Archive for June, 2011

Afghanistan: An Intermestic Moment

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan and Election, Afghanistan War, US Domestic Politics with tags , , on June 26, 2011 by whatafteriraq

President Obama’s long anticipated announcement of a schedule for removing American fighting forces in Afghanistan last week elicited the familiar and predictable howls that seem to follow anything that this chief executive does. Some thought he proposed too much, some not enough, and hardly anybody thought he had it just right. What’s new?

The president’s action and reaction to it almost perfectly exemplified what some political scientists (including this one) refer to as “intermestic policy.” The term refers to policy issues that have both an INTERnational and a domESTIC component, hence the name. Most foreign policies have some intermestic aspect to them: there is hardly any issue in the foreign policy realm that does not have some domestic impact, and vice versa. The impact is that it reduces the boundary between foreign and domestic politics, a boundary that used to be sancrosanct. An old saw has it that “politics ends at the water’s edge,” the implication being that purely political concerns should not extend into America’s relations with other countries, toward whom it is only right and patriotic to maintain a common face.

In today’s environment where absolutely everything is political and highly partisan (what Pat Haney and I refer to as “hyper-partisanship in our new foreign policy text), the boudary represented by the water’s edge has been swamped; it is literally under water itself. In the most prominent issue areas with an intermestic cast, the domestic and international elements of policy intermix, confuse one another, and make sensible policy more difficult to maintain. The United States policy toward the war in Afghanistan is a classic example of this phenomenon run amok.

Look at the war through the dual lenses of international and domestic politics. The international (foreign policy) concern is with the effect of various endings of the war on the international environment and America’s place in it. Clearly, the major concern is the status of a post-war Afghanistan in relation to international religious terrorism, most obviously associated with Al Qaeda. There are two basic arguments to be made about this aspect. One is that without a “victory” in Afghanistan, the country will likely revert to being a haven for terrorists (as it was during the latter 1990s), meaning that continuing the war until a satisfactory outcome is achieved (and however that is measured) is vital. From that vantage point, and given the assessment of the situation on the ground (we are not yet winning), the president’s decision is premature and damaging to efforts to reach a satisfactory ending, and thus the withdrawal is too much. The other side is that the outcome is excessive to the cost, that it is unlikely to be achieved by outside military force and that, since the successful decapitation of Al Qaeda, Afghanistan is not worth the effort because the threat has been sufficiently reduced to allow a successful effort with far fewer forces. From this vantage point, the withdrawal is not nearly enough.

The domestic side has two different aspects that are not necessarily connected intimately to the international dimension. One is that public opinion has turned decisively against the war, with those who want out altogether becoming a progressively larger part of majority which dislikes the war. Clearly this majority thinks the president did not go far enough. Among those who support the war, most wrap themselves tightly in the flag and argue that to do anything but continue would dishonor those who have sacrificed (an honor presumably served by sacrificing more Americans). The other argument is economic: at a little over $100 billion a year (and I personally suspect that is a “low ball” estimate), the United States simply cannot afford to continue the war. This justification has little to do directly with the international worth of the effort, and more to do with deficit reduction.

When one stacks up the pro and con arguments, the negative arguments are most strongly represented in domestic concerns–and especially the affordability argument in the current economy–whereas the more muted arguments in favor of staying in tend to be more international, associated with the military’s reluctance to abandon an enterprise in which they are heavily invested. The “inter” and the “mestic” thus come into conflict and, most tellingly, result in a debate where one side simply does not address the other. Those who want the U.S. to leave on economic grounds make an after-the-fact defense of the lack of need to continue, but they don’t really address systematically nor refute those who maintain our interests will be weakened if we do. Similarly, those who believe we should stay admit the war is expensive but that the outcome overrides the negative economic impact. Neither side refutes the other position convincingly.

President Obama is caught in the middle of this. As president, he is both chief executive in all the domestic senses of that term and commander-in-chief, with overriding foreign policy responsibilities. He (like any president) can avoid neither the “inter” or the “mestic,” and thus ends up sitting on the fence. Critics–on both sides–generally have the luxury of avoiding these distinctions, since they bear no direct responsibility for outcomes. The view may be better from the top of the fence, which is higher than the ground below, but it also makes whoever sits there a better target for the shoes hurled whenever the incumbent opines from the fence top.

There is nothing that can be done to remove the intermestic element from foreign policy decisions in an increasingly interdependent world, and the system simply needs to find a better way to conduct its foreign policy when it knows that whatever it does will affect American citizens directly and thus become political, because some will benefit and others will not in any circumstance. The grease that could make that process smoother and ultimately more productive is a less partisan, super-charged political atmosphere, one that is less hyper-partisan. No one should hold their breath for that to happen anytime soon.

Goldilocks and Afghanistan: How Big a Withdrawal?

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan and Election, Afghanistan War, US Domestic Politics with tags , , , , , , , on June 12, 2011 by whatafteriraq

President Obama’s stated promise to begin the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan by July 2011, a commitment he made when he committed 30,000 additional troops to the war early in his presidency, is coming near. The major question is how large a withdrawal he will order, and what the consequences of whatever size drawdown he chooses, will be. He is, of course, suffering from no shortage of advice on what his decision should be, much of it tinged liberally with partisan political and iedological/strategic underpinnings. When one thinks about the prospects, an analogy between the situation and Goldilocks assessment of the three bears’ porridge may not be inappropriate.

What to do about Afghanistan has, unsurprisingly in this era of foreign policy hyper-partisanship, become a political fight that divides those who support continuing the war and those who do not (the latter being the preference of the majority of Americans in polling results). The arguments against the war–and thus for a large withdrawal that is the first step toward a total pullout (at least of ground combat forces)–tend to come from liberal Democrats, although parts of their arguments appeal more broadly. Supporters of the war and thus opponents of any substantial troop withdrawal tend to be conservative Republicans who believe either that the mission is too vital to be abandoned or compromised or who believe there has been adequate progress that a successful conclusion may be within reach. 

The two positions deserve at least some elaboration. The opponents, whose chief spokesman increasingly is Massachusetts senator John Kerry (chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Democratic nominee for president in 2004), make at least three separate arguments for pulling back. The first is that the United States cannot afford to continue to drop $10 billion a month into Afghanistan given current economic conditions at home. The expenses are particularly odious because they are inflated by the costs of “nation-building” associated with the Petraeus strategy of counterinsurgency, a cost that could be reduced with a smaller commitment with smaller troop numbers. Second, they argue the situation can be handled with a more concentrated effort aimed at the remnants of Al Qaeda, which requires neither large numbers of “muddy boots” on the ground nor the levels of financial resources currently being expended. Third, the scaling back is further justified by the successful elimination of Usama bin Laden (and subsequently his heir apparent), leaving the terrorist organization is some level of disarray. Not so openly discussed are the further assumptions that the war is probably unwinnable under any circumstances and that the Karzai government does not really warrant continuing American support (part of the reason the war is unwinnable).

Supporters, of course, disagree with this assessment. Their arguments are most sharply made by active participants in the war itself, notably Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and General Petraeus. Both of these officials have argued that progress has been made but that it is, in a phrase first used by Petraeus but adopted by Gates, “fragile and reversible.” The heart of the argument is that real progress is being made and that a precipitous drawdown would endanger what has been accomplished. In Gates’ own words, “Far too much has been accomplished, at far too great a cost, to let the momentum slip away kust as the enemy is on its back foot.” In an interview with 60 Minutes, Gates drew a football analogy, warning against abandoning the field when the U.S. was on the enemy’s “two-yard line.” Critics, of course, find these descriptions of progress to be overblown.

It may be instructive that neither Gates nor Petraeus will be in their positions as the decision, whatever it may be, is being implemented. Leon Panetta, the current Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), has already been nominated to replace Gates as Secretary of Defense, and when questioned by senators (notably John McCain) about whether he agreed with the Gates assessment in confirmation hearings, he was noticeably circumspect in his answers. Petraeus has been tapped to replace Panetta to head an agency that has historically had a more jaundiced view of the Afghan adventure; his appointment also takes the general off the hook as the commander of what may be a sinking ship.

So what will the president decide? As usual in the hyper-partisan atmosphere that dominates Washington, it is a “damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t” set of choices. He cannot avoid withdrawals altogether, because to do so would be politically too injurious, reneging on a public promise and alienating his natural constituent base on the left. He cannot order a massive withdrawal, because doing do runs the risk of the entire enterprise going south before the 2012 election, and certainly inflaming the core of the GOP right. That leaves him with options inside the extremes, ranging from a token to a moderate to a sizable reduction. So what will the President choose to do?

The pressures are both strategic and political. Strategically, it boils down to a dichotomy that favors the extremes. If the war is important, progress is being made, and a favorable outcome is within reach (essentially the Gates argument), then it makes sense to continue and thus order only a token reduction (say 10,000 of the 30,000 added previously by Obama). If who governs Afghanistan is not important to the U.S., progress is not really being made, and the prospects are endlessly indecisive, then it makes equal sense to cut our losses and get out as fast as possible. Thus, a maximum withdrawal is the answer. The problem is that there is not great agreement on any of the conditions (importance, progress, end state), making a decisive strategic decision difficult to make.

The political pressures all point to the 2012 election. What decision will most help/least hurt the president’s reelection prospects? Since almost no one publicly argues the war will be over (especially favorably) between now and then, the question is what action today will have the least injurious effects on the election then? Since we cannot ramp up an instant victory, that means adopting an approach that will result in the smallest possible losses and, most critically, that insures the situation will not have visibly deteriorated between now and election day 2012. That suggests a moderate withdrawal–enough not to look entirely like a token, but not enough to throw the situation into peril. Like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, a porridge that is not too hot, not too cold, but just right. How does a reduction of 15-20,000 sound?

Is the Two-State Solution in Palestine Dead?

Posted in Israel and the United States, Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East Peace, US Domestic Politics with tags , , , , , , on June 5, 2011 by whatafteriraq

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu left Washington last week with a tremendous tactical victory. By skillfully marshalling sympathetic Americans through AIPAC, he managed to deflect the speech by President Obama two days before he arrived that had argued for–even demanded–the resumption of Israeli-Palestine peace talks aimed at creating separate Jewish and Arab states (the 1948 UN mandate for the area) based on the pre-1967 boundaries (nowhere addressed in 1948) in the area as a starting point. “Indefensible,” Bibi roared, and the U.S. Congress dutifully rose from their seats at his address and cheered. Obama was left out on a ledge by himself politically, and Bibi flew out of town a hero to the political right in Israel. In the process, Bibi even appeared to capture the high road of being conciliatory and convincing the political right in the United States that his government indeed did favor peace–just not the one the President proposed. Neat trick, that. Score one for Natanyahu.

The Israeli tactical victory does, however, come with a price. In all likelihood, the real result of Bibi’s tour de force was  to drive the last nail into the coffin of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Neither the Palestinians or the Israelis, much less the Americans (who seem more enthused about the prospect than either of the principals), are publicly admitting this consequence, but it looms nonetheless.

Why such a gloomy prognosis? Let’s start by stripping away a bit of the generally pious rhetoric on both sides of the dispute. Both sides argue publicly that they want peace based on “two state for two peoples,” but it is by no means clear that either in fact do. Each begins by saying it is the side that truly wants peace but that the other side does not. It then issues what it argues are not preconditions for successful negotiations but which are in fact deal-breaking conditions it absolutely knows the other side wil not accept (which is the real reason for proposing them in the first place). This allows the other both sides to argue, fingers probably crossed behind their backs, that they want peace but the other side does not. Neither side is exactly lying, but neither side is exactly telling the truth either.

This works out in the current environment. Bibi proclaimed that Israel was willing, even anxious, to see peace, and had made numerous proposals without preconditions on which to proceed. Well, not quite. Netanyahu prefaced this apparent generosity by saying that, of course, the Israelis could not be expected to negotiate with terrorists intent on the destruction of the state of Israel (Hamas) and that Israeli security must be honored in any agreement. Those sound like reasonable positions (members of Congress certainly seemed to think so), but they are also effective deal-breaking preconditions that insure no Palestinian government can possibly enter into negotiations on their basis. Why? The exclusion of Hamas (with which the Abbas government has now entered into a working agreement with) means the Palestinian Authority must turn its back on a political body that has considerable support in the Palestinian population. Fatah might want to do that (just as the Obama administration might like to exclude the TEA Party from negotiations on the deficit), but they cannot. The guarantee of Israeli security operationally translates into a permanent Israeli military presence on the West Bank (Bibi admitted that in an interview with Wolf Blitzer, as reported here last week), which is roughly like saying Mexico will agree on a border security arrangement with the United States as long as it can maintain permanent security forces in Dallas. Palestinian demands regarding the disposition of Israeli settlements on the West Bank offer a parallel.

I am not arguing that either of these Israeli positions in unreasonable or indefensible from a strictly Israeli view–especially at the tactical level of security today for the Israeli state. Simply raising these to the public eye in the United States (although not in Israel, where such critiques are much more open) brings squeals of indignation about “pushing Israel under the bus,” in Mitt Romney’s shrill, thoroughly unimaginative term, which I suspect is the exact reaction for which Bibi hoped (and was rewarded). 

The real concern is what this kabuki by the Potomac means for an eventual peace settlement between the antagonists based on the two-state principle, and here, the landscape is bleak. There were no peace talks before the recent visit and exchange occurred, of course, and it was Obama’s state purpose to reinvigorate them. This was probably impossible under any circumstances because, as I have tried to argue here, it is not clear that either side truly wants such talks to progress to that end. The Israelis may be right that the Palestinians ultimately will agree to no outcome that does not entail the disappearance of Israel, and the Palestinians may be correct that the Israelis will never allow a fully sovereign West Bank Palestinian state. Both sides certainly act that way (pious rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding), and the Netanyahu visit was certainly congruent with the thesis that a peaceful settlement will not occur because neither side is willing to make the honest concessions and compromises to create one.

I know that partisans on both sides will heatedly dispute this assertion and pepper me with evidence of the sincerity–even magnanimity–of their efforts to move toward a peace that would be possible if only the other side was not treacherous on the subject. Such denials (since they generously include condemnations of the honor of the other) do not move the situation toward peace, and I am personally not convinced they are intended to do so. The tactical game is decidedly status quo-loaded.

So, is peace based on a two-state solution dead? For the time being and in the short run, the answer is yes. For the president to try to follow up on his initiative at this time would be an exercise in futility (which was almost certainly Bibi’s intent to demonstrate to him, at which he succeeded) meeting Einstein’ definition of insanity. The only thing that can revive peace based on a two-state formula that represents a reasonable compromise for BOTH sides is a drastic change in power on both sides: a Palestinian leadership that is strong enough to resist and reject its extremists, and an Israeli leadership that accepts the long term demographics of the region and accepts losing part of “greater Israel” as the price for a long-term peace. In the meantime, the sounds of continued construction on the West Bank narrow the possibility that any two-state solution remains physically possible.

Will time run out before the preconditions for a two-state solutions are completely dead? If peace is the patient, the prognosis is not promising, but the patient has not quite expired. If, however, the two-state solution does die, that fundamentally changes the parameters of the game in ways that could very much disfavor those Israelis who have done their level best to derail the two-state solution. Game, and maybe set, to Netanyahu. Match? Not so clear.