Tuesday, August 10, 2010
Monday, August 9, 2010
On June 10, when the Iranian opposition movement cancelled its planned commemoration of the anniversary of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed reelection, commentators assumed that the Green Movement was finally finished. For months, it had been criticized as lacking strong leadership and for being unable to seriously challenge Iran’s entrenched regime.
But the history of political turmoil in twentieth-century Iran suggests that the movement may yet survive. After all, movements propelled by similar social currents have succeeded in dramatically changing Iran in the past.
Saturday, August 7, 2010
Speculation as to the source of the damage abounded during the days in which the tanker sat in port being examined by officials from the UAE. Among these were freak waves, terrorist attacks, collisions with submarines, or collisions with a marine mine, potentially left over from the Iran-Iraq war.
Then, eight days after the event, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an al-Qaeda affiliate responsible for attacks on resorts in Egypt in 2004 and 2005, claimed credit for what it termed an attack on the tanker. At that time, most experts dismissed the claim as untrustworthy because it came so long after the attack occurred, the damage to the hull of the tanker was regular, there was no apparent breach of the hull, and no scorch marks. But just one day later, Officials from the United Arab Emirates reported that their investigation had determined the tanker had been attacked using homemade explosives and dingy.
Attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf are extraordinarily rare. Any assault—attempted or successful—in the vital Straits of Hormuz should cause considerable concern. A successful assault in the Straits could potentially bottle up 40% of the worlds crude—at least temporarily. The effect on the price of crude would likely be astronomical.
Thursday, August 5, 2010
The basic framework we have for thinking about consumer spending goes back to none other than Milton Friedman, whose “permanent income” hypothesis says that people will save most of any income change they see as merely transitory. Telling rich people that we’ll keep their taxes low for a couple more years is, for them, a transitory income gain; they’ll save the bulk of it.
Isn’t the same true for lower-income people? Not to the same extent. Permanent-income reasoning doesn’t fully apply when some people are “liquidity-constrained” — they have depressed income, which would make them want to spend more than they earn right now, but they’re out of assets and unable to borrow, or unable to borrow except at relatively high interest rates. People in that situation will spend much or all of any temporary windfall.
So if we give money to people likely to be liquidity-constrained, they are likely to spend it. That’s why aid to the unemployed is an effective stimulus; it also suggests that tax cuts for lower-income workers will be relatively effective at raising demand. But the affluent, who typically have lots of assets and good access to borrowing, are much less likely to be in that situation.
Wednesday, August 4, 2010
Tuesday, August 3, 2010
[Y]ou cannot start from scratch. You cannot forget history. You cannot pretend that the Republican Party has not supported big and wasteful spending programs—energy subsidies, farm subsidies, unnecessary homeland security projects, profligate defense contracts, you name it—for the last decade. Before the Republican Party can have any credibility on any spending issues whatsoever, Republican leaders need to speak frankly about the mistakes of the past.
They also must be extremely specific about which policies and which programs they are planning to cut in the future. What will it be? Social Security or the military budget? Medicare or the TSA? Vague "anti-government" rhetoric just doesn't cut it anymore: If you want a smaller government, you have to tell us how you will create one.
Sunday, August 1, 2010
Though his tone is negative, Sanger is ultimately inconclusive. He does question, however, whether “30,000, or even 60,000, [troops] could have brought stability to a vast country, where tribes, not governments, are the ruling powers?” He notes, “The Taliban—a native movement—would almost certainly have waited it out, figuring Washington could not sustain so large a force for very long.”
It strikes me that Sanger’s analysis rolls up a bit of Orientalism with two curious assumptions. The Orientalism is obvious in Sanger’s contrast between government and tribes. The dichotomy is, of course, false. Tribal power and governmental power are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, tribes can be an incredibly effective mode of governance and an excellent building block on which to develop communal reconciliation and broader governance. Both the US experience in Anbar province in Iraq and the history of Somaliland since 1991 provide excellent examples of tribes behaving in just this way. The dichotomy, though, is not Sanger’s alone—the Western penchant for contrasting civic government, epitomized in Western states, with any mode of governance that is alien is well trod territory.
The curious assumptions in Sanger’s analysis are that he apparently believes the Taliban to both be static and monolithic, and popular. Sanger’s belief that the Taliban could have waited out a US/NATO deployment of 30,000-60,000 troops suggests that he believes the Taliban circa 2001 and the Taliban today to be the same, unchanging, and monolithic. Sanger’s implicit contrast of the Taliban, “a native movement,” with Karzai’s government and its supporters suggests that he believes the Taliban to have an Afghanistan-wide base of support.
Comparing the budding truth of Sanger’s second assumption to the origin of the Taliban—and its level of popular support in 2001—demonstrates that his first assumption is false. The Taliban began as a Pashtun movement and in large measure it remains so today. It is true that the insurgency is spreading from Pashtun heartlands—both in the south, Helmand, and in the north, Kunduz—to reach non-Pashtun majority provinces. The Taliban’s emerging national strength has only come through nearly a decade of Western malfeasance in Afghanistan—without failing to deliver on promises of reconstruction and improved livelihood, without scuttling the goodwill of the Afghan people by killing so many civilians, without supporting an obviously corrupt regime while pretending otherwise, it is unlikely that the Taliban would have garnered popular support beyond the ranks of the Pashtun. It is little wonder that the Taliban were able to inflict so little damage on the ISAF for so many years—it took time for ISAF to do sufficient damage to itself vis-à-vis the civilian populace for the Taliban to reap benefits in the form of increased popular support, greater numbers of fighters, and greater freedom of movement. Thus, a greater security presence at the outset—provided that security force employed COIN principles properly—would likely have made all the difference in the world.
Thursday, July 29, 2010
While the AU’s commitment to its Somali mission is admirable—and a hopeful sign for the continent’s future in some respects—it may be extraordinarily misplaced. The truth of the AU mission is that there was no peace for the peacekeepers to keep at the outset. Instead, the AU really served a stop-gap function, allowing Ethiopia to withdraw its troops after it invaded Somalia and toppled the ICU. In the wake of Ethiopia’s withdrawal, the AU troops have functioned as international props for the Transitional Federal Government—a western-backed farce. Increasing the number of AU troops and loosening their rules of engagement will likely only serve to transform the peacekeepers ever more into the TFG’s security service, enmeshing the AU’s mission ever more into the international community’s quixotic attempts to deliver the TFG Somalia.
Unfortunately, the AU and the TFG cannot hope to succeed. Foreign troops are incredibly unpopular in Somalia, the TFG is a Potemkin government of war lords and would-be elites without any real power base—think an entire Iraqi government, formed in Damascus, composed of Chalabis, and then delivered to the Green Zone. The only likely resolution to Somalia’s persistent anarchy is a homegrown, indigenous government. Don’t laugh—it is just such a government that has preserved stability and more than a semblance of democracy in Somaliland. Such a government requires local support, a local constituency, credibility, and of course legitimacy—all things lacking in the TFG.
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Monday, July 26, 2010
Saturday, July 24, 2010
[I]t was Mahan, the American, who understood two crucial factors. The collapse of the Soviet Union originated in American sea power and also opened the door for U.S. naval power to dominate the world. Additionally, Mahan was correct when he argued that it is always cheaper to ship goods by sea than by any other means. As far back as the fifth century BC, the Athenians were wealthier than the Spartans because Athens had a port, a maritime fleet, and a navy to protect it.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Haass argues that the United States must clearly assess what are its Afghan objectives—a point with which I agree. He believes there are two American goals: “to prevent Al Qaeda from reestablishing a safe haven and to make sure that Afghanistan does not undermine the stability of Pakistan.” Unquestionably, these two goals are the United States’ prime objectives in Afghanistan.
However, the policy prescriptions Haass offers will not achieve either of the goals he outlined. Effectively, Haass believes that the United States should abandon the corrupt, ineffectual Karzai government in favor of power devolved to the provinces, coupled with rapprochement with the Taliban.
Haass arrives at this prescription in an eminently reasonable way. He argues that al-Qaeda and the Taliban are not one in the same—absolutely true. He argues that the two organizations have different goals—true, as well. He argues that there are a very small number of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan—true according to Leon Panetta, DCI. He argues that large troop deployments (over 100,000) intended to kill such a small number (60-100) is ineffective—yes, very true. He argues that the Taliban are predominantly Pastun—true, again. And that this renders the war in Afghanistan, against the Taliban, really an tribal-ethnic civil war—true, to a point.
Where Haass falters, and falters drastically, is his presumption that the war in Afghanistan is static. Haass believes that the United States can change tactics in Afghanistan, to focus on killing al-Qaeda in Pakistan, without causing a significant shift in al-Qaeda from Pakistan to Afghanistan. He believes this because he believes that the United States can convincingly deter the Taliban from harboring al-Qaeda. Remarkably, he believes that the US can do this after allowing a de facto partition of the country, with the Taliban operating what is effectively a Pashtunistan in South and Eastern Afghanistan.
The ability of the United States to affect the deterrent that Haass describes is questionable from both tactical and strategic perspectives. From a tactical perspective, the deterrent would require the United States to develop substantial intelligence among an extraordinarily hostile population—difficult in any environment, more difficult in an environment where you have 1. no US presence; 2. you’ve abandoned what of the civilian population that had assisted you in a 9 year counterinsurgency to their fates at the hands of the kin they turned on to assist you. From a strategic perspective, an effective deterrent would require something more than cruise missile or drone strikes, a presence the American people will not likely support after leaving Afghanistan once. The deterrent might sound good on paper but it will not be effective.
Further, even assuming the United States is able to affect a convincing deterrent, there is little reason to believe that even a co-opted Taliban will be able to prevent al-Qaeda from reestablishing itself in their territory. Even in the late 1990s, when al-Qaeda moved into Afghanistan, it was not apparent that they did so with overt support from the Taliban. The relationship, I think, is better described as parasitic. The Taliban were a weak government, al-Qaeda was cohesive. In that environment, al-Qaeda was able to carve out a fiefdom in Afghanistan, irrespective of Taliban desires.
Finally, while Haass should be commended for his willingness to recognize the differences between al-Qaeda and the Taliban, we should remember that not all militants are created equally—at least vis-à-vis Pakistan. The government of Pakistan describes the world in terms of “good” and “bad” Taliban. Good Taliban are those Taliban that focus on Afghanistan (and Kashmir, but that’s a different matter) and do not harbor Pakistani ambitions. Bad Taliban are those Taliban (and al-Qaeda) that oppose the state of Pakistan. Under the aegis of Bad Taliban fit both al-Qaeda and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. A vacuum in Afghanistan, or a weak Taliban controlled space in South and Eastern Afghanistan will likely offer safe haven for these so-called Bad Taliban to launch attacks in Pakistan, contributing to Pakistan’s destabilization and thereby undermining one of the twin goals of the United States in Afghanistan.
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Monday, July 19, 2010
Let us begin with the history. The collapse of Somalia is usually dated to 1991—not Zakaria’s 1992—when Said Barre was finally driven from Mogadishu in January. In fact, Somalia was without effective government for at least several years before Barre’s ouster as the country struggled to address multiple anti-regime armed movements and recover from its disastrous war with Ethiopia.
The United States did not give tacit support to Ethiopia’s 2006 invasion of Somalia. The United States gave material support to Ethiopia, providing Ethiopia with intelligence and air support for its invasion.
The Islamic Courts Union, the emerging indigenous government of Somalia that Ethiopia and the United States help to oust, is a difficult movement to color broadly. They really were an alliance of Islamic courts that exercised extremely localized jurisdiction. Some of the courts were relatively moderate, while others were draconian in their interpretation and implementation of Sharia. To describe the ICU as a “radical movement” is, I think, overbroad—in fact, one of the erstwhile leaders of the ICU is now the president of the US-backed Transitional Federal Government.
As to whether the United States has suffered deleterious effects owing to the chaos in Somalia, the only answer to this question must be yes. In the governmental void of Somalia, members of al-Qaeda have reportedly found safe haven; the al-Shabab has been born, grown and strengthened; pirates operate with impunity from Somalia’s coast, reaching into the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and even the wider Indian Ocean. These waterways, particularly the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, are critical avenues of international shipping. Simply glancing at the IMB’s Live Piracy Map communicates the intensity of piracy occurring in and around the Horn of Africa as compared to the rest of the world. Reading the IMB’s Piracy Prone Areas and Warnings does an even better job. Somalia-based pirates have driven up the costs of ship insurance 4,000%; the costs of maintaining the naval flotilla in the Gulf of Aden—to which the United States contributes vessels and manpower—approaches $300 million. The impact of Somalia-based piracy on global trade has been estimated as high as $16 billion annually.
Beyond piracy, the strongest pole of power in Somalia, currently, is the extremely radical al-Shabab which emerged from the ashes of the ICU. Its links with al-Qaeda are worrisome in themselves, more worrisome in the wake of the Kampala bombings, which demonstrate an ability to mount at least regional operations. Again, this was the first cross-border operation mounted by al-Shabab and therefore represents a sea change in the behavior of a heretofore Somalia-centric organization. Finally, transit between Somalia and Yemen is common, frequent, and unregulated, making it possible, even likely, that al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia physically communicate.
Friday, July 16, 2010
It is an argument that sounds eerily similar to the one Mr. Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, made to justify an unpopular war in Iraq as he watched his own poll numbers sink lower.Just because two presidents claim that their unpopular actions are in the best interest of the country does not make the actions themselves equivalent. The war in Iraq was predicated on nonsense. The stimulus package, financial reform, and comprehensive healthcare reform--what ever you think of the policy choices themselves--were reactions to actual problems, actually doing harm to the United States.
Thursday, July 15, 2010
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
In the past, Al-Shabab has threatened to attack Kenya and Ethiopia for their support of the Transitional Federal Government and their occupation of Somalia, respectively. It would appear that the bombings in Kampala fit the pattern of al-Shabab reacting against what it views as foreign interference in Somalia—Uganda has provided a large contingent of the AU peace keepers currently operating in Somalia; al-Shabab threatened further attacks against Uganda and Burundi if their troops do not leave Somalia. Notably, the United States also backs the TFG and provided military and intelligence support to Ethiopia during its invasion in 2006—the invasion that sparked al-Shabab.
Despite this apparent causal relationship, the US Assistant Secretary for African Affairs is quoted in today’s New York Times as saying, “[Al-Shabab] was a localized cancer, but the cancer has metastasized into a regional crisis. It is a crisis that has bled across borders and is now infecting the international community.”
It is not clear, at this point, that al-Shabab has or even desires to obtain the capacity to operate on a global level and truly “infect the international community.” Nevertheless, al-Shabab’s now demonstrated ability to operate at least regionally, and its supposed close links to al-Qaeda, should make the United States very nervous.
The Kampala bombings demonstrate quite clearly:
- The international community’s policy in Somalia has been an abject failure. The TFG should be abandoned and a clear eyed reassessment of US interests and local actors should be undertaken.
- In the territory of Somalia controlled by al-Shabab, terrorists are able to plan, train, and launch at least regional, cross-border terrorist assaults of a relatively sophisticated nature.
- In the territory of Somalia not controlled by al-Shabab, pirates have free rein and are able to act with impunity.
Sunday, July 11, 2010
NPR reporting on a Moody's Analytics study demonstrating the economic impact of unemployment benefits versus tax cuts. Mark Zandi, Chief Analyst for Moody's and a former advisor to Sen. McCain's 2008 campaign, testified similarly before Congress.
The airline industry trade group argues that the number of 3 hour or longer tarmac delays has been in decline for over year. BTS data, however, reveals a more mixed picture. April and March 2010 were likewise significantly lower than the numbers for 2009, but February 2010 was actually higher by 50%.
Read USA Today’s article on the new regulation here. See the BTS data for yourself here.