Mike Allen of Politico's Playbook fame seconds our idea of renaming the pirates. "Pirates go from curiosity to crisis for 1600 and the Pentagon," his headline screamed, the suggestion of renaming them "maritime terrorists" within.
Matt Yglesias criticizes the letter of the suggestion, if not the spirit, with the rather unimpeachable logic that pirates are...pirates.
The point I made last week -- that calling pirates "pirates" allows for a certain romanticization and fueled a media frenzy which too often overlooked the realities of the situation and the circumstance of failed-state Somalia -- thankfully seems passe.
This weekend's rescue, which involved U.S. naval warships, millions of dollars, and pirate and civilian deaths, spurred an examination of the why and how behind the pirates. The sheen's worn off. They're criminals and a security concern. They redouble Somalia's problems.
Or, as someone will inevitably put it somewhere on the internet: pirates totally jumped the shark.
Not such a good Friday for Caroline Kennedy, daughter of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy.
Just last week, her name emerged as a possible ambassador to the Vatican. News outlets reported that Senator John Kerry (the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) recommended her for the role, lobbying U.S. President Barack Obama, who makes the appointments, on her behalf.
The rumor sparked outrage among Catholic groups, because Kennedy, who is Catholic, supports abortion rights, which the church vehemently opposes. One called it an "insult," saying, "It's inappropriate to appoint someone who pretends to be a Catholic but rejects the fundamental teachings of the church."
It seems that the Vatican has crossed names off of Obama's list. "At least three names...have been 'burned' even before the proposal of nomination could be made formally, because they were unwelcome to the church," one Italian journalist wrote, as translated by the Washington Times. (The Vatican denies the allegation.)
The United States has never appointed a pro-choice ambassador to the Holy See.
Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images
In an interview with the BBC before the G-20 summit last week, Mexican President Felipe Calderon responded to charges that his country is becoming a failed state.
The president cautiously admitted that there is a drug problem, but placed most of the blame on his country's geographic proximity to the world's largest drug market: the United States. More blame falls on the U.S. as well: for allowing weapons to flow across the border. And Calderon theorizes that U.S. corruption is also partly to blame. He theorizes that if corruption allows drugs on the Mexican side of the border, it also must be true that corruption in the U.S. has something to do with the continuing passage of narcotics into that country. Hmm. Does he have a point?
For all those pondering the much-talked-of question of Mexico's stability, it's a must watch.
The six-person U.S. congressional delegation visiting Cuba yesterday reported a productive first session of discussions on how to normalize the two countries' relations. That will be a long, long road, but the momentum is growing. Restrictions on travel and remittances are rumored to be on the policy chopping block soon. The delegation from the Congressional Black Caucus was not sent from President Obama -- though carrying the self stated goal to "listen and talk" -- they became the first lawmakers to speak with Cuban officials since the president took office.
Praising Richard Lugar's call to amend U.S.-Cuba policy:
those capable of serenely analyzing the events, as is the case of the senator from Indiana, use an irrefutable argument: The measures of the United States against Cuba, over almost half a century, are a total failure."
Calling for dialogue with the U.S.:
There is no need to emphasize what Cuba has always said: We do not fear dialogue with the United States. Nor do we need confrontation to exist, as some foolish people think. We exist precisely because we believe in our ideas and we have never feared dialogue with the adversary. That [discussion] is the only way to build friendships among people."
But remaining staunch on the Cuban revolution:
The Cuban revolution, which the embargo and the dirty war were not able to destroy, is based upon ethical and political principles; it is for this reason that it has been able to resist [attempts to destroy it]."
As I said, it's a long -- if increasingly well-lit -- road ahead.
Indispensible financial blogger Felix Salmon, Liam Halligan for The Telegraph, and the New York Times have been parsing the fine print of the G-20 Communique, which promised $1 trillion in additional funding to help ease the financial crisis and get countries growing again.
They note that countries, including the United States, are behind on their IMF funding -- the crux of the program -- and require various sorts of congressional approval; therefore, the funding push may be illusory. The NYT concludes: "Some of the money has yet to be pledged, some is double-counted and some would be counted in a 'synthetic currency' that is not actually real money."
In some sense, none of this should come as a surprise; the "$1 trillion" number hardly represented the sum of an ordered and pledged budget. The Communique included massive sums with little fine print. Member-states' contributions to international organizations always become backed-up. And the ink isn't dry on the page yet -- there's been little time to sort out which commitments will come to fruition first.
The New York Times notices a specific potential problem:
In perhaps the most novel move, the Group of 20 authorized the monetary fund to issue $250 billion in Special Drawing Rights, known as S.D.R.’s — a “virtual currency” whose value is set by a basket of real currencies like the dollar, euro and British pound. The I.M.F. will issue the S.D.R.’s to all 185 of its members, and they in turn can lend them out to poor countries.
Special Drawing Rights are not cash but a form of credit, against which a country can borrow. The Obama administration, which conceived the idea and sold it to the Group of 20, figures it would create between $15 billion and $20 billion in additional credit for the poorest countries.But there is a caveat here as well. For the program’s benefits to be felt globally, the United States and Europe will need to lend out their Special Drawing Rights. In the United States, that will require Congressional approval.
To say that the SDRs aren't a real currency is both true and false. They are a unit of exchange eventually backed with actual cash; the IMF collects money from the member-states to fund them.
And countries like Russia and China, as well as IMF representatives themselves, have called for massive revisions to the outmoded program, to make it useful for alleviating the recession. How that will work remains to be seen.
Plus, it seems early days to be sounding the death knell for the G-20 spending promises. Will the $1 trillion number prove correct? No. But that isn't to say the IMF won't massively expand to aid ailing countries -- ultimately the point of the summit.
This morning, Politico reports on a Rasmussen poll taken two days before North Korea's botched rocket launch. The release leads with the alarming line: "Fifty-seven percent (57%) of U.S. voters nationwide favor a military response to eliminate North Korea’s missile launching capability."
The poll shows that both genders support military intervention equally, and that two-thirds of Republicans and just over half of Democrats do. Only 15 percent oppose it.
Still, it's not convincing evidence that most Americans are clamoring to send in the troops. The question read:
If North Korea launches a long-range missile, should the United States take military action to eliminate North Korea's ability to launch missiles?
Thus far, North Korea hasn't shown a lot of success with long-range missiles. The question also came immediately after one about concern over North Korea's nuclear capacity.
The most interesting finding of the poll, perhaps, shows a 14-point drop in people considering North Korea an enemy, and a massive skew along political lines over whether the Stalinist collectivist state is an enemy, ally, or something in between:
Sixty-four percent (64%) of Republicans consider North Korea an enemy of the United States. That view is shared by 50% of unaffiliateds and 28% of Democrats. Most Democrats (57%) place North Korea somewhere between ally and enemy.
Photo: Flickr user Borut Peterlin
Good for Hillary Clinton for stating the blatantly obvious fact that Americans' "insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade" and is exacerbating the violence in Mexico. But if the Obama administration is acknowledging that the drug trade is largely a demand-side issue, why is it still pursuing a supply-side solution?
Washington on Tuesday said it plans to ramp up border security with a $184 million program to add 360 security agents to border posts and step up searches for smuggled drugs, guns and cash.
The Obama administration plans to provide more than $80 million to buy Black Hawk helicopters to go after drug traffickers, Clinton said.
What was that about "insatiable demand"?
The new spending shows that the administration is taking the problem seriously, but I'll take the power of supply-and-demand over security agents and helicopters any day. (See Blake's take-down of William Saletan's "high-tech" solution for smuggling in Gaza.) The U.S. has spent over $6 billion on a military solution to Colombia's drug production and all we have to show for it is a 15 percent increase in cocaine cultivation.
Maybe it's time for some more out-of-the-box ideas.
John Moore/Getty Images
Between NAFTA and the drug war, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will have a lot to talk about on her visit to Mexico today, but she probably wasn't anticipating defending the U.S. conquest of a Mexican sidewalk. Some Mexico City politicians that security barriers set up around the U.S. embassy have effectively annexed an ajacent side street:
"It seems to me to be a lack of respect, and it is also a violation of national sovereignty," said city legislator Tomas Pliego of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, who pledged to force the Embassy obey a law against occupying public streets, parks and sidewalks.
Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, of the same party, also has taken up the cause of reopening Rio Danubio, a narrow one-way street off Paseo de la Reforma, the capital's main promenade modeled after the Champs-Elysees in Paris.
"The Embassy has not had, nor does it have, authorization to occupy public spaces," Ebrard told reporters. "They shouldn't be the ones who occupy the city with the aim of providing security."
SUSANA GONZALEZ/AFP/Getty Images
In a press release, Attorney General Eric Holder and the Department of Justice announce the withdrawal of the "enemy combatant" definition of Gitmo detainees. The memo says that, under President Obama's orders, the department is reviewing detention policy:
In a filing today with the federal District Court for the District of Columbia, the Department of Justice submitted a new standard for the government’s authority to hold detainees at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility. The definition does not rely on the President’s authority as Commander-in-Chief independent of Congress’s specific authorization. It draws on the international laws of war to inform the statutory authority conferred by Congress. It provides that individuals who supported al Qaeda or the Taliban are detainable only if the support was substantial. And it does not employ the phrase "enemy combatant."
The Department also submitted a declaration by Attorney General Eric Holder stating that, under executive orders issued by President Obama, the government is undertaking an interagency review of detention policy for individuals captured in armed conflicts or counterterrorism operations as well as a review of the status of each detainee held at Guantanamo. The outcome of those reviews may lead to further refinements of the government’s position as it develops a comprehensive policy.
The memo states that the government will no longer detain combatants who provided "insignificant or insubstantial" support to al Qaeda or the Taliban. (The Bush administration came under fierce criticism for holding persons with little or no connection to the terrorist organizations.) More than 200 remain incarcerated at Camp Delta; it's unclear if any -- or how many -- will be released under the new legal standards.
Photo: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
Don Kraus at the Global Solutions Blog and Mark Leon Goldberg at U.N. Dispatch report that Rep. Nita Lowey and Sen. Patrick Leahy managed to cut the Nethercutt Amendment out of the omnibus appropriations bill that Congress passed this week.
The Nethercutt Amendment -- named for former Rep. George Nethercutt and bundled in a 2004 appropriations bill -- cut economic support funds to nations that ratified the International Criminal Court without signing a Bilateral Immunity Agreement with the Bush administration.
Global Solutions says the law affected funding to more than 20 countries, including:
Latin American allies in the war on drugs, including Peru, Ecuador, Paraguay, Brazil, Venezuela, Costa Rica, and Uruguay.
The Balkan countries of Croatia and Serbia and Montenegro, which rely on U.S. military assistance to maintain stability and reform their armies.
Caribbean countries, whose hurricane disaster assistance is tied to the affected programs: Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
African allies with which the U.S. partners to help maintain regional security, including South Africa, Kenya, Mali and Tanzania.
Photo: Paul Vreeker/AFP/Getty Images
When Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai was involved in a car crash last Friday that killed his wife of 31 years and left him hospitalized, more than a few suspected his political rival, President Robert Mugabe, of foul play. A charge Tsvangirai himself denied today.
But ABC News now reports a new twist in the case. The vehicle that sideswiped Tsvangirai's car after hitting a pothole was owned by a contractor working for the U.S. government:
U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the vehicle was owned by the contractor, but had a USAID insignia on it. The vehicle was purchased by the contractor with U.S. government money, and the driver was hired and paid by a British development agency.
The truck is said to have been on a routine delivery route at the time of the accident.
According to officials, USAID has been informed that the truck was impounded and its driver has been detained.
Though it now appears likely to have been just a horrific accident, U.S. and British involvement in this tragedy is embarassing to say the least. I wouldn't be too surprised if it's now Mugabe's allies who start pushing the conspiracy theories.
U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman was in Israel over the weekend where he got the chance to meet with his namesake, right-wing politician and recent electoral kingmaker Avigdor Lieberman. Joe says he wanted to meet with Avigdor because "he will play an important role in the next government so it's important that we in the US get to know him well." But as the senator well knows, the controversial Israel Beiteinu leader is auditioning for the job of foreign minister and a meeting with a high-profile U.S. politician can only help his cause, and undermine negotiation efforts.
First of all, Joe Lieberman is helping to give international legitimacy to someone who describes peace negotiations as "a critical mistake" that will lead to Israel's destruction. Second, while Lieberman may deny that he's a racist, his quasi-fascist supporters don't even bother. Third, the guy's currently under investigation for money laundering.
I know it's a funny coincidence that they have the same last name ("Lieberman is the best name in the world," remarked an enthusiastic Avigdor after the meeting.) but is this really the company Joe wants to be keeping?
(Hat tip: Matt Yglesias)
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
I see that American officials in Israel are outraged that U.N. staffers had the temerity to hand John Kerry, who was touring Gaza recently, a letter purportedly from Hamas to U.S. President Barack Obama. And the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman himself has now caught the vapors:
Kerry turned the letter over to the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem on Friday and his spokesman told FOX News that the Democratic senator was not aware that the letter was from Hamas when he accepted it from an official with the U.N. relief agency.
Kerry told FOX News that he never read the letter because it was sandwich among other promotional papers the U.N. gave him. A State Department official confirmed to FOX News that it was from Hamas and is now under review.
A potential concern was whether such a letter would violate the United States' policy toward Hamas. Obama has said his administration will not engage in diplomatic talks with Hamas unless the group renounces terrorism and affirms Israel's right to exist.
This is all rather silly. What's the harm in accepting a letter? There's no obligation to do anything with the information. And shouldn't U.S. officials at least be interested to see what Hamas, or those claiming to be its representatives, have to say? Even if its clear that Hamas has no intention of recognizing Israel anytime soon, this policy of pretending that the group doesn't exist -- even as it steadly takes over the Palestinian territories -- is completely baffling to me.
MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave an interesting interview to Der Spiegel today. He expresses some optimism about relations between Russia and the United States, attributing the thaw to the need to address the financial crisis:
The global financial crisis is forcing all countries to focus on the real problems. It's actually a simple task....We can no longer afford the luxury of little geopolitical games, because we all face challenges that directly affect our citizens. So we should no longer ideologize problems, we should instead honestly express our own national interests, understand the legitimate interests of our partners, and have no more hidden agendas, where one thing is said while something else is done behind someone's back. The signals that we are receiving indicate that our Western partners are aiming for the same objectives.
Lavrov also denies (though not quite explicitly) that Russia put any pressure on Kyrgyzstan to close the Manas air base:
Lavrov: This is a decision by the Kyrgyz leadership. There were many incidents that caused dissatisfaction: Once an American soldier shot a Kyrgyz citizen and the police were not allowed to investigate the case; on another occasion, an American ran over pedestrians without legal consequences. In another incident, tons of jet fuel was dropped on Kyrgyz villages, and once again no one was held responsible. The Americans have even damaged the official state aircraft of Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
SPIEGEL: Now Russia has agreed to grant significant loans to Kyrgyzstan -- are you saying this is just a coincidence?
Lavrov: We have signed the corresponding agreement. Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorest countries and an ally. We treat an ally the way it should be.
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images
With Kyrgyzstan taking another step toward shuttering the Manas air base, there's increasing speculation that the Obama administration is considering resuming military cooperation with Uzbekistan, which expelled the U.S. in 2005 in the midst of a diplomatic feud over the country's human rights record. Christopher Flavelle writes in Slate:
The shifting landscape around Afghanistan is closing off options for Obama, who must now begin to think about unsavory compromises if he wants to make progress in the Afghan campaign. [...]
President George W. Bush, though largely indifferent to public opinion, could afford to do the honorable thing in 2005 by walking away from an ugly regime in Uzbekistan, when Afghanistan was looking better and the base in Kyrgyzstan was still available. Obama, whose inauguration speech promised that the ideals of rule of law and rights of man "still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake," may have to let his image suffer because he lacks the options of his predecessor.
Obama may still be spared this unpleasant choice. Analysts tell Eurasianet the Kyrgyz move is likely a ploy to get Washington to pony up more cash for the base, though some recent statements from the U.S. military indicate that Kyrgyzstan may have overplayed its hand.
Hopefully the Uzbekistan option is being floated by the Obamans as a bargaining chip with Kyrgyzstan and won't actually come to pass. Kyrgyzstan's not exactly Canada but Uzbekistan is in a class of its own as a human rights abuser and Fred Kaplan's 2005 arguments for why the U.S. should steer well clear of the place still hold.
Given all his encouraging human rights rhetoric, it would be nice if Obama could just minimize his dealings with post-Soviet dictatorships. Besides, his campaign manager and his secretary of state's husband have them well covered.
VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote enthusiastically about the tri-government military operation that Uganda, Congo, and Southern Sudan were undertaking to root out the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). Unfortunately, since then, things haven't been going well. The LRA managed to survive the initial military onslaught, and went on to massacre as many as 900 civilians since the military offensive began in mid-December. Joseph Kony, the group's notorious leader, is still alive and well. (While the LRA's deputy commander is set to surrender soon, it was Kony's death or capture that was the main point of the endeavor.)
Yet, just when this military venture was about to fizzle out with its primary objective still not met, an interesting piece of news, courtesy of the New York Times, has now thrown the operation back into the spotlight. On Feb. 7, the Times reported that the United States, through the Pentagon's newly minted Africa Command (or Africom), was heavily involved in the planning of the operation -- supplying intelligence, supplies, and more than a million dollars in fuel aid. According to the Times:
The Ugandan government asked the American Embassy in Kampala, Uganda's capital, for help, and the request was sent up the chain of command in November to President Bush, who personally authorized it, a former senior Bush administration official said."
Given the number of civilian massacres that have occurred since the start of the operation -- massacres that happened because no one adequately secured the villages in the area -- this could potentially be embarrassing for Africom and the Pentagon.
I asked Vince Crawley, chief of public information at Africom, to comment on the claims made by the New York Times. He responded by emphasizing that the United States was involved only in an advisory capacity and that "this wasn't a U.S. plan that Uganda carried out. It was a Ugandan plan that would have taken place regardless of U.S. assistance." With regard to the securing of villages in the area, Crawley said,
There was dialogue on how to protect the areas. There was discussion. Again, it's not a U.S. operation. ... Fundamentally, it's not appropriate for us to comment on the strategies and tactics of other nations. That's not what partners do."
Even with U.S. help, the LRA won't be easy to stamp out. Check out our new list of five other rebel groups around the world that have demonstrated remarkable staying power.
TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images
The speech was not interrupted by applause while the VP was speaking but got a warm response when it was over.
The NYT's Helene Cooper was there, and she thought the vice president took a hard line:
Mr. Biden’s speech was the highlight of a high-powered security conference that attracted a host of global leaders and diplomats, most of whom seemed primed to hear how the United States and its new leadership viewed the world. They erupted into spontaneous applause when Mr. Biden walked onto the stage.
But for all the talk of a new era in relations between the United States and the world, old sores remained, and with no sign of healing soon.
UPDATE: Craig Whitlock of WaPo saw the speech somewhat differently:
Vice President Joe Biden held out an olive branch Saturday to Iran and Russia, and reassured European allies that the Obama administration would treat them as equals but emphasized that "America will ask its partners to do more as well."
UPDATE II: Cooper's piece has been rewritten with a new focus. What seemed at first to be a hard line was actually well received in Moscow:
Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said Saturday that the United States will pursue a missile defense plan that has angered the Kremlin, but he also left open the possibility of compromise on the issue and struck a more conciliatory tone than the Bush administration on relations with Russia.
Dan Drezner quips on Biden's line about not recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, "This is Biden's example of a tough line? Well, whoa, blow me down!!"
Photo: AFP/Getty Images
When Michael "Scott" Speicher's F/A-18 Hornet was shot down over Baghdad in the wee hours of America's first war in Iraq, on Jan. 17, 1991, no one imagined that the story of his disappearance would end in a Washington, DC, boardroom. Fortunately, it hasn't.
The Navy pilot, father of two, and native of my own Jacksonville, Florida, was the first American lost in the first Gulf War. The night his plane crashed, the Pentagon and then Defense Secretary Dick Cheney declared him killed in action. It was a decision that Speicher's family and friends have fought for years. Because his remains were never found, many experts have been led to believe that he was captured, not killed, that fateful night. Evidence surfaced--including his initials scratched into an Iraqi prison wall--that forced the Defense Department in 2001 to declare him "Missing in Action" instead. When the more recent U.S. war and takeover of Iraq failed to explain definitively what happened to Speicher, the Pentagon prepared to close the case. His family vehemently opposed that move.
Last week, the ongoing saga over his whereabouts took a dramatic turn, when a Naval review board decided that Speicher's case should remain open and more evidence should be collected. Now, the decision will be left up to the secretary of the Navy, who will have the final decision on the case before he leaves office in less than a month.
It's an interesting case for many reasons, most important of which is that it could serve as a test case on how not to handle the recovery of missing military members during and after a time of war. We here at Passport will be watching.
Photo: Getty Images
On Monday in Washington, President Bush made one last ditch attempt for Darfur: he held talks with the least-worst person he could.
That person was Salva Kiir, who is both the Vice-President of Sudan and President of Southern Sudan. Hours earlier, the administration announced it was authorizing an emergency shipment of supplies to Darfur from Rwanda using two C-17 cargo planes. Another 240 containers of goods will be moved from ports into Darfur to help the fledgling UN-African Union peacekeeping mission.
That leaves me with two questions: Will the supplies do any good? And what exactly is the United States hoping to achieve?
First the supplies: The UN-AU hybrid mission is only at 63 percent of its strength, more than two years after the force was authorized, wracked with one difficulty after another (as if patrolling a space the size of France wasn't hard enough.) Cars and equipment have been stolen; fuel was siphoned from planes at night. Journalists have told me that Sudanese government forces are responsible.
But after months of quietly thwarting further deployment, the Sudanese government has finally swung open the door, "leaving the ball on the side of the UN," International Crisis Group Horn of Africa Director Fouad Hikmat tells me. It's up to UN member countries, particularly the U.S. which provides over a quarter of the budget, to handle the logistics of sending in peacekeepers. Will they be able to make a difference? Hikmat's read: "This is very very very good."
At first glance, it looks like President Bush is trying to cement his legacy as a genocide fighter. But if Bush is thinking Darfur, why meet with Kiir, a Southerner with little record in the region?
Country-wide voting is scheduled for Sudan this year -- part of a 6-year Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the decades long war between North and South Sudan in 2005. The light at the end of that long tunnel for Southerners is a vote on secession in 2011. If all goes according to plan, they'll vote on whether to remain autonomous, or become independent.
Like many Southerners, Kiir favors secession. But countrywide elections have to happen first -- and Darfur is in no shape to hold them. "[Southern politicians] for a long time weren't involved in Darfur, they were focused inward," Hikmat tells me. Now, they see they should become engaged because Darfur is a very serious threat to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement [and their secession vote]."
One more complication: the International Criminal Court may soon issue an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar el-Bashir. That makes Kiir the international powerbroker with the most credibility.
So Bush's and Kiir's interest may be right in line. For now. The U.S. should think long and hard about whether they want to back a secession, an outcome that Kiir favors and that Khartoum will certainly fight to prevent. It is an open secret that both South Sudan and the Khartoum government are arming in anticipation of the referendum in 2011. Yet another dilemma for the new President to look forward to.
Photo: Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images
The Washington Post's Walter Pincus has an analysis of Robert Gates recent articles and media appearances. He writes:
A longtime Russia analyst during his years with the CIA, Gates today sees Moscow as less of a threat than do many inside and outside the U.S. military establishment.
Pincus is referring to statements like this one, from Gates' piece in the new Foreign Affairs:
Russian tanks and artillery may have crushed Georgia's tiny military. But before the United States begins rearming for another Cold War, it must remember that what is driving Russia is a desire to exorcise past humiliation and dominate its "near abroad" -- not an ideologically driven campaign to dominate the globe. As someone who used to prepare estimates of Soviet military strength for several presidents, I can say that Russia's conventional military, although vastly improved since its nadir in the late 1990s, remains a shadow of its Soviet predecessor. And adverse demographic trends in Russia will likely keep those conventional forces in check.
Good point, but do "many inside and outside the U.S. military establishment" really disagree with it? I find it hard to believe that even those who think the military is neglecting conventional threats by focusing on counterinsurgency would argue that Russia today is a comparable threat to the Soviet Union.
If there actually is a real debate about this, I'm glad Gates is the one in charge. Here's hoping he and his colleagues continue the recent strategy of basically ignoring Russia's pointless military posturing and focusing their attention where real damage can be done.
Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
The classic kung fu movie "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin" (popularized in the U.S. by the Wu Tang Clan) consists almost entirely of an extended training sequence in which the hero must test himself in increasingly difficult "chambers" created by the Shaolin temple monks before achieving the martial arts mastery needed to vanquish his enemies.
Ever since Joe Biden's infamous warning that Barack Obama would face "an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy," observers seem to be treating international events as a series of Shaolin-like "tests" for the president-elect to pass before achieving bona-fide statesman status. The big question is which test Obama will have to face first.
Would Russia putting missiles on the EU's doorstep be Obama's first test? Or would it be Iraq? Or Afghanistan? Or Pakistan? The Mumbai attacks were a popular choice for a while. Dark horse contenders include instability in Somalia and cranky European allies. Lately, the violence in Gaza has seemed an increasingly likely candidate.
Or perhaps... all of the above?
Looking at international affairs this way is both misleading and unfortunately, overly optimistic. Unlike the Shaolin trainee, Obama doesn't have the luxury of facing these tests one at a time, picking up valuable skills along the way. He's going to have to face all of them at once, along with urgent domestic issues and an economy in shambles.
Contrary to what Obama's secretary of state once said, there's no such thing as a "commander-in-chief threshold." Obama will not face down some international crisis and prove himself as a qualified world leader. He's going to have to learn on the job and he will make rookie mistakes as well as (let's hope) major breakthroughs.
It's doubtful that any of the above situations are going to be "solved" no matter how brilliant Obama proves to be, and there's a better-than-even chance that his biggest foreign policy test will be something that isn't even on anyone's radar right now. Americans will have a chance to judge whether he's at least handled himself competently when he faces the presidency's 36th chamber: re-election.
Photo by Jeff Haynes-Pool/Getty Images
As Becky wrote, the fact that Obama picked Rick Warren, America's most popular preacher, to speak at his innauguration shouldn't be all that surprising and probably doesn't say much about his stance on any issues. That said, the anger of gay rights groups at the pick means that Obama is now under more pressure to actually do something meaningful for gay rights as president. One place he could start would be reversing the United States' deplorable decision last week to vote against a historic UN resolution to decriminalize homosexuality.
The resolution was a non-binding declaration "to ensure that sexual orientation or gender identity may under no circumstances be the basis for criminal penalties, in particular executions, arrests or detention." The Bush administration opposed the measure on the grounds that it could overturn states' decisions on issues like gay marriage. One wonders if they need a refresher on what "non-binding" means.
Joining the United States in opposition were Russia, China, the Vatican, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. The latter group claimed that the resolution would lead to the legalization of pedophilia and also tried last week to have sexual orientation removed from a list of unacceptable reasons for summary execution.
The resolution doesn't have the force of law anywhere, but as UN Dispatch's Mark Leon Goldberg writes, previous agreements on women's rights show that "in the long run these kinds of resolutions do help to foster the genesis of new legal norms and new human rights."
If Obama wants to do something to assure his gay and lesbian supporters that he doesn't plan to sell them out, this is an easy one.
Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images
There is a crisis. People are dying. Sending peacekeepers sounds great -- they come with U.N. neutrality, a mandate (usually) to use force, and the promise to do something. Who doesn't want to help out in places like the DR Congo, Zimbabwe, and Somalia?
If only it were so easy, writes the U.S. Government Accountability Office in a report released today. Future peacekeeping missions will be plagued by complex logistics, extensive troop needs, daunting political circumstances, and a reluctance from member states to donate troops and resources.
But the report is even more jarring. One cannot help but notice that the "hypothetical" situation described in the report sounds not-so-vaguely reminiscent of Somalia, to which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggested sending peacekeepers just this week.
The potential new mission’s area of operations would have limited infrastructure and utilities, lacking roads, buildings, and water, and would thus require increased logistical planning...the potential new operation would be in a high-threat environment, political factions would recently have been fighting for control of the country, and there would be large numbers of internally displaced persons...According to UN planners, a potential new force would likely require units with the capability to deter threats from armed factions supported by international terrorist groups, which previous operations did not have to take into account to the same degree.
Sound familiar? There are only few countries in sub-Saharan Africa that have that level of chaos with possible international terrorists to boot -- and Sudan already has two U.N. missions.
So what would a peacekeeping mission to Somalia look like? This "hypothetical" country would require 21,000 troops, 1,500 police, 4,000 to 5,000 civilian staff, and a costly helicopter force to supply aerial surveillance 24 hours a day. According to the report:
There are a limited number of countries that provide troops and police with needed capabilities to meet current needs, and some potential contributors may be unwilling to provide forces for a new operation due to such political factors as their own national interests and the environmental and security situation in the host country.
The U.N. is already short 18,000 troops to staff its mandated missions around the world, and is missing 22 percent of the needed civilian personnel. The GAO warns that, though there are efforts to help the U.N. close the gap, the U.S. has failed to support some incentives such as increased protection for civilian forces. And Somalia is far less appealing a locale than Liberia, Cote D'Ivoire, and maybe even Darfur.
So peacekeeping is failing -- or it might, if the world tries this particular case. Blue helmets are not one-size-fits-all countries. Hopefully Congress will read this "hypothetical" between the lines.
Photo: STUART PRICE/AFP/Getty Images
Call it a virtual thrown shoe at the United States. Yesterday, 33 countries in Latin America met in Brazil to discuss regional cooperation and the financial crisis. Here's the flying one-two punch: The summit condemned the U.S. embargo on Cuba, blamed the United States for the financial crisis, and refused to let the northern neighbor attend. Ouch.
Like Muntadar al-Zaidi's famous act of protest, the shoe flew -- but may have missed the mark ever so slightly. Leaders were dismissive of Bolivian President Evo Morales's call for the region to expel U.S. ambassadors unless the Cuba embargo was lifted. And though host Brazil asserted its regional dominance, bickering prevented solid agreements on trade issues and further regional cooperation.
By the way, the strained shoe analogy is not entirely mine. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva found the metaphor too good to pass up -- threatening to throw his slipper at Venezuela's Hugo Chavez if he overspoke his podium time.
And then there were the instructions to press: "Please, nobody take off your shoes."
Photo: ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP/Getty Images
As I wrote on Monday, the United States is hoping to send U.N. peacekeepers into turbulent Somalia. Yesterday, a U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing the use of force on ground in Somalia to stop pirating passed. In a press briefing afterward, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was very cryptic in response to the final question:
QUESTION: (Inaudible) does this resolution mean that –
SECRETARY RICE: Thank you.
QUESTION: -- you can intervene militarily in Somalia?
SECRETARY RICE: We – there is a very – there is a very clear, longstanding understanding in international politics about the role of UN Security Council resolutions in this regard, and the fact that it is the Transitional Federal Government that is desirous of not having their territory used for safe haven for pirates. And so that is what has just taken place here in the Council.
NBC News reports on the status of Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs and the point man on U.S. negotiations with North Korea:
Hill said today that he has NOT been asked to stay on in an Obama administration. "I haven't talked to anybody about my future," he said in response to a reporter's question about a possible role in the diplomatic corps of the next president, adding wryly, "I do need to figure out what I'm going to do when I grow up." [...]
[Hill] spoke to reporters today in the wake of bad news for the U.S. in six-party talks, which suffered a major setback last week when North Korean negotiators refused to sign on to guidelines for a "verification protocol" that would open up north Korean nuclear facilities to intrusive inspections, including collecting and removing nuclear samples from the country.
Photo: FILE; FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
With many of the Cabinet-level posts in the new Obama administration already filled, the identity of one big position -- the next U.S. ambassador to Iraq -- remains up in the air. Obama's national security team is convening today and the question of who will act as America's day-to-day emissary to the Iraqi government will likely be on the docket. So, who is in line to be our next man in Baghdad? Here are four possibilities:
Former Ambassador to Syria and Israel Edward Djerejian pushed the possibility of keeping on a former member of his staff, current U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker. "He has a record of seeking out difficult assignments," Djerejian told me. "He knows the region like the back of his hand, [and] he works well with the military." Among other impressive assignments, Crocker served in the U.S. Embassy in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, and became ambassador at the conclusion of the war in 1990. He also was sent to Kabul to reopen the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan in January 2002, and served as U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan from 2004 to 2007.
One person who may be able to duplicate Crocker's knowledge of the Middle East, while still allowing Obama to claim the mantle of "change," is another career diplomat, David Satterfield. He currently serves as senior advisor to Secretary Rice on Iraq, and had previously been the deputy chief of mission in Baghdad. He has also served abroad in Tunis, Jeddah, Beirut, and Damascus, as well as a stint in Washington as director of the State Department's Office of Israel and Arab-Israeli Affairs.
Ricciardone served as the U.S. Ambassador to Egypt from 2005 until earlier this year. Ricciardone has long experience working with Kurdish groups in the north of Iraq. He served as U.S. political advisor for Operation Provide Comfort, an effort by the US and Turkish military to protect Kurds persecuted by Saddam Hussein following the first Gulf War. In 1999, he was selected as the State Department's special coordinator for the transition of Iraq, tasked with coordinating the overthrow of Hussein's regime with Iraq opposition groups.
Journalist and blogger Spencer Ackerman endorsed the former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke for the position. Ackerman speculates that Holbrooke could use his experience mediating in the Balkans to help Iraq overcome its sectarian obstacles. Having evidently missed out on a place in the cabinet, serving as U.S. ambassador to Iraq is one of the few remaining positions appropriate to Holbrooke's stature. However, he lacks the Middle East experience of the other candidates, as well as fluency in Arabic, which is crucial for public diplomacy.
These are some names currently grinding through the D.C. rumor mill. Who do you think would be right for the job?
Photos: CEERWAN AZIZ/AFP/Getty Images, Mohammed Jalil-Pool/Getty Images, cairo.usembassy.gov, Alex Wong/Getty Images
Five-plus years after the invasion of Iraq, here's some shock and awe for you: The 751-page report released today by the congressionally funded Project on National Security Reform. The product of two years of work, their conclusions are grim... albeit with a silver lining.
First, the bad news. The United States' national security system is antiquated, "grossly imbalanced," incapable of cooperating agency-to-agency, and unable to "help American leaders to formulate coherent national strategy," according to the report. National security agencies compete rather than working together, so decisions are delayed and watered down. Since budgets get doled out by agency, departmental goals often outweigh the big picture.
No U.S. president -- no matter how wise and sleep-deprived -- could possibly get a handle on that system.
Here's the good news: Barack Obama can fix it. Maybe.
The report offers some dramatic and common-sense reforms to get the system back in check -- starting with interagency cooperation. It calls for a central security budget based on projects, not agencies. It would merge the personnel and security clearance schemes across the government. Top officials from each agency would work on meta-teams for security issues. And the report recommends creating a new, central council so that the president can make sense of it all -- replacing the National Security and Homeland Security councils.
With any luck, the report's authors hope, the new administration will get to fixing this mess sooner rather than later. The Project on National Security Reform's executive director, James R. Locher III, tells FP in Seven Questions this week that now might be the time. It so happens that retired Gen. James L. Jones, tapped Monday to be the Obama's national security advisor, is a former member of the report's "guiding coalition" (basically, a steering committee). Two other big names who served on the coalition, former Clinton deputy James B. Steinberg and retired Adm. Dennis C. Blair, might also make it onto Team Obama. Check it out.
I don't have strong feelings yet about Barack Obama's new national security team. For one thing, it's far too early to tell how they will work together and what policy approaches they will take to the major challenges of the day -- be it battling terrorism and militancy in South Asia, withdrawing from Iraq, or combating climate change. President-elect Obama is a smart guy who has thus far demonstrated excellent judgment, and chances are his vaunted "Team of Rivals" will be very successful under his leadership.
That said, I do have what you might call "inchoate fears" about the Obama administration. Here are my biggest worries, and I stress here that these are worst-case scenarios, not predictions:
James L. Jones, for all his gravitas, will prove to be unimaginative as national security advisor. He seems to have risen to his present level of bipartisan esteem with very little scrutiny, even though his record -- getting NATO more involved in Afghanistan, improving security in the Palestinian territories, stabilizing Darfur, opposing the surge in Iraq, promoting an industry-friendly energy policy completely at odds with Obama's approach -- is certainly open to question.
Hillary Clinton won't be able to develop the close relationship with Barack Obama that a secretary of state needs to be effective. Her past positions on Israel suggest that she might hew too closely to a diplomatic line that failed in the 1990s and be too reticent to put pressure on Israel to stop the settlements. She will be cautious to a fault toward Iran. Her managerial skills, as demonstrated by her dysfunctional primary campaign, will prove disastrous within the State Department's sprawling, leak-prone bureaucracy. The national security council staff, full of Obama loyalists from the campaign, will work to undermine her.
Bob Gates will be seen as a lame duck within the Pentagon and he won't be able to effect the sweeping administrative changes and massive shifts in budget priorities the Department of Defense needs. The forces of the status quo will simply wait him out. He and his generals will not feel comfortable with Obama's timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. And if the situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate, he will become the fall guy as the lone Republican in the cabinet.
Joe Biden will chafe at being kept in a box and develop a pet issue, such as his widely panned plan for Iraq, on which his ideas are bad but Obama doesn't have the wherewithal to rein him in.
Barack Obama will be so distracted by the all-consuming global economic meltdown that he will be surprised or unprepared for a national-security crisis that, in retrospect, will appear to have been obvious and inevitable.
Readers, what are your biggest fears about the Obama team?
Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
At a time when no other rumored cabinet picks are talking, that's just what Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel did this morning at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. The Nebraska senator gave a speech entitled "Toward a Bipartisan Foreign Policy."
So first, why is Hagel talking? Marc Ambinder thinks this means Hagel is out of contention for a spot in the Obama cabinet. Michael Abramowitz still thinks Hagel is a "live possibility" for the cabinet -- and others consider secretary of defense the best option for the decorated Vietnam veteran.
The senator makes the GOP wish list for the cabinet, and that might mean more than we think given Obama's promises of bipartisanship -- especially since Hagel traveled to Iraq with Obama this summer and has broken with his party on the war.
From his comments today, I think he could still be in the running for a post. His remarks -- decidedly big-picture, painted a vision of foreign policy and domestic political cooperation for the next administration. A few key points:
Sounds like a good pitch for succeeding Gates at the Pentagon to me.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
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