Thursday, July 8, 2010

I'm a bit late weighing in on this absurd Russian spy saga, but I still don't quite know what to make of it.  Originally, I was surprised that the arrests were made immediately on the heels of an apparently successful meeting between Obama and Medvedev.  However, given that Moscow has, surprisingly, not issued a sharp rebuke of the U.S., I can only surmise that they either had advance warning or realize that the proof against these alleged agents is undeniable and it would only make them look worse to attempt a denial.

Interestingly, it seems that a massive prisoner swap is in already set to be completed.  Not much information is available about who will be exchanged, but it seems plausible that Washington seized these agents solely to use as trade bait in order to regain U.S. assets in Russian custody.  More importantly, the whole affair reminds me of the wise words of the late, great, Warren Zevon: "how was I to know she was with the Russians too?"

And if you think this whole post was just an excuse to include such an epic video, well you might be right...

A technical error caused the original post and comments to be lost.  Apologies.

I'm a bit late to the pundit party, but I have a few thoughts about "The Runaway General" controversy that have been overlooked.  General McChrystal crossed a line, and left the President with no choice but to relieve him of his command.  This much is sure.  It is a huge story, one which will reverberate in the coming months and years across Afghanistan, as my colleague Jeremy as already noticed.

However, we have focused solely on the derogatory comments sprinkled throughout the article, and in doing so have missed the bigger point: COIN is not working in Afghanistan, and General McChrystal was oblivious to its failings.  Unfortunately, President Obama and his national security team seem similarly blinded, as the selection of General Petraeus indicates more of the same COIN-predicated strategy.

Ironically, criticizing the COIN orthodoxy has become near-heresy in many circles, a far cry from its wandering in the desert days in pre-surge Iraq.  The rapid growth, and indeed dominance, of this theoretical paradigm is not inherently negative, but falling in thrall to the theory and neglecting to think critically and reflect on the situation in Afghanistan and the applicability of COIN theory is a fatal flaw.  General McChrystal and his team fell victim to true-believer blindness, and U.S. and NATO troops, and Afghan civilians, will pay the price long into the future.

One of the fundamental prerequisite for COIN is the existence of a viable alternative to insurgency.  This entails a functioning state, economic opportunity, and basic governance structures, such as police, utilities management, and the like. 

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

On Tuesday, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney took to the opinion page of the Washington Post to deliver a full-throated assault on the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New-START) championed by President Obama and the nation's military leaders. Romney's op-ed, titled "Obama's worst foreign-policy mistake," takes President Obama to task for caving to the Russians and receiving "nothing whatsoever in return."

Romney's piece was another step toward a likely 2012 run for president, an attempt to assert his national security credentials on the national stage. As a one-term governor Romney has none of the "tough on national security" experience that conservative voters crave, and must convince the Republican base that he can handle Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention Iran, North Korea, and other global hot spots.

Romney's effort, however, was nothing short of a disaster. His critique has been lampooned as "thoroughly ignorant," "groundless and misleading," and "ridiculous." Even The American Conservative called Romney's argument "absurd."

Fred Kaplan of Slate, an expert on nuclear weapons and arms control, went through Romney's argument line by line, debunking nearly every claim made by Romney. Romney uses wildly inaccurate weapons numbers, misunderstands the military's position on missile defense, and, at one point, even suggests that the Russians would try to mount ICBMs (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles) on strategic bombers and railroad cars.

Romney is not an international arms control expert, but he is an intelligent and analytical man. I'd bet my student loans that this was bad staff work. An initial draft was probably written by an aide, edits were made, not all were included, and someone pressed "send" prematurely. It's no excuse, but no politician or elected official writes everything submitted in their name, and mistakes happen.

Bad staff work doesn't mean Mitt Romney is ignorant of foreign policy, but it does illustrate a problem for the Republican Party - its leaders are not serious foreign policy leaders. Republicans, who have traditionally enjoyed wide margins over Democrats on national security issues, have turned inward to focus on domestic policy, ceding foreign policy to the Democrats. The Tea Party has swept the conservative base with an emphasis on tax cuts, budget deficits, and constitutional law. The rising stars and most popular officials in the Republican Party, from Senator Jim Demint of South Carolina and Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi to Sarah Palin, are all focused primarily on domestic issues. The foreign policy leaders in the party, Senators like John McCain and Lindsay Graham, are either past their prime or too moderate to survive a primary. One needs to look no further than RNC Chairman Michael Steele's recent comments on Afghanistan to see the lack of foreign policy credibility in the leadership of the Republican Party.

The 2010 midterms will likely be decided on a combination of health insurance reform, taxes, and jobs - Iraq and Afghanistan will be important issues, but there is relatively little disagreement between the parties on US policy in both countries. The 2012 presidential election, however, will be a showcase for foreign policy. Voters don't see Congress as protecting US national security, but they do see presidents that way. When President Obama stands next to his Republican challenger, that challenger will be judged by his or her ability to protect the nation and conduct its foreign affairs. As it stands, there aren't many Republicans who can play that role.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

General David Petraeus took command of American and NATO troops in Afghanistan on Sunday.

Many are considering this change of command to be little more than a change in nameplates, as President Obama has made it clear that US and NATO policy in Afghanistan will not change with the removal of General McChrystal. As we at Demagogues and Dictators seek to provide multi-faceted analysis of issues, I thought the below image provided an excellent graphical evaluation of the situation (courtesy of Doctrine Man)

On a serious note, I do think that the transfer of command is significant, even with all parties involved professing fealty to the current strategy.

Why? Because personalities matter, even in war.

Anyone who has ever spent time in any office (or pretty much anywhere, for that matter) can tell you that individuals who don't get along find it difficult to work together. Even if the dysfunctional triangle of General McChrystal, Ambassador to Afghanistan Eikenberry, and AfPak Envoy Richard Holbrooke never led to any purposeful undermining, poor (or very bad) communication is disruptive on many levels. First, and foremost, it causes a breakdown in staff communication farther down the chain. Second, it makes it that much more difficult for the US military and the US civilian agencies to understand what the other requires, something that is already difficult in the most hospitable of conditions. Third, it forces the United States to show a divided front in Afghanistan, and to all of the myriad actors important in the conflict (Pakistan, India, Russia, NATO, etc.).

Effective communication won't fix anything overnight, but they do improve ISAF's chances. In the jargon of the social sciences (I know, I can't resist), effective communication between civilian and military actors doesn't provide the permissive conditions for a successful counterinsurgency campaign, but they almost certainly are a necessary condition.

I don't know if General Petraeus will be able to work effectively with Ambassadors Eikenberry and Holbrooke, but I know that General McChrystal couldn't. That alone is reason for some hope.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Emily Keane
Kampala, Uganda

In response to Dave Reidy’s post on Nicholas Kristof’s article on conflict minerals in the DRC, I strongly believe that Reidy’s attack is deeply flawed. As I see it, Reidy’s main point is to lambaste Kristof for his uninformed, simple description and solution of a conflict that United States consumers cannot solve.

But I believe Kristof's whole point IS to be sensationalist. Let's remember that he is a columnist in the New York Times, and not Foreign Affairs or any other academic publication. He is not an expert, nor does he pretend to be. What his column does best is bring these important, yet neglected issues to light. And while Reidy is right that Kristof paints a watered down account of the conflict, Kristof has the power and audience to push these grim realities into people's faces. Who else continually writes about the conflict in Congo, sex slavery in Southeast Asia, and the genocide in Sudan on such a regular basis to such a large audience?

Why must we claim that a commitment group of people cannot influence change?! Sure, American consumers are idealistic and have the attention span of a fly, but their power CAN be harnessed! Worldwide pressure against South Africa's policy of apartheid played a role in its banishment. There's are more than enough examples to use here, but just look at Kristof’s first sentence: ''“Blood diamonds” have faded away, but we may now be carrying “blood phones.” Perhaps a bit kitschy, but no one would argue that only years ago the idea of combating conflict diamonds was considered impossible. And look how far we've come on that issue! Do they still exist? Yes. But now a majority of people have the facts and have the ability to make a more ethical decision when buying diamonds. Why is it any different with the natural resources in Congo?

I completely agree with Reidy that the conflict in the Congo and its associated economy is complex. But to scoff at Kristof’s suggestion that a more well-informed public will not change anything is too pessimistic for me. Kristof’s solution will perhaps, at best, only put a small dent in the conflict, but is that not something?

Of course, this will not solve the conflict and only locally stakeholders committed to peace can achieve that. Kristof’s article offers food for thought on what we can do for those affected by this conflict: to be more aware and thoughtful in our choices as consumers.

Emily Keane is a joint-degree student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology focusing on humanitarian logistics


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