Monday, December 28, 2009

What to do about the Green Movement

Stephen Walt is right:
First, we do not know enough about internal dynamics in Iran to intervene intelligently, and trying to reinforce or support the Green Movement is as likely to hurt them as to help them. So our official position needs to measured and temperate, and to scrupulously avoid any suggestion that we are egging the Greens on or actively backing them with material aid.

Second, this is an especially foolish time to be rattling sabers and threatening military action. Threatening or using force is precisely the sort of external interference that might give the current regime a new lease on life. If you’d like to see a new government in Tehran, in short, we should say relatively little and do almost nothing. I don’t object to making it clear how much the U.S. government deplores the regime’s repressive measures, but this is one of those moment where we ought to say less than we feel.

. . . In fact, the velvet revolutions were a triumph of slow and patient engagement from a position of strength. The upheavals in Eastern Europe were an indigenous phenomenon and the product of containment, diplomatic engagement, and the slow-but-steady spread of democratic ideals through the Helsinki process and other mechanisms. And the first Bush administration was smart enough to keep its hands off until the demise of communism was irreversible, which is precisely the approach we ought to take toward Iran today.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Iran on Fire

Marking the seventh day since Grand Ayatollah Montazeri's death and Ashura, opposition protesters have taken to the streets of Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, Tabriz, and Qom, among other cities. The protests have been large and endured some violence with 12 protesters reportedly killed already--including, importantly, Mir Hussein Mousavi's nephew. Protests have been marked by chants of Marg Bar Dictator--down with the dictator--and Allahu Akbar.

For updates on what is happening in Iran, check out Iran News Now, Andrew Sullivan, Tehran Live, or Tehran Bureau. The LA Times, NY Times, and the BBC have done a pretty good job reporting, as well.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Afghan Strategy Update

Rajiv Chandrasekaran provides a disheartening report on the progress towards Pres. Obama's new Afghan Strategy in the Washington Post:

Members of Obama's war cabinet disagree over the meaning of his pledge to begin drawing down forces in July 2011 and whether the mission has been narrowed from a proposal advanced by McChrystal in his August assessment of the war. The disagreements have opened a fault line between a desire for an early exit among several senior officials at the White House and a conviction among military commanders that victory is still achievable on their terms.

The differences are complicating implementation of the new strategy.

UPDATE: Joe Klein explains why Chandrasekaran's report is disheartening.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Iran, Warmongering, and the New York Times

Every now and again, the New York Times lends its editorial pages to an individual bent on bombing Iran. Last year, it allowed Benny Morris to publish a saber-rattling screed that argued for an immediate Israeli or American assault on Iran—thankfully, Benny Morris’s call was ignored.

Wednesday, the Times allowed Alan J. Kuperman to echo Morris’s call and urge bombing of Iran. Kuperman’s unpersuasive argument—that bombing would not undermine Iran’s opposition movement and that Iran’s response would either be negligible or deterrable—is based on a selective, inapt reading of history as well as a gross overstatement of Iran’s current activities and the United States ability to respond. Absurdly, Kuperman premises his argument on the (incorrect) notion that Iran has violated international law and then suggests, ultimately, that the United States take action that would clearly violate international law.

Kuperman suggests that bombing Iran would only temporarily retard Iran’s opposition movement. He finds authority for this proposition in the NATO bombing campaign in Serbia in 1999. He notes that NATO bombing temporarily bolstered Milosevic’s popularity but that within a short time, pro-democracy forces ousted Milosevic. But opposition movements are necessarily parochial—to claim that because, in the one instance of Serbia, external use of force only temporarily and weakly magnified the citizenry’s nationalism, that similar external use of force in the case of Iran will have a similarly weak effect is nonsensical. Kuperman has here indulged nothing more than a post hoc, ergo proctor hoc logical fallacy. Indeed, examples of attacks resulting in a rallying-around-the-flag effect abound: the United States following Pearl Harbor or September 11 are instructive.

Kuperman further tortures reason by arguing that the United States could attack Iran and suffer relatively little cost because of the size of the US air force. Kuperman believes that Iran would not retaliate for a strike against its nuclear facilities because Iranian retaliation would invite a wider bombing campaign. Given the large (and growing) deployment of American troops in countries neighboring Iran, and the ability of the Iranians to exert influence in each of those countries—to say nothing of Iranian cooperation vis-à-vis Afghanistan—Iranian retaliation for American bombing would appear to be guaranteed. The threat of additional American bombing is unlikely to serve as a deterrent for Iran because the amount of bombings required to make Iranian retaliation cost prohibitive is quite large. History has demonstrated that the threat of air assault on an entrenched regime does little to dissuade such a regime in its offensive actions; that only a lengthy, wide reaching bombing campaign, or a bombing campaign coupled with a ground assault puts an end to the offensive action—see, for example, the NATO bombing campaign in Serbia in 1999 or the air war in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Unlike either of those examples, bombing Iranian nuclear sites (and the wider bombing campaign Kuperman invites following the inevitable Iranian retaliation) does not have the benefit of either legality or moral force. Though not Security Council authorized, NATO bombing in Serbia was widely by the international community seen as a moral necessity to end Milosevic’s genocide in Kosovo. While an Osirak-like strike would likely receive mild public condemnation and private support, a wider bombing campaign would be vociferously condemned, reviled, and would only further undermine US public diplomacy goals in the developing world. It would also be illegal.

It is also no answer for Kuperman to assert that Iranian retaliation could be weathered because Iran already aids its proxies in Afghanistan and Iraq. Though Kuperman is correct, he conflates Iranian proxies with those forces actively engaged in combat with the United States. He also ignores that any materiel support Iran may give to these proxies could be ratcheted up and that the proxies who aren’t harrying US forces could be unleashed.

Finally, bombing Iran’s nuclear sites will not solve the problem. As Kuperman himself notes, there are likely nuclear sites US intelligence is unaware of, US bombing may not effectively reach many of the hardened Iranian sites, and destroying even those sites will not halt—it may at best delay—Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Unilaterally bombing Iran’s nuclear sites may not be the worst policy option available to US decision makers, but it is close.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Obama's Afghanistan Speech

Tonight, the President made a strong argument for continued US commitment to Afghanistan in his speech from West Point:
[T]he American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan, and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border. To abandon this area now - and to rely only on efforts against al Qaeda from a distance - would significantly hamper our ability to keep the pressure on al Qaeda, and create an unacceptable risk of additional attacks on our homeland and our allies.
In the process, he also outlined a classical counterinsurgency strategy:
These are the three core elements of our strategy: a military effort to create the conditions for a transition; a civilian surge that reinforces positive action; and an effective partnership with Pakistan.
He then outlined a broader US national security vision—something that the United States desperately needs:
And unlike the great power conflicts and clear lines of division that defined the 20th century, our effort will involve disorderly regions and diffuse enemies.

So as a result, America will have to show our strength in the way that we end wars and prevent conflict. We will have to be nimble and precise in our use of military power. Where al Qaeda and its allies attempt to establish a foothold - whether in Somalia or Yemen or elsewhere - they must be confronted by growing pressure and strong partnerships.

And we cannot count on military might alone. We have to invest in our homeland security, because we cannot capture or kill every violent extremist abroad. We have to improve and better coordinate our intelligence, so that we stay one step ahead of shadowy networks.

We will have to take away the tools of mass destruction. That is why I have made it a central pillar of my foreign policy to secure loose nuclear materials from terrorists; to stop the spread of nuclear weapons; and to pursue the goal of a world without them. Because every nation must understand that true security will never come from an endless race for ever-more destructive weapons - true security will come for those who reject them.

We will have to use diplomacy, because no one nation can meet the challenges of an interconnected world acting alone. I have spent this year renewing our alliances and forging new partnerships. And we have forged a new beginning between America and the Muslim World - one that recognizes our mutual interest in breaking a cycle of conflict, and that promises a future in which those who kill innocents are isolated by those who stand up for peace and prosperity and human dignity.

Finally, we must draw on the strength of our values - for the challenges that we face may have changed, but the things that we believe in must not. That is why we must promote our values by living them at home - which is why I have prohibited torture and will close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. And we must make it clear to every man, woman and child around the world who lives under the dark cloud of tyranny that America will speak out on behalf of their human rights, and tend to the light of freedom, and justice, and opportunity, and respect for the dignity of all peoples. That is who we are. That is the moral source of America's authority.