The murder of 16 Afghans last week, allegedly by a US soldier who wandered off his base in Afghanistan, has renewed a basic question: Why are 90,000 US troops still in Afghanistan?
Washington Post op-ed writer Marc Thiessen took a stab yesterday at justifying a longer stay in Central Asia, without once mentioning the costs in lives and cash, nor referencing anyone with actual regional expertise. While his piece yesterday warns of danger ahead for the US in Afghanistan, the real danger lies in anyone in a position of power taking such sentiment seriously. His piece lays out "Five disasters we'll face if US retreats from Afghanistan."
Let's take them apart one at a time:
Disaster One: No more drone attacks in Pakistan.
Mr. Thiessen writes, "If we want to continue the drone war against al-Qaeda, we must have a U.S. military presence not just in Afghanistan but in the Pashtun heartland – and we can’t have that presence if the Pashtun heartland is on fire."
There's a whole range of options to maintaining a "presence" in Afghanistan that would allow for intelligence sharing and Afghan assistance in going after the remnants of Al Qaeda, which is now a shadow of its former self. President Hamid Karzai has been eager to stop aggressive US military raids – which inflame Pashtun opposition to his government and the US-led occupation – to allow more space for a negotiated end to the war with the Taliban.
Thiessen appears to be completely unaware of the fact that the Karzai regime views the sorts of military tactics he is calling for as counterproductive.
As for what's left of Al Qaeda in Pakistan, Thiessen's prediction that "Al Qaeda would be free to reconstitute" itself there ignores ongoing, albiet imperfect, joint efforts with Pakistan, and the near complete demise of Al Qaeda's traditional network in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Col. (Ret.) Pat Lang; who fought with native insurgents as a Green Beret in the Vietnam War; who founded the Arabic and Middle East studies programs at West Point; and was in charge of the Middle East, South Asia, and Terrorism at the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency in the 1990s, says the approach that men like Thiessen want makes focusing on counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan harder, not easier. "Karzai... seeks a middle way that will allow the US to continue CT (counterterrorism) operations in that country. Perhaps that is still possible. Perhaps. We have done so much damage to that possibility that I doubt it can still be done."
Disaster Two: Terrorists more likely to get nukes!
Thiessen argues that if there is a US "retreat" from Afghanistan – something he never defines – one of two outcomes will occur in Pakistan. The "worst-case scenario," he says, would see Al Qaeda and the Taliban "topple the government and take control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal." The best-case scenario? "Those within the Pakistani government who supported cooperating with the United States will be weakened, while those who have long argued for supporting the Islamists and terrorists against the United States will be strengthened. Either way, Pakistan becomes a facilitator of terror."
This is Kony12 levels of oversimplification and silliness. The Pakistani military are not exactly interested in losing control of the country to either foreign or home grown jihadis. And while much of Pakistan is a mess, including those border areas that the drones keep peppering with missiles, there is quite simply no prospect of a "terrorist" takeover of Pakistan any time soon. (For a fuller argument why, read this Monitor cover story from 2009).
And the US military presence in Afghanistan is, if anything, a complicating factor in Pakistan's own internal struggles, not something holding back an imagined barbarian horde. Pakistan's interests in Afghanistan continue to largely focus on seeking a client state to act as a bulwark against its old enemy, India, and will probably continue to use terror tactics via proxy groups from time to time, as it has down the decades including the past one of heavy US presence in Afghanistan.
The US continues to seek close military ties with Pakistan by giving them lots of money, even though there are strong hints the country was deliberately harboring Osama bin Laden until his death at the hands of US forces last year. There are plenty of risks in Pakistan, and the country – like most – has this pesky habit of pursuing what it views as its own national interests. But an open-ended US military occupation of Afghanistan is neither here nor there when it comes to the big challenges across the border.
Disaster Three: Al Qaeda will blossom again in Afghanistan.
Thiessen predicts if the US "retreats" than the Taliban will be strengthened. This much of Thiessen's argument is possible. Support for the group remains strong in much of the country, and the risks of an ethnically-based civil war like the war one that took place after the Soviets withdrew is present.
Given the nature of Afghanistan and its people, it's hard to imagine a time when there won't be groups like the Taliban, or to imagine how the cultural facts that drive the phenomenon will be changed by an extended US military presence. But he goes on to assert "they will not hesitate to allow al-Qaeda to return to its old Afghan sanctuary."
Not hesitate? No. There will be plenty of hesitation and consideration of costs and benefits. Al Qaeda and the Taliban were never synonyms. Broadly speaking, there have been tensions between the internationalist Al Qaeda and the locally-focused Afghans going all the way back to Osama bin Laden's return to Afghanistan in 1996.
Thiessen also conveniently ignores 10 years of woe for the Taliban – with thousands of its members killed, its loss of control of the country – as a consequence of its relationship with bin Ladens' internationalist jihadis. Many people who professionally study the region believe the Taliban have no appetite for that kind of trouble again, particularly if negotiated alternatives can be found. A good overview of the history of Al Qaeda's relationship with the Taliban and the risks and opportunities ahead is here.
Disaster Four: Another 9/11
Yup, so predicts Thiessen.
Why? Because if US forces leave Afghanistan "instead of being seen as a failed leader hunted down by American forces, bin Laden will be viewed as a martyred prophet who did not live to see his vision fulfilled." Thiessen's view of the world puts the US in an awkward position.
Since bin Laden once predicted the US would eventually depart Afghanistan, Thiessen argues that when the US departs, it will prove bin Laden right. But the logical consequence of Thiessen's reasoning is that the US can therefore never leave Afghanistan.
Disaster Five: Iran would be more likely to get nukes.
Thiessen says Iran would be happy to see the US depart Afghanistan, and in this he's probably right. Iran hasn't much liked having all of those powerful war planes on its doorstep (it didn't like them when they were in Iraq, either). Who would?
But he goes on to write: "If the United States is seen as running from the fifth-poorest country in the world, it will send a signal of weakness that will undermine our ability to isolate Iran and prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon."
There is no reason to believe this assertion is accurate.
The US has just spent the better part of a decade fighting two wars at enormous costs to itself. Whatever else that is, it's not the sign of a shrinking violet.
Sanctions targeting the heart of Iran's financial system have been imposed under US leadership, with buy-in from Europe and the major countries of the Gulf. President Obama has been doing plenty of saber rattling, with warnings of a US attack on Iran if it's deemed to be on the verge of obtaining a nuclear weapon. Iran's nuclear program is going to be a major policy challenge for the US for years to come. But Afghanistan is largely a side-show to the diplomatic and military posturing taking place.
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When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave President Obama the Book of Esther as a gift a few days ago, the message was only slightly less subtle than if he had constructed a massive neon billboard across the street from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with the message "Mr. President, please help me destroy Iran before they destroy us."
The Book of Esther is from the Old Testament, and it's a story that Jews across the world will celebrate tonight and tomorrow with the holiday of Purim. Unlike much of the good book, there are hardly any mentions of God. Instead it's a tale of backroom maneuvering ending in victory for the Jews and destruction of their enemies, with a woman in the rare role of hero. Did this 2,500-year-old tale of double-dealing and deceit, set in the old Persian Empire, really happen? Well, your mileage may vary. Does it contain lessons for today? Bibi certainly thinks so.
One of his aides told a reporter that gift was meant to provide “background reading” on Iran for Obama. In a speech to the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel lobbying group, Netanyahu described Haman, the villain of the tale, as "a Persian anti-Semite [who] tried to annihilate the Jewish people." The context of his speech was that Iran, the modern successor to Persia, presents the greatest danger to peace and security on the planet.
While I'm not sure foreign policy is well-crafted with ancient biblical texts as a guide, the lessons of the Esther story are taken seriously by Netanyahu and millions of Jews. Some Jewish traditions say Hitler is not a historical aberration, but a descendent of Haman (who, in turn, was a descendant of the Jews' enemies in Egypt). The story of a proposed genocide of the Jews in ancient Persia? Evidence for why the modern state of Israel had to be established – there could be no guaranteed security or safety for Jews living in a Gentile-majority state.
What happened? The Persian king Ahasuerus is displeased with his wife and casts her aside, ordering his men to scour the country for a new bride. The beautiful orphan Esther, being fostered by her cousin Mordechai, is brought before Ahasuerus and he takes her as his wife. Mordechai tells her to keep her Jewish identity a secret.
Some time later, Mordechai overhears a plot against the king and transmits the warning through Esther. But Mordechai's role is unknown and he runs into trouble when some time after that, Haman is elevated to vizier – the king's prime minister and right-hand man. Haman is not a nice man. After Mordechai refuses to bow down before the vain and bullying Haman, the vizier decides to eradicate all Jews in Persia in revenge. With a honeyed tongue in the king's ear warning that Jews are disloyal and dangerous, he wins approval. On a set date, all the Jews in the empire will be slaughtered.
Mordechai learns of the plot, and sends word to Esther that she must intercede with the king. He beseeches her: "If you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this." (As quoted in the New International Version of the Bible.)
So she arrays herself in finery and presents herself to Ahasuerus, who promises to give her anything she wants. She finally reveals she's a Jew and that Haman's plan means the destruction of her own people, and Mordechai – whose role in uncovering the assassination plot against the king has by now been revealed.
The furious king shifts positions, and gives the Jews permission to destroy their enemies. The story ends with Haman, his brothers, and 75,000 other Persians put to the sword. Mordechai is elevated to vizier, and given wide latitude to make policy.
It appears that in a modern context, Netanyahu sees himself as Mordechai, Iran's leaders as Haman, and Obama perhaps as Ahasuerus, the powerful but easily influenced king who almost led to the Jews' downfall but saved them in the nick of time. There isn't an obvious Esther figure at the moment (though fans of the evangelical Christian politician Sarah Palin often compared her to Queen Esther, come to save her people "at a time such as this," during her vice presidential run). But I think that's enough of the plot to get the point.
The holiday itself, though very Jewish, is really a celebration of man (and woman) taking action to save themselves rather than waiting for divine intervention. There are no miracles but human ingenuity and intelligence, no great lessons beyond a reminder that the Jews have enemies, and when the chips are down they'd better look to themselves first (as Netanyahu told AIPAC, "The purpose of the Jewish state is to defend Jewish lives and to secure the Jewish future. Never again will we not be masters of the fate of our very survival. Never again. That is why Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.")
The holiday has evolved down the centuries into a cross between Halloween and Hogmanay. There will be readings from Esther in synagogues tonight, but also kids running around in costumes gobbling sweet Hamantaschen ("Haman's hats," though in modern Hebrew they're called "Haman's ears"). Their elders generally indulge in the harder stuff. It's a celebration of victory and survival.
In the modern tale being told by Netanyahu, with his frequent warnings that Iran's nuclear program is the gathering storm of a new Holocaust, the Islamic Republic of Iran is the one "trying to kill us." War talk has been quieted slightly by Obama's skillful handling of his own meetings with Netanyahu and AIPAC this week. But the biblical underpinnings of Netanyahu's and many others Jews fears promise to, eventually, ratchet up the heat again.
When Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said he considered Iran to be a "rational actor" in congressional testimony in February, he soon came under attack from hawks in the United States.
A string of Republican politicians, from Newt Gingrich to Lindsey Graham, soon lined up to attack General Dempsey's judgment. His point, that Iran is playing the geopolitical game with an eye to advancing its own interests and security, was soon lost in a feedback of insisting that the country doesn't reason at all. And that's a frightening thought, since the implication of that claim is they can't be cajoled, threatened, or coerced by any means at all beyond force.
Today, MSNBC talk show host Joe Scarborough took it a step further, suggesting Dempsey's comments show he's unfit for command. On his morning program, Mr. Scarborough said. "Why did the chairman of the joint chiefs say that about the country that has been the epicenter of world terrorism since 1979? And if he truly believes that, why is he chairman of the joint chiefs?"
Scarborough called Iran the "epicenter of world terrorism" at least three times in his brief remarks, notwithstanding that more terrorist attacks that have damaged US interests have been carried out by the Sunni Al Qaeda, not by Iran. And that rather misses the point. Terrorism may be illegal, it may be morally reprehensible and ruthless, but it can have strategic and, yes, rational uses.
But the host was having none of it.
"To say, though, we can't be drawn into yet another war is one thing that a lot of people in the Pentagon believe. To call Iran a rational actor, I would say, is almost disqualifying of a chairman of the joint chiefs, especially because as you said before, the most disturbing part is it seems like this is calculated. How can this guy run our armed forces, if he believes the epicenter of international terrorism since 1979 -- and I can say that as a guy who wants our troops home, I can say that as a guy who doesn't want to be drawn into another war, but Iran is not a rational actor, they've been the epicenter of international terrorism since 1979 and we've got the guy that's running our armed forces saying they're rational," Scarborough said.
His comment "it seems like this was calculated" was in reference to guest Richard Haass, the head of the Council on Foreign Relations. Mr. Haass had said it was his "hunch" that many at the Pentagon are eager to avoid another war at a time of budget cuts, with the Iraq war just ended, and with the Afghan war lurching towards its conclusion. "They don't want another crisis," said Haass. The strong implication of Scarborough being "disturbed" by this is that he thinks in seeking to deflect a war, Gen. Dempsey is failing in his duty. Scarborough's "Morning Joe" is the second-ranked cable morning news show, with about 350,000 viewers.
So who should you trust, Dempsey or Scarborough?
Dempsey is a 1974 graduate of West Point. He commanded troops during the first Gulf War, and led the 1st Armored Division for a little over a year during the occupation of Iraq before taking over command of the training of Iraqi security forces from 2005-2007. He has Masters degrees in English, Military Arts, and National Security Studies. His Masters thesis from the US Army Command and General Staff College in 1988 is titled "Duty: Understanding the Most Sublime Military Value."
Mr. Scarborough was a Republican congressman from Florida from 1995-2001, and earned a law degree at the University of Florida in 1990. He has mostly been an MSNBC talk show host since leaving Congress.
Dempsey responded to some push-back from Congressman Tom Price (R) of Georgia last week. Rep. Price said that Dempsey's comment that Iran is a "rational actor ... stunned me and many of my constituents.... Do you stand by that statement?"
Dempsey (who sounds just like the former Marine and fellow New Yorker Harvey Keitel): "Yes, I stand by it because the alternative is almost unimaginable. The alternative is that we attribute to them that their actions are so irrational that they have no basis of planning. You know, not to sound too academic about it but Thucydides in the 5th century BC said that all strategy is some combination of reaction to fear, honor, and interests. And I think all nations act in response to one of those three things, even Iran. The key is to understand how they act and not trivialize their actions by attributing to them some irrationality. I think that’s a very dangerous thing for us to do. It doesn’t mean I agree with what they decide, by the way, but they have some thought process they follow."
Price continues: "Maybe you can help me to understand then what you believe to be the rationality of an assassination attempt on the Saudi Ambassador in our territory."
Dempsey: "I'm not here to justify Iran's actions.... I don't understand their rationality, but I'm not them." Price: "But you've described them as a rational actor. Dempsey: "What I'm suggesting... [is] that they are, they are calculating. What I'm suggesting is we need to be equally and maybe even more calculating."
Me? I'm with Dempsey, as the Lord Palmerston quote I selected for Backchannels indicates: "Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests." Nations may be wrong, they may be thuggish, the may do horrible things, but it's interests that drive them.
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"The President must state unequivocally that under no circumstances will Assad be allowed to finish what he has started, that there is no future in which Assad and his lieutenants will remain in control of Syria, and that the United States is prepared to use the full weight of our airpower to make it so."
There is certainly reason for alarm from a humanitarian and moral point of view. As McCain said: "The kinds of mass atrocities that NATO intervened in Libya to prevent in Benghazi are now a reality in Homs," Senator McCain said. "Indeed, Syria today is the scene of some of the worst state-sponsored violence since Milosevic’s war crimes in the Balkans, or Russia’s annihilation of the Chechen city of Grozny."
That's pretty much right. Weeks of shelling of Homs, particularly the Baba Amr neighborhood of that city that was a stronghold for anti-Assad insurgents and the activists working with them, have killed scores. Satellite images purchased and analyzed by Human Rights Watch show mortar and rocket strikes on well over 100 buildings in the densely packed neighborhood. And reports from activists have claimed that since the opposition Free Syrian Army was routed from the city last week, opposition supporters have been massacred in the streets and tortured in detention centers.
I was in Benghazi the morning last year that French planes, later joined by British, US, and other NATO airpower, stopped Muammar Qaddafi's march on the city cold and began the process of turning the tide in favor of his opponents. Everything I've read and seen coming out of Homs in recent weeks jibes with what I expected would have been Benghazi's fate if NATO had not come to the Libyan rebellion's aid.
But unfortunately for Syria's opposition, the international cavalry is not coming any time soon. Nearly a year into the war to oust Assad, the Syrian army remains largely intact. In the case of Libya, there were mass defections from Qaddafi's forces within days of protests breaking out against his rule. And the Libyan army of Qaddafi was far less capable than Syria's army under Assad. Its forces were not as well-trained, as well-led, or as well-armed.
If air power were to be used against Assad's regime as it was used to overthrow Qaddafi's, then the venture will take longer than the six months it took in Libya. The price in Syrian blood, on both sides will be higher, and the geography of the country -- without the vast stretches of desert between towns that were turned into shooting galleries when Qaddafi tried to move his forces -- would guarantee more civilian casualties from NATO bombs than occurred in Libya.
And though some are suggesting that civilian protections zones be carved out, and suggest that as a panacea, fighting will have to be done to accomplish that (Peter Munson, a skeptic on intervention in Syria, looks at some of the risks). Finally, Russia and China have vowed to stand in the way of UN Security Council authorization to act, instead of standing aside, as they did in the case of Libya.
McCain continued today: "The problem is, the bloodletting continues. Despite a year’s worth of diplomacy backed by sanctions, Assad and his top lieutenants show no signs of giving up and taking the path into foreign exile. To the contrary, they appear to be accelerating their fight to the finish. And they are doing so with the shameless support of foreign governments, especially in Russia, China, and Iran."
The senator is again right. Assad, like Qaddafi before him, does not want to yield power, nor do the many hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have benefited from his regime, particularly his fellow Alawites. This is a real rock and a hard place situation: Assad is nowhere near ready to quit (and for a reminder on how long sanctions can be withstood, Saddam Hussein handled more than a decade of economic isolation after the Gulf War). But the costs of international action could be high. And it's not clear what allies the US would go to war with if it takes McCain's advice.
"The United States should lead an international effort to protect key population centers in Syria, especially in the north, through airstrikes on Assad’s forces. To be clear: This will require the United States to suppress enemy air defenses in at least part of the country," McCain said today.
He outlines an effort much like the one in Libya. But again, Syria is larger (20 million citizens against 6 million in Libya), Assad's defenders are strong.
“The ultimate goal of airstrikes should be to establish and defend safe havens in Syria, especially in the north, in which opposition forces can organize and plan their political and military activities against Assad. These safe havens could serve as platforms for the delivery of humanitarian and military assistance – including weapons and ammunition, body armor and other personal protective equipment, tactical intelligence, secure communications equipment, food and water, and medical supplies. These safe havens could also help the Free Syrian Army and other armed groups in Syria to train and organize themselves into more cohesive and effective military forces, likely with the assistance of foreign partners. “The benefit for the United States in helping to lead this effort directly is that it would allow us to better empower those Syrian groups that share our interests – those groups that reject Al-Qaeda and the Iranian regime, and commit to the goal of an inclusive democratic transition, as called for by the Syrian National Council. If we stand on the sidelines, others will try to pick winners, and this will not always be to our liking or in our interest. This does that mean the United States should go it alone. We should not. We should seek the active involvement of key Arab partners such as Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., Jordan, and Qatar – and willing allies in the E.U. and NATO, the most important of which in this case is Turkey.
McCain's full prepared statement is worth a read. While he's unlikely to get what he wants anytime soon, the horrors in Syria appear to be increasing, and the calls for international action are likely to get louder. At some point in the future, views like McCain's may end up carrying the day.
President Obama promised the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to do everything in his power to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon yesterday while simultaneously complaining there has been too much "loose talk" about war with the Islamic Republic.
Later today he meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in turn will give a keynote address to AIPAC's annual meeting tonight. Iran's nuclear program will be front and center in both events, count on it.
War fever around Iran has all but obscured the quest for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, traditionally a focus of these conferences.
But a lot of the comments around the AIPAC meeting and Netanyahu's visit to Washington this week seems as much about defeating Obama in November as about Iran. Former Republican Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter, Liz Cheney, told the meeting "There is no president who has done more to delegitimize and destabilize the state of Israel in recent history than President Obama."
As Obama spoke at AIPAC yesterday, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney told supporters at a pancake brunch in Georgia that "it's pretty straight forward in my view. If Barack Obama gets reelected, Iran will have a nuclear weapon and the world will change."
Another barb came from a paper owned by Sheldon Adelson, the Jewish-American casino magnate who has poured millions of dollars into the super PAC of Newt Gingrich. A commentary in Israel Hayom responds to an interview that Obama gave last week to The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, in which the president promised "We’ve got Israel’s back." David Weinberg writes that the "gentleman doth protest too much" and seeks to lay out a case why Obama is dangerous for Israel.
"The US on Obama’s watch seems to be a confused and unpredictable superpower and a fair-weather friend," writes Mr. Weinberg. "This ranges from the strange burst of military activism in Libya to a lack of activism against Bashar al-Assad in Syria. From the abandonment of Hosni Mubarak to the coddling of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. From obsequiousness toward the king of Saudi Arabia to brutishness toward Netanyahu."
Mr. Adelson is a supporter of settlement expansion in the West Bank, something that the Obama administration (like most of its recent predecessors) opposes. The current crop of Republican candidates have promised a much softer line on settlements.
Put simply, doing political damage to Obama has been as much on the agenda of some pro-Israel groups' efforts around this AIPAC meeting as highlighting Iran's nuclear program, or making an Israeli case about what US policy should be towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 2004, Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry was prevented from speaking at AIPAC because the group said it had a policy against allowing challengers to a sitting president from speaking.
This year, Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum have all been given speaking slots.
Suspicion of Obama does not appear to be confined to pro-Israel activists. Barak Ravid wrote in Haaretz over the weekend that "Netanyahu and his associates have been conveying discomfort in recent weeks about the conduct of the American government on the Iran issue. It is not clear if this is a tactic or if this is an actual feeling that Obama cannot be trusted on Iran."
The Emergency Committee for Israel, a group run by the hawkish Bill Kristol, makes no bones about its distaste for the US president. The lobbying group released an ad over the weekend attacking Obama.
The soundtrack is alarming and emotional (think poor man's Carmina Burana), the graphics menacing (metaphor alert: gathering storm clouds), and the commentary and editing are designed to frighten friends of Israel about Obama. A talking head says Obama may be "the most pro-Palestinian" president in history and another says of Obama "this is not the way you treat an ally." The video (embedded below) ends with Obama speaking to an Arab forum. He says, "I want to make sure we end before the call to prayer" and then a hard edit cuts off whatever he said next.
A nod and a wink toward the canard that Obama is secretly a Muslim? It sure seems like it.
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As every poker player knows, the key to making a bluff work is to convince your opponent you're not bluffing (hat tip to Doug Saunders).
And that's why President Obama's statement that "I don't bluff" in regards to his willingness to use force to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon in an interview with The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg released today is so apt. The truth value of the statement is in fact, unknowable.
If at some point the US intelligence establishment determines Iran is on the brink of obtaining a nuclear weapon (the current US consensus is there's no ongoing weapons-related nuclear work), and Obama is president, the strong implication of his comment is that the US would go to war. But if that day comes, there will be a host of other factors to consider, from domestic politics, to surging oil prices, to the potential strains on US alliances.
A cost-benefit calculation will be made. And yes, Obama or any other president will consider containment as an option, depending on if and when the day comes. Obama insisted to Goldberg that containment as a policy is off the table "because you're talking about the most volatile region in the world. It will not be tolerable to a number of states in that region for Iran to have a nuclear weapon and them not to have a nuclear weapon. Iran is known to sponsor terrorist organizations, so the threat of proliferation becomes that much more severe."
Those are real concerns. And it makes sense to insist that there's a red line for the Iranians as Obama and European allies continue to use sanctions and negotiation to bring Iran's nuclear program under stronger outside oversight. But that's just being a good poker player. There is always some ambiguity. Or as Obama told Goldberg: "I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don't bluff. I also don't, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are."
Poker metaphors have also been in full flow about the jockeying between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who's due in Washington over the weekend for the annual meeting of AIPAC, a pro-Israel lobbying group, and a state visit with the president.
Though Obama may be leader of a superpower and Netanyahu the leader of a small Middle Eastern country, the Israeli premier casts a long shadow on US politics. He's been seeking to pry an iron-clad promise from Obama that the US will in fact attack Iran if it nears a nuclear weapon, and the AIPAC conference is expected to largely focus on the Islamic Republic, which Netanyahu and many Israelis view as the biggest threat to their security.
Aluf Benn's piece today in Israel's left-leaning Haaretz is headlined "Netanyahu and Obama play high-stakes poker over Iran." Mr. Benn writes: "On Monday, Netanyahu will meet President Barack Obama in the White House for a game of diplomatic poker, where the greatest gamble of all will be right on the table: an attack on Iran's nuclear installations. Each of the two players will try to push the other to act."
Benn, calling the trip the "most important one in [Netanyahu's] long career" writes that the Israeli leader has amassed a hefty stack of chips at the table. "For three years, Netanyahu has been preparing for this very moment. During this period, he has chalked up for himself a diplomatic coup that initially was seen as unimaginable: He has managed to turn the superpower's political agenda upside-down - from "Palestine first" to "Iran as top priority.""
Writing in the hawkish Jerusalem Post, Jay Bushinsky says Obama will lean hard on Netanyahu to avoid an attack on Iran, at least for now. "Obama may oppose any kind of military operation before the presidential election in November because it may cost him votes if the results are unsatisfactory or unimpressive," he writes. "[Obama's] thinking may be influenced in part by the principle that one always knows when and how a bilateral conflict began, but one never knows when and how it will come to an end."
Netanyahu, for his part, sought to turn up the heat of war talk ahead of his arrival in Washington. Speaking in Ottawa, he called international talks with Iran a "trap" that will do nothing to deter it from the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Iran "could pursue or exploit the talks as they've done in the past to deceive and delay so that they can continue to advance their nuclear program and get to the nuclear finish line," he said after meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He also appeared to insist that Israel reserves the right to conduct a strike on Iran, with or without US approval. "Like any sovereign country, we reserve the right to defend ourselves against a country that calls and works for our destruction," he said.
Meanwhile, US-led sanctions on Iran continue to be taking a toll. The Noor Islamic Bank of Dubai, a financial institution close to the emirate's ruling family that was one of Iran's major international financial lifelines, recently cut Iran off at the behest of US officials. Undersecretary of the Treasury David Cohen said at the end of last month that Iran's currency, the riyal, is "plummeting" and has lost half its value since September. These are real pressures on the regime in Tehran, and Obama is probably going to give them a good long while to before he gives up on them.
So expect more hawkish calls and threats of looming war at this weekend's AIPAC conference. Expect Obama to continue to insist that "all options are on the table." But remember that there's plenty of bluster in international diplomacy, and the shooting's probably a long way from getting started.
Toward the end of February, Iraqis took to the streets to commemorate the anniversary of their own – ultimately unrealized – attempt at starting an uprising against a corrupt, increasingly authoritarian political order.
"Security forces blocked access to protest sites in Baghdad; beat and arrested peaceful demonstrators in Sulaimaniya, Kurdistan; and briefly detained, beat, or confiscated equipment from media workers and prevented others from covering the protests," according to Human Rights Watch.
RELATED: Who's who in Iraq, post US exit?
On Wednesday President Obama hosted a dinner for a select group of veterans and officials involved with the Iraq war. "The nation's gratitude dinner," remembered the more than 4,000 soldiers who died, the thousands more who lost limbs and suffered permanent injury, and the sacrifices made by the families at home.
Obama called the men and women who fought in Iraq "the patriots who served in our name." He went on to say that "after nearly nine years in Iraq, tonight is an opportunity to express our gratitude and to say once more, welcome home."
But the stated purposes that war was fought – to remove Saddam Hussein from power and bring democracy to Iraq – is far from fulfilled. Sure, Mr. Hussein is gone, hung by his own people after being captured by US troops. But a flourishing democracy, Iraq is not.
Take Kurdistan, the pro-American ethnic enclave that was protected by a NATO no-fly zone from Hussein's troops in the '90s and has often been held up as a model by US policy makers about what all of Iraq could become. On Feb. 17, a few hundred democracy protesters sought to gather in Sulaymaniyah. Here's what happened next, according to Human Rights Watch:
"Within 10 minutes, hundreds more security forces surrounded and filled the square, and dozens of men in civilian clothing approached the protesters and began to punch, kick, and strike them with wooden batons, protesters and journalists told Human Rights Watch. The men forced many of the protesters to one side of the square, next to a former police station that was used as a temporary security headquarters for the protests. There, security forces detained protesters inside the building."
A gathering of Arab Iraqis in Baghdad's Tahrir Square on Feb. 25 were received with only a slightly less thuggish show of force.
"As protesters approached the multiple checkpoints surrounding Tahrir Square set up that morning, security forces informed them that they had a long list of protesters whom they had orders to arrest and that they would check this list against the identification cards of anyone wishing to pass through. A young activist who did not want his name used for fear of government reprisal told Human Rights Watch that one smiling soldier told him and other protesters, 'We may have your name. Why don’t you step forward and see if you get arrested?'"
Iraq's Constitution formally guarantees the rights of free speech and assembly, but in practice it's generally ignored.
The Committee to Protect Journalists rated Iraq the worst country in its "impunity index" for last year, which measures how a national legal system does, or does not, protect reporters. Five reporters were killed across the country in 2011 and 150 have been killed there since 2003. Last year, 26 journalists were detained by the authorities for their work. The CPJ says that there has not yet been a conviction in any of those cases.
"As demonstrations for economic and political reform spread with the Arab uprisings (in 2011), journalists were consistently targeted for their coverage. Anti-riot police attacked, detained, and assaulted journalists covering protests," the CPJ reports. "In their attempt to restrict coverage of the unrest, police raided news stations and press freedom groups, destroyed equipment, and arrested journalists. In Iraqi Kurdistan, authorities used aggression and intimidation to restrict journalists' coverage of violent clashes between security forces and protesters."
Just how bad is the state of the press in Iraq? The CPJ's impunity index ranks Iraq as nearly four times worse than number two on the list, Somalia.
RELATED: Who's who in Iraq, post US exit?
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The Israeli public is champing at the bit for air strikes against Iran's nuclear program right? Wrong.
A new poll run by the University of Maryland's Sadat Chair for Peace and Development Shibley Telhami was released as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gets ready to decamp to Washington next week, for direct meetings with President Obama and a speech at the upcoming AIPAC conference.
The annual meeting of AIPAC, a pro-Israel advocacy group with political views aligned with Mr. Netanyahu's Likud, is expected to be a platform for warnings of the Iranian threat, calls for unbreakable solidarity between the US and Israel, and demands that the US provide assistance to the Jewish state if it decides to attack the Islamic republic. Netanyahu has promised to make Iran the "center" of his talks with Obama.
That last bit is understandable, since Israel doesn't have the ability to decisively destroy Iran's hardened and widely dispersed nuclear assets from the air. But the notion of an Israel marching inevitably closer to war with Iran is undercut by the Maryland poll, conducted between Feb. 22-26.
Given three options, 43 percent of Israeli Jews said their country should strike Iran "only if Israel gains at least American support" and 32 percent were opposed to a strike in any circumstances. Some 22 percent supported a strike "even without the support of the US."
As for the US being drawn into the war if Israel acted alone, 28 percent expect the US would join the war on Israel's behalf, 37 percent expect the US would support Israel diplomatically but not militarily and 16 percent expect the US would "punish Israel by reducing its current support." Some 74 percent of Israeli Jews and 68 percent of all citizens expect that Hezbollah, the Lebanon based Shiite militia and political party, would retaliate along with Iran in the event of an Israeli attack.
Interestingly, Israeli Jews appear to have a slight preference for Barack Obama over the current front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney. Some 32 percent of Israeli Jews prefer Obama over Romney, while 29 percent prefer the Republican. Among all Israelis, both candidates have 29 percent support – which indicates a more negative view of Obama among Israel's 20 percent Arab minority than among Israeli Jews.
The Guardian reports, citing unnamed sources, that Israel "is pressing Barack Obama for an explicit threat of military action against Iran if sanctions fail and Tehran's nuclear programme advances beyond specified 'red lines,'" and that "the Israeli prime minister wants Obama to state unequivocally that Washington is prepared to use force if Iran's nuclear programme advances."
What the polling data from Israel show is that in the unlikely event Netanyahu gets what he wants from Obama, then the odds of an attack on Iran, and possibly a new war in the Middle East, will go up.
It's been a grimmer week than normal in the parts of the world I cover (scroll through my posts for the past few days). A friend emailed me Cary Huang's Scale of the Universe graphic recently, and I think i've opened it up about 5 times since and almost instantly felt better.
It's a bit of science geek art, which allows you to explore the relative scale of things in the universe from the smallest subatomic particle to the Stingray Nebula and beyond. My first time playing with the graphic I got the feeling i once had while snorkeling over a coral bed in shallow water that suddenly dropped off to a few thousand feet deep: Exhilarated, a little frightened, mostly in awe.
Here's the link again. Once it loads, press "start" and slide the scale at the bottom left (smaller) and right (bigger). It's very easy to figure out.
When word came that Qurans had been burned by US troops in Afghanistan, there was no doubt there would be bloodshed as a consequence. The reason why they were burned (carelessness and ignorance in this case, it seems) didn't matter.
Afghans responded violently to Quran burnings in the past and it is hardly a secret that the country seethes with anti-American, and generally anti-foreigner, sentiment. President Barack Obama quickly moved to do the only thing he could to mitigate the coming storm: he apologized in a formal letter to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. "I assure you that we will take the appropriate steps to avoid any recurrence, to include holding accountable those responsible," Mr. Obama wrote.
To listen to some of his political opponents talk, he should have doubled down and instead insisted on a formal apology for the murder of US troops by Afghan soldiers.
Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich called the apology an "outrage," said Obama should have demanded an apology from Mr. Karzai for the murder of US troops instead, and said "this destructive double standard whereby the United States and its democratic allies refuse to hold accountable leaders who tolerate systematic violence and oppression in their borders must come to an end.”
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said the apology was a sign of "weakness." Sarah Palin complained. “Obama apologizes for the inadvertent Koran burning this week; now the US trained and protected Afghan Army can apologize for killing two of our soldiers yesterday," she said.
And quarters of the conservative commentariat were even more strident. Take Andrew McCarthy of the National Review Online. "The only upside of the apology is that it appears... to be couched as coming personally from our blindly Islamophilic president," he writes. "Muslim leaders and their leftist apologists are also forever lecturing the United States about 'proportionality' in our war-fighting. Yet when it comes to Muslim proportionality, Americans are supposed to shrug meekly and accept the 'you burn books, we kill people' law of the jungle."
Here's why they're all wrong.
The answer to the moral question of "What's worse? Burning books or killing people?" is, of course, "killing people." Far, far worse. Furthermore, the burning at Bagram, an effort to get rid of books that Taliban prisoners were scribbling in to share propaganda and messages, was pretty clearly not an act of malice, but negligence. And yes, a greater acknowledgment from Karzai that enormous American sacrifices have been made to install and keep him in power would be nice.
But the dudgeon and moral outrage rather misses the point of what it means to be commander in chief. Obama, or any president, should have a fundamental thought at the top of their mind every time they speak about America's wars: "Is what I'm about to do or say going to put more troops in harm's way?" In this case the answer is an emphatic "yes." A direct refusal to express contrition for the Quran burning would have put more troops in harms way.
Would more than the at least six US soldiers and officers killed in the past week in retaliation for the Quran burning have died? Impossible to say. But it certainly would have fanned the flames in Afghanistan, leading to a more dangerous situation, not a safer one.
An old friend wrote to me complaining about double standards, asking pointedly if there is as much outrage and violence when Afghans mishandle Qurans. No, generally not. His point was that people there are primed to react violently against foreign, generally non-Muslim troops, more quickly than they do against co-religionists and neighbors – and that makes them hypocrites.
Well, his point is made. But the reality of the cultural terrain in Afghanistan is that mob violence will occur when foreign troops burn Qurans. Many more Afghans will be disgusted. Support for the foreign troops in their midst will decline. Hypocrisy? OK, sure. But far more importantly, it's reality. As long as the US is fighting a war there, it needs to keep sight of the Afghans that are, not the ones it might wish there were.
One can decry the immorality, or double standards, all day long. But it doesn't dispel the fact that more troops were threatened and the president's duty was to help quell this flareup as quickly as possible.