Blogs
Freedom's Untidy: Understanding Modern America

Russia, Georgia and US Foreign Policy
13/8/08

In the autumn of 1956, the Eisenhower administration found themselves placed in a situation that had been brewing since the breakdown in US-Soviet relations at the end of World War Two. After being encouraged by rabble-rousing broadcasts over the CIA-sponsored Radio Free Europe, Hungarian dissidents decided to stand up to the Soviet Union and seek ‘liberation’ from the Soviet bloc. When the Kremlin took the inevitable decision to send in the Red Army and crush the rebellion, Washington was faced with the choice of whether or not to support the Hungarians. In reality, it was not much of a choice at all: within the context of the Cold War and a delicate balance of power between the US and the USSR, there was no way that Eisenhower was going to risk an armed confrontation in Eastern Europe. Cold War exigencies, then, coupled with the developing international crisis at Suez, precluded US intervention.

Just over fifty years later, the outbreak of fighting in South Ossetia last week – a province of Georgia with long-held ambitions to be part of Russia – has brought simmering tensions in Eastern Europe to the fore. As Moscow, under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, has moved increasingly toward authoritarianism, the outbreak of democracy in close neighbours such as Georgia and the Ukraine, along with Western attempts to bring these nations into the NATO orbit have impacted a deep-rooted tension onto the region. Put simply, Russia does not want to see its close neighbours forging ties with Western Europe and the US; especially when such moves could be seen by some analysts as an attempt to destabilise the Kremlin. With Russia announcing an end to military operations today, it seems as though the immediate crisis – at least in terms of humanitarian issues – may have passed. There is, however, still a need to understand what this tells us about US foreign policy as we edge toward the presidential election in November.

 The events of fifty years ago are not, of course, an exact parallel for the present situation; there are certain echoes, though, that are worthy of consideration. First, the Bush administration has, in the recent past, encouraged the Georgians to pursue a pro-western policy and mooted the idea of Georgian accession to NATO. The emergence of a functioning Georgian democracy has been viewed positively in Washington and, in an effort to bolster the government in Tblisi, President Bush has visited the nation on official state tours. Certainly, this was not as provocative as the destabilisation efforts of Radio Free Europe in the mid-1950s. And yet, with Russia – in the view of Paddy Ashdown on Radio Four’s ‘Any Questions’ still smarting from Western triumphalism at the end of the Cold War – this strident support of emerging democracies in Eastern Europe was bound to provoke hostility from the Kremlin. Second, as with the Hungarian uprising of 1956, Washington has proven powerless to act in the face of overt Russian aggression. Obviously, the surrounding context is completely different to that half a century ago: the zero-sum connotations of the Cold War are not in evidence here. But the endemic difficulties in countering aggression from a major foreign power are similar and raise disquieting questions about US foreign policy.

In assessing these events, many commentators have referred to the motif of the “Limits of Power”, suggesting that Washington’s inability to intervene strongly to stem the fighting is demonstrative of a lack of means at the heart of US foreign policy. William Kristol, writing in the New York Times on Monday, argued that such weakness was unbecoming and that Washington should take a stronger stand.

 

Consider the implications of our turning away from Georgia for other aspiring pro-Western governments in the neighborhood, like Ukraine’s. Shouldn’t we therefore now insist that normal relations with Russia are impossible as long as the aggression continues, strongly reiterate our commitment to the territorial integrity of Georgia and Ukraine, and offer emergency military aid to Georgia?

 

While these examinations have a point – the lack of a firm response from Washington does suggest an absence of ‘power’ – they also elide a broader issue: that the impotent response from the Bush administration is suggestive of a lack of clarity in current US foreign policy aims. We are now all familiar with the sentiments of the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance document and Charles Krauthammer’s eulogising over the unipolar moment the year before; moreover, we are cognisant of the fact that, after 9/11, some elements of the Bush administration advocated the pursuit of power and talked of the power to shape the world as America saw fit. For some officials, imposing democracy in Iraq was supposed to usher in a wave of democratisation across the Middle East; similarly, strong support for democratic revolutions in ex-Soviet states was supposed to encourage other nations in the region to adopt pro-western positions.

Even a precursory tour d’horizon such as this demonstrates that such aims were always rooted in raw ideological constructs and an ongoing belief in America’s manifest destiny. But as Iraq has descended into a stalemate, events in Georgia raise the question of whether the administration’s aims have altered. Clearly, the methods used to pursue their policies have become necessarily less bellicose during Bush’s second term. And yet, it is not clear that there has been any equivalent shift in grand strategy. During the last week, it appears certain that the Bush administration wanted to protect the Georgian government and quell Russian aggression. The problem was that they lacked the capabilities to achieve this: as with the situation in 1956, the onset of military aggression by a major power made it too difficult to stand in front of Russian tanks.

On one level this was clearly prudent. The situation could only have got worse if the US had threatened to escalate or impose sanctions. However, it forces us to ask how far the Bush administration – or for that matter, an Obama or McCain administration – will go to support democracies in key strategic areas? If, for example, China decides to expand its influence in the Middle East and, in the process, undermines an emerging democracy, will the US act to combat this? Are we now in a position whereby the US will offer rhetorical support to any democracy threatened by a major power? If so, this not only suggests innate limits on American power, but also, a need to rethink US foreign policy goals and the way that Washington interacts with the world.

 


 

Portents of Failure: Covert Ops in Iran and Guatemala
3/7/08

In this week’s New Yorker, famed journalist Seymour Hersh lifted the lid on the Bush administration’s covert activities in Iran. None of this came as too much of a surprise: rumours about covert operations inside Iran have been apparent for some time. But the details of $400 million funding appropriations added a whole new dimension to the stories. One of the most notable aspects of the story, though, was the lack of clarity underpinning US actions; nobody, it appeared, seemed to be sure just what the US was trying to achieve beyond murmurings about destabilising the ruling elite in Tehran. As David Ignatius wrote in Wednesday’s Washington Post:

In the new cold war between America and Iran, the United States appears to be running some limited covert operations across the Iranian border. But according to knowledgeable sources, this effort shares the defect of broader U.S. policy toward Iran -- it is tentative and ill-coordinated, and it undermines diplomacy without bringing serious pressure on the regime.

 

  In considering what is going on, it is important to recall an earlier story that broke in the media last year about the US seeking to supply increased levels of military materiel to Iran’s closest neighbours. In July, 2007, the New York Times reported,

Bush Administration officials said the arms sales are meant in part to act as a bulwark against Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East. R. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, told reporters today that Iran’s nuclear ambitions and financial support for terrorist groups “has worried everybody in the region,” and that the arms sales would help balance aggressive attempts by Iran to dominate the Middle East.

 

Efforts to destabilise the Iranian government – if not, for the moment, to overthrow it – are quite clearly, then, still ongoing. Whether this is to placate Israel, or to lay the groundwork for a future offensive is not yet known. What is clear, however, is the lack of understanding among leading US officials as to the potential outcome of these efforts.

On one level, this can be discerned from the inherent lack of understanding that US policymakers have about the current Iranian government. The belief continues to prevail that, if Ahmadinejad can be overthrown, then a more cooperative regime may well take office. This is patently not the case. First, there is no telling who would come to power if Ahmadinejad was ousted; second, the government in Tehran is made up of far more elements than the president and a few close advisors. Nonetheless, beyond this most fundamental of problems there is a further difficulty: namely, that – in the past – covert operations have rarely gone smoothly or resulted in an outcome predicted by Washington.

An obvious comparison is Guatemala in the 1950s. There, as in present-day Iran, the United States sought to encourage instability through arming Guatemala’s neighbours, ostracising it from the international community and undertaking covert and propaganda operations against the incumbent regime of Jacobo Arbenz. After Arbenz was removed from office by a military coup in June, 1954, the Eisenhower administration portrayed it as a strong success for the Free World in the battle against Communism. And yet, between late-1953 and June 1954, a successful outcome had not always been predictable. In fact, there were times when the US was unsure as to how successful its destabilisation efforts were proving to be. The coup itself was an untidy affair: Eisenhower prevaricated over whether or not to offer US air support to the rebels, while a potential challenge in the United Nations raised fears over the US being seen to have acted illegally. It was far from a smooth operation. The problem facing US officials was that, while all in Washington were agreed on the desirability of removing Arbenz, they did not want any proof of US involvement. Therefore, actually achieving these preordained goals became hugely difficult; it was not until the last minute, as Nick Cullather has demonstrated in his book Secret History, that the US could be sure of a successful outcome.

This rather messy operation was, for the rest of the decade, held up as a ‘model intervention’: evidence of US collusion had been muted and the immediate objective – the neutering of Arbenz’s rabble-rousing administration – had been achieved. It was not until the chronic failure at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 that a significant reappraisal began to take place. But the broader narrative is one of America achieving its aims in spite of the fact there were severe flaws in its policy. Coherence was not as apparent as it should have been due, predominantly, to the need for intense secrecy. And, this was in a nation with no armed forces of note, a weak economy, limited infrastructure and in close proximity to the US. Achieving anything vaguely comparable in Iran would be far more complex.

This is not to suggest that the present administration is seeking regime change in Tehran through destabilisation techniques. The outbreak of such instability in Iran would, one imagines, be far more problematic for US officials then the present situation. However, given the levels of secrecy required for these operations there is a sense that, unbeknownst to Washington, more damage could be done to (already hostile) US-Iranian relations if covert ops escalate or get out of hand. In Guatemala, the relative triumph of removing Arbenz soon gave way to decades of authoritarianism and murder: nobody, it transpired, was made safer by the 1954 incursion into Central America. Writing in dark tones, a State Department official captured this sentiment in 1981. “What we’d give to have an Arbenz now,” he wrote. “We are going to have to invent one, but all the candidates are dead.”

 


 

History and George W. Bush
23/6/08

Over the last couple of years, President Bush has increasingly spoken about the way that historians might judge him in future years. Perceptibly, he seems to have picked up on the fact that, given the nature of the profession, he will not receive a uniformly bad press. Revisionists will, assuredly, come along in a few years time and, on the basis of newly opened documents (assuming a new administration tackles the shameful slowing down of the declassification process), inform us that those doubting the 44th president were wrong: that, contrary to popular opinion, George W. Bush was a successful president; especially in terms of his foreign policy.

Commentators and analysts, throughout Bush’s two terms in office, have been divided over the administration’s approach. Many have slammed what they believe to be an egregious use of presidential power, criminal acts of illegal invasion and an approach to a “War on Terror” that advocate’s torture, rendition, wire-tapping and the breaking of international law. Others, though, have saluted the president’s bravery in standing up to this new and complex threat – believing America to be engulfed in a “new Cold War” they champion Bush’s determination to protect America and the West from Islamic extremism. This is to be expected; it is very much the nature of the world we live in. Attempting to predict what historians might say in the future, though, is much more problematic.

Contemporary commentators – on either side of the political spectrum – have sought to use historical examples to support their assertions about post-9/11 foreign policy. Our colleagues Tim Lynch and Rob Singh, for example, cited the Korean War in a recent blog as an example of the links between that conflict and the ongoing battle in Iraq. Similarly, many books have emerged examining the links between Vietnam and Iraq.  In an article in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph, though, the historian Andrew Roberts – fresh from his historian’s banquet with President Bush and British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown – provided a bravura support of the current president and foretold a time when “History will say that we misunderestimated President Bush.”

As supporting evidence, Roberts cited President Harry S. Truman. In the late-1940s/early-1950s, Truman was deeply unpopular with the electorate; had miserable approval ratings; and, had brought about a potential split in his own party. Now, as Roberts goes on to argue, Truman is viewed as one of America’s greatest presidents (although this is by no means a view universally shared in academic circles). This, Roberts suggests, bodes well for Bush: “If the West wins the modern counterpart of that struggle, the War Against Terror, historians will look back in amazement at the present unpopularity of George W Bush, and marvel at it quite as much as we now marvel at the 67 per cent disapproval rates for Truman throughout 1952.”

And there are similarities between Bush and his Democratic predecessor: both have held power in moments of extreme change, and have overseen dramatic recalibrations of American foreign policy. There are even similarities in their views and prevailing beliefs. As Arnold Offner wrote about Truman in an article in 1999, “the man who became president in April 1945 was less an incipient internationalist than a parochial nationalist given to excessive fear that appeasement, lack of preparedness, and enemies at home and abroad would thwart America’s mission to ‘win the peace’ on its terms.” It is not too much of a leap of faith to apply similar descriptions to Bush.

Where the analogy falls down, though, is in its lack of evidential depth. Bush is most certainly not Truman; the 1940s bear little comparison to the 21st Century; and, the War on Terror is a far more complex and intangible concept than the Cold War. Truman’s implementation of the Marshall Plan, the formation of NATO, the avoidance of no-holds-barred war with China over Korea, and his steady hand during the Berlin Airlift all demonstrate his capacity for careful and prudent leadership. Moreover, there is strong evidence that one his most fateful decisions – to support the French war effort in Indochina – was a result not of presidential alarm, but a gradual shift among mid-level advisors in the Department of State and international pressure from Paris and London. Each of these examples pose the counter-factual question of: how would President Bush have reacted to such events?

 Far, far worse, however, is the attempt to quantify these events:

 

While of course every individual death is a tragedy to the bereaved families, these great achievements have been won at a cost in human life a fraction the size of any past world-historical struggle of this magnitude. The number of American troops killed and wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan is equivalent to the losses they endured - for a nation only a little over half the size in the mid-Forties - capturing a single island from the Japanese in the Pacific War. British losses of 103 killed over seven years in Afghanistan bears comparison to a quiet weekend on the Western Front in the Great War, or the numbers the Army loses in traffic accidents in peacetime. History can lend a wider overall perspective to what are nonetheless, of course, immeasurably sad events.

This spurious use of comparative statistics, avoids the broader debate about Bush’s policies. Instead, it imposes a macabre knowingness onto the debate that does nothing to improve its tone or intellectuality. Such reductionism does serve a purpose, though, for those writers seeking to avoid broader, more complex debates: overthrowing tyrannical regimes is a small price to pay for the loss of a comparatively low number of lives. Such a view frames the debate in stark terms – good or bad; win or lose. It assumes that victory is at hand, because Saddam Hussein is no longer in power. The impreciseness of this argument, however, is betrayed in Roberts’ penultimate paragraph: “Give Iraq five, ten or twenty years, and Bush's decision to undertake the surge - courageously taken in the face of all bien pensant and "expert" opinion on both sides of the Atlantic - will rank alongside some of Harry Truman's great decisions of 1945-53.”

Give the old Iraq five, ten or twenty years and any number of events might have occurred. Saddam would probably have died; more moderate elements might have come to power; more moderate elements in Washington might have used coercive diplomacy to neutralise any Iraqi threat and bring about political reform. Equally, none of these things might have happened and Iraq would have remained caught in a repressive and tyrannical regime. Equally, though, none of these things might happen now and Iraq could quickly fall into a state of extreme disrepair. In avoiding the issue and hypothesising about unpredictable outcomes, Roberts adds little to a debate that needs refocusing.

 


 

Between the Legal System and National Security
14/4/08

Last week’s ruling by the High Court on the British Government’s decision to stem a Serious Fraud Office investigation into links between BAE and the Saudi Arabian Government has garnered a great deal of attention in the press. Rumours that the government will be forced to reopen the investigation have, predictably, been to the fore; but on Thursday night’s Newsnight, Gavin Esler chaired an intriguing debate between Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, and former Foreign Minister, Sir Malcolm Rifkind. The tenor of their discussion was, in simple terms, whether the rule of law should be revoked if the Prime Minister and Attorney General believed national security interests were at risk.

Clegg sought to inhabit the moral high-ground: visibly outraged that the Saudi government would threaten to revoke its support in the War on Terror if the SFO investigation was not brought to a halt, Clegg cited the ruling as being vindication that the rule of law could not (and should not) be bypassed by leaders willing to invoke national security concerns in order to repress unfavourable investigations. Rifkind, barely able to suppress his scorn for the naiveté of this position, commanded Clegg “not to be so pious” and set out his belief that, if national security concerns so dictate, the Prime Minister and his Attorney General have every right to overrule the law.

Rifkind won the debate hands down; superior experience and an absolute certainty in his own position overwhelming Clegg’s rather obvious inexperience. However, when the specifics of this case – and other instances, like Iraq and Northern Ireland where national security considerations have been utilised to quell investigations – were stripped away, it all came down to a matter of trust. Tony Blair, Rifkind conceded, had eroded much public trust in our leaders to make such high-stakes decisions responsibly due to his, at best approximate, at worst vague, relationship with the truth in the run-up to war in Iraq. The broader question that this raised, however, was: to what extent do the public consider ‘national security’ a credible excuse for overruling the law of the land and, moreover, do we still trust our elected politicians to make such decisions responsibly?

 Those of us familiar with studying American history – especially in the Cold War era – are somewhat used to the grim cadence of national security being invoked to explain and legitimise a whole number of policies and decisions. Anything, it seems, can be linked to national security if the stakes are judged sufficiently high. Notoriously, President Nixon attempted to suppress recordings he had made during the Watergate cover-up by claiming that to release them would threaten America’s national security (given the impact that Watergate had on the US some might argue that he had a point). During the War on Terror, the remit of national security has been broadened – touching upon all aspects of American life.

 During a research trip to Washington DC in November, 2004 – just after President Bush’s election victory over John Kerry – unremitting chaos was caused on the roads around Capitol Hill by the actions of a local police chief. After announcing on national television that the security barriers preventing vehicles from driving past the Capitol were to be taken down, commuters were (understandably) surprised to find them still in place during their attempts to reach work the next day. When questioned as to why this had happened, the police chief invoked national security: in order to catch out potential terrorists, he said, the barriers had not in fact been taken down – it was all a ruse. Obviously, this tale of commuter frustrations is in no way the same as the BAE case. (However, it is worth considering the level of outcry that would have occurred in London if similar liberties were taken with commuter routes). What it does do, though, is to indicate the pervasive nature of national security issues in the modern world and give some indication as to their reach: from the capacity to overturn laws, to reshaping the world’s capitals, invocations of national security threats can now appear almost anywhere. There is an element of the ‘boy who cried wolf’ about all of this, though. While not qualified to evaluate whether or not Blair and Lord Goldsmith acted responsibly over the BAE deal, this recurrent recourse to use national security as a legitimising tool has, it seems to me, further eradicated public trust in the ways it is used and in our faith that our political leaders (from whatever party) can be trusted to take these decisions responsibly. Under those circumstances, Nick Clegg might be right; the rule of law may have to come before ‘national security.’ The debate as to whether or not this is right, however, is one that will run and run.

 


 

Is Iraq another Philippines?
21/2/08  

From almost the moment that the “Shock and Awe” bombing raids were launched on Baghdad in March, 2003, comparisons between the war in Iraq and America’s tragic involvement in Vietnam have been both prevalent and recurring.

In November 2003, writing for the ‘Independent Institute’, Ivan Eland wrote: “As the insurgency in Iraq gets bolder, more sophisticated and more deadly, the hawks are falling all over themselves to pooh-pooh comparisons of Iraq to the debacle in Vietnam. But the White House should be alarmed that such comparisons are even being made. Despite some differences between the conflicts, in both wars avoiding defeat means winning “hearts and minds”—of the American people.” Similarly, in reviewing Bob Brigham’s book Is Iraq Another Vietnam, Lawrence Freedman argued, “Comparisons between the U.S. experiences in Vietnam and Iraq are unavoidable. In both cases, intervention reflected a clearer sense of the potential of power than of power's limits -- and hence grew increasingly unpopular as the rationale came to seem questionable and the costs less bearable (subscription required).”

Beyond the immediate visualisations that such invocations conjure up, though, it has become increasingly clear that Iraq, in many, many ways, is not another Vietnam. There are, to be sure, strong similarities: the fighting of a potentially un-winnable war in a far-off land; attempts to nation-build falling foul of local difficulties; periods of apparent success followed by periods of immense difficulty; and, of course, the absence of a viable ‘exit strategy’. But these are only similarities; there is quite clearly not an exact parallel. As Brigham himself has explained, “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

An astute rendering of this debate has been provided, in a similar vein to Brigham, by John Dumbrell. “As [Christopher] Hitchens and others argue, Vietnam-Iraq differences outweigh the similarities. However, Hitchens protests too much. The Vietnamese communists and nationalists had a certain authenticity, but eventually erected a Stalinist state in Vietnam. Among the Iraqi insurgents, there are, no doubt, ‘authentic’ nationalists as well as brutal Saddamists and outside extremists and terrorists. Neither conflict can reasonably be reduced to simple sloganeering. The most important parallel, surely, is that the Vietnam War and the Iraq invasion were both unnecessary and (particularly if we factor in the inadequate and flawed post-conflict planning in Iraq) unwise uses of military power.”

 

While there are some strong similarities between the two conflicts, then, there are at least as many differences. All of which raises the question of how useful comparisons of this ilk are in furthering our understanding of US policy in Iraq and, moreover, asks whether other case-studies might be equally apt?

 

In 1898, after committing to war against Spain – ostensibly to ‘defend’ Cuban nationalism against Spanish imperialism – the United States found itself in possession of the Philippines. Strategically, the islands were a useful acquisition for Washington: providing a good staging post for activities in an increasingly important China. However, it thrust the US into the role of imperialists and, more fatefully, into the midst of an ongoing revolt, fuelled by Philippine nationalism. This quickly developed into a full-blown insurgency, with American troops compelled to fight against forces using tactics with which they were both unfamiliar with and unsure of how to counter. 

In beginning his book, The Blood of Government, Paul Kramer opens with a passage that has obvious parallels with Washington’s presence in Iraq. “On January 9, 1900, Senator Albert Beveridge, Republican of Indiana, stood before the US Senate, defending a war on the other side of the world that refused to end by American command. The previous November, General Elwell Otis had declared victory and an end to major combat operations in the Philippines, where American troops were struggling to impose US sovereignty on the forces of the Philippine Republic. Over the next few months, however, much to the frustration of US generals and the McKinlay administration, resistance would both vanish and intensify as Filipinos adopted a guerrilla strategy to fight off the invaders.”

The US was unable to quell the insurgency in the Philippines because they were unable to stymie the single factor underpinning the Filipino will to fight: unremitting and deep-rooted nationalism and a desire for independence. Similar difficulties are apparent in Iraq – where even some military successes have been followed by a failure to engineer a shift in the prevailing situation. The Iraq Study Group Report outlined this when it stated: “Because none of the operations conducted by U.S. and Iraqi military forces are fundamentally changing the conditions encouraging the sectarian violence, U.S. forces seem to be caught in a mission that has no foreseeable end.”

These similarities, of course, stem from a lack of comprehension among US policymakers – both recently and a hundred years ago – of the power of indigenous nationalism and the innate difficulties in attempting to fight against it. This was also true in Vietnam – where Washington’s anti-communist doctrine clashed awkwardly (and, ultimately, disastrously) with Vietnamese nationalism. There is, however, another reason why the Philippines might make a more apt analogy for Washington’s war in Iraq: namely, the length of time that it might take to get out.

Toward the end of World War Two, when American pre-eminence in the post-war era looked assured, Franklin D. Roosevelt prepared to relinquish the US stranglehold over the Philippines. At the war’s end, the Philippines would become an autonomous and independent nation (albeit one whose economy was shackled to that of the US and, more importantly, that provided Washington with a number of crucial military bases that have only just been relinquished). It had, however, taken the best part of half a century to achieve this moment. In his efforts to convince Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle of the merits of decolonisation, FDR was not averse to pointing to the US role in the Philippines as a potential exemplar of what could be achieved. But this came with a staunch caveat attached: the long term commitment to ‘educate’ the indigenous people in the arts of self-rule and democracy. During a press conference in 1945, Roosevelt stated: “With the Indo-Chinese, there is a feeling they ought to be independent but are not ready for it. I suggested at the time [19431, to Chiang, that Indo-China be set up under a trusteeship--have a Frenchman, one or two Indo-Chinese, and a Chinese and a Russian because they are on the coast, and maybe a Filipino and an American--to educate them for self-government. It took fifty years for us to do it in the Philippines.”

The benefits of American tutelage over a long period remained as a prevalent theme during the final stages of the handing over process, with President Harry S. Truman announcing: “It will be my constant endeavor to be of assistance to the Philippines. I will be only too happy to see to it that the close friendship between our two peoples, developed through many years of fruitful association, is maintained and strengthened.”   Such sentiments undoubtedly overlooked the depth and the vehemence of anti-American nationalism in the Philippines during the US occupation. But with Senator (and presumptive Republican nominee) John McCain recently declaring that a US presence in Iraq of a hundred years would “be fine with me”, it is clear that the links between the Philippines and Iraq are not just limited to the tragic melodrama of a great world power fighting an indigenous insurgency; there is also the possibility that the US mission may stretch on for decades, like it did in the Philippines, in an effort to prepare the Iraqi people for self-rule.

 


 

Honestly Now, Trust Us! 
The Gates-Rice Double Act on Iraq and Afghanistan
14/2/08  

There almost wasn’t a ‘Freedom’s Untidy’ this week, but – after my eye was caught by a headline in the Washington Post – I didn’t feel able to let this pass and so put the following piece together with undue haste.

In an article entitled “What We Need Next in Iraq” (which the Post had by-lined “On Iraq, Trust Us”), Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates outlined the reasons why Congress and the American people should support the Bush administration’s efforts in Iraq. “We encourage Congress and the public to support the efforts of our senior diplomats and military officers as they forge ahead with these talks, which we believe are essential to a successful outcome in Iraq and, by extension, the vital interests and security of the United States.”

In recent weeks, Secretary Gates has been increasingly prominent, chastising NATO for their lack of steel in Afghanistan and advocating a slowdown in troop withdrawal levels in Iraq (a change in direction to which the media has not given anywhere near enough attention). But both he and Secretary Rice are perhaps at their most brazen in this article where, with apparently straight faces, they write: “In short, nothing to be negotiated in the coming months will tie the hands of the next commander-in-chief, whomever he or she may be. Quite the contrary, it will give the president the legal authority to protect our national interest -- and the latitude to chart the next administration's course.”

To suggest that the new president – whoever it might be – will not have any substantive commitments in Iraq when they come to office is bordering on the surreal. Iraq, it is true, has not been as prominent an issue so far in this election campaign as it was in the 2006 mid-terms; the Democrats have chosen to keep their powder dry and focus on the battle against each other, rather than demonising John McCain. That could quickly change, however, once both parties have confirmed candidates and the race for the White House becomes a partisan, rather than inter-party, battle. With McCain calling for a US commitment of “100 years in Iraq”, it seems certain that the war will become a prominent issue before the year is out, even if it is not a central concern to the majority of American voters.

Of course, it would be naïve to expect two of the administration’s leading spokespeople not to adopt such a position on one of the most contentious issues in recent history. However, with much of the media choosing to focus its attention elsewhere, just why the administration has been adopting this stance in recent weeks has gone relatively unexamined. To be blunt, it seems worryingly short-sighted not to link Gates’ comments on Afghanistan and Iraq with the Rice-Gates op-ed piece in today’s Post.

Since President Bush agreed to the insertion of more American troops into Iraq – the much vaunted ‘surge’ – proclamations of success have been coming thick and fast. Gates’ sounding of a cautionary note earlier this week, a view shared by the commander on the ground in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, is understandable. With insurgent attacks down in recent months, it would be foolhardy to withdraw too soon. As Gates argued on Monday, “I think the notion of a brief period of consolidation and evaluation probably does make sense.”  But when viewed alongside recent comments over NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan, it becomes increasingly likely that the administration is not as sure about the success of The Surge as it has been suggesting.

If this were the case, it would be a mood that fit in with expert opinions expressed over the last year on the US position in Iraq. General George Casey, Petraeus’s predecessor, has expressed his concerns in print to the Wall Street Journal, as well as stating publicly that the army cannot maintain its footing in Iraq without long-term damage being done. The outbreak of renewed waves of insurgent attacks in recent weeks, coupled with the absence of any viable new political settlement, means that the Bush administration cannot currently sanction the troop withdrawals that Casey believes to be necessary to ensure American military flexibility.

Under these circumstances, Gates’ critique of America’s NATO allies takes on a new meaning. In warning “that the future of Nato was at risk if it became a "two-tiered alliance" of countries which fought, and those that did not,” Gates was openly calling for other NATO countries to commit more troops to the fight in Afghanistan. A month earlier, he had criticised the counterinsurgency skills of Washington’s allies, a blast that came on the back of a decision to send 3,200 more US troops to aid the fight in Southern Afghanistan. However, as Lord Ashdown noted in an opinion piece in today’s Financial Times, merely increasing resources and commitments in Afghanistan is not going to be enough to turn the tide – despite Secretary Gates’ call-to-arms. For, as he noted, “what we lack above all is a strategy that all (including, crucially, the Afghan government and the international military) can buy into.”

An increased commitment by Washington’s NATO allies, though, might enable the US more flexibility in rotating its own troop levels, an issue that becomes crucial to this administration if The Surge has not been the broad success that they have proclaimed it to be. In both scenarios, military strategy appears to have been confused with political necessity: if the Bush administration can leave office with Iraq and Afghanistan relatively stable, it achieves the best result it can possibly hope for. If, however, the Pentagon is forced to withdraw more troops from Iraq and scramble to shore up its position in Afghanistan, then the prospect of the whole situation falling apart becomes increasingly likely. So, when Gates and Rice ask Congress and the American people to “trust them”, there may very well be an element of pleading beneath their apparent confidence.

 


 

Is Dave the new Bobby?
8/2/08  

While listening to PM on Radio 4 this Wednesday, I was struck by the comparisons being made between the ongoing electoral process in the US and our very own political situation in Britain. Unusually, these were not the words of some hyperbolic commentator seeking to identify trans-Atlantic political trends; instead, they came from a Conservative Party Member of Parliament – one Simon Burns, the right honourable member for West Chelmsford.

To be fair to him, I should note that Burns wasn’t claiming that there were exact parallels. Where he did believe there were similarities, though, was in the prevailing mood of the election. Most notably – have you guessed where this is going yet? – he noted the rise to prominence of a youthful, dynamic and charismatic politician, whose zest for politics and crusading spirit of reform captures the mood of an electorate disenchanted with old-style politics.

He was, of course, trying to link the rise of Barack Obama and David Cameron (I’m assuming that he wasn’t referring to the new leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg). Not only did he identify this ‘trend’, he asserted that America had not seen anything like this since the rise of Ronald Reagan in the 1970s and, more strangely, the ill-fated and ultimately tragic campaign of Robert F. Kennedy in the late-1960s. Cameron, Burns noted, bears strong similarities to RFK, not least in his capacity to energise an electorate and his desire to initiate ‘change’.

My immediate reaction was: he did say Robert Kennedy, didn’t he? Helpfully, he soon repeated the comparison. Come the next General Election in Britain, the electorate will --- like that in the US in 1968, 1980 and 2008 --- side with the youthful crusading reformer rather than the tired old former Chancellor.

Burns’ analysis was troubling on several levels. Firstly, he appeared to be overplaying the impact that Obama (and, to a lesser extent, Clinton, McCain and Huckabee) has had on America. True, turnout has been high during the primaries, but there doesn’t appear to be a sense that a momentous change is in the air. With the election over the same old battlegrounds of economy and “security”, but without any prospect of significant new initiatives in these areas, it will be impossible to define the 2008 election as being an epochal moment until well after its conclusion.

Secondly, and more worryingly for Burns, if Cameron is the heir apparent to Robert Kennedy, then his chances of success in Britain seem slim. Kennedy was not a gifted campaigner: he was an uncomfortable public speaker, lacked the natural ease of his brother, and owed a great deal of the traction that he had built up in the early stages of the 1968 campaign to his brother’s tragic death and the lingering sense that JFK’s legacy remained unfulfilled. Furthermore, his run for office came after a spell in Congress that was far from distinguished. Had he gone on to win the election in 1968 it is impossible to speculate what kind of president he would have become. But, it does seem clear that he would not have been the paragon of idealism that Burns is holding up.

Cameron clearly has a greater aptitude for the meet-and-greet, razzmatazz aspects of modern politics than RFK ever had. If there is a comparison to be made, however, it is in their rather indistinct and incoherent approaches to policy. Indeed, if one wants an analogy, then Ronald Reagan is the more appropriate member of Burn’s analysis. Even here, though, Reagan’s approach to government was far more apparent during his run for office than Cameron’s currently is.

Of course, Burns had an objective in his comments: talking up the possibility that change is in the air to cloak personal ambition. Quite clearly, he hopes that the same factors helping Obama’s rise to prominence will prove to be a trans-national aid for Cameron’s bid for power. More obsequiously, linking his boss to such major political figures could help get Burns noticed during any shadow cabinet reshuffle. As the show’s presenter, Eddie Mair, concluded the piece, “That was Simon Burns, who is not yet a member of David Cameron’s front bench.” Yet, in attempting to achieve this, Burns might be minded to consider his analogies more carefully. Reagan, perhaps, might fit Cameron’s ambition. But Bobby Kennedy? He was never the politician Burns seems to think he was.

 


 

Diplomacy - Iraqi Style
31/1/08

With the recent furore over the presidential primaries in the US, over Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ lambasting of the European members of NATO, and over the high-profile events in Gaza, the once ubiquitous story of Iraq has slipped from the top of the news agenda. Perceptions that ‘the surge’ is succeeding and a subsequent drop in insurgent attacks have made events in Baghdad less prominent than they were twelve months ago.

However, a lack of media attention does not mean that significant events are not occurring. Relatively unnoticed this week was the announcement that Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was going to visit Baghdad for diplomatic talks with the provisional government in Iraq.

Although the Guardian reported Ahmadinejad’s trip as “a challenge to American influence in Iraq”, the story has not gained any significant traction in the week’s media. It raised the familiar reactions and opinions that any possible shift in US-Iranian relations brings to the fore: Washington and Tehran don’t like each other; the US is deeply mistrustful or Iranian actions in the Middle East; Bush and Cheney are musing on the possibility of a military strike on Iran before they leave office. But even at a time when tensions in US-Iranian relations are high, the response has been muted.

There is, however, a far more important aspect to this visit that needs to be recognised. What does the future hold for diplomacy in Iraq? If, for example, the ‘surge’ continues to meet its objectives (in spite of whether or not you think the proclamations of success by the Bush administration are overly fanciful), and the US allows Baghdad an increasing amount of autonomy, what stance will the Iraqi regime take with regard to its diplomatic relations?

Fundamentally, there are two issues at play here: First, what are Washington’s long-term plans for the region? And second, how does the ‘new’ Iraq plan to situate itself in the wider Middle East?

For the US, a long-term military presence in Iraq looks certain: even a relatively stable regional situation will demand an American presence to protect the fragility of the Iraqi nation. Baghdad, however, will have to forge a diplomatic stance of its own. Does it remain allied with the US --- allowing Washington to assume a level of primacy over their diplomatic relations --- or will it pursue an independent course?

At first, an alliance with the US might seem the sensible option. Military aid and the omnipresent threat of US retaliation would give Iraq a broad security blanket and seem to preclude any threat that might be posed by her immediate neighbours. But the ever-present complications in the Middle East that in part stem from Washington’s alliance with Israel (and, to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia) mean that Baghdad would be well-advised to consider how it is integrated into the wider diplomacy of the region.

The invitation to Ahmadinejad suggests that the leaders in Iraq are cognisant of this, but this raises the gloomy spectre for Washington of an Iraqi-Iranian alliance; a development that, whoever wins the 2008 election, would be inimical to US interests. Sadly, for American officials there is little they can do to prevent an independent Iraqi foreign policy. Efforts to coerce Baghdad into a closer relationship with the US would undoubtedly look clumsy and lead to allegations of ‘empire’; while, even successfully keeping Iraq tied to Washington could potentially destabilise the region further and, moreover, add renewed fuel to the fire of the insurgency and deepen sectarian splits in the fabric of the nations. That there is no easy answer is quite clear; that this is yet another unforeseen consequence of an ill-planned invasion and occupation is equally apparent.

Comment on this blog...

 


 

Florida or Bust for Rudy?
24/1/08

With Fred Thompson choosing yesterday to announce that he was bringing an end to his ill-fated bid for the White House, there is an increasing sense that the Democrat and Republican Primaries are beginning to get serious. Thompson’s campaign ended with a whimper. In a short, rather terse statement, he announced: “Today I have withdrawn my candidacy for President of the United States…I hope that my country and my party have benefited from our having made this effort.” Although Thompson’s withdrawal was expected, it does mark a hardening in the race for the White House.

On the Democratic side, the two leading candidates – Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama – are getting increasingly personal in their attacks on each other, with Monday’s latest debate descending into a point-scoring slanging match, rather than an informed debate on major policy issues. This level of acrimony has also spilt out of the debating hall and onto the campaign trail. As the Boston Globe has reported, “A day after clashing in their testiest debate yet, Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton stepped up their acrimonious dispute over character and truthfulness yesterday, signalling that their feuding might continue unabated until Democratic voters pick their presidential nominee…the two leading Democrats picked up largely where they left off in Monday night’s debate in Myrtle Beach, accusing each other of obscuring the truth and of lowering the level of campaign discourse.”

As the primary season begins to shift into a more brutal phase, there a number of candidates who need to start winning and winning quick if they are to stay in the race. For Democratic Senator, John Edwards, the game is almost up: he has failed to put a dent in the Clinton-Obama roadshow and, barring a miraculous turnaround, he appears to be following Fred Thompson out of the contest any day soon. Similarly, Mike Huckabee needs to somehow regenerate his campaign, which, after surprising everyone in Iowa, has now fallen behind John McCain and Mitt Romney.

However, as an article in Sunday’s Observer noted, the stakes are, perhaps, highest for ‘America’s Mayor’, Rudy Giuliani. Since announcing his candidacy, Giuliani and his advisors have developed a high-risk electoral strategy: one that virtually ignored the early battlegrounds of Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan and South Carolina and which, instead, focused on winning the “big” states with the most electoral college votes – starting with Florida, and pushing on toward the golden possibilities of ‘super-duper Tuesday.’

Commentators both in the US and the UK have all agreed that, in theory, this approach could work. If Giuliani succeeded in taking all the major states that he and his team have pinpointed, then he could, potentially, tie up the Republican nomination before the party holds its convention. However, it is a huge if; especially given the fact that, since Iowa and New Hampshire, nobody is talking about Rudy’s chances. The momentum gained by both Mitt Romney and, more particularly, John McCain have pushed Giuliani into the sidelines. It is a shift in momentum that increasingly looks like it will destroy Giuliani’s dreams of succeeding George W. Bush.

Giuliani’s woes, however, have not occurred just because of his campaign’s high-risk electoral strategy. Equally important has been the perception that he is one-dimensional: Giuliani’s fame and reputation rest on the national profile that he developed in the wake of 9/11. As such, his campaign platform has prioritised his ‘commitment’ to the War on Terror and his willingness to fight the good fight in order to protect America. And yet, as the Observer article mentioned, very few Americans are prioritising national security or, indeed, Iraq as a major issue. To return to a familiar mantra of fifteen years ago, “It’s the economy stupid!”

Increasing concerns over a potential recession in the US – concerns that, it seems, are being keenly felt in the Federal Reserve – have overtaken the importance of getting the troops out of Iraq and defeating the threat posed by international terrorism. Inevitably, this has had the effect of sidelining Giuliani’s “strong on defense” message. Moreover, he has not been helped by the Bush administration’s continual references to the success of the ‘surge’ in Iraq, and the almost daily announcements that the US is turning the tide of insurgency. Irrespective of how accurate such announcements are, they have reduced the willingness of the American people to embrace a future leader pledging to ‘defend’ the homeland.

So, can Giuliani still win? It looks increasingly difficult – especially given the high stakes now riding on a win in Florida. Perversely, a downturn in the US position in Iraq might actually enable him to regain some lost ground; but it would take an almost cataclysmic event to propel Giuliani back to the front of the field. His only hope now rests on winning (and winning well) in Florida, in an effort to galvanise his campaign and, above all else, get himself back on the front pages of the leading newspapers.

 

 


 

Benevolent America? 
A Look Back from the Middle East 
to Southeast Asia and Latin America

17/1/08

President Bush’s recent attempt to interpose his administration in the Middle East peace process bore signs of a comprehensive lack of engagement with the complexities of both the Israel-Palestine conflict and the region as a whole. In a keynote speech in Abu Dhabi, Bush lectured the countries of the region on the need for them to embrace noble principles such as ‘freedom and democracy.’ Adopting a patrician tone, Bush stated: “You cannot build trust when you hold an election where opposition candidates find themselves harassed or in prison. You cannot expect people to believe in the promise of a better future when they are jailed for peacefully petitioning their government. And you cannot stand up a modern and confident nation when you do not allow people to voice their legitimate criticisms.” Perhaps even more condescending, though, was his statement that, “The United States appreciates that democratic progress requires tough choices…yet we also know that for all the difficulties, a society based on liberty is worth the sacrifice…My friends, a future of liberty stands before you. It is your right. It is your dream. And it is your destiny.”

As ‘Watching America’ noted in an earlier podcast, Bush’s vision of peace for the Middle East – outlined throughout his recent tour – has proven to be little more than a “sham”. This is not because the sentiments or the ideas were undesirable but because the simplistic way in which they were presented is just not viable in a region as complex as the Middle East. This was illustrated in a speech on the Israel-Palestine conflict when, after describing Jerusalem as a “tough issue”, Bush stated: “The peace agreement should happen, and can happen, by the end of this year. I know each leader shares that important goal, and I am committed to doing all I can to achieve it.”

The tone used by Bush in his recent tour, however, is certainly not unique in the history of US policy toward peripheral areas of the world: it is informed by long-standing cultural assumptions within the American mindset about the peoples of the Third World and an enduring belief in the US capacity to improve conditions in those areas.

During World War Two, Franklin Roosevelt often spoke of the desirability of implementing a process of ‘decolonization’ once the war had finished; deconstructing the old system of Empires, and bringing freedom, liberty and democracy to areas previously under European control. While FDR was generally opposed to all examples of European colonialism, he reserved a particular ire for the French Empire – believing it to have achieved very little in terms of improving the lives of those people living within it. The most obvious example of this, Roosevelt argued, was in Southeast Asia – a region that had long been under French control, but which remained rooted in an almost feudal state.

FDR exerted a great deal of diplomatic effort during the war in attempting to encourage the ‘great powers’ to support trusteeship of Southeast Asia once the war was over, thus ending French control. These efforts were motivated by the inherent belief that the US system could, undoubtedly, improve the situation in the region; a belief engendered by ingrained assumptions in the US of western superiority. As Mark Bradley has noted in his essay “Slouching Toward Bethlehem”, US efforts “were the central elements of the American construction of Vietnam that had emerged in the interwar period: unfavourable images of a ‘primitive’ and ‘backward’ Vietnamese society, vociferous critiques of French colonial policy in Vietnam, and an unwavering belief in the applicability of American institutions and values across cultures.”

Of course, as Mark Atwood Lawrence has argued decisively in his book Assuming the Burden, this process soon gave way to more traditional strategic and economic concerns; a shift that, following Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, led to the US supporting the French quest to reassert their authority in the region. Within five years it would lead to tacit US financial and military support for the worsening French position. In spite of this, though, US policy toward Indo-China throughout the 1950-1973 period would continue to be informed by similar cultural assumptions. The enduring belief that peace could be brought to the region if only “they” would just embrace the US model continued to hold true among leading US officials.

The story is very similar in Latin America. As scholars such as Michael Hunt have outlined, there is a long tradition there of US condescension – with many commentators and cartoonists in the late-nineteenth century depicting ‘Uncle Sam’ as the father figure attempting to control the unruly ‘boys’ of Latin America. These views continued to predominate in the 1950s. One of the most infamous examples is the oft-quoted remark by Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, that in order to improve US-Latin relations, you need to “pat them on the head and make them think you are fond of them.” This view was by no means unique. In his 1963 memoir, The Wine is Bitter, Milton Eisenhower – the president’s brother – sketched out the view that many Americans had of their southern neighbours. “Our misconceptions of others are often as ridiculous as theirs are of us,” he wrote. “Our stereotypes of the Latin Americans are definite and erroneous: he is lazy, darkly handsome, and capricious. He insists upon a siesta no matter what, and he prefers a palace revolution to an election...to us, Latin Americans are happy natives with ruffled sleeves and broad-brimmed hats, dancing and strumming guitars.” The depth of such sentiments was starkly demonstrated to the author of these words when, on the eve of departing on a fact-finding tour of the region, an acquaintance asked him, “‘what is the capital of Latin America, anyhow’?”

Again, as with the situation in Southeast Asia, such sentiments continued to predominate. Consequently, US policy continued to adopt a patrician, benevolent air, structured around the ideas of free market capitalism and democracy. President Bush’s tour of the region in the spring of 2007 – a tour that quickly descended into a farcical Bush v Chavez publicity blitz – once more saw the same clichéd proposals trotted out. The unspoken message? If you would just adopt these measures, then life would be so much better.

Ingrained traditions and long-standing cultural beliefs make it hugely difficult for any other avenue to be pursued. When Bush lectures the Middle East nations on the errors of their democracies, he does so in order that they might see the error of their ways and embrace the US model. Naturally, there is a rather large element of self-interest involved, too; but, in a world that continues to demonstrate on a daily basis just how complex it is, these long-standing ideological constructs within the American mindset continue to stymie any hopes of a more evolved US policy. Until leading US officials can bring themselves to adopt a view of foreign policy that does not see it simply as a case of ‘democracy’, or ‘freedom’, then any attempts to bring peace to the Middle East ‘within a year’ will, sadly, be doomed to ignominious failure.


 

Bouncing Back with Hillary Clinton
10/1/08

For several days, I have been expecting to use this blog as something of a mea culpa; to denounce myself for misguidedly predicting in earlier weeks that Hillary Clinton was looking like a sure-bet for the Democratic nominee for the 2008 election. Opinion polls and informed opinion from America’s top political commentators, had confidently predicted that Barack Obama was a certainty to win the New Hampshire Primary. Indeed, polls taken in the days leading up the vote gave him a ten-point lead over Senator Clinton. Moreover, both the Guardian and The Times ran front pages on Wednesday that were dedicated to an Obama win and a crisis for Clinton.

However, once you get past the hyperbolic reactions to the result – with descriptions of the “Comeback Kid” – there a few issues in this most surprising result that point to an interesting, complex and unpredictable race to come.

Firstly, it goes against the trend that my colleague, John Matlin, outlined on these pages a couple of weeks ago, in which he described the impact that “momentum” gained in Iowa could have on a presidential campaign. In that piece, he asked: “If Barack Obama comes within spitting distance of Hillary Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire, will the Clinton run fail at the first hurdles?” For a few days after Iowa, it seemed as though the answer was a resounding ‘Yes!’: Obama, following his victory, appeared to have immense momentum going into New Hampshire, while Clinton looked world-weary and on the brink of defeat. Audiences hung on Obama’s every word – he looked increasingly electable; increasingly presidential. Pretty soon a ten point lead developed in the polls, and Hillary was reported to have been “close to tears” during one appearance at a New Hampshire diner.  

This brings us to the second issue to have come out of last night’s results, which is: whether the Clinton campaign has engineered a significant shift in their candidate’s public personality? Little more than two months ago, Clinton was the presumptive nominee – Republican candidates discussed how to take her on during debates, while, feeling increasingly confident, Clinton herself began to present herself as a ‘national candidate’ that could appeal to Republican voters on issues like defence. Of course, it was a risky strategy: it focused her attentions on a national campaign against the Republicans, when there was still a nomination to be secured. The inherent risk was emphasised by Obama’s impressive revival, which saw him move ahead in the polls and win Iowa. Team Clinton appears to have recognised this over the last few days. Her appearances in New Hampshire were far more personable (indeed, she even used a tactic of John Major in 1992 of getting on a soapbox to address a crowd) than we had previously seen. Howard Kurtz, in the Washington Post, discerned this and wrote: “News Flash: Hillary shows emotion…Hillary Clinton might have done better to let the voters see this side of her months ago, rather than the steely front she keeps up most of the time.” A large part of Obama’s success has been built on his ability to connect with an audience. Therefore, it made perfect sense for the Clinton campaign to push their candidate in a similar direction. And yet, on its own, this would not have been enough; Clinton’s emotionalism does not match Obama’s flair and personal touch.

While Clinton certainly managed to demonstrate her ‘softer’ political side in New Hampshire – as demonstrated in her post-primary speech in which she pledged to, “Give America the second chance that New Hampshire has given me” – there was an equally important factor in her victory. Namely: John McCain. The Republican contest in Iowa had an air of unpredictability as shown by the victory of Mike Huckabee. The different approach to politics successfully demonstrated by Huckabee – a sort of stand-up comedian form of electioneering – suddenly made Democrats in Iowa flock to Obama. Next to Huckabee, Clinton looks stilted and un-dynamic; a race between these two would be like a US version of the Gordon Brown-David Cameron relationship – with a media-friendly PR approach grating against dour indecision. In terms of panache and personality, Obama can match Huckabee. But, against a resurgent John McCain, he looks worryingly weak on national security and experience. Thus, as McCain became the frontrunner for the Republicans in New Hampshire, Clinton became a lot more attractive to Democrats looking to counter McCain’s strengths. This suggests a strong relationship between the views of Democratic voters and the race for the Republican nominee. In an article in this week’s Observer, Michael Crowley, senior editor of New Republic magazine, argued that the absence of a sitting president or vice-president in the race had significantly altered the dynamics of the 2008 election. “With no incumbent President or Vice-President on the ticket”, he wrote, “and with the traumas of 9/11 and Iraq beginning to fade, voters will make a reassessment of their beliefs and preferences.” It now seems that the situation on the ground has gone beyond this and that voters are reassessing their interests and beliefs on a day-by-day level.

Sadly, none of this makes it particularly easy to predict the likely nominees. The severity of the swing toward Clinton in New Hampshire was unforeseen and, as highlighted here, was due to a number of differing factors. It does, though, ensure that we are in for an interesting battle in the coming weeks. And, make no mistake, the pressure is still on Senator Clinton: it is unlikely that such a ‘rescue act’ will happen twice, so she needs to stick closely to Obama (or beat him) over the coming weeks in order to reassume a position of dominance. This could be simpler for her if McCain continues to do well; but with the political situation appearing to be so fluid, it is difficult to predict where we might be in a month. So, for now, I think I’ll stick with Clinton as my predicted nominee. A shift in the Republican field, however, could alter this situation as swiftly as it did in New Hampshire.

 Comment on this blog...

 


 

Through the Looking Glass: Predicting What Will (Not) Happen in 2008
20/12/07

As this will be the last “Freedom’s Untidy” of the year, I thought it would be a good idea to conclude 2007 with a very brief recap of a few of this year’s events and a quick look at what may, or may not, happen in the next twelve months.

1) IRAQ: Throughout the last year, the nature of the debate over Iraq has, somehow, shifted away from the sorry state of the reconstruction efforts of the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ (sic) and towards an analysis of how well US troops are doing on the ground in their “surge”, an insertion of yet more troops to quell the Iraqi insurgency/Al Qaeda threat. The majority of press coverage now analyses how successfully the surge is working, rather than examining more important issues relating to the need for a binding political settlement, provision of regular water and electricity supplies to the Iraqi people, and the rebuilding of a viable nation-state out of the internecine factions that currently hold sway. Barring a miraculous rapprochement among the differing religious groups in Iraq – or an equally unlikely collapse in US support for the “new” government in Baghdad – it seems safe to suggest that little of note will now be accomplished before the Bush administration leaves office in January 2009. For Bush (and, one suspects, General David Petraeus), a perception that the surge is working when they leave office will be enough for them to proclaim’ that the situation was ‘getting better’ as they left power. If it then should happen to go wrong afterwards, then – guess what – it’ll be the new guy’s fault!

2) IRAN: The recent publication of the NIE, suggesting that Tehran had halted nuclear development in 2003, has altered the situation regarding what the US might do about Iran. Prior to this, there was some speculation that Bush (and Dick Cheney) would use their last year in office to turn the screw on Iran and, quite possibly, launch air attacks on suspected Iranian nuclear facilities. The NIE, along with the recent announcement that Russia is providing enriched uranium to Iran, should put an end to such a possibility.

However, the recent announcements by former officials such as John Bolton and current ones such as Cheney and the President himself demonstrate that a showdown resolving the situation with Iran remains a key objective for some leading officials. Moreover, the murky circumstances surrounding an Israeli attack in Syria a few months ago should remind us that it is not just Washington that is pressing for action against Tehran. While it does now appear unlikely that the US will launch any kind of military assault against Iran in the next twelve months, there remains the strong possibility that it will seek to strengthen economic sanctions. And, although it is somewhat less likely, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Israel might take the lead in facing up to Iran in the Middle East while Washington’s hands remained tied.

3) ELECTION 2008: So, who’s going to win? This blog’s recent suggestion that one Hillary Clinton had the Democratic nomination all but tied up has now been challenged by an Oprah-led Obama resurgence (although, for what it’s worth, I still think Hillary will get the nod). Similarly, the Republican dog-fight has become more interesting recently – with outsider, stand-up comedian and religious zealot Mike Huckabee making a determined challenge to the Rudy Guiliani electoral juggernaut.

Whomever each party nominates, however, the election will come down to a few familiar issues: tax, the economy, religion, and the power to appeal to the middle ground of the electorate. So far, none of the main candidates have suggested that a new president will usher in a radical period of US foreign policy (although Giuliani is promising a foreign policy that delivers ‘more bang for the buck’). If the Democrats capture the White House then it seems likely that the gung-ho rhetoric of the War on Terror might be toned down a bit, but it will still be the defining feature of any new administration’s foreign policy. My guess is that it will be a very tight election and, a year from now, we might just be wondering whether very much has changed at all in terms of Washington’s relationship with the rest of the world.

Comment on this blog...

 


 

We're Still Going to Win: Dick Cheney Bangs the Drum
13/12/07

With the publication of the National Intelligence Estimate last week, which cast serious doubts on Bush administration claims that Iran is seeking to develop a nuclear weapon, it seemed initially as though another plank of the administration’s foreign policy was being undermined. Moreover, it added further intrigue to the ongoing struggle within the administration between factions supporting an aggressive stance toward Tehran and those advocating a more engaged diplomatic approach. Yet, throughout the administration’s problems over Iran and Iraq in the last eighteen months – developments that have precluded any immediate march to war against Tehran – US Vice President, Dick Cheney, has remained unbowed in his sabre-rattling, rabble-rousing approach toward the issue of America’s place in the world.

Last Friday, in a speech to the Members of Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City, Cheney went on the offensive in an attempt to stiffen American resolve for the ongoing “War on Terror” and, at the same time, fired a broadside against a Congress that he accused of being “irresponsible.” Using typically emotive language, Cheney framed Congress’s refusal to offer blanket support for Bush’s strategy as a decision to “stop supporting the soldiers.” The validity of the mission was not the point; this was, according to Cheney, to do with patriotism and loyalty.

Cheney went on to further chastise Congress, outlining the constitutionally dubious contention that it “is not the business of the United States Congress to micromanage military strategy…We simply cannot afford a situation in which the Commander-in-Chief sends in forces with a clear mission, and then Congress steps in to tie the hands of our commanders on the field”. Then, finally, the Vice President got to the heart of his message: a strong reaffirmation America’s commitment to the War. “I, for one, am confident in the outcome. Americans are not the sort to wait on events, or to live at the mercy of the violent. We do not sit and hope for the best; we can see a better day for ourselves and for all humanity, and we strive to achieve it… We've shown a watching world that we are a good and a just nation, secure in our ideals, fearless in their defense, and willing to sacrifice greatly for the cause of long-term peace and freedom…We will press on in our mission, and we will achieve victory.”

Cheney’s dogmatic approach to foreign affairs is not new. However, his refusals to tone down his approach, or adopt a more pragmatic approach (informed, for example, by the latest National Intelligence Estimate), demonstrate all the characteristics of someone who recognises that this is his last chance to achieve anything of significance. Furthermore, it suggests an unyielding stance toward the Middle East and the problems confronting the US there. Indeed, it brings to mind the character of Toby Zeigler in the fictional TV programme, The West Wing, who, when asked how the Bartlet administration’s ‘new’ approach to the Middle East would improve US relations in the region, stated unequivocally: “They’ll like us when we win.”

In pursuing this approach, however, Cheney is descending into a parody or caricature of himself. His role as the “scaremonger-in-chief” is now undeniable. Anybody who disagrees with him is, by default, treacherous or lily-livered. And, in spite of their relatively toothless display so far, it is the Democratic Congress that continues to warrant most opprobrium in the Cheney worldview.

Recently, Cheney has conjured up a new reason for what he perceives as a lack of moral fibre among House Democrats failing to support the war: that they are beholden to a woman – Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. In what was, frankly, an unusual interview, Cheney stated that, “The House's senior Democrats ‘march to the tune of Nancy Pelosi to an extent I had not seen, frankly, with any previous speaker’.” “I'm trying to think how to say all of this in a gentlemanly fashion,” he chivalrously said, “but [in] the Congress I served in, that wouldn't have happened…They are not carrying the big sticks I would have expected.” It is a sentiment heavily imbued with misogynistic overtones. As Ruth Marcus notes in the Washington Post, Now they are, if not nancy boys, Nancy's Boys.

Naturally, this begs the obvious question of: does Cheney believe that women should not be in a position of power? One can’t imagine that such sentiments would go down well with the current Secretary of State, the current First Lady, or, indeed, the ever-fortunate Lady Cheney. Perhaps a more accurate question to ask, however, is whether Cheney is attempting to provoke a response from those that he is targeting, or whether he has a broader aim?

After the publication of the NIE last week prompted a rather weak defence of the case against Iran from the president, some of the administration’s more hawkish elements (and friends) have begun to crank up the tension once more. In a commentary piece, John Bolton, the former US Ambassador to the UN, looked to discredit (or, as right-wing blogger Tammy Bruce has written in a piece beginning “Thank god for this man”, “skewer”) the NIE by arguing that: “All this shows that we not only have a problem interpreting what the mullahs in Tehran are up to, but also a more fundamental problem: Too much of the intelligence community is engaging in policy formulation rather than "intelligence" analysis, and too many in Congress and the media are happy about it… the NIE opens the way for Iran to achieve its military nuclear ambitions in an essentially unmolested fashion, to the detriment of us all.

Cheney’s statements and speeches since the NIE was released showcase an ideological affinity with John Bolton: Iran is dangerous and the US has to act. In lambasting Congressional Democrats for being beholden to a woman, Cheney is not looking to demonstrate an archaic, Victorian side to his character; instead, he is looking to provoke a spirit of aggression and militarism that, he believes, will aid a tough stance against Iran. While it is now highly difficult for President Bush to adopt too strong a line against Tehran (without losing even more approval rating points), Cheney is long past the point of having to worry about his credibility. Thus, he is able to keep ‘banging the drum’ in the hope that public and congressional opinion will shift toward that held by him, John Bolton and President Bush. And, while it seems a forlorn hope, that isn’t going to stop him trying.  

Comment on this blog...

 


 

Fighting the Good Fight: Review of “The Company” on BBC 2
(6/12/07)

In describing the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), John Ranelagh notes that: “It represented the very public-spirited determination of the governing elite not to let America be surprised or outsmarted by the old European empires or the new Soviet one, and their deep belief in American democracy as the best system for the expression of both the self-interest and the natural altruism of every individual.” Ranelagh’s statement, especially the second part, could very well serve as the mission statement of the BBC’s current adaptation of Robert Littell’s book, The Company.

A curious mixture of fact and fiction, the programme presents a view of the CIA’s role in the Cold War that focuses heavily on the part played by CIA operative Jack McAuliffe (fictional), and two of his former colleagues at an Ivy League University (one American; one, more fatefully, Russian). Other, real characters – Allen Dulles, Richard Bissell, Kim Philby, Frank Wisner, James Engleton and even Fidel Castro – flit in and out of the action as the story weaves through particular hotspots of the Cold War. As the action shifts from Moscow to Washington, from Berlin to Budapest, from Langley to Havana, mood-setting music, high-speed chases and ever-present danger keep the story rattling along. There is danger, blood, torture and sacrifice. Indeed, there is much to say about the programme from a stylistic perspective: applying the sheen of Hollywood (including roles for Michael Keaton, Chris O’Donnell and directed by Ridley Scott) ensures certain mawkishness and tugging at the heart strings. However, it is the film’s role as an historical piece, coupled with the ingrained sentimentalities of the American psyche, which is of more interest here.

Films such as JFK, Thirteen Days and Path to War have shown that is possible to make strong movies out of historical events; even with a little bit of creative licence included to make the film more palatable for everyday audiences.  Yet, the more prominent theme in The Company is the simplification of the Cold War struggle between the US and the Soviet Union. The programme presents a view of the CIA and, by extension, the Cold War that is far removed from reality: for the defining characteristic – that the viewer is constantly beaten about the head with – is that this is very much a case of American ‘good’ versus Soviet ‘evil’. There is no middle ground; no grey areas; no sense that Moscow and Washington both had competing strategic and economic interests at stake and that this was far more than a struggle of good versus bad. As such, our hero – McAuliffe – is told early on by his station chief in Berlin that “the Barbarians are at the gate – and somebody needs to guard the gate.” And, in case you missed it, during the Hungarian uprising in 1956, Soviet troops don’t just shoot the rebels ringleader under a flag of truce, they shoot him in the back.

The two episodes to date (the last in the series airs this Saturday) have been dominated by the notion of American triumphalism that was so prevalent at the end of the Cold War. In some ways this is inevitable, for we already know how the story ends: America “wins” the Cold War. Thus, the battle has to be set out in simplistic, binary terms as an American victory has to be seen in a positive light; there can’t be any ambiguity about the fact that America is fighting for the future safety of the world and the good of mankind. Even when the main character is not making some passionate, idealistic (and badly written) statement about “freedom” and “democracy”, there are more subtle indications of the difference between the Soviets and the Americans. McAuliffe, despite his recognition that the US “is at war”, consistently finds his actions altered, compromised or defined by a series of improbably placed female characters. (In Budapest, prior to the 1956 uprising, this leads to the teeth-grindingly bad moment when he asks his English female contact: “What’s an English woman like you doing mixed up in a Hungarian revolt?”) Meanwhile, his Russian counterpart forsakes the love of his life in order to travel to the United States to work for the KGB in spying on the US. The underlying message? Not even the love of a beautiful woman can prevent Soviet plans for world domination, while our American hero finds himself unable to compromise his honest-to-goodness humanity when faced with a compromised situation.

The McAuliffe character acts as the personification of American good in this struggle against the Soviet Union. Often, his passionate idealism is undermined by the lack of support from his CIA bosses or, more frequently, Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. But, so strongly does it burn in him, that he finds himself driving a tank through the streets of Budapest during the 1956 uprising, leading the charge from the landing craft during the Bay of Pigs invasion and even manning an anti-aircraft gun to protect the Cuban insurgents while JFK fails to provide air support. It is even he who reunites the English woman with her long-lost daughter in the wake of the Hungarian uprising.

Amid all the sanctimony, covert operations and heroism, however, there are several revealing aspects that cut through the production and go well beyond the Manichean view of the Cold War presented in the programme. Firstly, the most human character in the programme comes across as being McAuliffe’s former colleague at Harvard, Yevgeny, who despite abandoning his true love for a life of spying seems to be the character most aware that the world is not black-and-white and of the choices and complexities of real life. While this is not overly significant, it does get away from the caricature of all communists as being “evil” and single-minded. Secondly, and more importantly, a great deal is revealed in the clumsy, inept questions that McAuliffe constantly poses during his adventures – asking Hungarian revolutionaries why they are fighting, why don’t they just stop when events take a turn for the worse, or, most insultingly, preaching to the rebel Hungarian leader that they should revolt peacefully. His gross misunderstanding of nationalism betrays Washington’s similar problems during the Cold War. This is most amply demonstrated at the tragic end of the Bay of Pigs adventure. When McAuliffe offers to stand and fight alongside his fellow idealists, the rebel leader informs him that they don’t want his help any longer. If he is captured, the rebel states, Castro will say they were American-led rebels fighting Washington’s cause; Cuban motives would be forgotten or ignored. He concludes: “At least leave us our dignity; it’s all we have left.”

In placing McAuliffe’s misunderstanding and ignorance of nationalism at the forefront of these incidents, the programme unintentionally tells us more about the CIA’s role in the Cold War than its makers intended to. The problem is that by presenting the Cold War as this good versus evil struggle, they over-simplify and misrepresent a complex and important period of American history. Failure in Hungary and Cuba cause McAuliffe to consider retiring from the CIA. However, his colleague and close friend changes his mind, reminding him that they are on the side of good and buoying him up with their joint motivation for joining the Company: “We set out to change the world.” Or, ‘its ok Jack – we’re the good guys; it will all work out in the end.’ As a rip-roaring yarn the programme – despite the terrible, clichéd dialogue – works; as a piece of history, however, it is far too simplistic and, ultimately, passes up an opportunity to tell the true story of the CIA’s role in the Cold War. 

Comment on this piece...

 


 

From Australia, to Russia, to Europe:
A Quick Trip around the World and the Future of US Foreign Policy
(29/11/07)

With much of the media’s focus this week being on the events in Annapolis – where, it appears, the US is “setting out a new framework to engender peace in the Middle East” – there have been a number of events in other regions that have gone relatively unnoticed. Individually, they don’t appear to amount to much; but collectively, they are suggestive in tracing the evolution of international relations and in predicting the role of the US in the world by the time that a new president takes office in January, 2009.

First, to Australia: where long-serving Prime Minister, John Howard, lost the election this week to Kevin Rudd’s Labour Party. Since 2001, Howard had been a close ally of the Bush administration and a staunch supporter of the War on Terror, whereas the new leader, Kevin Rudd, has already pledged to sign the Koyoto Treaty and withdraw Australian troops from Iraq.

On an immediate level this is not too troubling for the US. While Howard’s strong support was welcome for Washington, his absence should not prove to be too detrimental to the White House. The signing of the Kyoto Treaty on climate control will do little to move the Bush administration while China and India continue to refuse to sign-up, while the perception that things are, in relative terms, going “well” in Iraq will soften the removal of Australian troops from the “Coalition of the Willing. However, problems begin to arise when the result is viewed in the context of other international developments.

This takes us to Russia, where the deteriorating relationship between Washington and Moscow plumbed new depths this week as President Putin accused the US State Department of putting pressure on the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to boycott the elections. The OSCE is one of the most prominent groups to observe international elections, and their absence from the Russian election on December 2 is a blow to Putin’s aim of obtaining an internationally recognised mandate to continue in power.

Putin went further, however, suggesting that “he was reviewing Moscow’s bilateral relationship with Washington”. Such acrimony between the Kremlin and the White House is, by now, pretty much par for the course. But it is worth casting our minds back to 2001-3, when Putin had, in many ways, become Washington’s new best friend. His strong actions in Chechnya, Bush concluded, made Putin an ideological bedfellow in the fight against terror. Since then, however, the relationship has sharply deteriorated: Putin’s aims of recapturing former Russian glories and limiting freedom of speech have clashed jarringly with US plans to position missiles on Russia’s borders and with the rhetoric of exporting democracy. As in Australia , it is evidence that the former relationships built up by the US in aftermath of 9/11 are beginning to crumble as individual national interests overshadow any perception of common goals.

Finally, in this grand tour, we come to Europe – where the battles to obtain a UN mandate for action in Iraq brought about a split between “Old Europe” and “New Europe”. The political landscape has changed here, too, with the old rogues France and Germany now being led by more pro-US regimes, and Tony Blair having been replaced by Gordon Brown. Yet, it remains somewhat unclear as to how consistent Berlin or Paris’s new pro-American stances might be.

To be sure, Angela Merkel has skilfully embraced the game of international diplomacy and has repaired a number of severe problems in German-American relations. However, Nicholas Sarkozy’s recent attempt to “woo” George Bush smacked of a determined public relations push rather than an epochal shift in French foreign policy. For his part, Gordon Brown is too embroiled in daily cases of government incompetence to give much attention to foreign affairs; with the Labour Party seemingly on a crusade to make the Tories look squeaky clean and worthy of high office, Brown has been unable to move beyond his rather uneasy stance toward the US that emerged in his first days in Number Ten. While not as dramatic as events in Australia or Russia, the political realignment in Europe does alter the landscape of US policy toward the region. And while evolutions in Britain, France and Germany have not, as yet, proven anything conclusive about the future of US-Euro relations, they do add an air of uncertainty to transatlantic relations.

So, what’s the upshot of all this? Do trends in Australia, Russia and Europe suggest future problems for Washington? The answer, I would argue, is not necessarily. True, many nations are beginning to slide away from previous alliances with the US; but this is not necessarily permanent or indicative of the US becoming isolated. The lesson may simply be the transient nature of international politics; many of the leaders that President Bush has spent time negotiating with are no longer in office. While unavoidable, this undoubtedly reshapes the international arena – giving a previously acrimonious relationship a new start, or putting a previously close relationship back to square one.

During the next year or so, there will undoubtedly be more changes, culminating, in January 2009, with the swearing in of a new American president. By then, virtually none of the main protagonists from the early stages of the War on Terror will be in office. It is a moment that will offer a chance to begin again; to forge new multinational agreements and relationships and, one hopes, to calm the divisive rhetoric that has dominated the War on Terror since 2001. There will be problems, as events in Russia and, to a lesser extent, Britain have illustrated. But, there may also be an opportunity to begin a new, more amicable era in international relations.

Comment on this Blog....

 


 

Short-Term Success in Iraq: Does Anyone Care About the Long Term?
(22/11/07)

Following the commencement of President Bush’s “surge” of new troops into Iraq earlier this year, there has been steady erosion in the number of violent attacks carried out by insurgents. Even the president himself has begun to adopt a more confident tone when talking about the US presence there. In a speech to a typically friendly audience at Fort Jackson military base on November 2, Bush stated: “The Iraqis are becoming more capable, and our military commander tells me that these gains are making possible what I call "return on success." That means we're slowly bringing some of our troops home, and now we're doing it from a position of strength.” Or, in other words, ‘Great – we’re winning and, at long last, the Iraqis are taking their responsibilities seriously, so we may be able to think about withdrawing some of those extra troops that we put in earlier this year.’

Yet such presidential confidence is not underpinned by much supporting evidence. Dan Froomkin has noted the misplaced atmosphere of self-congratulation writing, “President Bush says he now approves of how things are going in Iraq. But what, beyond a decreased body count, does he really have to celebrate there? And what's his endgame?” Perhaps a more pertinent question, though, might be: how did the debate shift so much that US policy in Iraq can now be declared a success?  Leaving aside the intense debates as to whether a reduced body count automatically means that US policy in Iraq is now working (an issue that has been covered at great length in the US media recently), there is a further point here relating to the nature of political debate in the US and the role played by the media in perpetuating cycles of news that, in effect, are too fast for their own good.

In his ill-fated appearance aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in May, 2003, Bush announced “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq and explained: “the transition from dictatorship to democracy will take time, but it is worth every effort. Our coalition will stay until our work is done. Then we will leave, and we will leave behind a free Iraq.” The perception of success in the spring of 2003 – a new Iraqi state, well on the way to being democratic and free aided by troops hailed as liberators – is very different to that being enunciated in the fall of 2007 – an Iraq with a faltering, poorly functioning democratic system but where mass killings, suicide bombings and insurgent attacks are down. Put simply, it is incredibly difficult to class the current US position in Iraq as being anything like a success. Furthermore, such appraisals – which have been discussed across the American media  neglect to consider the wider issue of the US role in the Middle East.

This point was perceptibly made by Anne Applebaum in the Washington Post this week. She wrote that: “Casualties are definitely down. Other places suddenly seem to need more urgent attention. News coverage is shrinking, as is public interest...I have to say that this optimism is totally unwarranted. Not because things aren’t improving in Iraq... but because the collateral damage inflicted by the war on America's relationships with the rest of the world is a lot deeper and broader than most Americans have realized.” Such long-term perspectives, however, do not have a great deal of traction in an American media and political culture that thrives on being fast-paced and perpetually in motion.

As the news and political agendas move ever onward, Bush’s “surge” can be considered an accomplishment; yet, this is a short-term appraisal of what is only one part of the Iraq war. There is a whole other sub-plot relating to how this fits in with the much wider issue of the US position in the Middle East. Moreover, it severely detracts from any concerted attempt to understand the lessons of US intervention in Iraq. President Bush can, with some validity, proclaim the “surge” a success, but what of the battle for “hearts and minds” in the region? Is the US starting to engage with the people there in an effort to stem radical, anti-American sentiments?

They are according to one US official. In Wednesday morning’s Today programme on Radio 4, State Department official Jared Cohen – a new member of Team Bush recruited due to the enlightened view of young people in the Middle East that he provided in his book, Children of Jihad – explained that the US was now, more than at any time since 2001, attempting to move on and engage with the people of the region in an effort to quell the growth of radical ideologies. Cohen’s analysis, which began in an informative and lively fashion, gradually fell apart as he struggled to explain how his position fit with that of the administration and the American people in the wake of 9/11, but his central point was of crucial importance. Namely, that young people throughout the Middle East are not, by default, anti-American: they may not like US policies or actions, but by working and engaging with them there is certainly a hope that they can be steered away from radicalism.

The converse of this, however, is the incessant sabre rattling over Iran. As President Bush and Dick Cheney continue to adopt a hard-line approach – even pressing European governments and businesses to strengthen the economic embargo – while simultaneously supporting unpopular regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, further fuel is undoubtedly added to the fire of anti-Americanism in the Middle East. Thus, Jared Cohen might believe that the administration is taking steps to engage with the people of the region, but unless all of the administration’s policies appear to be in tune with this approach there is little hope of a significant improvement. Stated bluntly, months of hard work behind the scenes working with young people in the Middle East can be completely undermined by one ill-advised, inflammatory statement by Bush or Cheney. It is this part of the Iraq war that the US media consistently misses or neglects in its immediate coverage. Similarly, while candidates for the 2008 presidential election discuss what they would do in Iraq, or how they would get the troops out, there is little said about the impact that this (and the brewing conflict with Iran) may have on the US capacity to meet its long-term aims in the region.

In a recent article in Diplomatic History, Mark T. Hove examined the impact that the US intervention in Guatemala in 1954 had on US relations with Chile. A central tenet of the Eisenhower administration’s approach was focused on improving the nature of inter-American relations through being seen to be apportioning the region more importance. Yet this effort was severely derailed by events in Guatemala. Hove writes, “as the Eisenhower administration sought to reduce the number of threats in Latin America, its intervention in Guatemala ironically helped spur a new threat to US interests in the region.” The lesson? Actions speak far louder than words. The surge might be achieving its objectives in Iraq, but the presence of more US troops in the region undoubtedly increases anti-American tensions among some people in Middle East. As do increased threats of US military action against Iran; as do the continued support of repressive, authoritarian political regimes. By focusing on the short-term outcomes of US policy, and in failing to view these events in a wider perspective, the American media and polity are exacerbating an already serious situation. Unless the entire Bush administration adopts an approach more in keeping with that outlined by Jared Cohen on the Today programme, then the “collateral damage” (as Anne Applebaum terms it) will continue to destabilise the US position in the Middle East.

Comment on this blog...


 

All Mouth, No Trousers:
Checking the Progress of the Democratic Congress
(15/11/07)
 

After last week’s foray into the world of international politics and marine biology, we’re back on terra firma this week – a change in location necessitated by the innate shock of finding myself agreeing with Karl Rove. Since stepping down as President Bush’s political guru and deputy Chief of Staff, Rove has, for him, been relatively quiet. Last week, though, he castigated the Democratic Congress. In an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal, Rove stated: “Democrats had a moment after the 2006 election, but now that moment has passed. They’ve squandered it. They have demonstrated both the inability and the unwillingness to govern.”

Rove, who is either a political genius or a dangerous Machiavellian operative depending on your political leanings, can generally be relied upon for comments that are specifically designed to wound the Democrats. However, on this occasion, he may have a point.

Speaking in the immediate aftermath of the elections last November, the new Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, proclaimed a new era in American politics. “Tonight is a great victory for the American people”, she raved. “Today the American people voted for change, and they voted for Democrats to take our country in a new direction...nowhere did the American people make it more clear that we need a new direction than the war in Iraq...we cannot continue down this catastrophic path.” Similar sentiments were forthcoming from the head Democrat in the Senate, Harry Reid from Nevada, who announced: “All across America tonight...there is in the air a wind of change.”

How, then, is this new era going? Has the Democratic Congress fulfilled its pledge to tackle the Bush administration’s abuses of justice, flouting of the Constitution and, most importantly, sought a definitive solution to US involvement in Iraq? Put bluntly, the Democrats have singularly failed to deliver on the grandiose pledges made in the wake of their seizure of both houses of Congress last year; thus, making Karl Rove’s criticisms seem unusually even-handed.  

As has been well documented, the period after 9/11 saw the Bush administration, aided by a complicit and Republican-controlled Congress, implement a raft of new legislation that has severely impacted on the American peoples civil liberties, while simultaneously pursuing a highly controversial war in Iraq. In the aftermath of such a traumatic event, a retreat toward intense security and watchfulness was to be expected; but six years on, there is surely now enough distance for a period of reflection and reanalysis. With the Bush administration in office for another fourteen months, it is the Senate and the House of Representatives that needs to take a stand on these issues. Yet, for one reason or another, this has not happened.

Perhaps the most damning indictments of Congress’s performance since November, 2006, are the lack of action taken over the ongoing war in Iraq and, more recently, the confirmation hearings for Bush’s new nominee as Attorney General, Michael Mukasey. On Iraq, Congress has proven itself to be almost impotent – agreeing to the president’s “surge” and, in the face of semi-convincing testimony by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, automatically allowing a further 6-month period of funding and fighting. There has been no discernible attempt by the Democratic leadership in either house to take a lead role in facing-up to the Bush administration over the war. Instead, the White House has been allowed to retain a position of primacy and continues to run the war as it sees fit. Meanwhile, Congress continues to make the right noises without taking any steps (that might be deemed controversial) to rein in the Executive Branch.

Congressional shortcomings in evidence over Iraq were even more prominent during the recent confirmation hearings for the new Attorney General. Following the disastrous tenure of Alberto Gonzales at the Justice Department, there was – quite rightly – an expectation that the next nominee for AG would be vetted thoroughly and subjected to rigorous Congressional investigation over a number of key issues before being allowed to be sworn in. When Bush picked Mukasey it was considered a sure thing; a highly qualified former Judge who would sail through the confirmation process. However, during questioning it became clear that Mukasey’s stance with respect to “waterboarding” – the infamous method of ‘interrogation’ that everyone bar the White House considers to be torture – was contentious to say the least. In fact, Mukasey refused to admit that waterboarding was torture; a view in keeping with that in the Bush inner circle, but badly out of kilter with informed opinion elsewhere. Rather than taking a strong, moral stand on the issue, the Democrat-controlled Congress confirmed his nomination. One Senator, Dianne Feinstein from California, stated that Mukasey’s nomination – despite his problems in recognising the torture of prisoners when he sees it – was “the only chance we have” to reform the Justice Department. The best that the Senate could manage was a tight vote, which the Washington Post described as registering the Democrats “displeasure with [the] Bush administration policies on torture and the boundaries of presidential power.”

There have, belatedly, been some signs of life. In the same week that Mukasey was confirmed as AG, Congress overturned Bush’s veto of a bill authorising $23.2 billion worth of water resource projects across the United States. Rather gallingly, Senator Barbara Boxer proclaimed that, “We have said today, as a Congress to this president, you can’t just keep rolling us over like this.”

Some commentators have surmised that, potentially, this marks the start of a fierce battle between Congress and the White House; especially with regard to federal spending. This won’t do. Two simple questions illustrate the unsatisfactory nature of Congress’s performance on the issues highlighted above: 1) why won’t Congress use its power to challenge the Bush administration on the war in Iraq, or reject the nomination of Michael Mukasey as Attorney General? 2) Why did they overturn the president’s veto of the water resource bill? The answer to both questions is essentially the same: because of political expediency.

In examining the role of Congress, it is traditional to cite former speaker Tip O’Neil’s oft-repeated mantra, “All politics is local.” But it would appear that it is time for a new mantra: “All politics is about re-election.” From the moment that Congressmen and Senators are elected, they are compelled to begin planning for their re-election campaigns. Thus, for the Democrats to take strident positions on Iraq, the Mukasey nomination or the raft of legislation introduced after 9/11, would necessitate a willingness to prioritise principle over pragmatism and raise the possibility of having to fight hard on these issues during the next election. By contrast, it is much easier to take a stand on an issue like the water resources bill that enjoys almost universal popularity.

On the eve of finishing this blog, the Senate leadership reacted to President Bush’s veto of further budgetary expenditure by threatening to cut off $50 billion worth of funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet such a stance only came about due to Bush’s willingness to use his veto and threaten the interests of Democratic Senators; Congress, it seems, will only act when its interests are perceived to be at stake.

Perhaps it is too much to expect career politicians in Congress to adopt positions that are politically difficult even though they might be morally correct. Aside from politicians from more liberal states, most other elected officials are highly cognisant of the fact that opposition to the War on Terror, for example, could lead to a fierce political fight come re-election time. Yet, if this is the case (and the underwhelming performance of the Democrats since November, 2006, suggests that is), then it raises important questions as to the future viability of the system of checks and balances in the US. If Congress will only take a strong stance in cases that are politically beneficial, or that are of such a controversial nature that not to do so would be negligent (like Iran-Contra), then it poses the question of whether it is simply the Bush administration that has extended the power of the presidency since 2001, or whether Congress must be viewed as being equally culpable.

Comment on this blog...


 

Were Dolphins the First Victims of US-Iranian Tensions?
(8/11/07)

So, difficult second blog time. Following the early promise of a debut release there is, understandably, a lot of expectation regarding a follow-up. Will the writer push on and prove to be an investigative commentator of a similar calibre to the New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh, or will any previous hint of talent prove to have been a flash in the pan before the long spiral toward irrelevancy? Under these sorts of pressures a writer has two options: 1) go for broke with a piece of dazzling scope and prescience; or 2), fudge the issue with a piece of dubious merit, but which won’t prove fatal to a fledgling blogger’s career. Of course, this task is made harder in an already crowded marketplace; where the all-encompassing sweep of Watching America can very often wrap-up a whole week’s worth of news in one sermon. The pressure, then, is on. A topic is needed; an angle necessary; uniqueness a must.

Bearing all of the above in mind, I’d like to use this week’s blog to discuss dolphins. More specifically, Iranian dolphins. Leafing through Friday’s Guardian it was almost impossible not to be taken aback by a headline reading: “Suicide or Murder? Iran blames US after 152 Dolphins Die.” After 152 dolphins were found washed up on the South Iranian coast, officials first suspected “mass suicide” before raising the possibility that it was, in fact, a mass murder perpetrated by rogue fishermen.

However, a more inflammatory third option has been put forward by the head of Iran’s state-run fisheries: that the US is responsible. As the Guardian report detailed, the Iranian official has “alleged that the dolphins were victims of experimental US surveillance techniques.” Unsurprisingly, the allegations have been met with barely disguised incredulity by marine experts and scientists who, after examining the deceased dolphins, stated that there was no sign of “poisoning or pollution.”

Beyond the immediate details of this story, though, there is a wider theme that is worthy of attention: namely, the level of enmity between Washington and Tehran that must now exist to foster a situation whereby the world’s sole superpower is openly accused of instigating a marine disaster through its use of advanced military equipment near Iran’s shore. One is, of course, reminded of the Cold War – an era whereby the levels of mistrust between Washington and Moscow were such that any event conceivably construed as being against one nation’s interests was reflexively assumed to have occurred due to the machinations of the other. The relationship between the US and Iran is now becoming strikingly similar and reactionary.

That Iranian views of the US should be characterised by mistrust and foreboding is understandable. In recent months, the Bush administration has adopted an increasingly hostile line toward Iran (even by their standards); talk of regime change, sanctions and military action has become constant. Undoubtedly, Iran has contributed to their position as “Public Enemy Number One”, through its ambiguous stance on nuclear policy and the erratic comments of its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Equally, though, the US has, in some ways, exacerbated the situation. Lee Hamilton’s are you a “liar” or “zealot” comments during the Columbia University debacle, for example, and the inflammatory comments from the Bush administration, have made increased US-Iranian hostility unavoidable. But this descent into reflexive mistrust on both sides is a worrying portent. Without a basic level of trust or engagement between the two there is little opportunity for an improvement in the bilateral relationship.

Among US policymakers, though, there is a conviction that negotiations with the Iranians are useless while leading Iranian officials retain an adherence to a political ideology that is considered “evil” and “anti-American.” Similar sentiments were dominant in the early phases of the Cold War. Despite the lack of coherence in early US containment policies, US officials were, as Fredrik Logevall detailed in his essay “A Critique of Containment”, absolutely sure about one thing:

Cooperation with the Soviet Union was impossible for the foreseeable future, for its leaders possessed an omnivorous and insatiable appetite for power. The only language they understood was deterrence and preponderant military force. Soviet-American friction therefore did not result from clashing national interests, but from the moral shortcomings of Kremlin leaders, which in turn meant that negotiations were pointless until such a time as the regime underwent a transformation and abandoned its ideology.

US-Iranian relations are, it seems, taking on a similar level of absolutism, on both sides. In Washington, Iranian ideology is viewed as being aggressive and power-hungry; while in Tehran, Washington is viewed in similar terms. Without a common ground or willingness to negotiate any toning down or alleviating of these tensions becomes increasingly difficult. Consequently, the potential for ‘diplomatic incidents’ to be concocted out of events like the death of 152 dolphins increases, and – more troublingly – the animosity between the two nations becomes entrenched until such instances are considered the norm. From there, it is a short leap to alleged attacks on naval patrol boats; from there, it is a very short leap to the potential outbreak of more serious conflict.

Comment on this blog...


 

Getting Tough on Defense with Hillary Clinton
(1/11/07)

Following the recent announcement by the Bush administration of sanctions against Iran, there has been a great deal of discussion as to what the administration’s motives might possibly be. Is it, for example, an attempt to be seen to be taking effective action against the nation accused by the president of being the potential cause of any future Third World War? Or, more probably, is it an attempt to destabilise the incumbent Iranian government and pressure them into an aggressive response? There is also – as this week’s Watching America highlighted – the possibility that it is motivated by economic concerns in Washington over Iranian links with Moscow and Beijing.

Amidst all the debate over the administration’s motives, however, one relatively unexplored angle has been the response of the leading candidates for the 2008 presidential nominations. On the Republican side, the response has been somewhat predictable: staunch support for the administration’s “tough” stance against Tehran. The mood in Democratic circles, though, has been more interesting; especially with regard to the Senator from New York, Hillary Rodham Clinton. While most of the Democrat candidates slammed the Bush administration’s announcement, Senator Clinton came out and supported the measure; an action that immediately raises the question of why? One of the most popular issues to attack Clinton with since she announced her candidacy has been her decision to vote for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Surely, then, she wouldn’t make the same mistake twice?

Yet rather than concern ourselves about whether this might be viewed as a mistake among leading Democrats, it is worthwhile considering what this says about the Clinton campaign’s long-term vision and its growing confidence that she will secure her party’s nomination for president.  For if Clinton does secure the nomination – and the polls, commentators and her advisors seem fairly confident that she will – then she is almost certain to come up against a Republican candidate who has a rabid approach to foreign policy, winning the War on Terror (sic) and protecting American interests abroad. And the biggest stick they will have to beat Senator Clinton with is her perceived weakness on matters of defence (what with her being – shock horror! – a woman). Unless, that is, Clinton adroitly positions herself as having a hawkish attitude to foreign affairs; a stance that is by no means out of the question after her yes vote on Iraq and now her vocal support for sanctions against Iran. It seems highly unlikely that a campaign as astutely run as that of Hillary Clinton would make such a vocal support of the president on such a contentious and divisive issue without carefully considering its impact. Although it might, potentially, result in some criticism from leftist commentators in the short-term, Clinton and her advisors (including, one assumes, her husband) would probably consider it a risk well worth taking if it nullified the most obvious criticism that any potential Republican candidate was hoping to undermine her with in the eyes of the American people. Whether or not this tells us anything about any future President Clinton’s foreign policy is still unclear. However, a Clinton candidacy free from the burden of being perceived as “weak on defense” suddenly makes a Democratic victory in 2008 a distinct possibility. Now, if she can just find a way of taming the South – maybe through the selection of a southern Vice Presidential nominee like John Edwards – then we may well have a highly interesting race for the White House on our hands.

POSTSCRIPT: At the most recent Democratic debate, the other contenders took it in turns to lambast Clinton over her support of the president’s measures. While this quite clearly appears to be a case of the “rest” trying to gang up on the presumptive nominee, it potentially strengthens Clinton’s candidacy in the eyes of moderate Republicans and the undecided members of the electorate. In terms of the bigger electoral picture, criticisms from within her own party accusing Senator Clinton of being “heavy handed” and “aggressive” on foreign affairs might not be a bad thing for her chances of reaching the White House.

Comment on this blog...