Tuesday, November 30, 2010

WikiLeaks Revisited

The Wikileaks disclosure continues to generate chatter in the blogsphere and I thought it was worth it to put up some links.

- Always good to be in the company of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in your opinions and it would appear I am.

- Politico's Ben Smith believes WikiLeaks is hell-bent on diminishing America's power. I don't disagree that is WikiLeaks goal, but I wonder if they overestimate the magnitude of America's power.

- Will Wilkinson at Democracy in America believes the WikiLeaks disclosure is a blow against the state elite. In perhaps the most provocative statements he makes he doesn't seem to mind if the disclosure leads to the deaths of U.S. sources or U.S. government officials because without this disclosure, the state elite would have claimed the lives of others.

- Reza Marashi, Research Director at the National Iranian American Council, (and good friend of DCExile) has an article in the Huffington Post taking WikiLeaks to task for endangering U.S. officials and their sources, criticizes the here-to limited diplomacy of the U.S. toward Iran under President Obama, and considers opportunities for future negotiations in the wake of the WikiLeaks disclosure.

Monday, November 29, 2010

106

With more than a month left in 2010, the United States has already doubled its 2009 tally for drone strikes in Pakistan. The United States launched its 106th strike over the weekend, at a target in North Waziristan. In 2009, the US launched 53 drone strikes in Pakistan compared to 34 strikes in 2008. Both the year-on-year, and the intra-year rate of strikes has increased, with the United States launching 54 attacks in the first 8 months of 2010 and 52 in the following three months.

While many scholars and commentators seek to justify US drone strikes in Pakistan under either the rubric of self-defense or by expanding the zone of combat of the war in Afghanistan to include the frontier region of Pakistan, the proliferation of strikes and the fact that armed groups other than Al Qaeda or the Afghan Taliban are targeted leaves these explanations wanting. It is likely that the intensity of US drone strikes and the level of organization of the targeted groups places the United States in an armed conflict in Pakistan, triggering international humanitarian law.

WikiLeaks Strikes Again

Hope everyone enjoyed Thanksgiving, ate plenty, slept in, and didn't have their grundle grabbed by TSA. It's back to reality and reality comes, in part, in the form of another WikiLeaks disclosure of classified U.S. documents. The New York Times summarizes some of the juicier tidbits, and attempts to put the documents in context.

I'm not sure what to feel about this disclosure and others WikiLeaks has been a part of. It seems dangerous to me to just release all these documents. I'm confident it's illegal for an employee of the U.S. government to share this documents. I'm confused as to what WikiLeaks hopes to accomplish. Is the release of information the objective? Is it striving for a more open-source society and does the release of these documents help to achieve that goal? I think more transparency is better, but I hesitate to embrace the release because I'm not convinced WikiLeaks fully considers what disclosure of people's names in these documents could mean for them or their families.

After some thinking out loud, let's clarify a couple things:
1) While some of the drama described is juicy, the cables don't really reveal anything we didn't already know. It was largely the same with the previous releases. We get more detail and we get names, but the narrative isn't markedly different.

2) This and the prior releases are not similar to and should not be compared to the release of The Pentagon Papers. Disregard what you hear from Daniel Ellsberg. I think he's bought in to his own mystique too much. Mr. Ellsberg did a public service by leaking a study of U.S. involvement in Vietnam over the course of several decades. It was a document vetted and edited to provide a full picture and not simply bits of chatter with people's names in it.

Again, I still don't know what to make of WikiLeaks and its disclosure of confidential U.S. documents, but I think it's clear the disclosure is not an act of heroism.

Monday, November 22, 2010

TSA, Outrage, and War

So in case you didn't hear, the TSA is under fire for enhancing search procedures. Specifically, people are up in arms about the body scanner that leaves little to the imagination or (if you elect to not go through the scanner) enhanced pat downs. Neither of these options are enjoyable, but how much of this is a real uproar and how much is media grabbing?

According to a CBS poll out last week, 81% of Americans support full-body X-ray scanner with only 15% not supporting the measure. This hasn't stopped calls for a boycott of TSA on Wednesday (the busiest travel day of the year) by some. TSA Administrator John S. Pistole has a statement out which correctly reminds people "we cannot forget less then a year ago a suicide bomber...tried to bring down a plane over Detroit." He has also urged people just this morning to not cause slowdowns at security checkpoints so people can get home to see loved ones.

As someone who will be flying Wednesday, I'm really hoping people heed his request. Of course, bigger happenings are afoot in the halls of Congress. Ron Paul has introduced legislation that would open up TSA employees to prosecution if they engage in enhanced pat downs. Rep. John Mica of Florida has said TSA should be ditched for private contractors. Of course the TSA, when asked for comment simply stated private contractors wouldn't be a cure all since "TSA sets the security standards that must be followed." Perhaps Rep. Mica will be more comfortable having a private contractor copping a feel as opposed to a federal employee?

I spend a fair bit of time in airports. I have been patted down just so I could board a plane in Columbia. I have been interrogated by a Federale in Mexico. I have suffered long lines, forgotten belts, and I tend to look for men in suits when figuring out which security line I'm going to go through, but I take this as all part of the process. The security procedures could be overblown, but clearly (based on the CBS poll) most American are fine with whats being done.

My issue is this: How can you be up in arms about security procedures at airports designed to protect American lives when you voted to send American troops to Iraq? As someone who voted to send troops to Iraq, Rep. Mica should have to answer that question. How is it tolerable to put U.S. troops in harms way but not to go through a full body scanner? (Ron Paul doesn't have to answer the same question. He is consistent in his convictions.)

As for me, I hope people go with the flow through airport security on Wednesday. It won't be enjoyable and special preparations may be needed (fluffer?), but we're in it together. This is the world we live in and while we debate that balance between civil liberty and security I just want to make it to the airplane on time. Overhead space will be at a premium.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

NPR = Nazis?

According to Roger Ailes, the news chief for Fox News that little math equation is accurate. He since apologized for using the word "Nazi" (and can I just say it seems like everybody virulent conservatives don't like are Nazis these days. Also, while "socialist" was in the full title of the Nazi party, they were in fact facists, but I digress)

Matthew Steinglass takes a moment to reflect on the absurdity of Ailes quote. And it is absurd, not only in citing Nazis, but in grammar.

My beef is this taken as word supposition that NPR is some virulent leftist broadcast station schilling liberal propaganda on the government dime. Come'on man. Really? Does NPR lean left? Oh maybe, but when I listen to NPR it seems to lean intelligent and reasoned rather then a specific direction. Maybe what makes Ailes and other conservatives so angry is that NPR fact-checks the often groundless statements pundits and politicians make.

As to whether or not NPR should receive any federal dollars, I'm ambivalent. Ambivalence is of course the death knell of a blog such as this one, but I've been listening to the dulcet tones of Michele Norris' voice for the last couple hours and everything seems alright.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Consumer Price Index (Inflation) Update

File this under mundane, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics released October CPI numbers this morning they they are reporting a CPI-U of 0.2, which is to say a very, very small increase in prices.

This is a boring fact, but important in the broader discussion about what to do with the economy. We are teetering on price deflation at this point, which sounds good but in practice is bad. These numbers would also tend to lead credence to the Fed's planned quantitative easing. I've put you to sleep already, haven't I?

The bottom line is this, if people balk at certain remedies espoused to help our economy on the ground that they are worried about inflation, you can tell them they are ridiculous.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Daily Graph

I stole this from the Economist.com, but an interesting graph showing a modified Human Development Index with countries and U.S. States side by side.
Ben, I'm sorry to here about Arkansas being 47 out of 50.

Negotiating with Iran

Our good friend, Reza Marashi, got published somewhere people actually read. His article with Trita Parsi on 5 tips to make the next round of US-Iran negotiations better then the last recently published in Foreign Policy magazine is an interesting and quick read.

While I defer to Reza on just about everything Iran, I have some thoughts to share (that's what the blog is for after all):
1. Tip #3 is the biggest tip of all in my opinion. There was a study put out by the RAND Corporation last year titled Mullahs, Guards, and Banyards. If you want to have the first clue about Iran power dynamics, it's a must read. It also really reinforces Tip #3. There are so many stakeholders in Iran. You could draw a Venn diagram, but in the end it would look like a bad acid trip with all the overlapping circles. I think it's important for the U.S. to remember that there are people in position of power in Iran interested in working with us and while we can't cater to them exclusively, it's an opportunity.

2. Could we get a corresponding article about what Iran can do to make the negotiations productive? That's like saying "Thank you for the apples, but how about some damn oranges!" but I had this nagging feeling reading the tips that the U.S. had to do X, Y, and Z and Iran did not. Thirty years of enmity will cause that kind of reaction.

3. Let's accept we were wrong to support the Shah the way we did. Let's maybe even apologize. Guys, as a nation we messed up in Iran. We messed up in a lot of nations during the Cold War, but the reaction in Iran was perhaps the most stark and the relationship sense likely the worst. It is not a sign of weakness to apologize. It's a sign of humanity and a dignified gesture (since we can't undo what happened) befitting a superpower. Our arrogance and own ignorance/denial of history make us look childish.

One final thought: It's all connected. The Islamic revolution of 1979, the overthrow (and subsequent hanging) of Bhutto by Zia al-Haq, the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and America's impotence in the entire region is all connected. We spent many decades messing about in the affairs of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and I don't think we could be considered a net positive. Negotiating with Iran, earnestly, patiently, and in anything resembling good faith could be the first step in trying to reverse the reviled perception of the U.S. in the region.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Afghanistan

I just finished this morning Barfield’s Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History. I mentioned it before, but wanted to return to it as I think it is currently the definitive book on Afghanistan’s history out there right now. Barfield comes to a few conclusions about the current state of Afghanistan that I think are worth noting.

First, Barfield believes the Karzai government has squandered their opportunity and is losing legitimacy with every day that passes. Inevitably in Afghanistan, the key to ruling the country by the acquiescence, if not the allegiance of the populace has been the perception of legitimacy of one’s right to rule. This legitimacy has not historically come through elections, but familial, religious, or nationalistic claims.

Second, the Karzai government (and initially his international backers) believed that Afghanistan had to have a strong centralized government to hold together disparate ethnic groups. This belief came despite the recorded demise of every regime that has tried to wield significant power over the entirety of the country from Kabul. Indeed, the most effective regimes have declared supremacy from Kabul, but allowed the historical regions to be largely autonomous. The key has always been to limit the actual footprint of the Kabul government in the day to day lives of the Afghans.

It was also a misreading of the ethnic divisions. They exist, to be certain, but have not manifested into the kind of dynamic we have seen in the Balkans. There is an Afghan identity, which may be secondary to ones ethnic or tribal identity, but not so inferior as to foment a nationalist uprising in specific ethnic regions.

Third, every regime in Kabul that tried to enact sweeping social changes has faced opposition from the rural areas of Afghanistan. The social changes are seen as an assault on Islam and, in some regions, Pashtunwali that have defined relationships and local governance for hundreds of years. Successful and stable regimes have fostered social change in major cities, but largely left social custom unchanged in the rural areas. This goes back to the issue of a strong central government. If social changes are enforced at the local level, then the government footprint isn’t light and resentment arises, oft leading to rebellion.

Given these observations of the current state of affairs in Afghanistan, Barfield makes two key recommendations on how to get a handle on the situation.

1) Don’t look to have a strong central government. Instead, create a federal or pseudo-federal system where governance is largely handled in the historic regions of the country. This federalization should not look like the districts or whatever that Karzai has created. Instead, the historic power centers of Herat, Khandahar, Kabul, and Mazar should be empowered to handle much of the governance. This is how Afghanistan has worked historically and there is little reason to believe it wouldn’t work now. In fact, it would feed nicely into the dogma that Afghanistan is trapped in the middle ages.

2) Everyone needs to slow down on the social changes. This is hard to listen and abhorrent to many in the West, but Barfield makes note of the failure of all regimes that tried to change social custom dramatically and uniformly across the country. Instead, he notes the shifting demography, the large number of young people, the increasing urbanization, and he recommends a model adopted by the most stable of Afghan regimes in the 20th century. Embrace social change in urban areas, but don’t enforce it in the rural areas. Over time customs and culture change. Rather to have the people choose to change, then to have the government enforce change.

I think both of these suggestions are pretty solid, though maybe a tough political sell. Overall, I greatly enjoyed the book and it satisfied what I wanted. I wanted something that took me back to square one in Afghanistan. Barfield does that and does it well and he brings you all the way to the present and gives some great analysis of the current situation and some recommendation on how to move forward. Will American, and perhaps more importantly Afghan, policymakers learn the lessons that Barfield offers? I have my doubts, but if you want to know more about Afghanistan and put the book down with a sense of hope that there is a path out of the wilderness then I recommend picking up Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

About Tonight

Ah, the First Tuesday in November, E-Day. A few thoughts and predictions about this evening's outcome:
- GOP picks up between 35 and 38 seats in the House.
- Joe Sestak and Patrick Murphy win in PA
- Harry Reid hangs onto his seat.

One overarching comment directed to the Obama Administration: a mid-term defeat does not 1994 (nor, ultimately, 1996) make. The Republican Congressmen and women elected tonight are not interested in legislating and, therefore, are not interested in compromise. I would stop looking at the post-1994 Clinton White House as a model.