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Posts Tagged ‘Iraq’

Cracking The Iranian Nuclear Dilemma: Does Success Run Through Kabul?

Posted by K.E. White on March 31, 2009

Today’s meeting between a top Iranian and American foreign minister is big news. But perhaps bigger than the historical nature of this official contact, is its delivery method. Choosing Holbrooke makes clear that the Obama administration is serious about improving relations with Iran, but that success might just first flow through Kabul—not DC or Tehran. While by no means a risk-free strategy, Obama’s determination to engage Iran and others does not merely set the stage of diplomacy (which might very well fail). Neo-conservative critics would do well to realize Obama’s strategy also sets the stage for possible punitive action against Iran.

The Holbrooke-Adhundzadeh meeting in the Netherlands marks the first high-level contacts between Tehran and the Obama administration. The unplanned and brief meeting described as “cordial.” But Iran mixed signals: having this positive development shaded by criticism of the White House’s recently unveiled Afghanistan plan and refusing to send high-level Iranian officials to the Dutch meeting.

Today’s meeting reminds us of just how difficult the Iranian dilemma remains for the Obama administration.  On one side are voices demanding tougher action on the Iranian regime—whether through a military strike or greater economic sanctions. To these voices engaging in high-level negotiations with Iran before it suspends its nuclear enrichment program only will embolden negative Iranian behaviors. First and foremost, America must negotiate from a position of strength—i.e. be tough on Iran.

Such an issue becomes more pressing with the possible transfer of Russian S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran. There purpose? To deter an Israeli strike. Will this force Israel’s hand? (Probably not, at least right now, given the messy state of Israel’s newly confirmed Netanyahu government)

On the other side are calls for a fleshed out diplomatic plan. Such a plan requires a developed set of increasing consequences for Iranian defiance and clear carrots; coordination (currently lacking) between Russia, China and the United States; and, finally, a comprehensive approach, linking the Iranian nuclear dilemma with global nonproliferation in general.

But first it’s useful to illustrate just how far US-Iranian relations have a way to go. Today’s LA Times editorial page offers this message from Ali Akbar Javanfekr, an aide to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:

The policies of previous U.S. administrations led to a rise in hatred, anger and worries. In all corners of the world, it is worth noting, the only flags being set ablaze belong to the U.S. and the occupying Zionist regime. 

President Obama has proclaimed a policy of “change,” and the American people have embraced it. But to remedy its image in the world, the U.S. needs to truly change its past methods.

Change is mandatory for the U.S. administration. For as history demonstrates, either you change, or you are forced to change. 

But it seems that before picking between ‘dove’ or ‘hawk’ response, the Obama administration is buying time. And this is a smart move. Obama’s public message to Iran, presently cooler rhetoric and today’s brief diplomatic meeting all show an administration intent gathering a clearer picture of the Iranian dilemma.

Tightening the screws, a la Jim Bolton, now does not seem prudent. If the Obama administration can get time to chat with Russia and China over Iran and possibly change their stance on Iran’s nuclear program, suddenly the diplomatic calculus changes.

But laying the ground work for a coordinated diplomatic approach on Iran seems inexorably tied to Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan—and Pakistan. It’s no coincidence that Richard Holbrooke, Special Envoy to for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was the chosen emissary. Beyond the procedural rationale (deputy ministers meet with deputy ministers), three messages were being conveyed:

-Attention-Grabber: Holbrooke brokered the Dayton Peace accords. A respected deal-maker initiating a converstation with an Iranian minister conveys status and respect to Iran. It also makes America appear inviting to dialogue with Iran.

-That United States is serious: Holbrooke earned his reputation for getting things done; Adhundzadeh agreed to keep in touch, a key means or communication and deal-making was opened.

-Muscle-Flexing: Choosing Holbrooke, the point-man for diplomatic strategy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan also holds a muscular, symbolic resonance. It signals the overlap of two Obama administration goals: victory in Afghanistan and improved Iranian relations.

This third component is the most important. Victory in Afghanistan, tied with a continuing presence in Iraq, seems to be the lynch-pin in the Obama administration’s attempt to mold dialogue with Iran from a position of strength:

1)      It puts Iranian aspirations for hegemony on note

2)      Allows Obama to frame future discussions with Iran from an image of strength, at least relative to the image of America in 2005-2006. In this light he is not only a dove to Bush hawk, but a dove who fights and wins.

3)      It strengthens the faith of our allies in the region that the United States will not simply cut a deal with Iran and jump ship

4)      It signals our priorities to other key nations—Russia and China—about what is important: chiefly Iran’s nuclear program. When this is tied other discussions—for example, discussions over missile defense with Russia or modernizing our nuclear arnsenals—deals can be made

In short, it allows the Obama administration—in conjunctions with many other moving parts—to both whip up the international support it needs for any diplomatic break-through and pushing (not begging) Iran to the negotiating table.

Now neoconservative voices, such as John Bolton, may disagree with this ‘doveish’ approach. But what these voices fail to recognize is that these steps are also needed to make punitive action against Iran—whether through economic sanctions or military strikes—work.

Sanctions only work if they are enforced. Attempting to win Russian support, tied with greater efforts at screening supplies that go through Gulf States are key to 1) punishing Iran economically and 2) keeping dangerous materials out of Iran.

Furthermore any military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities are more likely to succeed with support—however mild from major powers. If a military strike is seen by countries as a unilateral power grab on the part of America, American stature and partnerships will be seriously damaged. But if over time the Obama administration can successfully turn the narrative to patiently dealing with a ‘bully’ state consequences of military action—while severe—will be minimized.

Success with Iran—whether through tough-talk & proxy competitions for influence (Iraq and Afghanistan) or military strikes (most likely through Israel, but seen as green-lit by the United States)—both require the moves the Obama administration is making.

Make no mistake: Obama is taking a big gamble. In putting his chips on Afghanistan, it has become his war—one with little support in the United States. And some suggest he’s doing this on the cheap. If Obama’s Afpak strategy does not work, pushing Iran back from the bomb—let alone our allies in the region—will become more difficult.

But some critics of diplomatic accommodation may point to the issue of time. Is there time to put all these moving parts in place before Iran builds the Bomb? I believe such an objection is a red herring.

A premptive military strike against Iran will not stop an Iranian nuclear weapon, but guarantee it. And done brusquely, such a strike will diminish America’s ability to a) stop nuclear proliferation worldwide and b) hurt America’s standing in the region irrevocably, let alone predictable flare-ups in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Keeping materials out of Iran is the key, along with a robust inspection force. Getting there requires cooperation (yes, from a position of strength), not preemptive military action.

To get there, the Obama administration must work with the time it has.

And the administration needs success in Afghanistan, ideally paired with stability in Paksitan.

Even if this ‘tough-diplomacy’ does not fail to deter Iran from virtually possessing or acquiring an operational atomic weapon, it places America in the best position possible to justify action against Iran.  The Obama administration is taking a breath and insuring America the widest possible range of action possible: something we should be thankful for.

Let’s just hope the Afghanistan gamble pays off.

Posted in Iran | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Rice and Gates on Iraq: No Tied Hands for Next President

Posted by K.E. White on February 14, 2008

The Iraq War’s United Nation authorization is just about up. In its place, the Bush administration is working out a “status-of forces” agreement to continue the U.S. military mission in Iraq. 

Such “status-of-forces” agreements do no require Congressional approval, unlike treaties which require a two-thirds Senate majority.

 

Naturally the question becomes: What will the twilight Bush administration lump into this “status-of-forces” agreement? 

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sought to answer this question, and quell any Congressional concerns over whether or not such an agreement would morph into a lasting troop commitment or security guarantee. 

From Wednesday’s Washington Post

First, some background. Whenever American troops are stationed or temporarily present on foreign soil, a number of legal questions arise, ranging from the overall scope of their mission to the minutiae of day-to-day life — from authority to fight to rules for delivering mail. In more than 115 nations, we have individually tailored status-of-forces agreements. These agreements are crafted to take into account circumstances in each host country as well as the unique requirements and missions of our forces there.

In Iraq, the presence and role of the United States and our coalition partners have been authorized by U.N. resolutions. The current U.N. authorization expires at the end of this year, and Iraq has indicated that it will not seek an extension. It would rather have an arrangement that is more in line with what typically governs the relationships between two sovereign nations.

In these negotiations, we seek to set the basic parameters for the U.S. presence in Iraq, including the appropriate authorities and jurisdiction necessary to operate effectively and to carry out essential missions, such as helping the Iraqi government fight al-Qaeda, develop its security forces, and stem the flow of lethal weapons and training from Iran. In addition, we seek to establish a basic framework for a strong relationship with Iraq, reflecting our shared political, economic, cultural and security interests.

Nothing to be negotiated will mandate that we continue combat missions. Nothing will set troop levels. Nothing will commit the United States to join Iraq in a war against another country or provide other such security commitments. And nothing will authorize permanent bases in Iraq (something neither we nor Iraqis want). And consistent with well-established practice regarding such agreements, nothing will involve the U.S. Senate‘s treaty-ratification authority — although we will work closely with the appropriate committees of Congress to keep lawmakers informed and to provide complete transparency. Classified briefings have already begun, and we look forward to congressional input.

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.

Want to know more status-of-forces agreement? Check out this Global Security article.

Posted in Gates, Iraq, Rice | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Public Opinion on Iraq: Pro-Surge or Pro-Withdrawal?

Posted by K.E. White on February 13, 2008

No clear answer. 

Travis Sharp over at the Council for a Livable World notes that 40% of American believe the surge is working. That’s a two-fold increase from September 2007. 

But Center for American Progress researcher Rey Teixiera makes that the case most Americans want out: either now or in a year.  (Of course that could be flipped: having a majority of Americans wanting more time for success. And seeing success, this majority could then favor yet another year.)

The two reports seem to suggest the following conclusions: 

-an unhappy public that would prefer getting out of Iraq

-but real optimism that a limited success can occur 

In short: Just enough for a possible Democrat to come into office and push a withdrawal plan, just to see the public turns their back on that again.

Posted in Iraq, public opinion, surge | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Must Read: Thoughts on Iraq

Posted by K.E. White on February 10, 2008

The American Interest offers some analysis about progress in Iraq, and where to go next.

Here’s a link to the ‘Iraq Symposium’ where anyone can read the articles by clicking the titles.

The contributors? Francis Fukuyama, Robert Kaplan, Richard Perle, Philip Zelikow, James Kurth and others.

Posted in American Interest, Iraq Symposium | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Can American Foreign Policy Overcome the Bully Pulpit? Cavanaugh’s Diagnosis and Cure for “Threat Escalation”

Posted by K.E. White on January 30, 2008

Summary: How do follies like Iraq occur? Can they be avoided? Cavanaugh attempts to answer this question: breaking down the variables that lead to threat escalation. He also explores how threats can be underestimated, examining the failure to prevent the 9-11 attacks. Cavanaugh thus identifies how a charged executive can steer American foreign policy toward inflated threats—or away from legitimate threats. The solution to foreign policy follies? A greater role for Congress in US foreign policy. While his article suffers from selection bias and uncertainty clouds what actually determines foreign policy ‘success’, Cavanaugh’s article is still a must-read for anyone curious about US foreign policy.

 

The Political Science Quarterly (PSQ) offers a very interesting—and free—article examining “threat inflation” American foreign policy.

Why was the avoidable catastrophe of 9-11 not caught? And why was the nation cajoled into a second Iraq conflict that most now agree went against American security interests?

Jeffery M. Cavanaugh seeks to answer these dual questions of overreaction and under reaction—a.k.a. “threat inflation”. And he finds that there are several examples from recent American history to explore this concept.

Cavanaugh looks at three cases of successful threat inflation: President Harry Truman’s successful inflation of the Soviet threat, America’s Vietnam venture and the second Iraq war. He then probes a counter-case: the profound underestimation that culminated in 9-11.

All this might leave you wondering: Is American foreign policy ever rational?

Lessons from Truman, Vietnam and Iraq

Cavanaugh’s analysis moves past Bush blaming, instead seeking to find similarities between different cases threat inflation. Below is a table (reproduced from the article) that displays Cavanaugh’s four test cases and the variables that tie them together.

In regards to Korea, Cavanaugh argues that while Truman played up the Soviet threat, events came to verify his viewpoint and the American public and political classes rallied behind containment. Thus this can be called a ‘successful’ case of threat inflation: a President pushed the public to his view, but as events played out a bipartisan foreign policy was forged.

Vietnam and Iraq were both weaker cases of threat inflation: both succeeded in there immediate aims to wage war, but appear to have broken—not forged—a coherent direction in America’s foreign policy.

Meanwhile the threat of a terrorist attack on American soil never received the attention it deserved. Here one finds two crucial differences: divided elite opinion and a complete lack of bureaucratic capture as reasons for this failure. Such features would have stopped even a proactive executive—or any national politician—from successfully tackling this threat, according to Cavanaugh.

All these cases point to a profound American political weakness: the President holds too much power to frame and propel the national security debate, showing at times the ability to deceive the American public.

Cavanaugh rightly points out the chronic weakness of Congress on national security—having diluted it wartime authority over the sixty years. (This theme has been explored elsewhere,  as  this past article demonstrates).

Conceptualizing and Testing American Foreign Policy

But what differ Cavanaugh’s analysis is this: He attempts to identify the variables that lead to such outcomes. Cavanaugh also offers new solutions to bring the Congress and the executive back into balance.

But are the variables he examines helpful towards future foreign policy dilemmas? Many of his variables can only be obtained after an event. This diminishes the predictability value of his model–making any ‘test’ of his model difficult.

This comes through most clearly with his use of Truman Cold War foreign policy. Tackling such a huge subject—with various events—seems to make this not comparable to the defined cases of Vietnam, Iraq and the 9-11 attack.

Would not have merely investigating how Truman pulled America into Korea—which some academics consider also an avoidable war–been a better test case to explore?

(There’s also one obvious problem with the cases: Can one can fairly compare a traditional war to a highly lethal terrorist attack?)

But this is all part of a much bigger question: How does one define foreign policy success? By the immediate outcome (i.e. victory in Korea, failure in Vietnam)? Or the long term impact regardless of whether  or not the initial threat was overblown?

For example: It seems clear the short-term costs of the Korean War (verses a containment approach) outweighed any strategic interest the United States had in North Korea. But did not the long-terms benefits of this expenditure of blood and treasure pay make this a successful instance of American foreign policy?

In continuing this line of research, Cavanaugh must develop a model that proves the value of his test cases—and whether or not they should be seen as American foreign policy ‘successes’ or ‘failures’. (And another, perhaps even more daunting task, would be to incorporate the interplay between conflicts: e.g. the impact the Korean War had on America’s conflict in Vietnam.)

This conceptual fog risks boiling Cavanaugh’s research down to this: presidents have overcharged wartime authority, whereas Congress has far too diluted powers. Thus good or bad foreign policy comes down to having a good or bad President–unless Congressional powers are reworked. (One does not need Cavanaugh’s test cases to prove this, though they do offer different angles to gauge Presidential manipulation).

But Cavanaugh deserves credit for attempting to answer 1) how are threats to American security articulated within or society and 2) what generalizable and predictive tests help us get closer to evaluating American foreign policy.

Cavanaugh’s Advice to Congress and America’s National Security Infrastructure

Cavanaugh does offer Congressional remedies: some bland, some bold. He repeats calls for both longer terms for intelligence heads and greater whistle-blowing protections.

More interesting—and controversial—are two of his Congressional reforms: First he advocates granting members of Congress briefings akin to the President’s daily brief on national security. (Naturally one could easily imagine Congress barraging the executive with their daily concerns over American security.)

But Cavanaugh gives a seemingly firmer fix. Congress should merge the Intelligence, Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees into one, bipartisan body.

Such a reform—going against decades of decentralization—would guarantee focused and board attention from the Senate and House of Representatives on America’s national security. The hope? Congress will take clear stands on important foreign policy decisions.

But this too runs into problems: Either the committee would be huge and unmanageable, or Congressman would have to give up chairmanships and committee tasks. This second outcome would not only be an ego blow to Congress, but could dilute specialization of Congressional oversight and also shrink the numbers of elected officials involved in our nation’s foreign policy formulation.

But Cavanaugh offers a template of reform that can easily be tinkered, and perhaps—in time—evolve into an institutional counterweight to an excessive executive. If one reworked Cavanaugh’s scheme into a select, joint Senate-House committee, tasked with both an annual review over American foreign policy and crisis periods (e.g. before launching an invasion or after catastrophic events) one could see—over time—this practice becoming a clear Congressional ‘green light’ to bold developments in American foreign policy.

In short, Cavanaugh’s reforms run into the ‘9-11 Wall’. Why did retired officials steer of the 9-11 investigation? While their work was exemplary, politicians and the media suggested current politicians could not be trusted with foreign policy heavy lifting.

Can members of the House of Representatives—in constant ‘reelection’ mode—give the time necessary for such weighty work?

(On Capitol Hill, by Julian E. Zelizer, goes into great detail about Congress’s many institutional flaws and difficulty to reform.)

A solution would be to keep such work within the Senate, while granting a rotating representative for House Speaker and minority leader.

Conclusion

Cavanaugh’s research does a skillful job of getting past chronic ‘Bush blaming’ for America’s failure in Iraq. He successfully delineates a model of executive foreign policy bullying that can be applied in different time periods and different conflicts.

He also pushes the ball on Congressional reform: proving their value and bringing forth new ideas.

But on the bigger questions of diagnosing American foreign policy and threat inflation, Cavanaugh has much further to go. Cavanaugh’s Truman example must be broken down if it is to be fairly weighted with Vietnam and Iraq. Furthermore he must refine he judges sucess, or risk that he is simply manipulating his test-cases to prove his model.

Cavanaugh’s article also does not thoroughly explore when and if foreign policy decisions can be reversed. Look at his Vietnam example: at what point was Vietnam a failure, and when would have an American pull out been politically acceptable?

But these criticisms are mainly ‘add on’ criticisms. As such, they reflect both the importance of Cavanaugh’s line of research and his skill in laying out a path—however rough—towards a greater understanding of American foreign policy.

Posted in Foreign Policy, Jeffery M. Cavanaugh, Terrorism, United States | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »