News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.
Following on the heels of recent reports from British military and diplomatic circles that the war in Afghanistan can't be won, a new report from Tony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies lay out in excruciatingly painful terms how bad the situation is. Cordesman, who is both a principled, hardline conservative and a true scholar and military expert, is probably the most prolific thinktank analyst in all of Washington. His analyses are all must-reads.
The only question is: Does the United States have the stomach for a Thirty Years' War against the Taliban? I doubt it, and I hope not. But Cordesman (and others) are right that that's what it would take to have a prayer of victory there.
Yesterday I spoke with a top advisor to John McCain, who said point-blank that the war in Afghanistan will go on for many years. "This is a decades-long project," he said. There is no exit for US and NATO troops until the Afghan army and police are ready, he said. "The transition will take at least a decade." And it will take a lot more US forces.
Cordesman's new report is called "Winning the War in Afghanistan," and it takes off from there.
The real war is political, ideological, and a struggle for the control of the political and economic sphere. It is also a war of attrition. ... We are running out of time. ... We currently are losing, and the trends have been consistent since 2004.
Taking aim at people who suggest that more aid, more state-building efforts, more money for Afghan courts, and such will help win the war, Cordesman pooh-poohs that. "We face a crisis in the field--right now," he writes.
We need to stop the spin and liar's contests, and provide honest public reporting. We need enough transparency and credibility to get sustained Congressional, Media, and public support for a long war. ...
We cannot make the progress we need to make in 2009 and 2010 by "fixing" the Afghan central government or "fixing" NATO. We may make some progress in both areas, but at least for the next two years, the military dimension will be shaped largely by US forces, those of our allies that are already in the fight, and the improvements we can make in the field in the Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police, and possibly the Pakistani Army and Frontier Corps. ...
At least during 2009 and 2010, priority must be given to war fighting needs over longer-term development, improving the central government, rule of law, etc.
Cordesman says that winning the war will require more troops, better strategy, less interference from Washington over decisions by Centcom, and a lot more effort in IS&R (intelligence, surveillance, and reconaissance), and Special Forces covert ops. He concludes:
Stop "bs-ing" the American people. Tell them what new draft US intelligence assessments say, provide the level of transparent and honest reporting that prepares them for the necessary level of sacrifice. Do not issue another vacuous Department of Defense report like that issued in the June. The December report should at least equal the level of similar reporting on Iraq. Prepare the nation for a long war; build up credibility and trust.
For all the talk about Afghanistan being the "right war," and with both Obama and McCain insisting that they want to send thousands of additional US forces there, our British allies have let the camel, so to speak, out of the bag. Meanwhile, more and more information is coming out to confirm that the government of Afghanistan is negotiating with (gasp!) the Taliban. This is important stuff.
First, here are the quotes from British Ambassador Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, whose leaked comments in a French cable were reported at the end of last week. In them he says that sending more troops to Afghanistan would make the problem worse, not better, and that the NATO forces in Afghanistan are "part of the problem, not part of the solution":
"The current situation is bad, the security situation is getting worse, so is corruption, and the government has lost all trust. ... The presence of the coalition, in particular its military presence, is part of the problem, not part of its solution. Foreign forces are the lifeline of a regime that would rapidly collapse without them. As such, they slow down and complicate a possible emergence from the crisis. ...
"It is the American presidential candidates who must be dissuaded from getting further bogged down in Afghanistan. [Sending more troops] would have perverse effects: it would identify us even more strongly as an occupation force and would multiply the targets [for the insurgents].
"We must tell [the Americans] that we want to be part of a winning strategy, not a losing one."
Equally astonishingly, not leaked but speaking on the record, the UK's Brig. Mark Carleton-Smith says point-blank, as the London Times headline proclaims, "We can't defeat Taliban, says Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith":
"We're not going to win this war. ... It's about reducing insurgency to a manageable level that's not a strategic threat."
He called for negotiating a political settlement with the Taliban. Here's the lead of the Times story:
The departing commander of British forces in Afghanistan says he believes the Taliban will never be defeated.
Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, the commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade, whose troops have suffered severe casualties after six months of tough fighting, will hand over to 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines this month.
He told The Times that in his opinion, a military victory over the Taleban was "neither feasible nor supportable."
I guess he didn't get McCain's or Obama's talking points.
You can read the latest news about hush-hush talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban here, here, and here. Various sources, on various sides, are denying parts of the story, but it seems that the effort is being brokered directly by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
What does the start of a new civil war in Iraq look like? It looks a lot like this:
The Times reports today matter-of-factly on the pattern of assassinations of Sunni members of the Sons of Iraq militia by Shiite death squads:
American military leaders disagree among themselves about whether the assassinations are increasing or whether some of the killings are merely criminal acts. But they are "watching the numbers closely," said a military official who attends briefings on attacks.
Yesterday I wrote a lengthy piece for The Nation about the likehihood of a new civil war and a new Sunni resistance movement stemming from the sectarian Shiite government's refusal to make a political deal with Iraq's Sunnis. The American military may indeed be "watching the numbers" of murdered Sunnis "closely," but there's not much that they intend to do about it. (Here's a clue for the vaunted US military intelligence people "watching" these assassinations: they're not "criminal." They're political.)
In a major feature this week on the handover of the Awakening movement and the Sons of Iraq to Prime Minister Maliki's bloodthirsty regime, the Post cited the fears of Ibrahim Suleiman al-Zoubaidi, one of the movement's leaders in Baghdad:
"They will kill us," Zoubaidi declared. "One by one."
Across Baghdad, leaders of the groups speak about the transition in similarly apocalyptic terms. Some have left Baghdad, saying they fear that the Iraqi government will conduct mass arrests after the handover. Others are obtaining passports and say they will flee to Syria.
Reports Leila Fadel of McClatchy, one of the very best reporters in Baghdad:
The Sons of Iraq worry that putting them under the control of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki is a ploy to detain and disband them. Already, Sons of Iraq leaders in the northern province of Diyala are hiding in neighboring Syria.
Others aren't fleeing at all. They'll fight.
It's going to get uglier. Here's an excerpt of an important story in the of London on the Sons of Iraq handover:
The Sons of Iraq said they feared for their future. Mohammad Idan, 42, a former shopkeeper related a rumour he had heard about the Iraqi security forces kidnapping and "disappearing" a Sons of Iraq member.
"We will never feel safe with them," he said. ...
Alarm has spread through the militia group in recent weeks after the government issued arrest warrants for dozens of members around the country. Under US pressure, the Iraqi government has agreed not to arrest any members without a warrant issued during the past six months, and not to fire any without cause.
In The National, a newspaper in the United Arab Emirates, the warnings from the Awakening movement -- called sahwa in Arabic -- are a little more explicit:
Sunni fighters who once battled US troops in Baghdad, before turning their guns on al Qa'eda, have warned the Iraqi government it must continue to support them or risk a return to chaos. ...
The Sahwa themselves are concerned that the Iraqi government may simply disband the councils and push the former insurgents back into the role of active insurgents. In essence it would be a repeat of a former devastating mistake, when America disbanded the Iraqi army in 2003, leaving thousands of trained soldiers without jobs and a score to settle against the US military. ...
Sheikh Abdul Mohammad, a Sahwa fighter in Taji, to the west of Baghdad [said], "If we are treated properly we can stand with the government and Iraq will be strong, can stabilize and prosper. If not the country will fall again. The future is not in our hands it is in the government's." ...
In the notorious Diyala province, one Sahwa leader said government security forces contained too many people who took orders from Iran – again a reference to distrust many Sunnis have for the Shiite dominated security forces.
"The security services have too many elements which are loyal to Iran. We need to see those cleaned out, and then the Sahwa can think about being integrated."
He's right, in case you're wondering. Iran pretty much runs the show, through its teams of death squads, its influence of the powerful Badr Brigade of the Iranian-created Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), and its strong influence over Maliki.
It's having an effect, across Baghdad and much of Iraq. From an Italian source, here's one account about Adhamiya, a neighborhood in north central Iraq just east of the river:
In al-Adhamiya in recent days, gunfights have broken out of a sort not seen for some time: two people were killed at a checkpoint on Sunday, and a civilian was killed on Monday when a car bomb exploded. There have also been rising tensions between local leaders and government officials. The situation will have to be carefully managed to keep al-Adhamiya and similar neighborhoods from descending into sectarian violence once again.
Here's a conclusion from the Pentagon's own quarterly report on Iraq, in typical bureaucratese, about the Iraqi government's unwillingness to take responsibility for supporting (and paying) the Sons of Iraq--not to mention not assassinating them:
"The slow pace of transition is a concern. Continued GoI [Government of Iraq] commitment is required to ensure SoI [Sons of Iraq] are fully transitioned to permanent employment. Recent allegations of GoI targeting SoI leaders in Diyala Province are of concern if they are indicators of GoI reluctance to integrate SoI into the ISF or, more broadly, to reconcile a diverse province."
All this makes mincement of John McCain's assertion that his vaunted "surge" has led to "victory" in Iraq. It hasn't. The country is seething with violence and political fissures that are very deep. It's ready to explode. Barack Obama, who's been defensive about the surge, ought to slam McCain for his support, in 2006, for escalating the war. Obama -- along with the entire US military leadership back then, most of Congress, and the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group -- wanted to start pulling US forces out of Iraq two years ago. Had they won, the war would be over. Instead, the next president will take office with more than 150,000 troops in Iraq.
As AP reported this week:
Six Army brigades, a National Guard unit and three military headquarters have been ordered to Iraq next summer in a move that would allow the U.S. to keep the number of troops largely steady there through much of next year.
Okay, we all wish outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Olmert had said this stuff during his time in office. Still, it's stunning. Here are the direct quotes, via the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharanot and Y-Net:
"The notion of a Greater Israel no longer exists, and anyone who still believes in it is deluding themselves.
"Forty years after the Six Day War ended, we keep finding excuses not to act. This isn't doing Israel any good. The international community in starting to view Israel as a future binational state. We can prove that we have been more creative than the other side through the years, and that they have been more obstinate, but as usual, we will win the debate by losing sight of what's really important.
"We can always find very good reasons for not doing things now, and for why we would be better off postponing everything to a later date. We refuse to face reality. Time is not on Israel's side, not because our cause isn't just, but because time has its own repercussions.
"I admit – this hasn't always been my position. In the past I've said – and I said it to (Labor Chairman Ehud) Barak at the time – that what he agreed to in Camp David was wrong.
"I used to believe that everything from the Jordan River bank to the Mediterranean Sea was ours. After all, dig anywhere and you'll find Jewish history. But eventually, after great internal conflict, I've realized we have to share this land with the people who dwell here – that is if we don't want to be a binational state.
"No other nation is as strong and no other nation in the Middle East can rival us. The strategic threats we face have nothing to do with where we draw our borders.
"We can argue about every single detail, but when we finally hash out an agreement we may find we no longer have the international community's backing, or a partner for that matter. We'll be left with nothing but the feeling that once again, as for the past 40 years, we were right.
"I'm not kidding myself. I know the change I'm talking about won't rid us of all the threats. We'll still be facing Palestinians threats across the security fence, since they have no real security establishment, but we can deal with all of that and we would be better off dealing with it than cementing the notion of a binational state in the international community's mind.
"The public knows we can't put it off. Voluntary evacuation is a part of that realization. A day will come, probably sooner than some are willing to admit, that all of us will be willing to embrace the same solutions that some of us are rejecting right now.
"Israel has always known how to make wise decisions and how to protect itself. We have to ask ourselves is losing a hill here or there, is worth forfeiting the chance to achieve something. This is why I say that this is the time to discuss the evacuation-compensation (bill). We have to keep pushing it, and eventually bring it before the government.
"This is the time to push for peace with both the Palestinians and the Syrians. If we know how to do that, other Arab countries, which are yet to acknowledge us in public, will soon follow."
It's caused a storm of controvery in Israel, especially since Olmert also called for giving East Jerusalem to the Palestinians.
Just when you thought that the Middle East couldn't support yet another crisis -- after all, there's Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan-Pakistan, and throw in Georgia, too -- the Syria-Lebanon front is heating up. This is serious stuff.
Breathless neocons are issuing alarmist warnings about a possible Syrian invasion of northern Lebanon, after a spate of bombings that hit both Damascus and the northern Lebanon city of Tripoli. Amir Taheri, one of those neocons, writes:
For the last week or so, Syria has been moving heavily armed elite military units to the Lebanese border - with up to 25,000 massed there by early last week. Backed by tanks, armored vehicles and attack helicopters, the units were on "maximum war footing," eyewitnesses say. ... Lebanese analysts say the type of force Syria is massing is better suited for a classical invasion than for chasing small and scattered groups of bandits along the border.
According to the Lebanese media, Syria has placed about 10,000 troops on the border.
This comes at a critical time: Israel and Syria are conducting fairly public negotiations about a Syrian-Israeli deal to return the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to Syria, and the leaders of both Turkey and France are deeply engaged in promoting it. At the same time, Syria is closely tied to Iran, and Syria's President Assad is getting stronger backing from Russia, including arms, since Syria supported the Russian action against Georgia. It all means that this is a high-stakes game.
Some background: earlier this week, a huge car bomb in Damascus killed 17 people, not far from two possible targets: a headquarters of the Syrian intelligence service and an important Shiite mosque. Both targets are plausible for attacks by underground, Sunni fundamentalist radicals -- possibly tied to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood -- who oppose Assad's regime. (Many Sunni fanatics consider Assad, who belongs to a quasi-Shiite minority sect, to be an infidel.) The bombing took place against the backdrop of an ongoing insurrection by Sunni Islamist prisoners in a Syrian jail.
According to the Times, Assad put the blame on Islamists based in northern Lebanon and moved troops to the border:
Assad issued a warning about the presence of hard-line Sunni Islamists just across the border in northern Lebanon, hinting that they were receiving support from Saudi Arabia. Subsequently, thousands of Syrian troops were deployed near the border with northern Lebanon, in a move that was understood as a related gesture, though Syrian officials said it was to control smuggling.
Here's the actual quote from Assad:
"Northern Lebanon has become a real base for extremism and constitutes a danger for Syria."
Assad also hinted, reports the Times, that Saudi Arabia -- whose regime notoriously supports both the Muslim Brotherhood and Sunni extremists in Lebanon -- might be behind the bombings and Islamist revolts.
In and around Tripoli, there is a proxy war of sorts underway, pitting hard-core Sunni Islamists against secular, nationalist and pro-Syrian forces there.
Lebanon's political system, of course, is fragile. Earlier this year, a breakthrough accord was reached around the election of the army chief of staff, Michel Suleiman, to be president of Lebanon. As part of the deal -- which was brokered by Saudi Arabia and Iran, working together -- the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia was granted a powerful place in Lebanon's government. And Suleiman began tilting toward Damascus. Many neocons raised alarms, worrying about the possibility that the influence of Syria and Iran was giving those two powers, and Hezbollah, a controlling share in Beirut. Is it possible that the deal is unraveling? Or will Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah simply opt to exercise a coup d'etat in Beirut (and Tripoli)?
The Syrian foreign minister, Walid Moallem, didn't tip his hand in an interview this week in the Wall Street Journal:
The visit of President Michel Suleiman to Damascus last month was an important visit. It was agreed to build a strong base for the future of relations between Syria and Lebanon, starting from exchanging diplomatic relations, demarcation of the borders, and security cooperation between both countries. These issues are important and build on the mutual respect for sovereignty and independence of both countries.
Last Friday, Moallem held an unusual meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The US establishment certainly doesn't want a war with Syria. But more radical elements, from the neocons to Israeli hardliners to Saudi backers of anti-Syria Islamists, might be pushing the crisis. The Syrian exiled opposition, led by the Muslim Brotherhood and a former top Syrian official, Abdel-Halim Khaddam, have long been rumored to be in discussions with US and French intelligence about "regime change" in Damascus. But on the ground, in Lebanon at least, Syria seems to be in the driver's seat.
If, God forbid, foreign policy had to be the deciding factor in choosing between Barack Obama and John McCain, then last night's terrible showing by Obama would make me a Ralph Nader voter in a heartbeat. Obama's performance was nothing short of pathetic, and only a Democratic-leaning analysts and voters with blinders on could suggest that Obama won the debate. More important, he utterly blew a chance to draw a stark contrast with John McCain on America's approach to the world.
He checked all the boxes. Barack ("Senator McCain is right") Obama couldn't find anything to disagree with the militarist Arizonan about. Support for NATO expansion? Check. Absurd anti-Russian diatribes? Check. Dramatic escalation of the war in Afghanistan? Check. I'm ready to attack Pakistan? Check. (Actually, on this one, McCain was the moderate!) Painful sanctions against Iran, backed up by the threat of force? Check. Blathering about the great threat from Al Qaeda? Check. It went on and on.
Here's Obama on Afghanistan:
Yes, I think we need more troops. I've been saying that for over a year now.
And I think that we have to do it as quickly as possible, because it's been acknowledged by the commanders on the ground the situation is getting worse, not better. ... So I would send two to three additional brigades to Afghanistan.
Obama on invading Pakistan:
You've got cross-border attacks against U.S. troops. And we've got a choice. We could allow our troops to just be on the defensive and absorb those blows again and again and again, if Pakistan is unwilling to cooperate, or we have to start making some decisions. ... You don't muddle through the central front on terror and you don't muddle through going after bin Laden. You don't muddle through stamping out the Taliban.
When McCain bumbled by calling Iran's Revolutionary Guard the "Republican Guard" (that would be the name of Saddam Hussein's elite force, not Iran's), Obama bumbled along, stupidly agreeing that the Guard is a "terrorist" group:
I believe the Republican Guard of Iran is a terrorist organization. I've consistently said so. What Senator McCain refers to is a measure in the Senate that would try to broaden the mandate inside of Iraq. To deal with Iran.
Sure, Obama said he would talk to Iran, but so did McCain. And they both cast Iran policy as related to US support for Israel, our "stalwart ally," Obama said. Like Sarah Palin, Obama isn't about to second-guess Israel.
On Russia, Obama acknowledged that the US can't go back to a Cold War posture, and then he proceeded to do so, sounding exactly like McCain:
A resurgent and very aggressive Russia is a threat to the peace and stability of the region.
Their actions in Georgia were unacceptable. They were unwarranted. And at this point, it is absolutely critical for the next president to make clear that we have to follow through on our six-party -- or the six-point cease-fire. They have to remove themselves from South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
It is absolutely important that we have a unified alliance and that we explain to the Russians that you cannot be a 21st-century superpower, or power, and act like a 20th-century dictatorship.
And we also have to affirm all the fledgling democracies in that region, you know, the Estonians, the Lithuanians, the Latvians, the Poles, the Czechs, that we are, in fact, going to be supportive and in solidarity with them in their efforts. They are members of NATO.
And to countries like Georgia and the Ukraine, I think we have to insist that they are free to join NATO if they meet the requirements, and they should have a membership action plan immediately to start bringing them in.
He added, for good measure: "I think Senator McCain and I agree for the most part on these issues." No criticism at all of McCain's idiotic concept of a League of Democracies, which McCain touted last night. No criticism at all of McCain's thundering demand to kick Russia out of the G-8.
On torture, Obama totally blew it. "I give Senator McCain great credit on the torture issue, for having identified that as something that undermines our long-term security," said Obama last night. Come again? This is the McCain who supports waterboarding, who wouldn't force the CIA to adhere to military standards about torture. Did you miss that, Senator Obama?
Where was Obama's criticism of the "Bush doctrine" -- you know, that thing that Palin likes, about shooting first and asking questions later? Where was Obama's vision of an effort to reach out to Muslim countries with a new vision of US-Muslim cooperation? What about casting the principle challenge of foreign policy in terms of hunger, disease, lack of housing and access to clean water, that plagues the Third World and drives desperate people to violence?
Yesterday evening, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spent a couple of hours taking questions from representatives of the American peace movement. He appeared in a ballroom at New York's Grand Hyatt hotel, at an event facilitated by the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
The questions to Ahmadinjead weren't softballs: What about Iran's crackdown on human rights and dissidents? Iranian policy toward Israel? Treatment of women? Iran's foot-dragging on issuing visas even to peace movement representatives? And, of course, the big issues: What about a Grand Bargain with the United States? And will Iran accept a compromise on its nuclear fuel enrichment program?
The answers were, well, less illuminating than the questions.
In his preliminary speech, Ahmadinejad adopted the role of gentle, lecturing professor. Dressed in a gray jacket and off-white shirt with an open collar, wearing glasses and sporting his trademark, unshaven look, the Iranian president also drifted from professor-like to cleric-like.
The solution to the world's problems, including war, is religion, he said. Sounding not unlike Rev. Pat Robertson, Ahmadinejad said: "When religious values are removed from society, there is no hindrance for war. We must promote morality, ethics, and religious values." In case anyone was wondering what he meant by "religious values," the fundamentalist Shia politician said explicitly that he is talking about a return to the prophets. "We have to go back to the methods of the divine prophets," he declared, who were "sent by God to guide people." He expressed regret that for the past several decades many people have implied that adherence to fundamentalist religious beliefs is "equivalent to backwardness."
In response to the questions, Ahmadinejad happily endorsed America's invasion of Iraq. "Finally, [US leaders] were able to make a good decision for once," he said, referring to the 2003 war. But now, he said, America has overstayed its welcome, in an effort to dominate the Persian Gulf and secure access to oil. Having eliminated Iran's enemy, Saddam Hussein, it's time for the United States to get out. "We have friendly ties with both the government and the people of Iraq," he declared. "The best help the United States can provide to people in the region is to withdraw troops from the region. Leave the region alone!"
Joe Volk of Friends Committee on National Legislation asked Ahmadinejad about the 2003 back-channel offer from then-President Khatami's government to the United States to settle all outstanding issues in US-Iran relations in a Grand Bargain that would cover nukes, Israel, Iraq, terrorism, etc. In response, Ahmadinejad said that the main problem was that there was no response from the United States. "When the back channel became front channel, everything went awry," he said. Rather than comment further on Khatami's offer, he talked about his letter to George W. Bush, a rambling, religion-infused epistle that he called "an historical opportunity." It wasn't -- but Khatami's was. "There's no need to go back channel," said Ahmadinejad yesterday.
"We're ready to have positive dialogue" with the United States, he said, suggesting indirectly that he'd be receptive to Barack Obama's offer of diplomacy. But he seemed overconfident in regard to America's military threat to Iran: "The American government is no longer able to start another war for decades to come. This is good news for the rest of the world, believe me!" True enough, America is overstretched in its two ongoing wars, but his belief that Iran is therefore safe from a US attack seemed dangerously misguided to me. During my visit to Iran in March, many Iranian officials seemed to underestimate the potential for the United States, with its $600 billion Pentagon budget and vast Persian Gulf firepower, to strike Iran's nuclear facilities.
Perhaps Ahmadinejad's worst moments came in relation to human and women's rights. Everything is fine, he said. Repression of dissidents and youth. "It is not the case in Iran," he lied. "Young people are very active politically." (Astonishingly, as evidence of young people's involvement in politics, he cited the recruitment of Iranian young people to the paramilitary Basij militia. In 60,000 mosques acorss the country, he said, young men are attaching themselves to the Basij, which is an adjunct force to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. In all, ten million have signed up, he said, though most estimates say that the Basij is about one million strong.)
On women, the Iranian president waxed poetic about the precious beauty of women, in a rambling, stream-of-consciousness description of what he said is the growing role of women in society. It's gone so far, he said, "To tell you the truth, women are about to replace myself." (As unlikely as it is for a woman to become president of Iran, real power rests with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and a woman cannot become an ayatollah or, therefore, the Supreme Leader.) "In Iran, the way women are looked at is different than here. They enjoy more respect at all levels, and they work less .. A lot of times, we don't want women to do hard work. Cab drivers! I don't really like it for women. It's a tough job, really. ... Women are the reflection of sublime beauty. Women are the reflection of all that is beautiful in society."
He didn't give any hint of a diplomatic opening on the nuclear issue. He ridiculed the United States, the UK, France and Canada for cooperating with the pre-1979 regime of the Shah on nuclear technology, and he got off a zinger: "When there were no elections in Iran, they wanted us to be a nuclear power. As soon as there were elections, they didn't want us to be a nuclear power." He specifically said that Iran is opposed to nuclear weapons, adding: "The time for nuclear weapons has come to an end. Those who want to build a new generation of nuclear bombs are politically backward, period!" Of course, the idea that Iran would risk world isolation, sanctions, UN Security Council actions, and the threat of war in order to have a peaceful nuclear energy program seems quite ludicrous to me. Clearly, Ahmadinejad is one of those "politically backward" ones. He refused to say that Iran would welcome a deal of the sort proposed by Thomas Pickering, for international guarantees for a nuclear enrichment program for Iran. Overall, no daylight there.
You've got to worry when bipartisan hawks flock together. And you've got to worry even more when those hawks are targeting Iran, and writing op-eds in the Wall Street Journal with titles like: "Everyone Needs To Worry About Iran." And when they form organizations with names like: "United Against Nuclear Iran." Yes, it has its own website.
The names of the hawks are familiar to us all. Some of them work for or advise John McCain, some of them do the same for Barack Obama. Some of them are outright neocons, and some of them are liberal interventionists. One of them is Karen Hughes, the former flack for President Bush, whose knowledge of Iran is close to zero. The rest include: Fouad Ajami, Richard Holbrooke, Leslie Gelb, Jim Woolsey, Henry Sokolski, and Dennis Ross. Its president is Mark Wallace, the deputy campaign chairman for Bush-Cheney '04.
The group says that it doesn't advocate war against Iran. But its entire purpose is to rally Americans against Iran, calling it a "danger to world peace." It says that it intends to "inform the public about the nature of the Iranian regime, including its desire and intent to possess nuclear weapons, as well as Iran's role as a state sponsor of global terrorism, and a major violator of human rights at home and abroad." If that isn't war propaganda, I don't know what it is.
Meanwhile, both the Times and the Post carry editorials today on Iran. The Post calls its editorial "Iran Slips Away." It worries that the sense of crisis about Iran is ebbing, and it tries desperately to rev it back up, suggesting aggressive, even war-like measures that the United States might try to ram through an unwilling UN Security Council:
The two most important would be an arms embargo -- which would prevent Russia from supplying Iran with the advanced air defense systems it has reportedly promised -- and a ban on the export to Iran of gasoline and other refined products, which could cripple Iranian transport.
The Times, for its part, carries an editorial called "Remember Iran?" Far more sensibly than the hawkish Post, they say clearly that there "are no good military options," and instead call for Condi Rice to go to Tehran with a grand bargain in her pocket:
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had hoped to salvage at least part of President Bush's legacy, and her own, by brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal before Mr. Bush leaves office. That's looking ever less likely. Ms. Rice could still make history if she got on a plane to Tehran to deliver an offer of a grand bargain.
She could prove that she was serious by proposing to immediately open an American interests section in Tehran -- an idea her aides floated a few months ago that seems to have disappeared.
We don't know if any mix of sanctions and rewards can persuade Iran's leaders to abandon their nuclear program. But without such an effort, we are certain that Tehran will keep pressing ahead, while the voices in the United States and Israel arguing for military action will only get louder.
There's little or no likelihood of military action against Iran now, or in the near future, either by the United States or by Israel. But sky-is-falling rhetoric about Iran isn't useful, and it certainly creates the groundwork for future military action. President McCain and his unblinking Vice President Palin wouldn't hesitate to use force sometime next year, and Prime Minisiter Bibi Netanyahu (were he to win elections in Israel early next year, which could happen) might do the same.
It's possible, of course, that when Alaska Governor Sarah Palin meets Hamid Karzai, the president of of Afghanistan, and Asif Ali Zardari, the president of Pakistan this week, she will fix everything that's wrong in those two countries.
But in the real world, the one that humans actually live in, the situation could hardly be worse in either place -- and it's headed south.
Pakistani nearly unraveled completely over the weekend, when a bomb destroyed the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, and narrowly missed killing both Zardari, the president, and Yousaf Raza Gillani, the prime minister, the two principal leaders of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP). Zardari and Gillani were supposed to have been at the hotel the night it was bombed. Why, exactly, they changed their plans is unclear, but there does appear to have been advance intelligence about the coming attack, which killed at least 60 people, including the Czech ambassador. According to one report, the government "had received intelligence information of an attack in the capital two days earlier."
Rehman Malik, a Pakistani official, noted that the whole country's leadership was supposed to be at the hotel:
"An Iftar Dinner was scheduled at Marriot on September which was hosted by National Assembly Speaker Dr Fahmida Mirza and where all dignitaries including the prime minister, president, cabinet and all services chiefs were invited. However, at the eleventh hour the dinner was shifted to rime minster's house which saved Pakistan's entired military and political leadership."
A new report from CSIS, written by veteran, conservative military analyst Tony Cordesman, is called "Losing The Afghan-Pakistan War? The Rising Threat." Cordesman is the latest to suggest that the US and NATO are losing the fight in Afghanistan, and that the situation in Pakistan could unravel quickly, too. Look for signs of panic in Washington. Despite the fact that cross-border raids into Pakistan won't work, despite the fact that such actions could destabilize the fragile Pakistani regime beyond repair, despite the fact that Pakistan (at least publicly) has strongly opposed any US actions in troubled northwest border areas, that seems to be US policy at present.
Here's a Times editorial on the topic today, warning that the Bush administration is showing signs of "desperation":
Pakistan's military is threatening to shoot American troops if they launch another raid into Pakistan's territory. Whether the threat is real or meant solely for domestic consumption, there is a real danger of miscalculation that would be catastrophic for both countries.
President Bush's decision to authorize Special Operations forces in Afghanistan to go after militants in Pakistan's lawless border region was a desperation move. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, admitted earlier this month that America and its allies were "running out of time" to save Afghanistan.
We certainly share his alarm and his clear frustration that the Pakistanis are doing too little to defeat the extremists or stop their attacks into Afghanistan. But Mr. Bush and his aides should be just as alarmed about Pakistan's unraveling -- Saturday's horrific bombing at Islamabad's Marriott Hotel is only the latest sign -- and working a lot harder to come up with a policy that bolsters Pakistan's fragile civilian government while enlisting its full support in the fight against extremists.
It's too much to expect that cooler heads will prevail in an election season. Unfortunately, nearly all American experts look at the problem in Pakistan from the standpoint that it's all about the possible Al Qaeda threat to the United States. It isn't. The problem in Pakistan is a regional crisis, one whose solution can only be achieved through a regional arrangement linking Pakistan, Iran, and India, with the full support of Asia's two big powers, Russia and China. And the goal of such an effort must be to strengthen the economy of Pakistan, relieve its social crisis, and ease the pressure on its now utterly incompetent, corrupt civilian government. The Pakistani military, obsessed with India and intent on extending its clout in Afghanistan and Central Asia as a counterweight to New Delhi, must have its influence in Pakistani politics drastically curtailed, in large part through an India-Pakistan accord that would cover both Afghanistan and the disputed areas of Kashmir. In a perfect world, that's what candidates such as Barack Obama ought to be talking about -- not about beefing up US forces in Afghanistan and unilateral attacks into Pakistan. Hmm, I wonder if Sarah Palin will think of that this week, when she sees Zardari and Karzai?
Speaking last week at the Middle East Institute, Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution surprised me by saying that the United States ought to invite China into the Middle East -- from Iran to Iraq to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
It wasn't what I expected from Pollack. He was speaking about his new book, A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East, a rather grandiosely titled tome whose principal focus is the need for political, economic, and social reform in the region. It was Pollack's earlier (2002) book which earned him the enmity of the liberal-left. It was called The Threatening Storm : The Case for Invading Iraq, and it probably did more to rally the liberal interventionists and Democratic hawks in support of President Bush than any other effort.
Well, Pollack hasn't reformed, though he did make some ironic references to the subtitle of his earlier book. But when I asked him about the role of China, and whether China could help rebuild and stabilize the region, he agreed. Not only should the United States ask China to get involved in the Persian Gulf, but the rather dysfunctional Quartet (the US, the EU, the UN, and Russia) set up to deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict should become a Qunitet, including China.
"The rise of China is the preeminent issue," he said. "China is really the big issue. ... They are fixated on the Middle East. And the Chinese are the rock stars of the Middle East."
"China has exactly the same interests as the United States in the Middle East," he said, citing primarily the need for the sustained flow of oil at reasonable prices. During his recent trip to China, said Pollack, he heard from many senior officials and analysts there the same thing: "We are terrified of the Middle East." The Chinese, said Pollack, see the Middle East as "the graveyard for great powers," having watched first Russia disintegrate in part because of Afghanistan and then the United States bog down in Iraq.
"You've got to let them in," he said. "You've got to make them our partner."
Now, the Chinese aren't dumb, and neither is Pollack. China already has good relations with Iran, and Iran counts on China as a potential friend and ally in its looming showdown with the West. China is also building close economic ties with Iraq, and it recently signed a $3 billion oil deal with Baghdad that could be worth $55 billion in petroleum supplies. And China is deeply involved in Saudi Arabia, too, where thousands of Chinese workers are helping to build an entire new city there. The industrial future of China will be fueled by Middle East oil.
But in contrast to some neoconservative analysts, who seem eager for a showdown with China over the region (and who probably intended the invasion of Iraq in 2003 to be a triumphant coup against China, which had oil deals in place with Saddam Hussein), Pollack gets credit for suggesting that rather than use our sharp military elbows to keep China out, we need to invite them in.
I asked Pollack if his view about inviting China into the region (rather than keeping them out) was widely shared among the American establishment, and he said that it wasn't. "But when I talk about it, they nod their heads." We'll see.