Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Win or lose, Coakley’s campaign—like Deed’s campaign in Virginia last year—offers important lessons for the Democrats going into the midterm election. Unfortunately, without exit polls, it will be difficult to construct an extensive post-mortem on the campaign. However, it seems that we can already draw two lessons: 1) don’t take elections for granted; 2) Congress must get something done.
As to the first point, lest we forget Coakley is running to fill Ted Kennedy’s seat. In Massachusetts. And there is a very real possibility that she will lose. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the importance of this point. The lack of intensity, the lack of campaigning, and the lack of focus on this race has let Scott Brown become the favorite to win. Clearly, if Democrats are vulnerable in Massachusetts, they are vulnerable anywhere. Were I the RNC, I would throw money at every Congressional race in the country coming out of today.
As to the second point, Democrats, it’s clear that we are going to sink or swim together. The last year has been a terrible example of our party’s inability to control the message. The American people appear to be frustrated with Congress’s performance and its seeming inability to get anything done. Stop playing to the Republican’s message that Democrats can’t be trusted to govern: put a healthcare bill on President Obama’s desk; confirm the outstanding administration appointees; speak in consonance as a caucus about the issues confronting the nation. Without both tangible results and a coherent defense of Congressional action for the next 10 months, the midterm election will be a disaster. We may be nostalgic for 1994 at the end of this cycle.
Saturday, January 16, 2010
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Sunday, January 10, 2010
But other militants allied with the Afghan Taliban factions and Al Qaeda claimed responsibility, too, leading to another troubling possibility: that all those militant groups are cooperating more closely than ever.
Cooperation between militant groups is certainly a possibility. Indeed, there are many disparate groups that are embroiled in the AfPak conflict who routinely take on Afghan or NATO forces—the Uzbek Islamist Movement is a good example of a non-Taliban, non-Al-Qaeda organization with its own goals but that cooperates with the Afghan and presumably the Pakistani Taliban.
And, while competing claims of responsibility may indicate cooperation, it seems more likely that the bombing of the CIA’s operating base in Afghanistan—given the coverage it has received and the nature of the target—is high profile success for which ever militant group that can lay claim to it. Such successes would likely raise the standing of the group responsible for it and may improve its ability to recruit fighters and garner support. Thus, the competing claims of responsibility are less indicative of cooperation than of the desirability to have owned the operation in question. Further, the ebullient praise that the suicide bomber levels on Baitullah Mehsud in the video in question buttresses the notion that the Pakistani Taliban is solely responsible for the bombing.
Thursday, January 7, 2010
Aside from being the hiding place for the now infamous American-born Imam al-Alawi, Yemen was the sight of one of the earliest US predator strikes after 9/11. Yemen is also where the USS Cole was bombed in 2000.
More troubling, though, is that Yemen is fundamentally unstable. Just twenty years ago Yemen was still two separate states. Shortly after unification in 1990, civil war broke out and Yemen has remained—to greater or lesser extent—at war with itself since.
Despite significant US aid to Yemen over the last decade, the country has only become less stable. Despite covert US action against Al-Qaeda in Yemen, the country has only seen growth of that organization. The government of Yemen is waging a war against Houthi rebels in the north of the country, while Al-Qaeda is camped in the southern part of the country. Saudi Arabia has reportedly bombed Houthi rebel positions inside Yemen and there are unconfirmed reports that Saudi soldiers have crossed the border. Yemen is in a bad way and it’s getting worse.
So, what’s to be done? Clearly, Yemen is not a place to deploy US troops. Putting more US soldiers on the Arabian peninsula would only outrage the Muslim world. Further, it is unclear that US soldiers supporting President Saleh, an autocrat, would actually improve his position (and thereby our security)—to say nothing of American standing and moral authority. Nor is it clear that greater expenditures in foreign aid will improve
What is clear, though, is that instability remains a threat to US national security. Weak governments, unable to control their territory, and vulnerable, impoverished populations, provide ample opportunity for transnational organization to gestate. Al-Qaeda has demonstrated its willingness to take advantage of these opportunities: in Taliban-era Afghanistan, in the tribal region of Pakistan, and in Yemen. It is quite likely that even if the United States manages to oust or severely weaken Al-Qaeda in Yemen, that additional affiliates will grow and strengthen in the other nether-reaches of the planet—a likely environment sits just across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen in Somalia. US national security must focus both on confronting Al-Qaeda—through military or law enforcement means, as the situation dictates—and on confronting the ungoverned portions of the Earth. The United States should support those indigenous entities that manage to develop into putative States and governments—entities whose writ and legitimacy are frequently stronger than the recognized governments they stand in contradistinction to. US decision maker must become savvier and more sophisticated; they should not be easily convinced by regional powers that some putative State is really a front for Al-Qaeda when that regional power is pursuing its own ends.
Tuesday, January 5, 2010
Sunday, January 3, 2010
And the Republicans have not discarded this line of attack with the demise of the Soviet Union. No, Democrats are no longer Soft on Communism, now they are Soft on Terrorism. Democrats do not take seriously the threat posed by Al Qaeda. Democrats do not consider the danger of terror attacks. Democrats want the terrorists to win. Democrats hate America.
The theme of these sorts of attacks emerged immediately in the aftermath of 9/11. The 2002 midterm elections were characterized by sweeping, unfounded attacks on Democrats along these lines. Despite becoming the object of ridicule by the middle of the decade, the line of attack has not yet died.
Since the failed Christmas Day underwear bombing, a panoply of Republicans have come reprised the Soft on Terrorism attack, directing it at the President. To characterize these attacks as cynical and inaccurate would be an understatement. In fact, a number of strong, independent rebuttals have appeared in places like the editorial page of today’s Washington Post.
But, while the Republican attacks in this vain are obscene and offensive, what concerns me is not their reemergence—sadly, this is just the nature of the modern, dishonest Republican party—but that the Pres. Obama walked into them. Like it or not, despite the horrendous mishandling of Afghanistan and US foreign policy under the previous administration, the Democratic party is still playing from a position of weakness when it comes to national security issues, including terrorism. As the leader of the Democratic party, President Obama and his administration should be aware that any misstep—real or perceived—will come back to haunt the Democratic party in 2010, 2012, and going forward so long as terrorism is a live issue. Thus, while I have all sorts of other problems with Pres. Obama taking a 10 day Hawaiian vacation for Christmas, his failure to cut short his vacation to return to Washington, DC is unforgivable—while true, it is clearly no effective political answer to point out that Pres. Obama’s reaction was similar (arguably more lively) than Pres. Bush’s reaction in the nearly identical Richard Reid incident in 2001.
While I generally applaud the job that Pres. Obama and his administration have done with foreign policy and national security, Pres. Obama cannot forget that the opposition party will cynically exploit any opportunity presented. Though it may be distasteful, it is their nature. What’s more, the Republicans have not played their cards close to their vest—it was clear from the outset of Pres. Obama’s administration that the Republican party would do their very best to undermine the President and capitalize on any opportunity presented. Here, the President’s reaction—or lack of reaction—to the Christmas Day underwear bombing has given the Republican Party plenty of ammunition to label Democrats as Soft on Terrorism.
Now, President Obama, fix the holes in the system, prosecute the would-be bomber, and get out in front of the next story.
Monday, December 28, 2009
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
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
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
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.