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Bob Dreyfuss | The Nation

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Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

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

Feint to Exit?

What's tragic about President Obama's decision to dispatch tens of thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan is that even the president knows, I am sure, that escalation won't work. But the president is playing it safe, adding forces while broadly describing a medium-term exit strategy. Rather than throw the tank into reverse, the ever-cautious, politically careful Obama is executing a long, drawn-out, 180-degree turn that will probably take two or three years to execute.

Contrary to some analysts on the left who see Obama's plan as a Vietnam-style escalation, I see it as an unfortunate escalation feint while looking to the exit. Unfortunate, because a lot of Afghans (and quite a few Americans) will die in the process.

Briefed in advance about Obama's Tuesday night address, the New York Times reports today:

"President Obama plans to lay out a time frame for winding down the American involvement in the war in Afghanistan when he announces his decision this week to send more forces, senior administration officials said Sunday."

Adds the paper:

"The officials would not disclose the time frame. But they said it would not be tied to particular conditions on the ground nor would it be as firm as the current schedule for withdrawing troops in Iraq, where Mr. Obama has committed to withdrawing most combat units by August and all forces by the end of 2011."

In other words, Obama's exit timetable won't depend on whether the US is "winning" the war or whether the Afghan army is ready to take over. On the other hand, it won't be a firm schedule, so in fact it's possible that the war might be dragged out much longer than Obama envisions. Meanwhile, he's sending up to 30,000 forces, whose arrival will be staggered -- i.e., not all at once -- and no doubt many of those troops will be described as trainers of the no-account Afghan National Army and police.

Obama may or may not say so explicitly, but the way out has to involve a negotiated deal with the main insurgent force, the Taliban, and its allies, possibly including the disreputable warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, along with their sponsors in the Pakistani military and its intelligence service, the ISI. Our erstwhile allies in Europe are already saying so.

To wit, the Guardian describes Europe's attitude thus, and in no uncertain terms:

"A lengthy withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan will start unfolding towards the end of next year under plans to be agreed by allied powers at a conference in London in January."

Of course, the United States will be a participant in the London conference.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown, under great pressure on Afghanistan from antiwar sentiment, has outlined five benchmarks that are far more specific than the ones Obama is likely to announce tomorrow, including a requirement that the ANA take the lead in at least five Afghan provinces within one year. The Guardian also reports that a top British general, sent to Afghanistan to talk to "moderate" Taliban, is in fact openly backing President Karzai's effort to negotiate directly with the core Taliban leadership, the Quetta shura, based in Quetta, Pakistan:

"Meanwhile, it has emerged that British officials are pushing for peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban leadership, including Mullah Omar, founder of the Afghan Taliban, as part of an eventual exit strategy.

"Major General Richard Barrons said negotiations with the senior echelons of the Afghan Taliban leadership council – the Quetta shura – were being looked at, alongside the reintegration of insurgency fighters into civilian life.

"In his first interview since arriving in Afghanistan to begin talks with 'moderate' Taliban fighters, Barrons said British officials were backing extensive talks between Karzai's government and the Quetta shura, which is led by Mullah Omar and is responsible for directing much of the fighting against British forces in Helmand province.

"The disclosure is the first admission that the government is prepared to accept deals with the enemy."

Obama's as-yet-unannounced talk of an exit strategy is already drawing fire from the usual suspects, including the neoconservatives, the editorial board of the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and that noted expert on Afghanistan, Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, who said, appearing on Fox News yesterday:

"Talk of an exit strategy is exactly the wrong way to go. I certainly hope the president doesn't do that, because all that does is signal to the enemies and also to our allies, to the folks in Pakistan as well as the Afghanis, that we're not there to stay until the mission is accomplished."

So far, the US effort to "negotiate" with the Taliban has been aimed at so-called "non-ideological" Taliban, or what the military under General McChrystal likes to call the "economic Taliban," the tribal warriors who fight for money. As a recent piece in Time makes clear, that's the policy so far, and the US is planning to spend more than $1 billion to buy off Taliban elements. It's not a workable plan though, and it's the opposite of the strategy proposed by General Barrons of the UK, who favors direct talks with the "ideological" leaders of the Taliban. That, in turn, would require the full support of Pakistan. And getting Pakistan on board will take some tough-minded diplomacy, using US leverage over that military-dominated state and getting Pakistan's key allies, China and Saudi Arabia, to lean on the Pakistani army, too. Isn't diplomacy what Obama is supposed to be good at?

The Washington Post addresses the key issue of Pakistan in a report today by Karen de Young, who quotes a US official as follows:

"We can't succeed without Pakistan. You have to differentiate between public statements and reality. There is nobody who is under any illusions about this."

The Post reports that "despite the public and political attention focused on the number of new troops, Pakistan has been the hot core of the months-long strategy review," but it says:

"President Obama has offered Pakistan an expanded strategic partnership, including additional military and economic cooperation, while warning with unusual bluntness that its use of insurgent groups to pursue policy goals 'cannot continue.'

"The offer, including an effort to help reduce tensions between Pakistan and India, was contained in a two-page letter delivered to President Asif Ali Zardari this month by Obama national security adviser James L. Jones. It was accompanied by assurances from Jones that the United States will increase its military and civilian efforts in Afghanistan and that it plans no early withdrawal."

And that's the problem. If Obama thinks that making Pakistan feel safe and warm in the strategic embrace of the US is the solution, and if he thinks that the way to do that is to reassure Pakistan that the US "plans no early withdrawal" from Afghanistan, then Pakistan has us right where it wants us. Sixty years of unthinking US military support for Pakistan has created this dynamic, and it's long past time for the US to start thinking about reducing aid to Pakistan and using some tough-love strategy with the army and the ISI. It's tricky because if it done wrong, the result could be a nuclear war between Pakistan and India. (They've been to the brink before.) But it can be done right, and it's exactly that sort of regional diplomacy, involving Saudi Arabia, China, India, and Iran that must be part of the US exit strategy.

Unlike the neocons, who see US strategy in Afghanistan in the context of their ambitious plan for political-military domination of the Middle East and Central Asia, Obama's mindset is a more traditional one, a Kissingeresque balance-of-power strategy that foresees eventual US accommodation with rising powers in a multi-polar world. If only Obama would say so, and forthrightly put diplomacy and a negotiated deal in Afghanistan front and center.

A Kingdom of Bicycles No Longer

BEIJING -- Ambassador Yu Qingtai is China's point man on global warming. As special representative to the climate change talks for China's ministry of foreign affairs, Yu is a forceful advocate for China's view that while his country will do its part, the primary responsibility for fixing the problem rests squarely on the shoulders of the United States and other industrialized countries. And he bristles when reminded that many US experts put on the onus on China's rapidly growing economy and industrial might.

"There were those who came to China years ago and described us as a kingdom of bicycles," he says, when I mention some of that criticism. We're sitting in a conference room at the foreign ministry, where Yu has come to be questioned by a small group of journalists invited to Beijing by the Chinese People's Institute for Foreign Affairs. As China modernizes, he says, every Chinese citizen has the right to all of the modern industrial and transportation options enjoyed by, say, Americans – including the right to own a car. "We should not be expected to stay forever as a kingdom of bicycles!" he says.

He has a point.

"The environmental problems we face today are not the making of China and India," he says. The accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere has been growing for the past two centuries, during which Europe and the United States emerged as industrial powers. "Eighty percent of the gases in the atmosphere are the result of emissions by the developed countries, and on a per capita basis it is even more," he says. That's a view that has been widely accepted during worldwide climate-change talks through the United Nations and elsewhere, resulting in an international convention that calls upon the developed countries to take major steps to reduce carbon emissions while providing financial assistance and technology to less developed countries such as China and India. So far, however, no accord has been struck, and it isn't likely that a breakthrough will occur next month at the Copenhagen summit, either. The fund set up to provide financial aid to the Third World on climate change is virtually empty. How much is in it? I asked Yu. "Nothing," he answers.

Together, China and the United States account for about 40 percent of carbon emissions, with each country contributing roughly 20 percent, or one-fifth, of worldwide emissions. But on a per capita basis, the United States emits five times as much as China does. Yet that disparity doesn't prevent some analysts, such as Elizabeth Economy of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, a recognized expert on China and the environment, from suggesting that in the future China will have to bear most of the burden to reduce emissions. Last June, in congressional testimony, Economy said:

"The International Energy Agency estimates that China's energy-related CO2 emissions will be twice that of the United States by 2030 … China is on track to overwhelm the global effort to address climate change.

"The United States and the world need China to do more than any other country in terms of deviating from business as usual. This will not be cheap."

Economy admits that it's impossible, practically speaking, to require China (and India) to cut back on carbon dioxide emissions as dramatically as the United States and Europe must do. In fact, China is doing a lot – perhaps, in part, because it doesn't have to push legislation through a recalcitrant, filibuster-ridden. Quite apart from the international talks, China is taking steps of its own to reduce its emissions. From 2000 through 2008, China installed an enormous number of non-coal-burning power plants, increasing its wind energy capacity thirtyfold, doubling its hydroelectric capacity, and increasing its nuclear power generating capacity more than fourfold. China has planted billions of trees, raising the percent of its forested land from 12 percent to 18 percent of China's territory. They've set a series of ambitious goals for 2010, 2015 and 2020 for increasing energy efficiency, phasing out old and inefficient iron, steel and cement plants, eliminating subsidies to high-energy businesses, and investing heavily in hybrid cars, efficient lighting, and more.

Still, China gets about 70 percent of its electricity from coal-burning power plants, the chief culprits in CO2 emissions, and it's building more coal plants quickly. (Over the past 5 years, China has built more new coal plants than the entire existing, installed capacity of coal plants in the United States.)

But as Ambassador Yu points out, the West cannot expect China not to increase both its energy production and, thus, its emissions, as its economy (currently growing at roughly 8 percent per year, despite the after-effects of the financial crisis worldwide) skyrockets. "China currently is responsible for 20 percent of carbon emissions as the United States, on a per capita basis. Suppose we grow our economy by 100 percent. We'll still be at only 40 percent of the US level," he says. "You can't expect China to accept the idea that each Chinese citizen has only 20 percent of the right of an American."

Yu says that China has accepted that climate change is a serious challenge, posing grave threats to low-lying and coastal areas in China and threatening to decimate food production in agricultural areas.

Despite the measures being taken by China, however, the Chinese government is unlikely to put the brakes on development in order to reduce carbon emissions. While some environment-focused Chinese agencies are accelerating their efforts to deal with the problem, they often meet resistance from ministries responsible for commerce, industrial development, and trade. Some in China see Western demands that China reduce emissions as an under-handed way by the United States and its allies to weaken the Chinese economy. A January 2009 report from the Brookings Institution noted a Chinese perception in some quarters that the United States is using talk about climate change and clean energy "as a way to put obstacles in the path of China's rise."

Yet, across China, there are more and more signs that China is taking the problem seriously, right down to the solar-powered traffic signals that dot intersections. Driven in part by its realization that China's international standing can be affected if it ignores the problem, and in part by the fact that greater energy efficiency can reduce China's strategic dependence on expensive imports of oil and natural gas, China is investing billions of dollars in green technology, research, and high-tech solutions.

Meanwhile, the Copenhagen summit is drawing near, and Ambassador Yu says that he is "cautiously optimistic." The reason, he says: "It's too important to fail."

Can China Help on Afghanistan?

BEIJING--During President Obama's recent visit to China, he got some advice on Afghanistan from Chinese government officials – and an offer of Chinese assistance toward a negotiated settlement of the war.

Yang Wenchang, a retired senior Chinese diplomat who is currently the president of the Chinese People's Institute of Foreign Affairs (CPIFA), told a small group of US journalists that China is willing to cooperate with the United States in finding a way out of the Afghan morass. "The two presidents discussed the issue at length," said Yang, who maintains extensive contacts with US and other Western officials as head of CPIFA. "China will cooperate."

However, during a wide-ranging discussion over dinner at an Italian restaurant in Beijing, the former ambassador said that China does not believe that the US and NATO can succeed militarily. "I think Obama should realize from the outset that no outside power can rule Afghanistan. The Russians tried to change the system in Afghanistan for ten years," he said. "Many Americans, especially among the Republicans, want to send more troops. I don't think NATO can succeed."

Although Yang did not specify exactly how Beijing might support US diplomacy in South Asia, China's assistance could be crucial in a political settlement of the war in Afghanistan because China is a close ally of Pakistan, and Pakistan's support for a deal in Afghanistan is essential for the emergence of a stable, multi-ethnic government in Kabul. Though Pakistan is a nominal ally of the United States, the Pakistani military and its intelligence service, the ISI, covertly support the Taliban in Afghanistan and provide safe havens for leading Taliban officials. Over the course of a week-long visit to China, various Chinese officials and experts have said that China is concerned about the presence of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, which has a troubled border with China, and they are concerned that growing instability in Afghanistan could lead to a spreading conflict in South Asia to the detriment of China's interests in the region. But they are modestly encouraged, so far, by Obama's policy.

"Obama is now considering to negotiate with the Taliban," says Yang, who says that a political accord must allow the Taliban, especially its moderate wing, to take part in a new government in Kabul. "The United States should help build up a government in Afghanistan that is acceptable to all countries in the region," he says. "That is the only solution." By "all countries," the former Chinese diplomat means above all Pakistan, which has great influence among the Taliban and among the ethnic Pashtuns who make up the majority of Afghans and from whom the Taliban draws its core support.

"Who can control the Pashtuns?" asks Yang. "Pakistan."

Since 2001, the United States and NATO have propped up an increasingly unpopular and illegitimate Afghan government that is largely drawn from that country's Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara minorities, the remnants of the old Northern Alliance that opposed the Taliban during the 1990s. The Northern Alliance, in turn, was backed by India, Iran, and Russia. And Pakistan, along with the Pashtuns who live mostly in southern and eastern Afghanistan, is fearful of India's increasing role in Afghanistan.

In a separate interview, Zheng Zeguang, the director general of the Chinese foreign ministry's section on North America, said that China welcomes Obama's rethinking of the war in Afghanistan. "We are quite encouraged by his new approach," he says. "Obama seems to be taking a more comprehensive approach. The US side told us that they believe that military means is not the solution." China, he said, is willing to step in with economic and financial assistance to Afghanistan.

More broadly, China is prepared to become involved more directly in Middle East and South Asian affairs, because it is becoming increasingly dependent on oil and gas imports from the region. Over and over again, Chinese officials told me that Beijing is intensely interested in regional stability. For the second year running, China's oil imports have risen by double digits. "As China moves ahead on the fast track of industrialization, our demand for oil and gas is increasing rapidly," says a top official at the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation, a government thinktank. And most of that increased demand can come only from the Persian Gulf.

Recently, China has tried to assert itself in the Middle East, only to be rebuffed by the United States. Since 2001, China has tried to become a fifth member of the so-called Quartet – the US, Russia, the European Union, and the UN – that is the guiding force behind the road map for a settlement of the Israel-Palestine problem. "Unfortunately, China is not part of the Quartet," says Zheng, of the foreign ministry's North America section. "Personally, I do not understand why China is not included." But a retired Chinese diplomat with wide experience in the Middle East suggests that United States is reluctant to see China play a greater role in the region. Some US analysts, such as Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, have called on the United States to bring China into the Middle East quartet, because China is likely to play a constructive role.

Zheng acknowledges that the United States must continue, at least for now, to take the leading role in the Middle East. "China," he says, "can only play a role commensurate with its influence. The biggest factor In the Middle East is the United States."During the Bush years, China was troubled by the US invasion of Iraq and by President Bush's confrontational policy toward Iran, which inflamed the entire region and drove up the price of oil on world markets. Now, clearly, China hopes that the Obama administration will seek a more cooperative approach in the region that emphasizes diplomacy over military action. China is directly engaged in support of US diplomacy with Iran, though Beijing strongly opposes using pressure and the threat of new UN-imposed sanctions to force Iran to make concessions on its nuclear program. Despite China's opposition to the war in Iraq in 2003, Beijing has taken advantage of the Iraqi government's relative independence now to secure important Iraqi-Chinese oil deals. And, as Chinese officials make clear, China is ready to play a stepped-up role across the region, from Afghanistan to the Israel-Palestine problem.

Yet there are troubling signs. If the US talks with Iran break down, the US and China could find themselves involved in a test of wills over Washington's desire to increase Iran's economic isolation. And if President Obama decides soon to order a large escalation in the American war in Afghanistan, that too could lead to new tensions between Washington and Beijing.

Chongqing: Socialism in One City

I'm writing today from Chongqing, a vast city in central China that is China's gateway to its western regions. By some accounts, Chongqing is the largest city in the world, a muncipality of 32 million people, but that, I've learned, is misleading, since that number includes the population of a handful of satellite cities and a rural population of 20 million. A few years ago, however, China carved Chongqing and its 32 million people out of Szechuan province and made it a municipality of its own, and today the Chongqing is a pilot project for the most important thing happening in China, and perhaps the world: the urbanization of as many as half a billion people from rural farms and villages into newly constructed cities."Chongqinq," says Wen Tianping, the city's spokesman, "is a microcosm of China itself."

The scale of the enterprise is staggering. In Chongqing, each year for the indefinite future, the plan is to move 500,000 people from rural to urban life. That means that Chongqinq must plan, ready, and construct the equivalent of a city the size of Atlanta, Georgia, every year, providing jobs, roads, housing, infrastructure, schools, hospitals and more. It's a project that has been going on in China for the past 20 years, during which 200 million people have already been urbanized, and over the next generation another 200 to 300 million people will follow in their footsteps.

"We have plans, timetables, goals," says Qian Lee, the director of Chongqing's comprehensive business promotion project. "You can't have a plan for everything. But we don't make plans to be abandoned. We make plans to be accomplished. You do it scientifically, as we always say in China."

And the thing is, in China, plans work.

In Chongqinq, the population itself has been steady for many years, but the entire municipality is shifting from rural to urban. The city center houses 5-6 million people, satellite cities of up to 1 million or more are popping up around it, and urban townships ot 200,000 to 500,000 are springing up like mushrooms around those. "We've planned six regional centers of 1 million each," says Qian Lee. As people leave the farms and villages, some of the land is converted to industrial use, and some it is combined into more efficient, industrialized farming. "Chongqinq will become what we call a ‘dragon's head' economic engine for the upper Yangtze River region, and the model for balanced, urban-rural areas."

As an inland center, Chongqing was a bit less vulnerable to the economic downturn that followed the financial crisis of 2008. That's because unlike the cities of southern China and Shanghai, for instance, Chongqinq is less dependent on exports of manufactured goods to Europe and the United States. So when the U.S. financial collapse spread around the world, and the economy cratered, the drop in demand for Chinese-made goods didn't impact Chongqing as strongly as other parts of China. Even so, 12 percent of Chongqinq's economy is export-related, so when the crisis hit unemployment in Chongqing – and across China – spiked.

China launched a stimulus of its own, whose size is pretty much unknown. According to Stephen Green of Standard and Chartered Bank, who I met in Shanghai, China's domestic stimulus likely dwarfed the American version. Officially, he says, it was as least $600 billion, but it may have been as much as $3.5 trillion, especially if you count the provincial-level stimulus provided by cities and provinces such as Chongqinq.

"When the financial crisis hit us, a lot of factories closed," says Wen Tianping. Chongqing launched its Warm Winter stimulus plan, spending vast sums, including credit programs to allow many of the 3.5 million unemployed workers to start their own businesses, providing loans and credit guarantees to small business, launching start-up industrial parks, providing direct subsidies to 1,500 businesses, and, of course, using China's ace-in-the-hole: the fact that it is still a communist country with a huge panoply of SOEs (state owned enterprises) that control all of the most important sectors of the economy. The SOE's, says Wen, "were instructed by the government not to cut jobs." Now, not only has Chongqinq recovered fully, but it is currently experiencing a 13 percent growth rate.

In the United States, there is a widely shared perception that China has abandoned socialism and that it has become a Wild West-style, capitalist free-for-all. That's wrong. True, US multinationals, among others, are sidling up cheek by jowl to invest and build factories in China, both for export and to supply China's 1.3 billion consumers. (More than a hundred US Fortune 500 companies operate in Chongqinq already, including Hewlett-Packard, whose laptop assembly plant here will produce 10 million computers a year, Chongqing officials say.) But the fact remains that in China, all of the key industries are government-owned: banks, energy, oil, transport, telecommunications (including China's huge cell phone company, which will soon have its 500 millionth subscriber). China's banking system – which includes four or five giant national banks, 17 mid-sized commercial banks, and about 140 city commercial banks – sailed serenely through the worldwide crisis of 2008-2009. Virtually none of it was exposed to the bad debt and high-flying securities speculation bubble that collapsed AIG, Lehman, and countless other players.

From what I've seen so far, there's no likelihood in the near future that China intends to privatize its core industries. And it's centralized planning system is humming along.

The View from China

When Yiang Jiemian, president of the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, gets together with his brother, Yang Jiechi, China's minister of foreign affairs, they don't talk strategy or politics. "We talk about our grandfather," he says, with a smile.

We're sitting in a conference room at SIIS, though, and Yang Jiemian is talking strategy with a few visiting journalists. I ask Dr. Yang about China's view of US policy in the Middle East and central Asia. What, exactly, is his opinion of the notion that the United States is seeking to control that crucial region, including its oil and natural gas reserves, as part of a strategy of containing China? President Obama has just left Shanghai, the sprawling city of 19 million people, and he told China that the United States does not want to contain or limit China's influence in Asia or the world. Yet the United States and China don't always agree on Iran, Afghanistan, and other questions.

"There might be a slight difference of understanding between our two cultures, our two languages," says Yang, who is flanked by a team of strategists and area specialists. ""When America talks about strategy, it implies military, security, confrontation. In China, we have a much broader view of the idea of 'strategy.' We mean something that is long-term and systematic."

Is he concerned about the idea of US hegemony in the Middle East? Could it be a detriment to China, which is excruciatingly dependent on that part of the world for its energy? "If you ask different people in China, you will get different answers," he says. "Personally, I'm concerned about the possibility that these things could be part of a plan to 'contain' China." But, he adds, China's view is to work cooperatively with all countries in the region, and with the United States, to deal with what he calls a critical transition that the countries of central Asia and the Middle East need to make.

On Iran, Yang made it clear that, despite his pleas, Obama isn't likely to get much support from Beijing over confrontation and sanctions against Iran if the nuclear talks don't move quickly. "China and the United States have similar views on some issues regarding Iran, and we have some differences," he says. He points out that China has supported limited, targeted sanctions against Iran at the UN Security Council in recent years, and he notes that China and the US both support the strengthening of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. "We will work together to persuade Iran to become part of the mainstream of the world community," he says. "But China supports Iran's right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and we oppose a military solution to the problem." Adds a colleague, "Most of us believe that Iran's nuclear program is for peaceful uses."

In a separate conversation, an expert from another thinktank says that Iran's negotiations with the P5 + 1, including China and the United States, may go on for a long time. "The important word is patience," he says. "Not sanctions." The talks are just starting. When I tell him that Obama is under pressure from neoconservatives and hawks in Congress to end the talks quickly if there is no immediate result, he scoffs. "We must approach Iran with patience. It is not just a question of months, but perhaps of years. And perhaps, in two or three years, the leaders of Iran will change." In that, he is echoing the notion of some US and Israeli diplomats with whom I've talked, who suggest that the political turmoil in Iran means that the "political clock" in Iran is ticking faster than the "nuclear clock." Iran, US intelligence believes, is several years away from being able to build a nuclear bomb, if that is indeed Tehran's intention.

China, overwhelmingly concerned about economic growth and domestic political stability, is worried that instability in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia, including Afghanistan, could threaten China's energy lifeline and undermine China's surging economy.

What's true of Iran is also true of the war in Afghanistan, China believes. Wang Xiaoshu is vice president of the Shanghai Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, a kind of "foreign minister" for the city of Shanghai. The US intervention in Afghanistan is "not wise," he says, adding that no country has successfully invaded Afghanistan in centuries and that NATO cannot solve the problem militarily. He stresses that because of the US invasion and the current stalemate, the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan is very dangerous. "China's interest is stability in the region, and a crisis there means that the entire region could become inflamed," says Wang.

Yang, of SIIS, expresses concern over Obama's turn from Iraq to "AfPak." "It is natural for us to think that there is now a US and NATO presence at China's Western border." (Afghanistan and China share a border in China's far west.) "We hope," he says, "that the United States respects China's interests." In conversations, though, the Chinese officials and experts seem to believe that, in essence, Afghanistan is America's mess and that there is little or nothing that China can do to help the United States clean it up.

That's unfortunate, because under the right circumstances China might be able to help convince Pakistan, China's ally, to reign in the Afghan Taliban and brings the Taliban to the negotiating table. But that, of course, won't work unless Obama signals that he's prepared to draw down US forces there. As long as the United States is escalating the war, China's isn't going to providing any help. It's our quagmire, not theirs.

Dobbs for President?

Parsing the Lou Dobbs bombshell, I can't help wondering if the pudgy populist is planning a run for president in 2012. My guess: yes. And if he does, I'll bet he'll do so as a Peron-style, would-be Ross Perot. It could be America's first truly fascist electoral effort.

Okay, I know I'm jumping the gun. Maybe his quitting is just so he can move over to Fox, though that would probably push Geraldo Rivera out. I'm not saying Dobbs would necessarily get much traction, but I wouldn't be surprised if he tries to raise money from wealthy right-wingers and set up a third party effort aimed at capturing tea baggers, anti-immigrant fanatics, and assorted other nutballs.

In his statement last night, which you can read here and watch here, Dobbs said:

"Over the past six months it's become increasingly clear that strong winds of change have begun buffeting this country and affecting all of us, and some leaders in media, politics and business have been urging me to go beyond the role here at CNN and to engage in constructive problem solving as well as to contribute positively to the great understanding of the issues of our day."

And:

"At this point, I'm considering a number of options and directions, and I assure you, I will let you know when I set my course. I truly believe that the major issues of our time include the growth of our middle class, the creation of more jobs, health care, immigration policy, the environment, climate change, and our military involvement, of course, in Afghanistan and Iraq."

Among those options, I'd guess, is politics. NPR has already posted an idiotic on line poll asking people to register their opinion about whether they'd like Dobbs to run president or Congress. And there's been other speculation, too.

Unlike the right-wing hatchet men on Fox, the blustery bullies such as Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly, whose appeal is strictly to ultraconservatives and ideologues, Dobbs has structured his appeal in a populist direction, and he's consciously sought to build a political base on-air.

Dobbs is smart enough to notice that the Republican party is imploding. If right-wing GOP activists and Palinistas take over the party in 2010, pushing it even further into its Deep South (and Alaska) box, the field will be wide open for a dangerous rabblerouser like Dobbs in 2012.

Perhaps the best commentary so far on the Dobbs move is from Andy Borowitz:

"Controversial CNN host Lou Dobbs bade the people of Earth farewell today as he embarked on a long voyage back to his planet of origin.

"Standing on a launching pad with his rocket ship at the ready, Mr. Dobbs addressed a crowd of dozens who came to wish him a safe trip and godspeed.

"'People of Earth, farewell,' he said. 'My work here is done.'"

If only.

Abbas' Shock Treatment

The crisis in US diplomacy with Israel and Palestine was the subject of an important discuss yesterday at the annual conference of the Middle East Institute. And the mood was decidedly pessimistic.

Khalil Shikaki, a Brandeis University professor who has conducted more than 100 polls among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, focused on the decision by Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, not to run for reelection in 2010. The decision by Abbas, which stunned the political universe in the Middle East, is a sign that the Obama administration's Middle East diplomacy has run out of gas. It's a surface indicator of the deep anger and unhappiness that is brewing throughout the Arab world over the administration's seeming unwillingness or inability to force Israel to the table with serious concessions.

Shikaki said that the Abbas' decision not to run is a "major turning point" in Palestinian history. "He decided to destabilize the situation as a way of moving forward," he said.

For the past several years, said Shikaki, Abbas has scored important successes, but it was those very successes that, in face of Israeli intransigence, did him in. First, Abbas achieved important stability in the institutions of the PA, providing good financial management, strong institutions, and an end to the virtual anarchy that prevailed from 2000 until 2006. In 2006, he said, polls showed that just 25 percent of Palestinians felt safe and secure on the West Bank, while in 2009 more than 60 percent felt secure.

In regard to security, the Abbas administration terminated the freedom of various Palestinian warlords to operate with impunity, established an effective military and police chain of command, created a professional trained class of officers, and brought all of the PA's security forces under civilian control. He also improved the justice system, cracked down on Fatah militants, eliminated the Fatah militia that operated outside of the PA's control, and cracked down on Hamas militants. This latter action was not taken because of Israeli demands about Hamas, but because of feelings among PA and Fatah officials that Hamas is a rogue organization. Shikaki's polls at the recent Fatah conference revealed that fully 95 percent of Fatah delegates identified Hamas as a "violent, coup-prone movement." (Correctly, in my view.)

In addition, Abbas restored and improved U.S.-Palestinian relations. Most Palestinians looked favorably on the U.S. role in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

And, said Shikaki, Abbas renewed Fatah itself, casting out much of the Old Guard at the recently concluded 6th Congress. It was, he said, a "major transition in Palestinian politics." Abbas brought back and reorganized the Fatah central committee and the Fatah Revolutionary Council as leadership bodies. And he made all of Fatah's institutions stronger and better organized, with much more democratic accountability.

But after all that, Abbas discovered that it wasn't enough. Indeed, by refusing to budge, Israel turned all of Abbas' achievements into dust, making it seem like the PA was no longer a nationalist, liberation movement but – as co-panelist Daniel Levy, a former Israeli negotiator said – turning Fatah into an "occupation-maintenance" organization.

Particularly the coming to power of ultrahardline Bibi Netanyahu in 2009 forced Abbas' hand. Recently, Abbas made the stunning revelation public for the first time that in 2008 he had come very close to a deal with former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Those talks, held in secret, included the exchange of maps from each side concerning the final borders of a Palestinian state. But with Netanyahu, none of that meant anything.

So Abbas has decided to blow everything up. By deciding not to run, he's changed his game plan to "destabilization," Shikaki said. Initially, he said, Abbas' plan was to resign as PA president outright, and he's still likely to do that soon. If he does, everyone in the PA will quit, effectively collapsing the system. "His vision is dead," said Shikaki. "What he intends to do is to start shocking the system."

Precisely because Abbas raised expectations among Palestinians, and because Fatah's new institutions are more democratic and accountable, Abbas could no longer ignore the widespread perception among his constituents that a Palestinian state was still out of reach. By "shocking the system" Abbas hopes that he can force the United States to look more critically at the need for an Israel-Palestine accord, which will require Washington to turn the screws on its Israeli partner.

The Deal with Iran

President Obama's meeting today with Israel's prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu, won't be focused exclusively on Israel's stubborn refusal to move forward on a deal with the Palestinians. Also on the table will be the issue of Iran. And the president ought to tell the prime minister: "We're handling this, so sit down and shut up." The last thing Obama needs is more Israeli bluster about taking out Iran's nukes militarily at such a sensitive moment in the talks. Why? Because Israeli bombast makes it a lot harder for Iranian leaders to follow through on a deal that is controversial within Iranian politics, since the Israeli bombast makes it look like they are capitulating to the "Zionist entity" if they accept the deal.

The deal, you'll remember, reached Oct. 1, would provide for Iran to ship most of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to Russia and France for reprocessing for a medical-use reactor. As the deal became a political soccer ball in Iran, Tehran stalled -- and new proposals surfaced. One, reportedly by Iran, would have Iran maintain control of the fuel under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards on its own terrritory, but that's a nonstarter. Another, brokered by IAEA, would allow Iran to ship its uranium to neighboring Turkey, while Russia would substitute reprocessed fuel of its own.

In spite of alarmist reports about Iran's foot-dragging on the nuclear talks, the Obama administration seems to be handling the talks professionally and intelligently. Glyn Davies, the US representative to the IAEA told Reuters:

"There have been communications back and forth. We are in extra innings in these negotiations. That's sometimes the way these things go. We want to give some space to Iran to work through this. It's a tough issue for them, quite obviously, and we're hoping for an early positive answer from the Iranians."

Davies -- who, by the way, seems to have been a very competent negotiator during all of this -- added:

"Iran has the opportunity to embrace this deal, and it's a very good, very positive...and fair deal. It would do much to move this process forward. When the reactor's fuel runs out next year, we would help to keep it going. There are hospitals, doctors, cancer patients who rely on the material produced there. We know the leadership in Tehran needs to keep the reactor going. We would like to help with that effort."

Earlier, an Obama administration official told the New York Times that Iran had reneged on the deal and that they'd given up hope that the Oct. 1 agreement would be implemented. That, clearly, is a Cassandra-like interpretation of a fast moving situation. Here's the Times:

"But members of the Obama administration, in interviews over the weekend, said that they had now all but lost hope that Iran would follow through with an agreement reached in Geneva on Oct. 1 to send its fuel out of the country temporarily -- buying some time for negotiations over its nuclear program.

"'If you listen to what the Iranians have said publicly and privately over the past week,' one senior administration official said Sunday, 'it's evident that they simply cannot bring themselves to do the deal.'"

Conservatives, neo-conservatives, and other Chicken Littles have, of course, echoed such black pessimism. For example, the New York Daily News, never reluctant to embrace bombast, editorialized:

"At what point will the world take 'no' for an answer? The Obama administration has gone through the motions of extending a hand to the terrorists of Tehran. Turns out, that's all the back-and-forth was ever to be: motions. Because the Islamic Republic is obsessed with acquiring nuclear weapons and well on its way toward that goal.

"There's no fooling ourselves any longer."

In all of this, it's interesting to ask: what, exactly, is going on in Tehran? The Ahmadinejad-Khamenei regime initially agreed to the Oct. 1 deal, which was widely hailed as a breakthough. But back home, it ran into a firestorm of criticism. Pragmatists, centrists and reformists, the opposition coalition, criticized Ahmadinejad for caving in to the West, an especially despicable type of political opportunism by the Green Movement. Hard-line conservatives, including the Larijani brothers, also blasted the deal, leaving Ahmadinejad alone to defend it. (And defend it he did.) Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Leader, didn't tip his hand, although he delivered a pompous and bombastic speech warning about the evils of negotiating with the United States.

If Iran, since the June 12 election fiasco, has become an authoritarian, military-style regime that brooks no opposition, then the Ahmadinejad-Khamenei regime ought to have been able to do anything it wants in the talks, and ignore domestic criticism. The fact that that the deal is so controversial is a signal that Ahmadinejad and Khamenei don't feel confident enough, in the face of a political challenge, to ignore the criticism. On the other hand, it's possible that both Ahmadinejad and Khamenei are, in fact, unwilling to hand over the uranium, and they're just using the opposition noise as an excuse to renege on the deal. There are other possibilities, too. All of which indicate, as I've said before, that the United States can't fine tune its approach to the talks in order to game Iranian domestic politics. We don't know enough about how it works. That is precisely what Ambassador Davies seems to understand.

Let's hope President Obama makes it clear to Netanyahu, too, that Washington won't tolerate Israeli interference in the talks.

Obama Fails in Middle East

The announcement by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that he will not run for reelection is the exclamation point on the utter collapse of the Obama adminstration's Middle East policy. Launched to great expectations -- the appointment of George Mitchell, Obama's Cairo declaration that the plight of the Palestinians is intolerable -- it is now in complete disarray. It is, without doubt, the first major defeat for Obama's hope-and-change foreign policy.

Here's how it unraveled. First, Obama began a test of strength with Israel over that country's policy of illegal settlements, an expansion of its occupation of the West Bank driven by extremist, right-wing settlers who are fanatical, Bible-believing cultists who think that Israel has some God-given right to that territory. The settler-kooks -- indeed, one of their past leaders was named Rabbi Kook -- are supported by ultra-hardliners in Israel's security establishment, who see the West Bank as strategic depth in Israel's defense posture. What happened after Obama told Israel it had to stop settlements? Nothing. Score: Netanyahu 1, Obama 0.

Next, the Obama adminstration capitulated, refusing to insist on any penalty for Israel's defiant intransigence. Not even a hint of any retaliation by the United States to enforce what it had called the path to a peace deal. No talk of reducing US aid to Israel, or cutting back on US-Israeli military cooperation, or anything. Score: Netanyahu 2, Obama 0.

Then, while all this was going on, Obama hinted that he might announce, this fall, something like a comprehensive US plan for the Middle East. Everyone knows what a solution looks like: withdrawal by Israel from the West Bank, dismantling of the settlements, an end to the Gaza embargo, the division of Jerusalem, some swapping of land to account for slight changes in borders (especially around the capital), and a formula to account for the Palestinians' right-of-return, involving financial compensation -- plus security arrangements. But months later, Obama has refused to even hint at his own plan for the region, caving in to Israel's demands that all of that be saved for "negotiations." Score: Netanyahu 3, Obama 0.

Finally, the United States cravenly supported Israel over the Goldstone Report on Gaza, the report that accused Israel (and Hamas) of war crimes during the December-January conflict there. Score: Netanyahu 4, Obama 0.

Secretary of State Clinton then put the final icing on the rotten cake, praising Netanyahu, an extremist, far-right ultra-nationalist, for his decision to expand, not halt, settlements. Clinton's blunder, which shocked and stunned Palestinians and Arab leaders, represented the ultimate cave-in to Netanyahu and Co. Final score: Netanyahu 5, Obama 0.

Reports the New York Times today:

"Mrs. Clinton's visit, which she characterized as a success, sowed anger and confusion among Palestinians and other Arabs after she praised as 'unprecedented' the offer by the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to slow down, but not stop, construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank."

One of the Palestinians' most experienced, veteran deal-makers, Nabil Shaath, a Fatah old-timer said of Obama's collapse:

"There was high expectation when he arrived on the scene. Now there is a total retreat, which has destroyed trust instead of building trust."

Abbas may or may not reconsider his decision, and of course the elections that are supposed to take place in January are still in limbo over the inability of Fatah and Hamas to strike a deal. But, by refusing to compel Israel to make a real offer to the Palestinians, the United States has once again shafted Palestinian moderates like Abbas, who can't credibly claim to have won anything for their constituents. In so doing, Obama is fueling the extremists, bomb-makers, and rocket launchers in Hamas, a fundamentalist, Muslim Brotherhood-founded movement that wants no compromise. Heck of a job, Baracky!

Abbas said that he was "surprised" -- bitterly angry and really pissed off, is more accurate, I am sure -- by Clinton's comments on Israel's settlements policy. And Clinton, asked about Abbas' move, delivered an insouciant fuck-you to Abbas: "We talked about his own political future. I look forward to working with President Abbas in any new capacity."

Patience with Iran

The Green Movement opposition flexed its muscles again in Iran this week, taking advantage of anti-American protests on the anniversary of the 1979 seizure of the US embassy in Tehran (aka "the nest of spies") to rally thousands of anti-Ahmadinejad protestors into the streets.

Unfortunately, the Green resurgence in Iran is causing some Iran watchers to fall into the same old trap: threatening to halt US-Iran negotiations in favor of support for democracy, or some semblance of it, in Iran. The latest to make this mistake is Ray Takeyh, a former adviser to the Obama-era State Department, whose op-ed in today's Washington Post essentially suggests that America should cut off its negotiating nose to spite its pro-democracy face. He writes:

"Iran's hard-liners need to know that should they launch their much-advertised crackdown, the price for such conduct may be termination of any dialogue with the West."

What would the United States accomplish by ending dialogue with Iran, even a more repressive one? The United States has reasons both strategic and tactical for dealing with Iran, quite separate and distinct from our desire to see a more free, less repressive society. In fact, Iran's hardliners need to know that the United States will persist in talking to Iran no matter how difficult the talks become, and regardless of Iranian human rights concerns. That isn't appeasement, as the neocons and Republican members of Congress argue. It's just common sense.

President Obama's opening to Iran in January, his Nowruz message, and his Cairo speech all helped to galvanize the Iranian opposition, just as President Bush's bluster and sabre-rattling helped the hardliners quash any opposition earlier. Obama's judicious post-election refusal to join the neocons' call to enlist the United States in full-throated support for the Green Movement was exactly the right call, and it blunted the regime's crackdown by making it a lot harder for them to portray the greens as US-inspired. And so far, at least, Mousavi and Co. haven't asked for any help, while simultaneously denouncing Western calls for sanctions. Let's hope Obama stays the course, keeps talking to Iran, and doesn't fall into a feel-good trap about asserting too loudly what everyone knows: he supports human rights in Iran.

Of course, the paradox of the current state of affairs is that Mousavi and the Green Movement have generally taken to denouncing Ahmadinejad for his agreement to hand over the bulk of Iran's enriched uranium for re-processing in Russia and France. That accord, reached over prolonged, secret talks that culminated in a face-to-face meeting between US and Iranian diplomats on October 1, could be an important step forward. For opportunistic reasons, the Greens are now accusing Ahmadinejad of selling out Iran's nuclear rights.

That very fact explains why it's wrong for the United States to try to game Iranian internal politics.

In his op-ed, Takeyh warns, correctly, that Iran might (for internal reasons, mostly) draw out the negotiations, but curiously he links such a strategy to a plot by Ahmadinejad against his opposition:

"Tehran will sporadically offer to discuss the nuclear issue to whet the appetite of Western powers -- before moving against its remaining domestic detractors. The powers that be in Iran hope that a prolonged and inconclusive negotiating process will cause the West to recoil from criticism, much less impose sanctions over Iran's human rights abuses."

That idea is far too conspiratorial, however. Just as Obama faces domestic opposition to a deal with the "mad mullahs," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's Leader, faces domestic opposition to a deal with the Great Satan. (Just this week, Khamenei delivered a fierce, hysterical diatribe against the United States, even as his negotiators were proceeding apace.) Trying to discern the interplay between foreign and domestic strategies of Iran's current rulers is a fool's game, and it's likely that even Ahmadinejad and Khamenei don't know themselves how it's all likely to play out. Certainly, the two Iranian leaders -- if, indeed, they are still working together, as opposed to at cross-purposes -- don't have some grand, master strategy. Internally, they're trying to deal with a resilient opposition movement whose strength surprised them in June, and they're not doing very well at it. Externally, they're struggling to negotiate with the P5 + 1 in a chess game in which they have far fewer pieces than the West.

There no reason for giddy optimism about the US-Iran talks. But one thing is certain: for them to succeed at all, both Obama and Khamenei are going to have to be very, very patient.

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