Archive for August, 2008

Georgia on Our Minds

Posted in Georgia and NATO, Georgian Invasion, Iraq and Election, Missile defenses and Russia, South Ossetia and Georgia with tags , , , , , , , , on August 24, 2008 by whatafteriraq

The Russian invasion of Georgia has opened a sore point in the foreign policy of the United States, and the presidential election campaign threatens to magnify the problem to the point of exaggeration and even distortion. The Russians have left (sort of), and the crisis may fade. It may also fester if it becomes a foreign policy cause celebre as we move toward November.

Georgia is, on the face of it, an unlikely flash point for U.S. foreign policy. It is a small country not quite the size of South Carolina with a population of 4.6 million (July 2008 estimate courtesy of CIA Factbook). It has a population that is about 84 percent Georgian ethnically and an equal percentage of Christians. Other than the pipeline that carries Caspian Sea oil to the Black Sea, it has little geopolitical significance (its proven oil reserves are 35 million barrels, less than half a days consumption worldwide). It has been enmeshed in civil strife with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both a of which are pro-Russian, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, so the current crisis is hardly shocking. The only thing that has been shocking is the brutality and illegality of the Russian invasion. Still, it is hardly much more controversial than the U.S. invasion of Iraq five years ago.

Does Georgia warrant the level of rhetoric that rings from Washington and the campaign trail? The response on the political right is to punish the Russians; the Bush administration warns of international isolation; McCain calls for kicking the Russians out of G-8 and admitting Georgia to NATO. Obama threatens to ostracize the Russians, and Biden reminds us he visited the noble Georgians only weeks ago. Where does all this go?

There are two ways to look at the issue. One is through the eyes of the “democracy promoters” of the Bush administration. Led by the idealistic neo-conservatives, they argue that pushing for political democracies should be priority business for the United States and that Georgia, as a democracy, must be supported and its oppressors punished. Moreover, the Georgians are pro-American and both want and expect our help, which should be forthcoming. At the bottom line, the conclusion is that Russian behavior is unacceptable and that something must be done about it. The parallels between this position and Jimmy Carter’s advocacy of human rights as the foundation of US foreign policy are obvious.

The other way to look at this is geopolitically. This argument begins from the unacceptability of Russia invading a sovereign state. Although Georgia is not of particular importance to the United States otherwise, the precedent set by the invasion is important and must be opposed on that ground. The difference between the two positions is the level of moral righteousness and indignation that underlies them.

The flashpoint in this debate,which threatens to whirl out of control on the campaign trail, is over Georgia and NATO. As noted in an earlier entry, Georgia has applied for membership in NATO, but no action has been taken on their application. Were Georgia a member of NATO, McCain argues, the Russians would not have dared invade for fear of the consequences. The other side of this argument is that the fact that Georgia is not a member of NATO meant the alliance was able to avoid a military action in defense of that country which none of them truly wanted nor were prepared to mount.

What does this mean for the future? Should Georgia now be admitted to NATO? From a democracy promotion viewpoint, a case can be made it should, if promoting and protecting democracies everywhere is the heart of US policy. Such an advocacy, of course, would have put us chin-to-chin with Russia over a place most Americans would be unwilling personally to defend, and probably opens the door for a lot of worldwide interventions in the future. Will a post-Iraq America embrace such a path? My own analysis in What After Iraq? suggests not.

Keeping Georgia out of NATO does not have the same high-sounding ring as protecting the defenseless, but it makes more traditional geopolitical sense. Other than sharing democracy (in the Georgian case, a limited form), there are essentially few American vital interests in Georgia, and thus Georgia is not a place to which we should be militarily obligated. That leaves the Georgians in a vulnerable position, but it also results in a security policy the United States is likely to be willing to support in actuality.

And the Russian position is not irrelevant here. The United States did not, to put it mildly, act magnanimously when the then Soviet Union tried to erect missile systems in Cuba, and they would likely see a NATO Georgia in the same light as the U.S. saw Cuba; the installation of missile defenses in Poland of which the Bush administration is so proud is only another extension of the one-finger salute to Russia. The Russians have acted badly (which Russians tend to do). Does that justify the Americans acting equally badly (or stuoidly, as the case may be)?

One hopes Georgia fades as an election issue, because if it stays alive, it will likely escalate to increasingly untenuous levels of support for the Georgians. McCain may have revealed what a presidency bearing his name would be like in these situations: tending toward military solutions to arguably non-military problems. If the national security issue comes down to a contest over who can seem tougher, will Obama and Biden be forced to follow suit and dumb down their own positions to match McCain’s? The prospectsare not very pleasant to contemplate.

Iraq: A Glass Half-Empty or Half-Full

Posted in Diplomacy, Getting out of Iraq, Iraq and Troop Levels, Leaving Iraq with tags , , , on August 22, 2008 by whatafteriraq

 Secretary of State Rice Condoleezza Rice, having arrived surreptitiously in Baghdad (presumably to avoid warning those Iraqis who might greet her with anti-aricraft missiles), announced today that the U.S. and Iraqi governments had reached a tentative new agreement on U.S. troops presence in Iraq after the UN mandate runs out. Under the new Status of Force Agreement (SOFA), the U.S. will remove all combat troops from Iraqi cities by June 2009 and all troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. The latter “aspirational timetable” depends on a determination (by someone unspecified) that conditions are “right” to allow that withdrawal. Whether US cfroces will be subject to Iraqi authority when they are accused of breaking laws is left unsettled in the agreed framework, and the Iraqis have to ratify the agreement, which is less than a slam dunk. Nevertheless, it sounds suspiciously like the Bush administration caved in to demands from the Iraqis that they either set a deadline or get no agreement. Setting a deadline also smells a bit like a victory for the Obama position, although the date is a year later than he prefers.

The kicker, of course, is whether conditions on the ground are right. General David Petraeus said earlier this week that progress has been made, but that it is “fragile” and “reversible.” The situation is, and will be in 2011, one or the other, and the assessment is likely to depend critically on who is making the judgment. Will they see the glass as half-full (an optimistic judgment about the situation “on the ground”) or half-empty (fragility likely to shatter if we leave)?

The answer is probably partisan. General Petraeus, as a military person, is trained to look at things critically, which in this case means skeptically. If there is any real possibility things could go amok, he is professionally predisposed to say don’t do it! John McCain, who has promised troops out by 2013 after we have “won,” will also likely look at 2011 as too premature for fragility to have been replaced by stability. Both are almost certainly “glass half-empty”ers (I realize that is probably not a word). Barack Obama, on the other hand, has already declared the ground will be ripe for withdrawal a year earlier than 2011, and thus is likely to make the glass half-full judgment that we can indeed leave. The situation on the ground is likely to be sufficiently ambiguous that with position can be sustained while the judgment is being made. Only in the aftermath and amid the consequences of the decision can one really know the conditions of the glass. Half full? Half empty?

The Iraqis, who are increasingly anxious to have the Americans out of their country, may torpedo this whole thing by refusing to ratify the agreement and insist on negotiating a more concrete, less conditional, and earlier withdrawal “time horizon,” at which point the glass will be half full by definition, whether it is or not in fact. In some ways, getting the bum’s rush from the Iraqis would solve everybody’s problem, because regardless of how things turn out, the Iraqis can be blamed for that outcome.

There is, of course, one other aspect of this. The glass analogy generally connotes that the liquid is water; in the case of Iraq, it is arguable that the fluid is actually oil. Does that change the calculation of half-empty or half-full? Just a thought.

The Burr Under Putin’s Saddle

Posted in Diplomacy, Georgian Invasion, Iran, Missile defenses and Russia, Russia, South Ossetia and Georgia with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2008 by whatafteriraq

Why the Russians chose to invade Georgia remains a matter of considerable conversation and controversy. If one discounts (or at least views skeptically) the self-proclaimed reason of saving the beleaguered South Ossetians and Abkhazians from their Georgian oppressors (although that may have been a valid concern), what is one left with as an explanation for an action that has clearly inflamed relations between Russia and the West, and especially the United States?

Part of the explanation that is gaining some traction is that the action was Vladimir Putin’s way of demonstrating unequivocally that Russia was back and was no longer to be taken lightly. The Russians have made the “near abroad” (their designation of the former Soviet republics) a little closer to the breast of the Russian bear; their pointed ignoring of entreaties to leave and apparent violation of their agreements to cease their invasion sends a clear message that old-fashioned spheres of influence have not disappeared from world politics. They laugh, appropriately, at the pious, hypocritical plea of George Bush that countries don’t invade other countries in the Twenty-first century.

Admitting that all of this is part of the calculus, there is another explanation–the burr under Mr. Putin’s saddle. That is the missile defense system the United States just finished negotiating with Poland. The Russians have been objecting to missile defense schemes for 40 years and to this one since Bush proposed it. When Russian General Anatoly Nogovitsyn of the Russian General Staff said the final decision to deploy the system in Poland (with supportive radars in the Czech Republic) and to defend the complex with Patriot missiles was a provocation that “cannot go unpunished,” hie words were dismissed as Cold War-era bombast. But what if they had more meaning?

I must make a confession on this subject. I have thought missile defenses were a bad idea for over a quarter-century. My first objections–basically that they are hyper-expensive boondoggles–was made in 1983 in a book, The Nuclear Future (University of Alabama Press), and in reviewing what I said then, not much has changed. The current scheme, which has been a Bush hobby horse since he was elected, proposes a “thin” screen against an attack by a “rogue state” (read Iran). Like all such schemes, it probably won’t work, but fortunately, the threat against which it is proposed is so unlikely that that doesn’t matter much. It does, however, exercise the Russians in ways reminiscent of their opposition to Ronald Reagan’s Rube Goldberg scheme, the Strategic Defense Intitiative, in the 1980s.

New York Times writer Steven Lee Myers captures the Russian objection well in an August 15, 2008 article (“No Cold War But Big Chill over Georgia”): “No matter how much the Americans argue that NATO is now focused on other threats, for Russia, it remains an enemy force. And no matter how often the Americans say missile defense is aimed at Iran and other so-called rogue nations, it remains an existential threat to Russia’s aging and shrinking nuclear capability.”

NATO has increasingly encircled Russia, and proposals to extend the alliance to Ukraine and Georgia (which John McCain supports) would only tighten the knot, part of Putin’s burr. The Russians have always been paranoid about missile defenses, and completing the deal with Poland–which the Bush administration presumably sees as part of its permanent legacy–may have been the final burr under the saddle that caused Mr. Putin and his colleague Mr. Medvedev to say, enough is enough. And so they struck back and let us all know that we mess with Russia at our own risk.

I wonder how Mr. Bush missed that kind of determination when he looked in Mr. Putin’s eyes seven years ago. And while Mr. Putin certainly does reflect his KGB past, did Mr. McCain see this concern when he lashed out and said he wants to kick the Russians out of G-8 and, in essence, potentially start a new Cold War? Not trying to justify what the Russians have done in Georgia, it may help to put the whole thing into perspective.

Watching Georgia, Seeing Hungary

Posted in Georgian Invasion, Russia, South Ossetia and Georgia with tags , , , , , on August 13, 2008 by whatafteriraq

Watching coverage of the Russian invasion of Georgia over alleged Georgian mistreatment of the citizens of South Ossetia (and Abkhazia) has brought to my mind another Russian–that is Soviet at the time–action 52 years ago, the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian Rebellion. While there have been no images as dramatic as those of Hungarian students confronting Soviet tanks, the symbolism is there none the same.

What motivated the Kemlin in 1956 seems to be at work today. Hungary, of course, was not a part of the Soviet Union per se, but had instead been occupied by the Soviets at the end of World War II. The Soviets, in their typical kindness, had helped the Hungarians adopt a communist government of the Soviets’ liking and had peddled the idea of a Warsaw Pact to oppose the West. Hungary was to be a charter member.

Then the Hungarians balked, An unauthorized (by the Soviets) communist government came to power under Imre Nagy, and it had the temerity to suggest it might not join the Pact and instead might follow the lead of Austria in 1955 and become a neutral. That was more than the Soviets could stomach, and so they invaded, crushed the Nagy government, and replaced it with a regime that took orders better.

The Hungarians, of course, responded by going into the streets to oppose the Soviet invasion that carried out their actions. They were buoyed by expressions of sympathy from the United States, which they mistakenly expected to be followed by more active forms of support for their cause. In proper geopolitical reasoning–Hungary was an acknowledged member of the Soviet “sphere of interest”–the United States stood by, and the rebellion was crushed. For all appearances, it was a brutal but effective demonstration to any other member of the communist bloc about the price of heterodoxy. Nobody tried again until the Czechs did so in 1968.

Is the Georgian case similar. On the surface, not particularly, but the underlying dynamics are certainly reminiscent of 1956. The Georgians and Russians have been at odds since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, and Georgia has become the poster child for the beneficial effects of westernization, democratization, and close relations with the United States. Along with Ukraine, Georgia has been in the queue for possible NATO membership. Was that too much for the Russians to bear? If the Georgians could ignore Russian interests, would others follow, just as the Russians feared in 1956? Was part of the motive to demonstrate that American support for Georgia was about as deep as it was for Hungary a half-century ago? The answers in both cases are probably yes!

What lessons are there in the comparison? I would suggest two. One is that old-fashioned power politics is not as dead as some would have it. Russia, the dominant player in Eurasia, neither appreciated minor powers like Georgia resisting its will nor appreciated the United States mucking around in its back yard, and it acted to reassert what it views as its prerogative and to remind the world that Russia is still a major power with which the world has to reckon. The United States has limited itself to hand-wringing, as it did in 1956, which is also probably appropriate. In fact, a sub-lesson may be to avoid extending NATO into Georgia, a place NATO could hardly defend and really lacks the interests to defend. John McCain has it wrong here. He said “NATO’s decision to withhold a membership action plan (the precursor to actual membership) might have been viewed as a green light by Russia. I urge NATO to revisit the decision.” Had Georgia been a member, Article 5 of the NATO charter requires members to take action (admittedly unspecified) to aid an attacked member. Would we really have wanted that?

The second lesson may come more directly from Hungary. The initial reaction to the episode was that it had been an effective application of Russia’s mailed fist that would squelch similar occurrences, but the longer term effect was actually to weaken the Soviet hold over its vassal states. Why? Because the Soviets, who had been advertising themselves as the peace-loving half of the Cold War duo were exposed for what they were, and because of that, they had to tread more lightly afterward. The dynamics of anti-communism in Eastern Europe were sown in that atmosphere. Today, the Russians hardly look like democratic liberators (despite their claims they were coming to the rescue of the South Ossetians). Will they pay an international price that will make them more, rather than less, likely to try a reprise. Hungary suggests they will. We’ll see.

Iraq, Afghanistan, and South Ossetia

Posted in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Troop Levels, Iraq War, South Ossetia and Georgia with tags , , , , , on August 10, 2008 by whatafteriraq

Over the weekend, war has begun in South Ossetia, a part of the Republic of Georgia that, along with neighboring Abkhazia, wishes to disassociate itself from Georgia and either achieve independence or union with Russia. The attempt by South Ossetia to break away from Georgia goes back to the breakup of the Soviet Union and has bubbled to the surface periodically since. As such, South Ossetian (or Abkhazian) separatism is not great international news.

The fact that Russia has intervened with armed force in ways reminiscent of its 1994 invasion of Chechnya is news. The Russians have had “peacekeepers” in South Ossetia (North Ossetia, along the border, is part of Russia) since 2006, and when fighting broke out between Georgian forces and the separatists earlier this month, the Russians jumped to the aid of those separatists. The Russians have invaded South Ossetia in force (partly from Abkhazia) and threaten to treat the area with the same loving care they showered on Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, 15 years ago (they leveled it). Whether they will go further into the rest of Georgia remains uncertain at this point.

So what’s the big deal? South Ossetia (the Georgians deny there is any such place, preferring to call it Samachablo and maintaining there is only one Ossetia, the part in Russia) is a small place in the mountains with a population of about 70,000 (according to the BBC) and with a mixed population of Georgians, Ossetians, and Russians. It has little geopolitical importance in and of itself.

What is going on is important for two reasons. The first concerns the United States, which has closer relations with Georgia than any of the other former Soviet republics and has heralded Georgia as the beacon of what the FSU (former Soviet Union) can become. That “special relationship,” however, is being put to the test, because the United States is essentially powerless to do anything about Russian aggression in Georgia (assuming we would under any circumstances). The reason, of course, is that the U.S. is so tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan (and potentially Iran) that it cannot threaten credibly to do anything about the Russian actions. Vladimir Putin and George Bush sit side by side and chat at the Beijing Olympics, but there is little Bush can whisper in Putin’s ear that might cause the Russians to change course. 

The other concern is Russia. The Russians have long chafed at their impotence in the face of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and now oil wealth and American diversion appear to give them the opening to flex their muscles over what they consider some of the more egregious instances of Soviet disintegration. At least part of the reason they can act is because they know the United States cannot counteract.

One can, of course, argue that even if the United States was not involved in the Middle East that we still wouldn’t have a lot to say about South Ossetia which, after all, is hardly worth a potential confrontation with Russia in Russia’s own backyard. While that is true, the current situation does, however, offer two lessons that come immediately to mind.

The first lesson is that of overextension. The United States has invested so much of its capability and energy in Iraq and Afghanistan that it really has little left to apply elsewhere in the world. We have known this for some time, but only in the abstract. South Ossetia puts that impotence in concrete terms. Second, the situation also points to the limits of commitment. There have been discussions about the expansion of NATO further east, and Georgia, the democratic protege, has been one of the possible candidates mentioned in a future expansion. If Georgia were a NATO member today, the U.S. and its NATO allies would be in a very delicate situation, to put it mildly, trying to figure out how to honor an alliance commitment to defend an ally while avoiding an all-out war with Russia (which does still have nuclear weapons). Before we get out the treaty pen again, we might want to think about South Ossetia.

What happens next? Will South Ossetia break away and join Russia over Georgian objections? Will the United States be in any position to do anything but sit and wring its hands? Will others want to have much to do with us while we’re still tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan? At the bottom line, are Iraq and Afghanistan important enough to leave the United States in the compromised situation in which we find ourselves today?

Afghanistan: A New Quagmire?

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Getting out of Iraq, Global War on Terror with tags , , , , , , , , on August 7, 2008 by whatafteriraq

On August 6, the New York Times reported that on July 22, 2008, the United States reached a new plateau in Afghanistan, the “other war” that has been going on since October 2001: 500 Americans have now perished on the Afghan plain. What is it exactly that we are doing there?

Afghanistan is widely contrasted with Iraq: Afghanistan, we are told repeatedly, is the real war where American interests are engaged, unlike Iraq. Had the United States not allowed itself to be diverted from the central mission of tracking down and destroying Al Qaeda in Afghanistan by going into Iraq, things would have been better: we would have gotten bin Laden, wiped out Al Qaeda, and probably broken the Taliban forever. The result would have been a peaceful Afghanistan under the Karzai government, and a real victory in the war on terror.

These assumptions are rarely questioned, but they should be. Both candidates herald the drawdown in Iraq as evidence that troops will then be available to go after the “real” enemy in Afghanistan. Obama says an extra 10,000 troops; McCain ups the ante to 15,000. The immediate answer is to provide more adequate protection for exposed forces in the field. But is that enough?

Look at the situation. There are currently about 57,000 western troops under NATO auspices in Afghanistan (of which about 32,000 are American). Add the McCain figures and that force become 72,000 (assuming more NATO countries do not bale out). This number is being asked to pacify a country roughly the size of Texas (analogy compliments of the CIA Factbook) with 33 million inhabitants, many–if not most–hostile. By comparison, Iraq is about two-thirds the size of Afghanistan (twice the size of Idaho, according to the CIA), with about 28 million inhabitants, also many hostile. For the Iraq mission, American troop levels are currently about 140,000, and it is not entirely clear who is winning.  

Then there is the small matter of historic Afghan “hospitality” toward foreign intruders. Since Afghanistan became independent in the 1700s, various countries have tried to subdue it, most notably the British and the Russians (mostly as part of the Great Game of the 19th century). The Soviet Union, which no longer exists partly as a result, was the latest to enjoy Afghan hospitality. History would seem to suggest that invading and reordering Afghanistan is not the best idea anyone has ever had. What makes us think it is different this time? No one seems willing to say. Could it be they know we can’t win anything worth winning? That Afghanistan is Arabic for quagmire?

Clearly, making Afghanistan inhospitable to Al Qaeda is a worthy goal, but is it achievable in the way we are going about it? Seven years of “slogging” it out has not exactly proven the case that it is. How exactly half the number of troops (Afghanistan versus Iraq) is going to pacify and stabilize a country half again the size of Iraq that has a long history of chewing up and spitting out invaders has not been made by anyone who is putatively an adult in charge: the Bush administration, the candidates, or the military command. Lt. General Carter Ham, a spokesman for the JCS and an old student of mine, has been made the front man for all this enterprise, and I don’t envy him the task. A decade ago at the Air War College, he had a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor. It is ertainly going to be put to the test.  

I want Al Qaeda destroyed as much as anyone else, but what we are doing is simply not working. Can someone please help me understand what a larger U.S. force commitment in Afghanistan is going to accomplish, except for more American casualties. Would we, for instance, not be about as well off withdrawing our ground forces from the country and bombing and strafing everything suspicious that moved along the Afghan-Pakistan border (the Durand line)? Might not work, but it would reduce casualties. Otherwise, I have the foreboding that we may be in Afghanistan indefinitely with little gain to show–another quagmire. I hope I am wrong.

Why the Lull in the Fighting?

Posted in Getting out of Iraq, Internal Violence in Iraq, Iraq and Election, Iraq and Vietnam, Iraq War, Leaving Iraq, Uncategorized with tags , , , on August 2, 2008 by whatafteriraq

The July 2008 results are in, and it was the least bloody month for the United States in Iraq since 2004. But what does that mean? The administration, of course, is crowing confidence that its strategy is working (although counseling caution about the fragility of the downturn in violence), McCain is citing it as evidence of the success of “his” surge and his ability to “win wars,” and Obama argues it is just more evidence that the United States can start to get out.

What the lull means, of course, depends on why is has happened. Phil Myers, who comments from time to time on these postings, and I have discussed several possibilities. By way of context, Phil is a history PhD, I am a political scientist, and we were classmates, roommates, and fraternity brothers at the University of Colorado a few years ago, to put it kindly.

I suggested four possible explanations, to which Phil has responded.

1. The surge has worked. That, of course, is what surge apologists argue, using reductions in casualties as their evidence. Viewed this way, the surge was a tactic rather than a strategy, unless one argues it has also contributed to the strategic goal of a stable post-American Iraq. Phil’s opinion is that “when we leave the fighting will start all over again.” My view is that if it is a tactic aimed at suppressing violence levels, it has succeeded. If it is a strategic element, we have no way to know yet. I also tend to agree with Phil’s assessment.

2. Most of the ethnic cleansing, which is what the “civil war” was actually about, has been completed, and there are few people who need killing left. The gist here is that all major groups have carved out their enclaves around which to rally after the war is over by kicking out or killing members of other major groups. The only remaining place where the process is incomplete is in the oil-rich regions around Kirkuk where, non-coincidentally, there is still fighting. Phil’s comment is that “there is always someone left to kill.” True enough, but what may be left is Afghan-style tribal killing after the war.

3. The Iraqis want us to leave, and have collectively decided the best way to do so is to convince us we are no longer needed by dropping the level of violence. Certainly, a continuing appearance of peace makes it harder for the Bush administration to keep troops there and would strengthen the hand of the Iraqis, who really do want us to leave. Phil doubts that the fractious groups could ever get together to coordinate such an effort. While that may be true, cooperation may be tacit or based on the one thing about which all groups agree: they want the Americans out of their country.

4. We have won! Setting aside what “winning” means, the reduction in violence is evidence that the overall American plan has worked, and that we are on the road to victory. Phil dismisses this argument as “obvious nonsense,” arguing that as soon as we leave, they will be back at it.

Another possibility, of course, is that much of this is Iraqification smoke and mirrors, not unlike the arguments the Americans made in 1972 and early 1973 that the South Vietnamese were ready to defend themselves. By the time that assessment proved untrue, we were basically gone and looked back at the consequences with a high level of indifference. The difference between then and now, of course, was that the Vietnamese did not possess the world’s fourth largest oil reserves.

Have any reactions to these categories of explanations? Any of your own?