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Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

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

Is Iran 'Demonic,' Ask Dennis Ross

Does Dennis Ross believe that Iran is a "demonic" nation? Apparently so, at least according to the latest report from the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute.

Readers of The Nation may already have seen my thumbnail profile of Dennis Ross, Hillary Clinton's special envoy for "the Gulf and Southwest Asia," i.e., Iran. A smooth talking but hawkish diplomat who spent most of the past decade at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel thinktank in Washington, Ross is at best a controversial choice for an administration dedicated to opening a dialogue with Iran. Among other things, during his trenure at WINEP, Ross expressed skepticism about the value of talks with Iran.

Here's an addendum to that profile: until his recent appointment, Ross served as chairman of the board for the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute (JPPPI), an Israel-based organization that, according to its web site, "makes an annual presentation to the Israeli Cabinet as a whole on main developments in the Jewish world, offering its assessments and policy recommendations."

The organization adds:

JPPPI's work serves as the basis for assessments, alerts and strategic policy designs provided to Jewish decision makers, and to opinion leaders and publics at large.

In the latest of those annual presentations, the JPPPI refers to "the international threat posedby nuclear weapons capacity in Iran (and other demonic societies)." Yes, you read that right: demonic.

The JPPPI report adds that Israel has been abandoned to face the threat from Iran alone:

The past year has aggravated the Israeli dilemma of how to act vis-à-vis Tehran, and there is a mounting sense that the international community would rather leave Israel to deal with the problem on its own.

The report goes on to express a concern that an effort by the Obama administation to reach what the JPPPI calls a "regional deal" with Iran might be part and parcel of a "relatively aggressive effort to resolve the Israeli-Arab conflict, and perhaps even to bring about the nuclear disarmament of the Middle East."

As Patrick Lang, a former Defense Intelligence Agency official, reports on his blog, the JPPPI was founded by the Jewish Agency in 2002. The Jewish Agency, formerly known as the Jewish Agency for Palestine, was the provisional government of Israel at its inception, and it receives official support from the government of Israel today. According to its official website, the Jewish Agency was the "de facto government of the state-on-its-way" in the period before Israel's founding in 1948, and in 2008 it had a budget of $314 million.

Netanyahu Blusters on Iran

The strategy of the new Israeli government is to avoid making a deal with the Palestinians by changing the subject. Instead of talking about Palestine, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman want to talk about Iran.

Unfortunately, General Petraeus is helping them change the subject. In remarks yesterday, Petraeus said:

"The Israeli government may ultimately see itself so threatened by the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon that it would take preemptive military action to derail or delay it."

Rather more calmly, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said:

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates estimated in a Financial Times interview that Israel will not attack Iran this year. "I guess I would say I would be surprised…if they did act this year," Gates said.

Asked whether Iran would cross a nuclear "red line" this year, Gates said: "I don't know, I would guess probably not. I think we have more time than that. How much more time I don't know. It is a year, two years, three years. It is somewhere in that window."

Actually, there is plenty of time, as Gates suggests. Iran hasn't enriched an ounce of uranium to weapons grade. It doesn't have the means to deliver a weapon, even if could build one. And it's unclear that Iran has the technical knowhow to build a bomb, even if it did manage to enrich the uranium it possesses.

Netanyahu, eager to change the subject from Palestine, is already blustering -- on his first day in office -- that he's contemplating an attack on Iran. He told The Atlantic, which titled its bombastic interview "Netanyahu to Obama: Stop Iran--Or I Will":

"The Obama presidency has two great missions: fixing the economy, and preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. ... You don't want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs. When the wide-eyed believer gets hold of the reins of power and the weapons of mass death, then the entire world should start worrying, and that is what is happening in Iran.

"Iran is a composite leadership, but in that composite leadership there are elements of wide-eyed fanaticism that do not exist right now in any other would-be nuclear power in the world. That's what makes them so dangerous.

"Since the dawn of the nuclear age, we have not had a fanatic regime that might put its zealotry above its self-interest. People say that they'll behave like any other nuclear power. Can you take the risk? Can you assume that? You see a country that glorifies blood and death, including its own self-immolation."

Writing in Haaretz, Aluf Benn says:

In political circles the view is that yes, Netanyahu as prime minister brings Israel closer to war with Iran. Politicians in touch with Netanyahu say he has already made up his mind to destroy Iran's nuclear installations.

The fear-mongering about Iran is partly designed to undermine the US-Iran negotiations dance that's underway, and which took concrete form this week at a meeting in the Hague in which US and Iranian officials met for the first time in person. The neoconservatives, and their Netanyahu allies, realize that President Obama is serious about talking to Iran. They also realize that those talks will take a long, long time. For that reason, they've been warning for months that any US-Iran dialogue be placed on a short fuse.

Sadly, a group of top congressional Democrats, including several former campaign advisers to Obama, have signed on to the short-fuse strategy:

The signatories include some hugely important House Dems, including House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (Calif.), House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Silvestre Reyes (Texas), House Armed Service Committee Chairman Rep. Ike Skelton (Mo.), House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.), House Foreign Affairs Middle East and South Asia subcommittee Chairman Gary Ackerman (N.Y.) and Rep. Robert Wexler (Fla.), a close Obama ally and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe.

Their letter read:

Engagement must be serious and credible, but it cannot be open-ended. Our goal should be to bring about Iran's near-term suspension of uranium enrichment, and we should offer Iran meaningful incentives in order to achieve this goal. But we cannot allow Iran to use diplomatic discussions as a cover for continuing to work on its nuclear program. Iran must verifiably suspend its uranium enrichment program within at most a few months of the initiation of discussions.

We urge that the talks begin as soon as possible, so that we will have the earliest possible indication of whether they will succeed in halting Iran's nuclear program. American action on this matter cannot be deferred. Waiting until after the Iranian presidential elections in June would give Tehran as much as six more months of unhindered enrichment and stockpiling.

Should the process of engagement not yield the desired results, we would urge you to immediately apply the tools at your disposal to increase economic pressure on the Iranians.

Note the use of the phrase "at most a few months." No serious diplomat believes that the US and Iran will work out a deal within months. There's no other way to read the letter from Hoyer, Wexler, et al. as a deliberate effort to sabotage the talks before they begin. The big question is: Did Dennis Ross, the US special adviser for Iran and a hardliner, encourage the members of Congress to send the letter?

Afghanistan: No Benchmarks Yet

Last week, in revealing the outlines of his new plan for Afghanistan, President Obama spoke about "benchmarks" that would be applied to measure progress. The comment inevitably raised parallels to the benchmarks that were demanded by meny members of Congress, including Obama, in regard to the 2007-2008 surge of US forces in Iraq. So far, at least, Obama has released no information about the benchmarks, and that -- among other things -- is giving rise to concern within the administration and in Congress that public and congressional support for Obama's Afghan plan might start heading south.

Yesterday, speaking at the inaugural conference of the the Foreign Policy Initiative, the new advocacy group launched by the neoconservatives -- see "Introducing PNAC 2.0" by ThinkProgress -- Rep. Jane Harman raised the benchmark (or "metrics") issue, and she pointedly recounted a conversation that she had with Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, about the topic. Her conversation, she said, went like this:

"I said, 'So where are the metrics?'

"He said, 'They exist.'

"I said, 'So when are we going to hear about them?'

"He said, 'Well, we're not sure we're going to make them public.'"

Earlier on Tuesday morning, Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations, ridiculed the administration for not having set the benchmarks it promised, at a CFR roundtable that I attended. "President Obama said there would be no blank checks, and he promised there would be benchmarks," Gelb told me, in an interview. "But when he released his plan, you couldn't find a single benchmark in it!" Added Gelb, to the gathering of reporters:

"How the hell do you formulate a policy based on benchmarks if there are no benchmarks? And how the hell do you have a policy if there's no way to know if benchmarks are being met?"

Gelb also slammed John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, for refusing to hold Obama's feet to the fire over the benchmarks. On Iraq, Gelb pointed out, Kerry and Levin were vociferous in demanding that President Bush provide specific metrics for the surge.

Meanwhile, John McCain, speaking at the Foreign Policy Initiative gathering, expressed concern that public and congressional support for the war in Afghanistan would weaken.

"There will be an increase in casualties. ... We can and must succeed, but it's not going to be easy." He urged Obama to consult closely with Congress to maintain political support or else he will face a "resurgence of antiwar activity."

Asked, by Robert Kagan, how deep is the support for the Afghan war in Congress, McCain said:

"It's problematic [and it depends] as to what transpires. I think that, a year from now, we'll be in a tougher fight than we are today. ... A year from now, we'll be looking at greater opposition to the war."

One poll, in the Washington Post, reports that Democrats are far more skeptical of the war in Afghanistan than Republicans. It showed that Democrats, by a margin of 57-41, said that the war is "not worth fighting," while Republicans supported the war by a margin of 77-20.

How Much Does It Cost?

The General Accounting Office, at least, is still using the phrase "Global War on Terrorism," when it adds up how much the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and related matters are costing us. Their latest report, issued Monday, March 30, is called: "Global War on Terrorism: Reported Obligations for the Department of Defense."

The bottom line: Since 2001, it's $808 billion. (Of course, if you add collateral costs, interest, and so forth, you can get a much bigger number.) But there it is.

As the report helpfully notes:

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the President announced a Global War on Terrorism, requiring the collective instruments of the entire federal government to counter the threat of terrorism. Ongoing military and diplomatic operations overseas, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, constitute a key part of GWOT. These operations involve a wide variety of activities, such as combating insurgents, training the military forces of other nations, and conducting small-scale reconstruction and humanitarian relief projects.

It adds:

About $187 billion has been provided for fiscal year 2008 and about $65.9 billion has been appropriated for use in fiscal year 2009. DOD plans on requesting an additional $75.5 billion in supplemental funds for fiscal year 2009.

Of the $808 billion, $28 billion has been spent on US military operations in defense of the "homeland," under the rubric Operation Noble Eagle. The bulk, $533.5 billion, was spent in Iraq. And $124 billion was spent in Afghanistan ("Operation Enduring Freedom"), the Horn of Africa, and the Philippines. Most of that latter amount, of course, was spent in Afghanistan. The report adds:

Recent increases in reported obligations for Operation Enduring Freedom are in part caused by higher troop levels in Afghanistan, the costs associated with training Afghan security forces, and the need to repair and replace equipment after several years of ongoing operations.

The latest troop boost in Afghanistan isn't reflected yet.

Afghanistan: Might As Well Talk Now

Senator John McCain, appearing on Meet the Press yesterday, made all of his usual noises about Afghanistan and Pakistan -- attacking "minimalists" who want to reduce the US mission in Afghanistan, predicting ever greater expenditure of American "blood and treasure," and so on. But he also said this:

"The best way to get out of Afghanistan fast is [for] people to think we're staying."

Now, McCain didn't mean it this way, but he put his finger on the notion that is current inside the Obama administration. As I reported at length in The Nation last December, after having interviewed many advisers on Obama's Afghan-Pakistan task force, the Obama team does believe that talking to the Taliban, coupled with regional diplomacy, is the way out. But, before this can be successful, they believe -- mistakenly, in my view -- that the Taliban won't negotiate as long as it thinks it is winning. So, Obama's people say, first we have to convince them that we're staying. In my Nation piece, I called this the "surge and negotiate" strategy.

Interesting today is an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Graham Allison and John Deutch, suggesting that US interests in Afghanistan are next to nil. "What vital national interest does the U.S. have there?" they ask. And they write:

Mr. Obama declared that America has one and only one vital national interest in Afghanistan: to ensure that it "cannot be used as a base to launch attacks against the United States." ...

For Afghanistan to become a unitary state ruled from Kabul, and to develop into a modern, prosperous, poppy-free and democratic country would be a worthy and desirable outcome. But it is not vital for American interests.

After the U.S. and NATO exit Afghanistan and reduce their presence and financial assistance to levels comparable to current efforts in the Sudan, Somalia or Bangladesh, one should expect Afghanistan to return to conditions similar to those regions. Such conditions are miserable. They are deserving of American and international development and security assistance. But, as in those countries, it is unrealistic to expect anything more than a slow, difficult evolution towards modernity.

Clearly, the administation is still divided on Afghanistan, with some officials pushing for exactly the "minimalist" path derided by McCain and supported by Allison and Deutch, and others who want a much more aggressive nation-building approach. The question is: Do the latter, at least inside the administration, really believe that the United States can stay in Afghanistan for a decade or longer, building a vast Afghan army whose budget will consume three times the entire Afghan government's income? Or is it a feint? Are they trying to show the Taliban, its allies, and others that -- as McCain suggests -- "we're staying," while planning an exit? I'd like to think it's the latter.

In any case, neither the Taliban nor Pakistan will be convinced. Like Iran, which is watching the United States exit Iraq right on schedule, our adversaries in Afghanistan know that we're leaving, too. We might as well make it public, and start talking.

Obama's Afghan Plan Could Be Worse

It could have been worse. But there's a lot of bad news.

I listened to President Obama's speech, and I spent the morning over at the White House listening to officials there talk about where the Afghan plan is going. Here are some initial thoughts.

President Obama's new strategy for the Afghanistan-Pakistan war isn't Quaker-inspired, but it's not neocon-inspired, either. It has a lot of moving parts, but if you're looking for hopeful signs, or for a light at the end of the tunnel, perhaps the most important aspect of the plan revealed today is that it's a work in progress. It sets nothing in stone -- meaning that President Obama can adjust the plan -- escalate or de-escalate -- in the months ahead. What he does will depend on what happens in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it will depend on what happens in the United States, too, in Congress, the media, and public opinion.

Answering a question this morning about how the success of the new plan will be measured, Bruce Riedel, the former CIA officer and former Obama campaign adviser, said:

The President feels very strongly that this strategy needs to be flexible and adaptable. ... It's going to be a long and difficult road ahead. And he wants to have, and we have built into the strategy, maximum flexibility and adaptability. ... So the theme of this process is to be flexible, adaptable and comprehensive, and self-regulating with periodic reviews.

In his statement, Obama pledged to defeat Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and to that end he's sending 4,000 more US military trainers to build the Afghan security forces, in addition to the 17,000 additional forces he announced last month -- but he didn't support the full complement of 30,000-plus forces that the military had asked for. He said that the US "soldiers and Marines will take the fight to the Taliban in the south and the east" of Afghanistan -- but he said: "We will shift the emphasis of our mission to training and increasing the size of Afghan security forces." And nowhere did Obama speak about a generational (or even a decade-long) commitment to rebuilding Afghanistan.

To a degree, the president seemed to endorse a far more limited goal in Afghanistan than a nation-building effort to create a Western-style democracy. Instead, he announced a more modest goal:

I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future. That's the goal that must be achieved.

But, in contrast, at the briefing afterward, Riedel and Michelle Flournoy of the Defense Department were asked if the Obama plan represented a shift away from "counterinsurgency" (generally assumed to mean a broader, long-term effort to eliminate a rooted insurgency or rebellion, which usually involves huge numbers of troops) to "counterterrorism" (meaning a more limited, anti-Al Qaeda effort). Here's the exchange:

Q Should we see this as an abandonment or shift from the counterinsurgency mission that had been undertaken in Iraq and to a lesser degree in Afghanistan, shifting from that to a much more narrowly focused counterterror mission?

MR. RIEDEL: Absolutely not. I'll let Michelle talk a little bit more about counterinsurgency, but I think there is nothing minimalist about this approach.

MS. FLOURNOY: If anything, I would say what we're doing is stepping up to more fully resource a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan that is designed to first reverse Taliban gains and secure the population, particularly in the most contested areas of the south and east; second, provide the Afghan national security forces with the training and the mentoring they need to expand rapidly and to take -- ultimately take the lead in providing security for their nation; and finally, to provide a secure environment that will enable governance and development efforts to take root and grow.

If that's true, then Obama's "clear and focused goal" is actually a lot less clear and a lot more unfocused.

Asked about the "exit strategy" -- Obama, in his 60 Minutes interview, promised that his Afghan plan would have an exit strategy -- Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, replied:

The only exit strategy that Bruce and Michelle and I and the people we work for and with can see is pretty basic. We can leave as the Afghans can deal with their own security problems. That's why the President today put emphasis on training the National Army, training and improving the National Police.

Of course, that's no exit strategy. It could easily take a decade to build up the ANA and the ANP, both dysfunctional institutions. And it's virtually impossible for the Afghan state, even under ideal conditions, to support the vast expense of a security force involving hundreds of thousands of troops.

Obama didn't say anything, at all, about timetables. That was highlighted in the officials' briefing:

Q I know there's no fixed timeline for what you're working on, but there have been some time periods mentioned. The President mentioned building up the troops by 2011. You mentioned making inroads with the Taliban this summer. Can you give any time sense about how long it will take before you know this is working or not working? Or how long -- what the time horizon is? Are we talking about two years? Five years? Ten years?

MR. RIEDEL: We very deliberately do not have timelines in this study. And it goes back to what I said about the President's determination that we check the metrics, we see how we're doing, and we remain flexible and adaptable throughout the process.

Of course, the real exit strategy is a political settlement with the insurgents. That means, a deal with the Taliban, or parts of it. At the White House, I asked Riedel, privately, about that, and he told me that the United States will be working hard to develop intelligence about the Taliban and its politics, its leadership, and its commanders. "We will be looking hard at the structure of the Taliban," he said.

In his public remarks, Riedel added:

Let me comment on the Taliban. ... We know that the core Taliban leadership, led by Mullah Omar, is determined not to negotiate with anybody. They want to take Afghanistan back to the medieval hell that they created in the 1990s. But there are many of the -- those involved in the insurgency who may not be so committed as that, and if we see the momentum of the Taliban broken this summer and over the course of the fighting season, we may see some fractures within that movement. And I suspect that the core Taliban leadership is very, very worried about just that kind of thing happening.

The notion that, first, the momentum of the Taliban must be broken before it fractures -- or before talks can take place -- is probably the biggest error of methodology in the White House review. Adding troops, and escalating the war, is likely only to strengthen, not weaken, the Taliban. Already, in the New York Times today, there's an important story about the unification of the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan with Al Qaeda, in direct response to the planned US offensive:

After agreeing to bury their differences and unite forces, Taliban leaders based in Pakistan have closed ranks with their Afghan comrades to ready a new offensive in Afghanistan as the United States prepares to send 17,000 more troops there this year. ...

The Pakistani Taliban is dominated by three powerful commanders -- Baitullah Mehsud, Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Maulavi Nazir -- based in North and South Waziristan, the hub of insurgent activity in Pakistan's tribal border regions, who have often clashed among themselves.

Mullah Omar dispatched a six-member team to Waziristan in late December and early January, several Taliban fighters said in interviews in Dera Ismail Khan, a town in North-West Frontier Province that is not far from South Waziristan. The Afghan Taliban delegation urged the Pakistani Taliban leaders to settle their internal differences, scale down their activities in Pakistan and help counter the planned increase of American forces in Afghanistan, the fighters said.

The three Pakistani Taliban leaders agreed. In February, they formed a united council, or shura, called the Council of United Mujahedeen. In a printed statement the leaders vowed to put aside their disputes and focus on fighting American-led forces in Afghanistan. ...

In their written statement, decorated with crossed swords, the three Pakistani Taliban leaders reaffirmed their allegiance to Mullah Omar, as well as the leader of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden.

The plan, as expected, stresses the important of Pakistan. It emphasizes economic aid and civilian assistance, agricultural development, and the like. And Obama stressed the importance of diplomacy:

We will forge a new Contact Group for Afghanistan and Pakistan that brings together all who should have a stake in the security of the region -- our NATO allies and other partners, but also the Central Asian states, the Gulf nations and Iran; Russia, India and China.

If there's an exit strategy, it will involve getting Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to work with their allies and friends in the Taliban movement, to make a deal. A contact group is the right way to move that process along, although India, Iran, and Russia in particular won't look kindly on a Taliban resurgence. Obama himself said: "The road ahead will be long and there will be difficult days ahead." True, that.

Israel Bombed Sudan

Israel's (outgoing) prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has pretty much confirmed the news -- first reported by CBS yesterday -- that Israel bombed a convoy of arms dealers in Sudan in January to destroy a reported shipment of weapons from Iran to Hamas."Israel hits every place it can in order to stop terror, near and far," said Olmert.

An analysis from Amos Harel in Haaretz says that Israel's concern was that Iran might be sending advanced missiles to Hamas:

A reasonable assumption would be that Iran sought to provide Hamas with Fajr missiles, whose deployment in Gaza would constitute what the IDF terms as "a weapon that shifts the balance." During the Gaza lull, Hamas smuggled Katyusha rockets with an increased range from 20 kilometers to 40 kilometers. If it successfully managed to obtain Fajrs, Hamas could have placed Tel Aviv within missile range, which is exactly the coup it has sought in an effort to create the impression of a victory over Israel.

I'm not sure if that is a "reasonable assumption" or not, though it isn't outlandish. But the raid, which reportedly killed between 30 and 40 people and destroyed 17 trucks, is a big deal, even though it occurred months ago, and it could severely destabilize Sudan, inflame relations between Arab countries, Iran, and the United States, and set the stage for a response by Iran.

As Reuters reports:

Any public confirmation of a foreign attack would have a major impact in Sudan, where relations with the West are already tense following the International Criminal Court's decision this month to issue an arrest warrant for President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on charges of Darfur war crimes.

Bashir, of Sudan, was in Cairo yesterday meeting Egypt's President Mubarak. Sudan has also confirmed that the attack took place.

That same report, from the Times of London, quotes an Israeli source suggesting that US intelligence cooperated with Israel in planning the attack:

Eitan Ben Eliyahu, a former Israeli air force chief, told [Israeli] army radio that the reported Sudan raid showed that it was still too early to draw up a final assessment of the offensive in Gaza.

"One of the essential elements of this operation was the strengthening of co-operation, particularly with the United States, to prevent arms smuggling to Hamas," he said.

And the scope of Israel's operations may have been bigger:

In recent weeks, the outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has alluded to a series of "major operations" carried out during his term of office.

In another unexplained incident, warplanes bombed five fishing boats off Sudan's Red Sea coast on January 16, wounding 25 people, Sudanese security sources told AFP.

The Real Economic Crisis

Today I want to highlight an example of remarkably good and important journalism, namely, a story in the Washington Post by Karin Brulliard that opens the door, a crack at least, on the effects of the worldwide economic crisis on the most vulnerable: people who live in Africa and other "least developed" countries.

The story is called: "Zambia's Copperbelt Reels from Global Crisis."

It's important because it points out that the effects of the crisis, while bad here at home, are magnified a hundred-fold in many poor countries, which are being pushed over the brink toward societal disintegration.

First a quote:

Mines here in Zambia's Copperbelt region drive this poor nation's economy, but a plunge in global trade has slashed demand for the copper used to construct electronics and houses in the United States and Asia. That is prompting mines here to slow and shut, limiting tens of thousands of Zambians' access to schooling, health care and regular meals.

And it's continent-wide:

Africa's resource-fueled economies have grown steadily in recent years, improving the lives of millions of people. Now, as prices drop for Botswana's diamonds, Chad's oil and Tanzania's cotton, a crisis that began in the rich world is threatening to drive millions more into poverty, according to the World Bank, and raising the specter of unrest.

The article points out that the IMF has identified 26 countries as "highly vulnerable" to the crisis, half in Africa. (Of course, that understates the problem, since the entire Third World is suffering enormously. Even Iraq, oil rich, can't pay the army and police it needs to guarantee the peace as the US withdraws.) The article continues:

The problem is not just a collapse in commodities prices. Foreign investment is receding in countries such as South Africa and Kenya. Remittances are dropping in Liberia. Aid flows from economically stressed donor countries might retreat. Much will depend on how quickly advanced economies recover, according to experts and African leaders, who warn that a prolonged downturn could stir turmoil.

At the IMF's website you can read the entire report, in a .pdf document, which is depressing indeed, and scary. The point is, while the United States is spending literally trillions to bail out banks and insurance companies and to build infrastructure, etc., the needs in the Third World are measured in billions, not trillions. But the lives at risk are measured in billions, too.

Some quotes from the IMF report:

The study finds that the global crisis is squeezing exports of low-income countries severely, while also curtailing inflows of foreign direct investment and remittances, which had become important sources of financing in recent years. As a result, many countries will face sharply lower fiscal revenues and some may also experience pressure on their foreign exchange reserves.

And:

The IMF analysis identifies 22 low-income countries that face the most acute financing constraints. To keep their external reserves at safe levels (around 3-4 months of imports), at least US$25 billion in additional concessional financing is needed in 2009. This represents about 80 percent of annual aid to all low-income countries in recent years.

If global growth and financing conditions deteriorate further, the number of vulnerable countries could almost double, while additional financing needs could approach US$140 billion.

It seems to me that adding $140 billion to the multi-trillion dollar stimulus effort is pocket change, now.

Poles, Czechs Don't Like Our Missiles

We don't need no steenkin' missile defenses! That's the message emanating from Eastern Europe.

The proposed "anti-Iranian" missile systems aren't popular in Poland and the Czech Republic, where they are supposed to be installed.

From CNN:

The Czech prime minister canceled a vote to allow the United States to put a key part of its planned missile defense system in the Central European country, the government announced late Tuesday.

Prime Minister Miroslav Topolanek said he called off the vote for fear his government would lose but added he could still put the two treaties up for a vote in parliament at a later date.

Adds Reuters:

The Czech government temporarily withdrew treaties on hosting a U.S. defense radar from a parliament ratification process on Tuesday in the face of an opposition threat to vote them down.

The decision highlighted the center-right government's weakness in parliament and may delay the ratification for months or even put it on ice for an unpredictable period.

Meanwhile, the Poles don't much want them either, by a vote of 53-22:

Fifty-three percent of the Polish respondents to a recent CBOS survey are against plans to install elements of a U.S. anti-missile shield in Poland.

Twenty-two percent of the polled support the idea, Polish news agency PAP reported on Monday, quoting the survey.

And John Bolton is even grumpier than usual, complaining about President Obama's offer to reconsider the deployment of the missile defense systems if Russia helps eliminate Iran's nukes. Says Bolton:

The administration's biggest mistake to date was suggesting that U.S. missile-defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic might go unbuilt if Russia could deliver an Iran without nuclear weapons. ... It could well be that the United States gives up the Polish and Czech missile sites while Russia not only doesn't deliver a nuclear-free Iran but doesn't even try very hard.

But Carl Levin doesn't agree:

Senator Carl Levin said simply beginning serious discussions with Russia about missile cooperation would send a powerful signal to Iran and could help repair strained U.S.-Russian relations.

"We have a new opportunity to seek a cooperative approach with Russia on missile defense and we should seize it," Levin told a conference on missile defense. "The upside potential of such an effort is huge -- a geopolitical game changer."

I'll take Levin over Bolton.

Afghanistan: Waiting for the "Exit Strategy"

It's Afghanistan week, with President Obama's Afghanistan review complete and the new strategy for the war set to be released any day now. In his 60 Minutes interview, Obama suggested that he's leaning toward the "minimalist" theory that the war in Afghanistan has to focus on Al Qaeda and that the United States needs "an exit strategy." From the transcript:

"What we can't do is think that just a military approach in Afghanistan is gonna be able to solve our problems. So what we're looking for is a comprehensive strategy. And there's gotta be an exit strategy. There's gotta be a sense that this is not perpetual drift."

Asked what America's mission in Afghanistan is, Obama replied:

"Making sure that Al Qaeda cannot attack the U.S. homeland and U.S. interests and our allies. That's our number one priority. And in service of that priority there may be a whole host of things that we need to do. We may need to build up economic capacity in Afghanistan. We may need to improve our diplomatic efforts in Pakistan.

"We may need to bring a more regional diplomatic approach to bear. We may need to coordinate more effectively with our allies. But we can't lose sight of what our central mission is. The same mission that we had when we went in after 9/11. And that is these folks can project violence against the United States' citizens. And that is something that we cannot tolerate."

But Obama is sending 17,000 more US troops to the war that can't be won militarily, and he's talking about "building up economic capacity in Afghanistan," which could take many years. Are we prepared to stay for years? Is Obama prepared to spend his entire presidency fighting the Afghan war? That's the question asked by Jackson Diehl in a Washington Post op-ed today, in which Diehl answers in the affirmative. Citing General David McKiernan, who's demanding a further buildup, Diehl writes:

McKiernan believes the Afghan army, now at 80,000 members, will have to grow to 240,000 before it can defend the country on its own -- and that raising it to that level will take until 2016. Would Obama be willing, or politically able, to devote the entirety of his presidency to a war that has already lasted seven years? The thousands of American soldiers and civilians pouring into the country deserve that strategic patience; without it, the sacrifices we will soon hear of will be wasted.

That doesn't sound like an exit strategy to me.

The indefatigable Walter Pincus, writing in the Post on Sunday, describes the huge buildup of US-funded military infrastructure in Afghanistan, which makes it look even more like we're settling in for the long haul:

At Bagram air base, for example, the Army Corps of Engineers is managing about $650 million in construction. ... The [U.S. Army] Corps of Engineers has become the largest employer of Afghans after the national government. Corps contractors ... will spend about $4 billion in Afghanistan this year and employ between 45 percent and 60 percent of the overall construction industry in that country. The U.S. Agency for International Development spends, he said, $1 billion to $1.5 billion a year in Afghanistan.

The corps has about 720 miles of roads under construction in Afghanistan, with another 250 to 350 planned for next year. [The U.S. will spend] about $4 billion this year and $4 billion to $6 billion in 2010 to more road contracts.

Does that sound like an "exit strategy"? No.

As the New York Times reported last week, current plans for expanding the Afghan security forces to 400,000 -- including raising the size of Afghanistan's army from 80,000 to 260,000 -- will cost up to $20 billion over 6-7 years. And that's just the cost of training and equipping the forces. Sustaining them will cost, I've heard, as much as $4 billion a year ever year after that. (Afghanistan's entire national budget is only $1.1 billion a year.)

Various reports leaking out about Obama's Afghan strategy suggest that Vice President Biden and Bruce Riedel, the former CIA officer in charge of the review, are leaning toward the "minimalist" view -- that the US cannot rebuild the whole country and repair its shattered society, and that as long as Al Qaeda is defanged, we've "won." On the other hand, General Petraeus, Centcom commander, and Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy, want a much bigger strategy. According to Jim Hoagland of the Post, there is a developing "synthesis that moves everybody toward a middle ground," whatever that means.

Last week, John McCain and Joe Lieberman, in an op-ed entitled "Our Must Win War: The 'Minimalist' Path Is Wrong for Afghanistan", attacked attacked the idea of limited goals, saying instead that there is no "shortcut to success," no "middle way":

As the administration finalizes its policy review, we are troubled by calls in some quarters for the president to adopt a "minimalist" approach toward Afghanistan.

Tomorrow night's news conference by Obama will be a big deal, and not only because he'll be defending his secretary of the treasury and the bailout plan. He'll also have to convince Americans that he knows what he'd doing in Afghanistan. The US public is increasingly skeptical of the war. According to Gallup:

A new USA Today/Gallup poll finds growing concern about the war in Afghanistan at the same time that Americans' optimism about Iraq is growing or holding steady.

Forty-two percent of Americans now say the United States made a mistake in sending troops to Afghanistan, up from 30% earlier this year and establishing a new high.

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