Archive for the US Values and Freign Policy Category

Modern Military Atrocity: The Case of Sgt. Bales

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, U.S. military manpower, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , on March 25, 2012 by whatafteriraq

The alleged rampage of Sgt. Robert Bales in an Afghan village that ended with 17 dead Afghan civilians has caught the public attention because the acts atrributed to the 38-year-old father of two were so brutal, ghastly, and repulsive. They are a textbook case of war crimes–more specifically crimes against humanity–and are, as such reprehensible and intolerable. Whether Sgt. Bales is the perpetrator (which seems fairly well established) and whether there are special mitigating circumstances such as mental condition are properly the province of the military court that will try him, and there is no intent here to prejudge or predict the outcomes of that process. There is, however, reason to ask how such a tragedy could have occurred, at least partly to try to be sure it does not recur.

Let me begin with what may be a controversial proposition: the massacre in which Sgt. Bales allegedly engaged is probably not as unusual as some would have it. I operate on the assumption that such incidents, while not common, probably occur in most conflicts. In some cases, they become known in more or less detail–the My Lai incident in Vietnam, Wounded Knee during the western Indian wars, and the Bataan death march, for instances, are all examples, and I suspect that virtually all wars of any duration produce such incidents. This dores not condone them; it simply acknowledges that nasty things happen from time to time in war. What distinguishes the current episode is how quickly, how widely, and in what detail its has become known. The question is whether episodes like this one, including the publicity it engenders, are simply a part of modern warfare. For essentially three reasons, I think the answer is yes!

I present these factors in no particular order of importance. The first is the impact of the electronic revolution, and more specifically, the loss of private behavior that is a consequence of the electronic revolution in communications. Unlike previous periods of time, there is essentially no private behavior in public places any longer: somebody is going to see, record, and transmit accounts of any bad behavior in which essentially anyone engages–or at least anyone engaging in or contemplating untoward behavior has to assume that is the case. This realization has multiple implications for a wide variety of formerly private behaviors, but in war, it means that anything one does may well–probably will–become public. Since war is about violence often committed in highly emotional situations, one must assume that stress-caused actions, some of which are not glorious or praiseworthy, are going to be recorded somewhere by someone. That is just a fact of the modern world, and all soldiers need to be drilled very thoroughly in that reality, if they are not already. This phenomenon is neither good nor bad, although it can be both in different circumstances. But one cannot deny that it exists. In some earlier, unmediated times, the Afghan incident might have gone unreported and blame unassigned. No longer!

Second, the nature of modern warfare may make incidents like what happened in Afghanistan more likely than before. Modern war, particularly the kinds in which the United States has engaged in the past half-century, has two salient characteristics that reinforce the point. The first is that these wars are asymmetrical. This means, among other things, that the enemy does not fight under established rules of warfare. often does not wear uniforms that distinguish it from the general population and often uses youths as fighters, for instance, and this means that the American soldier entering hostile territory does not necessarily know whether he is among friends or foes. This knowledge has to be enormously stressful for the individual soldier, and probably inevitably, some will snap. The fact that most wars are in developing world countries where American forces are physically distinctive, are sometimes viewed as unwelcome intruders, and where the interests being served may be ambiguous makes dealing with these kinds of war zones even more difficult. It is frightening enough when one faces a hostile but distinguishable army; it is an additional source of difficulty when trying to attain abstract goals in a very foreign and hostile environment.

Third, an possibly most controversially, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have fairly clearly demonstrated the limits of the all-volunteer force (AVF) concept. The problem of such forces, of courses, is that they will inevitably be comparatively small and expensive, and they cannot easily be expanded except by recourse to outside contractors who are simultaneously more expensive and less reliable (certainly less controllable). the current force was not built for all-out employment over a decade of continuous employment–no military force is. Because ut cannot easily be expanded (more people won’t volunteer), the only way to handle the burden is to recycle the existing force through multiple deployments in the kinds of hostile, stressful environments described above.  Sgt. Bales, after all, was in his fourth deployment when he allegedly attacked the Afghan village, and his history is not unusual. There are physical and, we are increasingly learning, psychological limits to the amount of combat stress that humans reasonably can be expected to endure. 

These three factors are neither a full explanation of the Afghan incident nor do they offer an ecuse for its occurrence or Sgt. Bales’ alleged role. Rather, they are some of the factors that affect modern warfare and which will, almost inevitably, lead to future instances that are not dissimilar to that in Afghanistan this time. None of them is easily solvable, if they can be solved at all. The genie is out of the bottle in the electronic revolution, and it seems obvious that the only way to ensure that vivid reportage of atrocities like this one does not appear is to insure the instances don’t happen in the first place. The nature of modern war, however, virtually ensures that people will come under stress and behave badly in the future and that whatever they do will become publicly available for all to see. The overuse of an overextended military probably in turn makes the likelihood of regrettable behavior all the more probable. Until someone can devise a way to keep the chain of factors from being engaged, one can, regrettably, only expect more of the same. 

Do any of these factors exonerate Sgt. Robert Bales. That is a judgment for others to make based on the real evidence in this trial. What it does suggest, however, is that Sgt. Bales or whoever killed those 17 innocent civilians was subject to forces that he or they probably did not recognize or understand and that, moreover, this is not the last time it will happen.

Stupidity, Brutality, and the Failure of Military Occupations

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Current Events in Iraq, Iraq War, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , on March 4, 2012 by whatafteriraq

In the past decade, the United States has engaged in the military occupations: one (Iraq) that was the result of an American invasion and conquest, the other (Afghanistan) as part of a coalition of states seeking to rid the occupied state of the remnants of Al Qaeda. To put the matter mildly, neither excursion has been an unambiguous success.

There are, of course, numerous reasons why these occupations have not yielded the results the United States set out to accomplish in both of these adventures, including the adoption of unattainable objectives (e.g. representative democracy in countries with no tradition of democracy as we think of it), the lack of clear interests that are supposedly served, misstatement of the conditions being rectified, dealing with allies whose primary interest was in getting rid of us, and a host of others (e.g. a botched occupation administration in Iraq). Some or all of these no doubt have played a role. Let me suggest that there is another reason both have failed (technically, Afghanistan has not failed yet, but will): it is simply impossible to run an effective occupation of a hostile country in the modern electronic world in which we live.  

The problem of running an occupation is that those occupied generally do not want to be occupied and thus resent whoever is doing the occupying. This revelation is, of course, a classic BFO (blinding flash of the obvious) that American leaders never seem to grasp. Just last week, General Allen (the comander of American forces in Afghanistan) tried to buck up the troops after the murder of several American soldiers by reminding them of our mission there: to help out our “friends.” Hello, General! Very few Afghans think we are their “friends”; most of them think we are foreign occupiers, a genre to whom the Afghans have never especially warmed. To make matters worse, they are apostates (as the Quran burning episode demonstrated), a further source of disfavor. To the vast majority of Afghans, I would submit, the friendliest thing the United States can do is to go home (preferably leaving several large suitcases of money behind when we do).

That occupations are resented is no revelation. That they are opposed is further no more than a BFO (blinding flash of the obvious): that we do not understand this simple truth is beyond my personal comprehension. But why? Are we just that dumb?

I  can think of three possible reasons for this self-delusion. One is that we do not see ourselves as occupiers, but rather as liberators freeing first the Iraqis and now the Afghans from vile oppression. That is a much happier role, and one that fits our self-image much better (especially if you are a neo-conservative). Everybody likes liberators, after all. Well, everybody (except the former oppressors) like the liberators when they are being freed; it is when the liberators stick around and become occupiers that their initial action loses acceptance. Just ask the citizens of the Philippines, whose 1898 “liberation” from Spain lasted until 1946.

A second explanation is that occupations can be benign and poular with the subject population. The post-WW II occupations of Germany and Japan are always cited in this regard: it worked there, so why not other places? The answer, of course, is that other places are not like Germany and Japan (absolutely defeated western-style countries) who were essentially bribed into embracing the occupation with generous dollops of reconstruction assistance. There is no equivalent transfer of resources to Iraq and Afghanistan, which the American people whould not accept.

Self-image (we are not really occupiers) and faulty analogies (with Germany and Japan) help explain why we are blind to why those we occupy don’t appreciate our effort and thus oppose us, but that is only part of the problem. The crux of the problem (and the third explanation for why our occupations fail) is the dynamics of occupation in the modern world. Historically, the principal dynamic of successful occupations has been their brutal suppression of dissidents. Occupied populations can be won over by bribing them or by the departure of the occupiers, but if the occupying force stays–especially in a long, open-ended tenure–it will be opposed. If one wants to maintain an occupation, the only way to do so is to eliminate the opposition–the more brutally, the better. The Nazis understood this, Genghis Khan understood it, and so have countless others.

The problem is that the kind of ruthless brutality necessary to cow a population into submission just does not work in the modern electronic world, because there is no longer any fully private behavior. The Syrians are today’s best example of slow learning on this point, but it is becoming universal. To repeat, the only ways to have any chance to run an occupation that has any chance of success is to egregiously bribe the entire population into accepting it or to engage in massive and ruthless violent suppression that will inevitably be on the six o’clock news “in living color” that will outrage everybody. If one is willing to do either of those two things, occupation has a chance. If not, forget it!

The United States is unwilling to do either of these things in Iraq or Afghanistan. Massive economic assistance (bribery) has no domestic constituency and its simple advocacy would be political suicide in today’s fiscally restrained environment. Overt brutality broadcast on worldwide cable television is similarly unacceptable. So that leaves the United States with a series of half-efforts that don’t work. The drinking water of anyone to whom any of this is a surprise should probably be tested for hallucigens.

Oh yes, there is one foolproof method to avoid these dilemmas, and that is not to go around invading, conquering, and occupying places where you are unwilling either to bribe or slaughter the population. Too bad no one thought of that in 2001.

The Rising Cost of Stupidity and Brutality

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Middle East Conflict, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , on February 26, 2012 by whatafteriraq

The recent flaps concerning indiscretions by American troops in Afghanistan (urinating on Taliban corpses, burning copies of the Quran) and Syrian brutality against its own population have one very common and powerful thread: both were acts that were not intended for widespread public attention or scrutiny but have become, in the new vernacular, “viral.” They both illustrate that the impact of electronic mediation has both a liberating and a constraining impact.

The simple fact that arises from the electronic mediation of the world is that potentially there is no such thing as entirely private behavior. The ability of handheld video cameras recording and sending via satellites images of the horrors of war made their first appearance in coverage of the latter stages of the Vietnam conflict, and the images of violence they portrayed helped turn public opinion in this country against the war. What those early electronic “pioneers” could do is peanuts compared to the capacity to transform private acts (or public acts you would just as soon remain unobserved) into full-scale media events. The ability to be stupid or to behave intentionally atrociously now carries a much higher price than it used to have.

The recent uproar over Quran burning and corpse desecration dramatize this impact. People have been righteously indignant over these acts in ways that almost totally miss the point. What was done in both cases was not new or more despicable than has been done in the past; they were not. Past indiscretions in warfare, however, generally occurred when the cameras were not around, so that stupid behavior was only a non-electronic memory of those who witnessed it. Cell phones with the capability to take what are effectively motion pictures means anyone who does virtually anything anywhere has it potentially immortalized electronically; Facebook and similar outlets guarantee whatever is done is an instant global media event. Do something really stupid and the world knows about it. When one of your buddies records the event with the full knowledge of the participants (the urination episode) the stupid add to the problem by acting as willing producers and stars of the production. Afterwards, somebody (normally the government) has to apologize for the indiscretion, an action that is itself subject to criticism.

This phenomenon has spread to purposive acts of thuggery and atrocity. The Arab Spring, after all, is ingrained in global minds as much for the brutal resistance of besieged regimes recorded on shaky mobile phones as it is for anything else. Syria is just the most recent and egregrious example of brutality as a television event. Once again, the point is not that such behavior exists in any unique sense in Syria, or in Egypt and Libya before it. Governments and others (occupying powers, for instance) have been doing this for millennia. Imagine for a moment Genghis Khan and the Golden Horde sweeping across the Eurasian plain slaughtering everybody they encountered as a modern media event. The point is that such behavior was much easier to get away with when it could be denied and no contrary hard evidence like motion pictures could be broght to bear as counter evidence. That is impossible now; if you are a despot who wants to savage your population, you probably still can do so, but you cannot keep it a secret or within the realm of plausible deniability. The cost of thuggery has risen; whether (or when) that cost becomes too great to bear is a question for any potential brutalizer.

This cost extends to domestic public behavior. In the United States, the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles should have been the warning bell. The LAPD is still living down those privately recorded images of police brutality, and everytime a cop uses arguably excessive force, part of the reaction is going to be from the video accounts of those actions. The result is to change how police act and is a conscious part of contemporary police training.

The point is the same in both venues. The bar of acceptable behavior both in international crises and in domestic actions has been raised by the knowledge that just about anything that happens is likely to be subject to outside scrutiny. It does not matter if an indiscretion is committed by a 19-year-0ld soldier in the traumatic aftermath of battle or a 20-year-old college student getting drunk at a fraternity party; whatever you do may well be on global television, and even if it is not, it is still out there somewhere in cyberspace ready to come back and bite you in the posterior at some point in the future.

Institutions try to confront and surmount these problems to minimize them, but such efforts are almost inevitably incomplete. The U.S. Marines, for instance have produced an impressive guide on appropriate behavior by Marines in Afghanistan (“Afghanistan: Operational Culture for Deployed Personnel.” Quantico, VA:: Center for Advanced Operational Cultural Learning, 2009–available on the web) that specifically covers urination and Quaran burning. Obviously, not everyone read or internalized it. The simple fact is that in war particularly, people will do stupid or evevn venal things. In the past, most of these transgressions went unobserved or not noted; today, no stupidity goes unnoticed. 

These simple new parameters are a fact of modern warfare (or modern life more generally) that are not going to go away. They cannot be reversed, and the best that can be done is to try to understand and contain them as much as possible (damage limitation). This is a new and, I think, sadly underdeveloped area of inquiry and understanding, with implications that need to be incorporated into future planning. One particularly evident area is that of military occupations, which will be the subject of the next posting.

Israel, Iran and the United States: All Options Are Bad!

Posted in 2012 Presidential Election, Iran, Israel and the United States, Middle East Conflict, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , on February 7, 2012 by whatafteriraq

The growing confrontation between Israel and Iran over the Iranian nuclear weapons program is spinning perilously out of hand, and it has within it the seeds of the most potentially dangerous threat to international peace since the Cold War ended over 20 years ago. What we are witnessing is a verbal ran-up to a military conflict between the Middle East’s only nuclear power (Israel) and its most militant, populous state (Iran). It is a conflict that would serve no one’s interests, would only result in a worse situation–possibly catastrophically so–for all parties, and in which the extremely emotional basis of the conflict is driving all sides, including the United States, to consider essentially irresponsible acts that endanger the country’s national security interests in dangerous way. All of this is occurring in a presidential election year (probably no coincidence) in which cool analysis and action is undermined by hot electoral rhetoric aimed at grabbing votes at the possible endangerment of this country’s interests and safety. It needs to be stopped now, before it gets any worse.

Consider the situation in terms of three steps and their possible consequences. The steps are the pre-war confrontation, the Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities (an event which, if it happens at all, will almost surely occur before the November election in the United States), and the Iranian response. All put the United States in an untenable, negative sum situation where, regardless of what we do, we will come out on the short end of the stick.

Start with the pre-war present. There are two salient features to consider. The first are Israeli threats that demand, in essence, that Iran stop and reverse its alleged weapons program (which, of course, the Iranians deny exists) before it proceeds any closer to a weapons outcome. The Israelis argue that if the Iranians get a nuclear weapon, they will use it against Israel, making the threat a truly existential one against them. Their assessment may be right or wrong, but there can be no doubt that the Neyanyahu government believes this scenario to be the case and from that perspective, a preemptive strike against Iran can make sense. That its consequences could be dire to Israel matters less from this perspective because Israel will suffer in either case. An attack is essentially taking an eye for an expected eye, and national existence is the stake. No Masada this time; the Israelis will go down swinging, if they go down.

This puts the United States, as the protector and guarantor of Israel, in a terrible position that the campaign rhetoric is only making worse. The Obama administration says it is “working” with Israel to defuse the crisis, which effectively means they are trying everything they can think of to try to keep the attack from occurring, at least partly because they recognize that if the Israelis launch a raid, all regional bets are off and that the worst case is a general Middle Eastern war that serves no one’s interests, and especially not the interests of the United States. GOP presidential contenders, on the other hand, are falling all over themselves and one another courting the Jewish vote in the United States by favoring unrestricted support for whatever Israel  decides to do. The most extreme view is held by Newt Gingrich, who summons the Holocaust to argue that anything less would be immoral.

The U.S. has essentially three options if an Israeli attack decision is unavoidable. None of them is especially good. They are:

 1. Full support for any attack the Israelis carry out, which can include actions of differing severity. The U.S. can participate in the raid in varying ways, such as providing air cover for the Israeli bombers heading for Iranian nuclear sites; we can provide satellite reconnaisance (which we undoubtedly already do) for the Israelis, including warnings of Iranian countermeasures; we can supply special ordnance (deep penetrating bombs) to the Israelis to penetrate underground facilities (the Israelis do not themselves have such a capability); or, at the greatest extreme, we can participate with U.S. bombers dropping bombs. The more involved we are, of course, the more we will be caught up in the wake of international reactions to the attack.

2. We can acknowledge Israeli plans, say we understand but don’t fully support their actions on any of a variety of grounds, BUT warn sternly that we will not allow a response by Iran that would endanger Israeli existence. We would still be blamed for not preventing the attacks, but the criticism would be more muted, and we would uphold our pledge to guarantee Israeli existence. Critics, however, would argue that is not enough.

3. We can tell the Israelis, very publicly, that they are on their own if they attack, although we will protect them from an existential response. This option, regardless of its merits, would be political suicide in an election year (part of why the Israelis, who realize this, will probably act before the November election).

Options 1 and 2 are the only really domestically viable options, but both of them tie the U.S. to the Israeli attack, and that has consequences. Rationalizations notwithstanding, an Israeli strike would be an act of military aggression–an act of aggressive war–that is illegal under international law and the UN Charter, which Israel signed, making the action illegal under Israeli law as well. Calling it “preemptive” does not aid legality, because acts of preemption are only justifiable under IL when a hostile act that they prevent is imminent (e.g.an enemy’s army massing on your border); the Israeli attack does not rise to that level. Thus, the United States indirectly supports violating international law by supporting the Israelis. The U.S, has, of course, done so in the past–the invasion of Iraq in 2003, for instance–but the world will at least rhetorically line up against an aggression. Moreover, the Russians and Chinese will undoubtedly co-sponsor at Security Council condemnation of the aggression, and the U.S. will be left with the unpleasant choices of supporting Israel in the face of overwhelming global disapproval or, as it did in 1956 at the time of the Suez War, of condemning the action of a close ally. Once again, electoral politics may require thumbing our noses at the world. Moreover, if the Israelis do attack, they will not be able to take out the Iranian program entirely, instead only setting it back, while Israeli attacks will take its toll in civilian casualties (collateral damage) that will only add to condemnation of the attacks. Anyone who can see some good in this for United States interests beyond some votes in the presidential election, is seeing something this observer does not.

As if that was not enough, an Israeli attack will trigger some very violent form of Iranian counterattack with equally or even more dangeous potential consequences for the U.S. and the region. Those possibilities, none of which are desirable from a U.S. viewpoint, will be the subject of the next column. All the options are bad!

The Pakistani Traitor and the CIA: A Strange Parable

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, International Terrorism, Pakistan, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 9, 2011 by whatafteriraq

The government of Pakistan is currently holding in custody Dr. Shakeel Afridi, a physician accused of treason, and is threatening to try and execute him. The action for which the treason is alleged is the assistance that Dr. Afridi provided to the CIA in its successful efforts to locate, target, and assassinate Usama bin Laden, who was hiding, more or less openly, in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad.

The pretext on which Dr. Afridi was operating was what the Los Angeles Times, among other sources, labeled a “phony vaccination campaign” that had the apparent purpose of innoculating Pakistanis against various diseases but which was more focused on obtaining a DNA sample of bin Laden to confirm his identity. Dr. Afridi was the physician who was conducting these vaccinations as a ruse and was instrumental in pinpointing the location of bin Laden. As such, he was clearly acting as the agent of a foreign intelligence agency (the CIA), which constitutes espionage but not necessarily treason, particularly as alleged by the government of Pakistan. Definitions of treason–and more specifically high treason–which the Pakistani government specifies against Dr. Afridi, normally includes “betrayal” of one’s own country and consciously working with the government’s enemies to harm or overthrow the government. Working for the CIA could be considered betrayal of the country if one assumes that the United States is the enemy of Pakistan; it is hard to understand how this allegation can be leveled against someone working for an ally of Pakistan, which the United States presumably is supposed to be. Moreover, it is hard to make the intellectual leap to this collusion and some action intended to harm or overthrow the government of Pakistan, unless bin Laden is somehow an important part of that government, which he was not. Something, as the old saying goes, is rotten in Denmark.

The case of the vaccimation doctor is, in fact, a parable, and yes, a strange one, of U.S.-Pakistani relations generally. The United States and Pakistan are allegedly partners, have even been formal allies, and are supposedly united in the common quest to act in unison against terrorists and those who would destabilize and overthrow Afghanisan’s regime. Yet the Pakistani government treats the United States virtually as an enemy when it comes to the execution of actions designed to carry out their joint mission, such as assassinating bin Laden.

There are, of course, good reasons for the apparent anomaly represented by this situation that act as a parable for the future of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship. One can accept the idea that Dr. Afridi did in fact violate Pakistani laws in working for the CIA and that Pakistan has a right to try and punish transgressors. It is also true that the harshness of the charges and possible consequences of a trial for treason are harsh, arguably excessive, and that they will further alienate a U.S. government that has been less than delighted with Pakistani attitudes about the bin Laden operation all along. Try to find someone in the U.S. government, for instance, who believes nobody in the Pak government knew absolutely anything about where bin Laden was hiding “in plain sight” in the home of Pakistan’s military service academy. You won’t find many takers.

Presumably, Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Servcie Intelligence (ISI) is up to its neck in all this. ISI acts as a lone ranger in carrying out what it believes to be Pakistan’s best interests, and these often conflict with those of the United States. ISI created the Taliban, after all, and is not going to abandon them, since it believes they are a counterweight to Indian influence in Afghanistan. ISI is also up to its ears in terrorism, including the training and dispatch of Kashmiri “freedome fighters” and others in the badlands provinces of Pakistan (NW Province, FATA, etc.) along the Afghan border. Their self-perceived interests and hose of the United States could scarcely be farther apart, and that is not a condition likely to change anytime soon.

The upshot is that the United States and Pakistan are at effective odds on a range of mutual interests that their papered over comity cannot hide. Pakistanis complain consistently about US intrusion in their country through missions against Al Qaeda and the Taliban by American drones and the like. The Pakistanis complain these are violations of Pakistani sovereignty, which they are, but mostly it is posturing for the purpose of impressing anti-American sentiment against Americans. Americans, for their part, wonder why the United States continues to funnel assistance to a regime and people who not only do not like us much, but who also oppose our objectives in the region. There are no simple and compelling answers to that dilemma.

The parable becomes more and more relevant as the United States moves inexorably toward disengagement in Afghanistan. What the United States and Pakistan see as the future of a post-American Afghanistan are not, to put it mildly, identical. Pakistan wants a weak, pro-Pakistani government in Kabul, one that will pose no threat to Islamabad, and this means a government that is also anti-Indian. The Indians, unsurprisingly, want and are working toward the opposite outcome: a pro-Indian, anti-Pakistani Afghanistan that will help in the encirclement of Pakistan. The Paks thus want a postwar Afghanistan where the Pashtuns–and especially those with some affiliation with the Taliban–are well placed, whereas the Indians prefer that power effectively reside with non-Pashtuns. The United States wants a stable postwar Afghanistan that is resistant to terrorist reimposition, thereby reinforcing the notion the U.S. has actually accomplished something positive in the country. What the Afghans want is largely beside the point.

As the American involvement starts to wind down in Afghanistan and the players begin to jostle for position, the contradictions in what the outsiders want in Afghanistan will become more apparent, and one prominent aspect of that posturing that will be a victim is the fiction that the United States and Pakistan see eye-to-eye on these matters. Just ask Dr. Afridi, if you can find the prison cell in which he is apparently being held largely incognito by our allies.

The Rebirth of President Putin

Posted in 2012 Presidential Election, Diplomacy, Russia, Russian-American relations, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , , , , on September 25, 2011 by whatafteriraq

Vladimir Putin announced yesterday that he will trade places with current president Dmitry Medvedev next year, running for the presidency while Medvedev settles for the number two spot of prime minister. Under revisions to the Russian constitution, the presidency has been lengthened from a four-year to a six-year term, and presidents can run for re-election once. Twelve more years!

The announcement was hardly a surprise, of course. Despite appearances and titles, Putin has largely been running the show in Moscow even since Medvedev formally became the country’s chief executive in 2008, and virtually no one is surprised that Putin will seek to regain his formal status as president next year or that he will, in all likelihood, be elected overwhelmingly by the Russian electorate in reasonably free and open voting. Unless he either becomes ill or Russia experiences a great downturn during his first six years, he will dutifully be reelected in 2018. If all goes according to plan, Putin will remain in power until he is 72. Speculation about anything past 2024 is not worth making.

While exhibiting the beauty and inevitability of a mud slide (an analogy I crib without permission from an old University of Alabama dean), this is not particularly good news for the United States or the region, at least in term of promoting greater democratization and independence for the countries and peoples there. Russians apparently do not care terribly about such matters; what they care about is what Putin delivers.

Putin is attractive to the Russian (and especially ethnic Russian) majority in the federation. A robust and charismatic figure, Putin has three obvious sources of attraction. First, he is a dynamic and forceful leader who, particularly in the minds of Russians, projects an image of strength and importance of their country in the world. Just as we are entreated not to “mess with Texas,” the image of Vladimir Putin is that you had better not mess with Russia either.

Second, Putin is committed to restoring Russia’s place as a major power in the region and the world. This determination, which is related to the first source of his attraction, rings very much true to the Russian electorate. One of Russian history’s major themes is the quest for status as a world power. While most Russians do not look back at the old Soviet days with much poignancy, they do remember favorably the fact that the Soviet Union was an acknowledged, even feared, superpower which held sway within its region and was, for many purposes, the major peer of the United States. Russians want to return to that status; Putin, by word and deed, offers them what they believe is the best chance to do so. This perception stands in stark contrast with the image of the affable Medvedev, who appears much too bland and compliant for Russian tastes. Think Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

Third, Putin is a consummate politician. His rise to power happened to coincide with Russia’s emergence as the world’s second largest exporter of oil and largest exporter of natural gas (especially to Europe, which is highyl dependent on Russian supplies), and he turned this windfall into two advantages for himself and his country. Internally, Putin has skillfullyused energy revenues essentially to “buy off” the voting public with the largesse of government disbursements that have improved the material conditions of many Russians. He became, during the 2000s wshen he was formally in the presidency, one of the two particular experts in what Thomas L. Friedman calls “petrolist” politics, using oil revenues to bolster support and, not entirely coincidentally, to erode democracy. It is a Faustian bargain of sorts, but one the Russian people have accepted as a necessary tradeoff for their own prosperity and sense of national resurgence.

Internationally, energy exports give Russia leverage they have lacked since the end of the Cold War. While Russia retains a nuclear force roughly equivalent to that of the United States, that is not enough to insure Russian prestige and acceptance as a”super” power: to many, it is still a “Third World country with nuclear weapons.” Oil and natural gas change that, since the world is hungry for energy, and especially for energy that does not come from the unstable Middle East: Russia may still be a Third World country, but energy makes them more consequential, and Putin both knows this and how to exploit it.

Will Putin return to his old ways when he returns to office? There is no reason to think he won’t. What will this mean for the United States? The answer somewhat depends on how the US government decides to treat a new Russian regime, but it will detainly dampen American enthusiasm for Russian movement toward “normal” status in the region and world and dim any hope that Russia will soon evolve into a full-scale western democracy. It will also mean a more assertive Russian stance toward the “internal abroad” (those ethnically non-Russian parts of Russia that seek autonomy or independence–think Chechnya and Dagestan) or the “near abroad” (the former Soviet republics on itrs periphery–think Georgia). Russia will almost certainly act in ways of which the United States disapproves, and the results will almost certainly return greater strain to those relations.

Russia still has its problems, which Putin cannot wish away. Russian demographics are still horrible, and population decline will continue and hamper Russia’s return to major status. The rate of exploitation of Russia’s oil reserves cannot be sustained long before they begin to become depleted. Russia needs to be looking toward new bases of influence beyond energy, and buying off the population only serves short-term, not long-term goals. These are Russian realities that face any Russian leader.

As yesterday’s indicates, Valdimir Putin is back. He never really went away, but in March, the Russian public will put him back in the driver’s seat, while his understudy, Dmitry Medvedev, will be consigned to the rumble seat. It is not particularly good news, but there is not a whole lot that can be done about it.

Congress and the Cutter’s Blade

Posted in 2012 Presidential Election, U.S. defense budget, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , on August 28, 2011 by whatafteriraq

After a month’s respite, in which the major political events have been the emergence of Cowboy Rick Perry in the GOP race and some sniping at President Obama for spending a week at Martha’s Vineyard, Congress will return to Washington in a week or so. Like everyone else, I can hardly wait. Neither can your friends and neighbors at the Pentagon, where the power point presentations must be gathering furiously.

The “highlight” (lowlight?) of the resumed session will be the fight over the budget. Most of the activity will concentrate on 2012 election year posturing, of course, but the Congress has set itself up by including the provision for draconian cuts to be triggered automatically after Thanksgiving unless the Supercommitte does the unexpected and comes up with a viable compromise solution to bringing the deficit under control. Given the constituency of the committee, one should not hold one’s breath on that one, especially given that all six GOP members have signed Grover Norquist’s “no new taxes” pledge and that virtually every responsible adult in the United States understands that the process cannot possibly achieve anything like balance without additional revenues. The only chance is that the committee can come up with some convincing euphemism by which new taxes and are called something else, but even the ideological fanatics of the right will probably see through that. The prospects for the system working this out are, in other words, not very good.

Enter the Pentagon. If the automatic trigger goes into effect, the Department of Defense takes it in the knickers, as, of course, does everyone else. Defense planners have already stated that the additional cuts the automatic reductions would impose, about $.5 trillion over a decade or roughly $50 billion a year, will seriously compromise the national defense and thus must be avoided. The power point writers have undoubtedly been fervently at work building the case for the Apocalypse should this occur, and they can be counted upon to share their concerns with anyone who will listen.

In the past, DOD has been very successful in dodging budget bullets. Their key weapon, however, has been the existence of a reasonably clear and present threat that needed blunting. The Russian bear (or the Chinese dragon, or both) could always be dragged out of the closet to frighten the public and assure that Congress would not apply the blade to the DOD budget during the Cold War, and Osama bin Laden has provided the same kind of valuable service for the past decade. But the Russian bear is mostly a Mafiosi now, the dragon stocks our local Wal Mart, and bin Laden is dead. It is not clear who can play Freddie Kreuger and scare the bejusus out of us now to defend high levels of defense spending. The threats may be there, but they are more subtle, less convincing and, quite frankly, less compelling.

If one is defending the defense budget, this leaves one with four arguably Devil’s Choices. One can defend no taxes, high defense budgets, and thus really deep cuts in social services–a position that has traction with the GOP right that has been an historic ally of defense. The problem is that this solution attacks the large constituency who receives social benefits that get pared back radically under these solutions. This constituency is only beginning to become aware of the consequences of this strategy for them, and Democrats will help them fill in the details. When they figure out what Paul Rand-Ryan(Rand as in Ayn Rand) really has in mind for them, they are not going to be happy. And, by the way, they vote in higher proportions than just about any other voting group.

Second, they can play good soldiers, and accept the sacrifices of being full participants in deficit reduction without additional tax revenues. At the abstract level, this has some appeal. It seems patriotic, but it leaves the military with less than they truly believe they need, and playing their traditional guardian role requires resources: patriotism thus cuts both ways. Most military/defense intellectuals consider themselves conservative and thus lean Republican, but other than contractors, they are not among the uber wealthy who benefit the most from this solution.

Third, they can join the chorus that argues that some sacrifice is necessary, but deep cuts are unacceptable, and that the only solution is increasing taxes, some of the revenue from which will defray additional cuts in defense. From a strict calculation od self-interest, this is probably the optimal solution, but it is a tough one to swallow if one believes, as many defense types do, in very limited government that does  nothing opulently except for funding national defense. The problem is that no one is really pushing this position: it is essentially libertarian, but Ron Paul, the darling of the libertarians, is also an ardent isolationist (he of course does not call himself that) who essentially wants to withdraw to the shorelines, which can be defended at considerably smaller costs than now being incurred (which is one reason he favors that posture).

The fourth option, of course, is to continue things as they are: large budget deficits. While a short term case can be made for this solution, one thing the Tea Party right has successfully done is to take this option off the table. 

The net result of all this is to leave the defense establishment in a pickle of sorts. They believe in fiscal responsibility but generous resource allocation for defense. They generally oppose additional taxes, but they also oppose running what many of them join other conservatives in decrying as ruinous deficits. The problem is they cannot have it both ways. Anybody who believes that the outcome of this whole process is going to be the gutting of entitlement programs to defend an opulent defense budget must suffer from a dangerous belief in the Tooth Fairy: despite the wildest dreams of the Tea Party (which is almost certain to fade rapidly as the social consequences of  its advocacies are fully understood), this simply is not going to happen. Defense can only be resilient and funded at levels with which it is comfortable by raising taxes. It is really as simple as that, and anyone who tells you different is either a chronic liar or a delusional fool. While I understand this describes a large number of the current membership in Congress, it is nonetheless true.

Welcome back to Washington, Congress! Citizens, on the other hand, beware!