplayed Iran's role in Iraq, and he suggested that when the dust clears in the formation of a new government in Iraq that Baghdad would come to the United States to ask for an extension of the US military presence beyond the end of 2011. By that date, according to the accord signed in 2008 by the Bush administration, all US troops are to leave Iraq. But Crocker said that it is "quite likely that the Iraqi government is going to ask for an extension of our deployed presence."

He added, perhaps for the benefit of the many defense contractors in the audience, that the United States will probably be called on to supply heavy military equipment to Iraq, including battle tanks and combat aircraft, both of which the Iraqi armed forces currently lack. Such a resupply effort by the American military-industrial complex will start in earnest in the 2013-2015 time period, Crocker suggested.

He also predicted that Prime Minister Maliki would return to that office, atop a broad-based government that would include Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. He outlined innumerable problems that Iraq faces—a refugee crisis, Arab-Kurd tensions, countless disputed internal boundaries, the leftover forces of the Sons of Iraq (the old sahwa or Awakening movement)—but he expressed optimism that Iraq will deal with each of these. And he called the United States the "indispensable outside power" that can "help to broker compromises."

The notion that Maliki, who has recently established an alliance with Muqtada al-Sadr, can form a government that might include Sadr but exclude former Prime Minister Allawi and his Iraqiya bloc recently set off alarm bells in Washington. Allawi's bloc represents secular Shiites, anti-Iran nationalists and most Sunnis, and it is generally anti-Iran and pro-American. Sadr, who lives in Iran and whose support for Maliki was reportedly engineered by Tehran, isn't likely to want to come to the United States to ask for an extension of the US military presence beyond 2011, as Crocker predicts. But it's likely that the Kurds, who hold the balance of power, will refuse to back Maliki unless the prime minister cuts a deal with Allawi, too, undermining Sadr's clout. The Kurds, though mostly pro-American, are heavily influenced by Iran, too, and are caught in the middle.

After the spoke, I interviewed Crocker. When I asked about the Maliki-Sadr pact, he said: "The Sadr-Maliki relationship is fundamentally difficult and unstable. It fell apart once before. We'll see how long it lasts this time. I'm not overly concerned about the Sadr-Maliki alliance."

I asked Crocker about Iran's role. "Iran is going to try to control or dominate affairs in Iraq," he said. "But Iranian influence is self-limiting. The harder they push, the more resistance they get." He said that Iran still supports various armed militia in Iraq, but that Iraqi nationalism will assert itself against Iran.

So far, unlike during the Bush administration, the Obama administration has chosen not to engage Iran over Iraq diplomatically. When he was ambassador, Crocker held a series of meetings with Iran's then-ambassador in Baghdad, a senior official of the Revolutionary Guard, to discuss US-Iran cooperation. When I asked Crocker about whether the resumption of such a dialogue might be useful now, he expressed some reservations. "The Obama administration has rightly said that it would agree to discuss a range of issues with Iran," said Crocker. But he said that Washington must be very careful about any effort that might make it look like Washington and Tehran were talking about Iraq's future without Baghdad's consent. "The Iraqis are very sensitive to that," he said. 

True enough. (Also, the Gulf Arabs, especially Saudi Arabia, are paranoid about better relations between the United States and Iran, since they think it might come at their expense.) But Iran has been pushing hard for influence in the next Iraqi government, and behind the scenes it has a lot of clout with Maliki, his secretive Dawa party and many of his security officials. So far, Allawi is resisting a deal with Maliki, claiming that since he won the most votes (gaining ninety-one seats in parliament to Maliki's eighty-nine) he ought to have the prime minister's job or at least kingmaker's role. In recent weeks, it's been reported that Allawi has made a deal with another Shiite bloc, including the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the Fadhila party, to let one of their top officials, ISCI's Adel Abdel Mahdi, become prime minister. But there's no way that Maliki will step down in favor of Allawi and Abdel Mahdi. Thus, Crocker—and the United States more generally—seem to have accepted Maliki's re-election, provided he can swing a deal with Allawi as a junior partner.

It's encouraging that Iran has recently joined talks with the United States and other world powers over the future of Afghanistan. It's encouraging that talks between Iran and the United States, along with the rest of the P5+1, are likely going to restart next month over Iran's nuclear program. It would be even more encouraging if the Obama administration would start talking actively to Iran about Iraq, too.

Neocon Hatchetman at AEI Denounces Talks With Taliban

Some foreign policy analysts are pedantic and boring. Some, while relatively more lively and interesting, make occasional mistakes and regret them. (I put myself in that category.) And some are just stupid, and wrong nearly all the time.

But Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute is in a category all to himself. Rubin, an upstart neoconservative who served in the Pentagon under Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, is not only wrong all the time, but he is so belligerent, bombastic and bloodthirsty about it that he is the a near-perfect think- tank equivalent of a serial killer.

Latest case in point (and there are many): Rubin’s diatribe in National Review against the idea of talking to the Taliban.

It’s no secret that over the past several years, there have been on-again, off-again efforts to start a dialogue with the Taliban, including the leadership of the so-called Quetta Shura. In most of them, the Taliban’s former allies in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Pakistan have taken the lead in trying to bring the Taliban to the table, with modest support from the UK and France. The Karzai government in Afghanistan has been open to such talks, but until recently the United States has been staunchly opposed. That changed over the summer, as the Obama administration switched gears and sided with those who say that a negotiated deal with the Taliban is the only way out of the Afghan quagmire.

Rubin disagrees, and in doing so he sounds a bit like Arlo Guthrie in “Alice’s Restaurant,” who zealously told army recruiters “I wanna kill!” (In Rubin’s case, he means it.) Hyperbolically, Rubin goes as far as comparing the Taliban to the genocidal, Pol Po–led Khmer Rouge, who slaughtered millions. For Rubin, diplomacy is well and good, but only after the Taliban is utterly crushed militarily. He writes:

Diplomacy may be a tool in the American arsenal, but engagement is not cost-free. Reconciliation can work, but only after a decisive Taliban defeat: The only path to victory--and U.S. security--is to defeat the Taliban leadership, wherever they may be. Talking to the Taliban now is not an exit strategy; it is at best a diversion, and at worst a strategy for defeat.

And Rubin’s diatribe includes this gem, dragging out the absurd, neoconservative canard that America is ever willing to reward its enemies and spurn its allies:

Indeed, America's Afghan allies worry that Karzai, himself a former Taliban official, will sacrifice them on the altar of appeasement. "Once again, America rewards its enemies at the expense of its allies," a former cabinet member complained.

If the talks with the Taliban make any progress—and that’s not guaranteed—you can expect other diehard neoconservatives to weigh in with arch, Rubin-like denunciations, too. To be sure, there are a countless obstacles in the way of the current talks. The Karzai government, which is taking the lead, isn’t exactly a credible negotiating partner because it is so weak and disorganized. Pakistan, which has enormous influence over the Taliban, isn’t likely to let things move forward unless its paranoid view of its national interest in Afghanistan is protected. Non-Pashtun Afghans, including those allied to Iran, India and Russia, are already rearming in case whatever deal Karzai and the Taliban come up with seems a bridge too far. India, Pakistan’s rival, won’t easily let Islamabad get an advantage in Afghanistan 2.0, the regime that emerges after a settlement with the Taliban. And the United States, though apparently facilitating the high-level talks, does not appear to have a clear strategy going forward; above all, there’s little indication that the Obama administration is conducting the kind of intensive diplomacy it ought to with Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran, China and other interested parties to make sure that the talks actually succeed.

But know-nothings like Rubin—and his ilk at The Weekly Standard, National Review, Commentary and other rags— are already squawking. There'll be more to come. The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.

Can Karzai Cut Pakistan Out of a Deal With the Taliban? No

Is President Karzai trying to cut Pakistan out of the Taliban talks and isolate Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader? If so, the current initiative isn't likely to succeed. But the New York Times reports today that even though "Taliban commanders from the highest levels of the group's leadership" have been ferried back and forth from Pakistan to Kabul, even flying on NATO aircraft, the talks "appear to be unfolding without the approval of Pakistan's leaders." Uh-oh.

Last February, Pakistan shut down an earlier round of Afghanistan-Taliban talks by arresting key participants, including the then–number-two Taliban official, Mullah Baradur.

The Times article suggests that this time, too, Pakistan's ISI intelligence service will halt the talks. And it includes this curious paragraph:

Cutting Mullah Omar out of the negotiations appears to represent an attempt by Afghan leaders to drive a wedge into the upper ranks of the Taliban leadership. Though there is some disagreement among Afghan officials, many regard Mullah Omar as essentially a prisoner of the Pakistani security establishment who would be unable to exercise any independence.

I'm not sure that the Afghan government, weak as it is, is in any position to drive wedges into the Taliban leadership, especially without Pakistan's full support. And Karzai hasn't seemed intent on alienating Pakista—quite the opposite. Over the summer, Karzai fired two top officials of his government, his intelligence chief and his interior minister, because they were anti-Pakistan (and too pro-India).

Of course, starting talks with the Taliban and succeeding are two different things, whether or not Pakistan wants to be helpful or not.

Marvin Weinbaum, a former US intelligence official who is now at the Middle East Institute, is a skeptic. He says that regardless of the current round of contacts, it's very unlikely that the Taliban wants a deal. "There really isn't the basis for a Grand Bargain," he told me. The Taliban leadership are zealots, he said, who won't succumb to offers of a share of power. "When you talk to the Taliban, all you are doing is testing their faith," he says. Even military pressure, of the kind the that United States and its special forces units are putting on the Taliban, won't cause its leaders to compromise, he says. "The military pressure isn't going to work with them.

Weinbaum says that inside Afghanistan the anti-Taliban, non-Pashtun forces in the north and west of the country, including the remnants of the old Northern Alliance (NA) that fought the Taliban in the 1990s, won't easily agree to a deal with the Taliban, either, which is a huge problem for Karzai. Fearing that the Taliban might make a comeback, the Northern Alliance and its allies are rearming, securing weapons from Central Asia and other allies, Weinbaum says, in preparation for a potential civil war. And the ANA, the Afghan army that is being built brick by brick by the United States and NATO, would fragment and fall apart if there's a deal with the Taliban, with many of the ANA troops joining the NA. "If there's a chance that [the Taliban] would return, the army would break up," he says.

Caroline Wadhams, who leads the Afghanistan-Pakistan work at the Center for American Progress, agrees that the non-Pashtun forces in the north are preparing for civil war, if it comes to that. "I've heard about rearming in the north," she told me. "Part of it stems from the fear that if everything collapses, regardless of the peace talks, there'd be a return to civil war." Karzai, she says, is taking a great risk that people in Afghanistan's north and west would oppose the reconciliation with the Taliban that Karzai is trying to bring about. Both Wadhams and Weinbaum said that Karzai was at pains to name people to the High Peace Council (HPC), including former President Rabbani, who could help persuade northerners that a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan isn't in the cards. Rabbani's job, says Weinbaum, is "to say to the north 'there's not going to be a deal that you can't subscribe to.' "

"By putting Rabbani at the HPC, Karzai's trying to get these people within the process," she says. But many, such as Abdullah Abdullah—who challenged Karzai in the fraud-marred election last summer—are refusing to participate, she says.

Some, such as Amrullah Saleh, the former chief of Afghan intelligence, are actively campaigning against Karzai and his talks with the Taliban.

That's why it's critical for the United States and NATO to involve India in the talks as soon as possible. India isn't opposed to talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban, but they'd go ballistic if Pakistan gets the inside track. So if Obama is serious about jump-starting diplomacy to end the war in advance of the July, 2011, deadline he's set for the start of a US drawdown, he'd better concentrate on getting both India and Pakistan on board.

Another key player, Iran, seems to be getting on board. For the first time, Iran took part in talks this week involving more than forty countries involved in Afghanistan. Iran has a lot of influence with Hazara Afghans in the west. Iran's participation in the latest round of discussions over Afghanistan was orchestrated by Michael Steiner, the German ambassador for Afghanistan and Pakistan. More and more, it appears that the Europeans just want out. The upcoming NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal, will focus almost exclusively on what NATO calls "transition," that is, the transfer of security responsibility from NATO to the Afghans themselves (which is German for "we're gettin' outta here"). Or, as Steiner put it more diplomatically, "What we expect from Lisbon is a kickstart for next year starting this transition process." The rough timetable for NATO is not too different from Obama's: start withdrawing foreign forces in 2011 and finish by 2014, leaving behind a far smaller number of trainers and advisers.

Sherrod Brown Seeing 'Reds' Over China Trade

In an op-ed in today’s New York Times, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown is seeing Reds.

Calling on his Senate colleagues to hurry up and vote on House-passed legislation that would sanction China over alleged currency abuses, Brown makes this unfortunate analogy that, I suppose, he thought was funny: 

Our exports to China have increased. But reporting only exports is like reporting just one team’s score in baseball: the Cubs scoring five runs sounds good, until you hear that the Reds tallied 12.

Excuse me? The Reds? Now, I realize that "Reds" is the name of the beloved Cincinnati ballclub in Brown's home state. I also know that back in the bad old days of the cold war, the Reds changed their name to the "Redlegs" to appease anticommunists. (When passions eased, they started calling themselves the Reds again, and by then the focus of fanaticism had changed. The celebrated Tampa Bay Devil Rays changed their name to the simpler “Rays,” apparently to assuage Christian conservative who through that maybe the team's owners were counting on Satan to add a few miles per hour to Devil Rays' fastballs.)

Those who’ve read my recent piece in The Nation, "China in the Driver’s Seat," know that I don’t think that sanctioning China is a productive idea, and neither do folks such as Robert Reich. It’s crass electoral politics, and that’s bad enough. But adding “Reds” into the mix makes it worse.

Palestine: Ambassador Warns That Time Is Running Out for Two-State Solution

Maen Areikat, Palestine's ambassador to the United States, said this week that he is hopeful about the current effort to reach an accord between Israel and the Palestinians, but he warned that time is short, and that perhaps only two years remain before all hope for a two-state solution vanishes. "I still have some hope that the current [US] administration will translate its ideas into action ... in the next two years," he said. But if nothing happens in the next 24 months, he warned, "It is possible that we wll be past the point of a two-state solution."

The implication was that if a two-state solution won't work, a binational state mixing Jews and Arabs would be the only option left.

Speaking at a small dinner organized by the New America Foundation and the Palestinian Business Committee for Peace and Reform on October 14, Areikat added that political pressure is building on the leadership of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Fatah, and the Palestine Liberation Organization, but that the leadership won't be able to support that idea indefinitely without tangible progress."Right now the PLO is committed to a two-state solution, but the leadership is  not going to be able to defend that," he said.

Opposition to resuming talks with a stubborn and intransigent Prime Minister Netanyahu, who insists on defending Israel's illegal settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem, comes not only from Hamas, but from the Palestinian left and within the ranks of Fatah, too, he said. At least two-thirds of Palestinians continue to support a two-state solution and do not support the use of violence to achieve the goal of a Palestinian  state, according to Areikat, but frustation is growing quickly. "The dream of an independent Palestinian state is getting more remote every day," he declared. He said that Palestinians are prepared to accept a third-party military presence for security purposes if Israel vacates the West Bank, whether in the form of a multinational force, NATO, or US forces. But that progress is needed now.

Among the options talked about, he suggested, were the unilateral declaration of a government by the PA, an approach to the United Nations for a takeover or trusteeship in the occupied territories, or even the dissolution of the PA.

He rejected suggestions that Netanyahu is constrained by the right-wing coalition that he leads. Netanyahu, said Areikat, could throw out the most extreme elements of this coalition and strike a deal with Kadima, more moderate, centrist party that was created when former Ariel Sharon's Likud bloc split.

NATO Backs Taliban Peace Talks

Momentum is building on peace talks to end the war in Afghanistan.

Not long ago, I reported on General Petraeus’s comments that the Taliban was signaling an interest in talking peace with President Karzai’s government. It was also reported that not only had talks gotten started, but that the talks involved senior Taliban representatives who could speak for the Quetta Shura Taliban, the top leadership council in Quetta, Pakistan. And it was reported that sometime last summer, the Obama administration shifted policy, abandoning its previous view that talks with the Taliban would be useless until the insurgents were pushed to the brink of military defeat, and that now the White House is ready to fully engage in search of a political settlement.

Today, it’s widely reported (in the Post, the Times, RFE/RL, and many other outlets) that the movement of Taliban leaders from Pakistan to Afghanistan and back was facilitated by the United States, NATO, and ISAF. At a NATO meeting in Brussels, Secretary Clinton and Secretary Gates said that the United States would do “whatever it takes” to support Karzai’s plan to reconcile with the Taliban.

According to AP, the head of the newly appointed High Peace Council in Afghanistan, former president Burnahuddin Rabbani—no softie when it comes to the Taliban—said that he's "convinced that the Taliban are ready to negotiate peace."

That’s a direct shift from the administration’s refusal to support Karzai’s peace talks proposals since 2009, especially his January 2010 suggestion in London, which caught US officials off guard and led some, including Richard (“Don’t call me Dick!") Holbrooke to fulminate against the idea. Specifically, Holbrooke denounced the idea of taking top Taliban leaders off the UN blacklist, something that many Taliban officials and supporters of peace talks believe is critical to facilitate talks.

Until recently, the United States supported only “reintegration,” that is, the inclusion of low-level Taliban defectors into Afghan society. But it opposed “reconciliation,” meaning full-on peace talks with the Taliban organization. That seems to be changing.

Until now, the United States has demanded that the Taliban accept the Afghan constitution, renounce violence, and reject Al Qaeda. The Taliban, for its part, has one central condition: the withdrawal of US and NATO forces from the country. The July 2011 deadline that President Obama has set for the start of an American withdrawal could easily serve as a starting point for a deal with the Taliban over an American departure, and Taliban leaders have said so.

Despite the postive noises from Gates and Clinton, it's unlikely that either is behind the shift in American policy. (Indeed, it's good that Gates will be leaving the administration soon, since his appointment was probably the single worst that Obama made on after being elected.) If anyone is behind the policy change, it's Obama himself, now fortified by Tom Donilon, the new national security adviser, who is widely known to be a skeptic of the war. In fact, according to Bob Woodward's latest book, Obama's Wars, Gates said that if Donilon ever became national security adviser it would be a "disaster." (Goodbye, Mr. Gates!) The other leading skeptic in the White House is Vice President Biden, and Donilon's wife is a senior official on Biden's staff.

Iraq: New Alliance Takes Shape Against Maliki-Sadr Bloc

One week after Iraq’s Prime Minister Maliki announced an alliance with Muqtada al-Sadr, the fiercely anti-American cleric who leads the Mahdi Army militia, a new coalition is taking shape to undermine the Maliki-Sadr bloc. The new alliance may have the backing of Turkey, Syria and Saudi Arabia, and the tacit support of the United States.

The new alliance comes as the United States is expressing something close to panic about the idea of Sadr having an important role in the next Iraqi government.

In a meeting on Tuesday, the Iraqiya bloc, the Sunni-secular party led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, held a tumultuous meeting at which Iraqiya decided to throw its support behind a rival candidate for prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, according to an Iraqi source who took part in the Iraqiya deliberations. More than seven months after the March 7 election, Abdul Mahdi and Allawi hope to establish a coalition to govern Iraq, toppling Maliki, isolating Sadr and bringing the Kurds into their alignment. Allawi and Abdul Mahdi will travel to the Iraq’s Kurdish region to meet with Masoud Barzani, the Kurdish leader and most important power broker for the Kurds, to get his support.

In the March 7 vote, Allawi’s Iraqiya won a plurality, securing ninety-one seats in the 325-member parliament. Maliki’s party won eighty-nine. But a fractious Shiite alliance and the Kurds hold the balance of power. The Iraqi National Alliance, the Shiite bloc, seems to be falling apart at the seams, with one component—Sadr’s forty votes—joining with Maliki and the rest, including the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), which includes Abdul Mahdi, now seeming to have cast its lot with Allawi’s movement.

Syria is playing a critical outside role. Earlier this month, President Assad of Syria consulted with Allawi, privately, in Damascus, and asked Allawi if he could accept a second term for Maliki. According to Iraqi sources, Allawi told Assad no. Assad then traveled to Tehran, Iran, which has great influence with many of Iraq’s Shiite players, to see if Tehran would accommodate Allawi, but Iran—which strongly opposes Allawi, in part because of his base among Iraqi Sunnis—flatly refused. Simultaneously, Sadr—who lives in Iran, and who has become increasingly dependent on Iran for support—announced his alliance with Maliki. Assad, discouraged, returned to Damascus empty-handed, and he now seems to have thrown his support to the anti-Maliki bloc. Yesterday, Assad visited Turkey, which favors Iraq’s Sunni parties, and the two neighbors of Iraq declared their intent to work together to solve Iraq’s post-election crisis.

The alliance between Assad and Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey is getting widespread coverage in the Middle East, as both leaders say that they intend to mediate in the Iraqi political crisis. Said Erdogan: “Turkey is in close cooperation with the groups in Iraq and their leaders as it was a country sharing agony and happiness with Iraq. We will try to help if they ask us to. The failure in the establishment of a new government in Iraq and continuation of uncertainties make not only Iraqi people but also surrounding countries uneasy.”

And Assad added: “To discuss this topic does not mean that we, as Iraq's neighboring countries, Syria, Turkey or others, are speaking on behalf of the Iraqis. The work and decision remain for the Iraqis.”

Maliki, determined to hold on to his job as prime minister, has scheduled a visit to Damascus himself to Wednesday. Maliki is trying to portray his trip to Syria as a routine one. But it’s clear that Maliki is aiming to persuade Assad not to support the Allawi-ISCI coalition. Maliki’s visit is unusual because only last year, when a series of huge bomb attacks struck Baghdad, Maliki blamed Syria for orchestrating the bombings in concern with elements of the former Baath Party.

In China-Bashing in the 2010 Election, Echoes of the Cold War

If you've read my recent cover story for The Nation magazine, "China in the Driver's Seat," you know that I'm not a supporter of sanctioning China over its trade policy and that I think there's a troubling tendency in the United States today to blame or scapegoat China for America's ills. There is, unfortunately, a convergence of left and right on bashing China these days. On the left, criticism of China mostly revolves around allegations that China is somehow responsible for the loss of American manufacturing jobs over the past quarter-century, and that slapping harsh tariffs on China would make US-manufactured goods competitive again. On the right, the concern about China has more to do with China's emergence as a great power, complete with dire warnings from Washington think tanks, Republican politicians and neoconservative media outlets about Chinese military spending.

Now, according to the New York Times, China is becoming an issue in the 2010 election, with both Republicans and Democrats bashing Beijing in campaign ads and accusing opponents of kowtowing to the Chinese. This is dangerous nonsense, and it contains echoes—well, more than echoes of the cold war, when the "Who lost China?" debate fueled McCarthyism in the 1950s and fear of "Red China" built momentum for the war in Vietnam. No, the United States isn't going to war against China just yet—in fact, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is in Beijing today, in an effort to rebuild US-China military ties. But the Obama administration has taken a series of steps that, seen from Beijing, must look a lot like American military containment of China. In the past few months, the United States has confirmed a $6.4 billion arms deal for the island nation of Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway province. It has conducted needless, provocative naval maneuvers off South Korea, not far from China. It has started cooperating militarily with disreputable, violence-prone special operations forces in Indonesia. And it has butted into disputes between China and some of its neighbors around the South China Sea, adopting a clearly anti-China position. In addition, of course, the United States and NATO have troops astraddle the Afghanistan-China border—which, Chinese officials told me a year ago, during a visit to Beijing, look very much like a NATO military deployment to contain China. And the United States is still pressuring China over Iran, whose oil and gas resources are vital to China's economic expansion.

Which is why the campaign ads are so distressing.

According to the Times, "With many Americans seized by anxiety about the country's economic decline, candidates from both political parties have suddenly found a new villain to run against: China."

The tone of the ads is despicable and disgusting, from foreign-sounding Chinese music to stereotypical gongs to pictures of, yes, Chairman Mao.

Adds the Times:

Polls show that not only are Americans increasingly worried that the United States will have a lesser role in the years ahead; they are more and more convinced that China will dominate. In a Pew poll conducted in April, 41 percent of Americans said China was the world's leading economic power, slightly more than those who named the United States….

The ads are so vivid and pervasive that some worry they will increase hostility toward the Chinese and complicate the already fraught relationship between the two countries.

There's a downside, too, to the decision by the Norway-based Nobel Peace Prize committee to award the 2010 prize Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese dissident and author of a manifesto for human rights. It's well and good to draw attention to China's treatment of political dissidents and its harsh restrictions on free speech, meetings and Internet communications. But supporting dissidents from afar, whether through actions like the Nobel Prize or President Obama's recent speech at the UN, which carried a strong emphasis on human rights as a key component of US foreign policy, isn't likely to cause Chinese authorities to change their minds; if anything, it's more likely to cause them to crack down even harder. And back at home, in the United States, it feeds the growing paranoia and resentment of China that is building as a potentially ugly force.

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