Commentary Magazine


Topic: Center for Strategic and International Studies

Morning Commentary

Concern is growing over China’s advancing military capabilities. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates met with civilian leaders in Beijing today, Chinese bloggers and news agencies produced photos that appear to show the country’s new stealth fighter taking its first test flight: “That message undercuts the symbolism of Mr. Gates’ visit, which is designed to smooth military relations ahead of a state visit to the U.S. next week by Chinese President Hu Jintao.”

The insta-politicization of the Arizona shooting — by both Twitter activists and serious political leaders — is just another example of why Americans are becoming increasingly fed up with both the Republican and Democratic parties, writes Reason’s Nick Gillespie: “How do you take one of the most shocking and revolting murder sprees in memory and make it even more disturbing? By immediately pouncing on its supposed root causes for the most transparently partisan of gains.”

Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin outlines the possible replacements for the top positions on Obama’s foreign-policy team in 2011. The most likely candidates to replace Defense Secretary Robert Gates — who is expected to step down after early next spring — are John Hamre, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies; Michele Flourney, Gates’s current undersecretary for policy; and CIA chief Leon Panetta.

The IDF is fighting back at criticism over its use of tear gas at an anti-Israel protest in Bil’in, by launching a YouTube campaign showing demonstrators throwing rocks and attempting to tear down fences at the same rally.

A former ambassador to Lebanon responds to the New York Times’s shameful fluff story about a radical Lebanese, Hezbollah-praising newspaper: “Sadly, Al Akhbar is less maverick and far less heroic than your article suggests. Al Akhbar will no more criticize Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, than Syria’s state-run Tishreen newspaper would question the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.”

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the chair of the Pakistan ruling party and son of the late Benazir Bhutto, has vowed to keep fighting the country’s blasphemy laws after the assassination of Salman Taseer: “‘To the Christian and other minority communities in Pakistan, we will defend you,’ he said at a memorial ceremony in London for Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province who was killed by his own security guard last week. ‘Those who wish to harm you for a crime you did not commit will have to go through me first.’”

Concern is growing over China’s advancing military capabilities. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates met with civilian leaders in Beijing today, Chinese bloggers and news agencies produced photos that appear to show the country’s new stealth fighter taking its first test flight: “That message undercuts the symbolism of Mr. Gates’ visit, which is designed to smooth military relations ahead of a state visit to the U.S. next week by Chinese President Hu Jintao.”

The insta-politicization of the Arizona shooting — by both Twitter activists and serious political leaders — is just another example of why Americans are becoming increasingly fed up with both the Republican and Democratic parties, writes Reason’s Nick Gillespie: “How do you take one of the most shocking and revolting murder sprees in memory and make it even more disturbing? By immediately pouncing on its supposed root causes for the most transparently partisan of gains.”

Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin outlines the possible replacements for the top positions on Obama’s foreign-policy team in 2011. The most likely candidates to replace Defense Secretary Robert Gates — who is expected to step down after early next spring — are John Hamre, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies; Michele Flourney, Gates’s current undersecretary for policy; and CIA chief Leon Panetta.

The IDF is fighting back at criticism over its use of tear gas at an anti-Israel protest in Bil’in, by launching a YouTube campaign showing demonstrators throwing rocks and attempting to tear down fences at the same rally.

A former ambassador to Lebanon responds to the New York Times’s shameful fluff story about a radical Lebanese, Hezbollah-praising newspaper: “Sadly, Al Akhbar is less maverick and far less heroic than your article suggests. Al Akhbar will no more criticize Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, than Syria’s state-run Tishreen newspaper would question the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.”

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the chair of the Pakistan ruling party and son of the late Benazir Bhutto, has vowed to keep fighting the country’s blasphemy laws after the assassination of Salman Taseer: “‘To the Christian and other minority communities in Pakistan, we will defend you,’ he said at a memorial ceremony in London for Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province who was killed by his own security guard last week. ‘Those who wish to harm you for a crime you did not commit will have to go through me first.’”

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Coming Apart at the Seams

As much as Obama’s aura has dimmed in the United States, his international standing is potentially in worse condition, and with more dire consequences. As this report explains, he’s finding it hard — no matter how lucrative the bribe — to get any nation to make a deal:

From failing to secure a free-trade agreement in South Korea to struggling to win Senate ratification of an arms-control treaty with Russia, Obama has bumped up against the boundaries of his power at a defining moment of his presidency. …

“He assumed that because he was liked so clearly and overwhelmingly he could merely assert what he wanted to achieve and people would follow,” said Simon Serfaty, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Clearly enough, the world that he imagined proved to be different than the world as it is.” …

The Middle East peace process he inaugurated two months ago has stalled. His mercurial ally in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai, is calling for scaled-back U.S. military operations there at the height of the 30,000-troop escalation Obama approved a year ago.

His pledge to remedy one polarizing legacy of the Bush administration by closing the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, suffered this week when a jury convicted the first former detainee to face civilian trial on only one of 285 criminal counts. Read More

As much as Obama’s aura has dimmed in the United States, his international standing is potentially in worse condition, and with more dire consequences. As this report explains, he’s finding it hard — no matter how lucrative the bribe — to get any nation to make a deal:

From failing to secure a free-trade agreement in South Korea to struggling to win Senate ratification of an arms-control treaty with Russia, Obama has bumped up against the boundaries of his power at a defining moment of his presidency. …

“He assumed that because he was liked so clearly and overwhelmingly he could merely assert what he wanted to achieve and people would follow,” said Simon Serfaty, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Clearly enough, the world that he imagined proved to be different than the world as it is.” …

The Middle East peace process he inaugurated two months ago has stalled. His mercurial ally in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai, is calling for scaled-back U.S. military operations there at the height of the 30,000-troop escalation Obama approved a year ago.

His pledge to remedy one polarizing legacy of the Bush administration by closing the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, suffered this week when a jury convicted the first former detainee to face civilian trial on only one of 285 criminal counts.

You get the picture. So Obama’s gambits become more and more desperate. Hence, the cockeyed attempt to spare himself the collapse of the non-direct, non-peace talks. “National security analysts say the price Obama is willing to pay for another three months of talks is high, in part because he set a one-year timeline for their successful conclusion. Many believe that the deadline, like other of Obama’s foreign policy goals, was overly optimistic.” Well, that’s a generous way of putting it. To be blunt, he’s made hash out of our relationship with Israel, diminished our credibility with every player in the Middle East, and now is panicked that it is all about to come tumbling down around his ears.

Likewise, out of desperation to get a “win,” Obama is trying to force a Senate vote on New START. Saner voices are trying to warn him:

Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations who held senior foreign-policy positions in both Bush administrations, said “it’s no big deal if gets kicked off until February, March, then passes.”

“You don’t want to bring this to a vote and lose,” Haass said. “You don’t want to have the Senate equivalent of going to Seoul and not getting a trade agreement.”

Funny how each new foreign policy fumble has a precursor. Seoul is like Copenhagen. New START is like the Syrian ambassador’s nomination. The handling of the Honduras “coup” is like pulling the rug out from under our Eastern European allies on missile defense. And on it goes — an endless series of half-baked ideas, offended allies, stalled negotiations, and poorly executed gambits. And we haven’t even gotten to the worst of it: an emboldened Iran racing toward membership in the nuclear power club.

It’s not all a disaster. Obama is showing some recognition that we must remain engaged in Iraq. He’s coming around to erasing the ill-advised Afghanistan deadline. And perhaps, after two years, he’s cluing into the need to get serious about human rights in Egypt and elsewhere. But the continuities with his predecessor (annoyingly accompanied by chest-puffing and refusal to credit President Bush) are outnumbered and overshadowed by the gaffes.

This is not a time for conservatives to cheer. It is deeply troubling that the president has imperiled our standing in the world. Congress is no substitute for a commander in chief, but responsible voices in the House and Senate should work — by resolution, oversight, private conversation, and funding — to guide the administration to more sober policymaking and less erratic execution. Unfortunately, once the credibility of the American president is diminished by hapless moves and unserious rhetoric, it’s hard to get it back.

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The War in Afghanistan: Where We Are Now

We have reached a key juncture in the Afghanistan war. Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal have spent the last year getting the right “inputs” in place, meaning getting the structures right, putting the best leaders in charge, developing the right concepts, providing the authority and resources necessary, and so forth. We are now at the very early stages of the “output” phase, with a counterinsurgency (COIN) offensive in Helmand province that began in February and a forthcoming offensive in Kandahar. This campaign will unfold over the next 18 months or so and will go a long way toward determining the outcome of the war.

As we enter this new phase of the war — with, for the first time, a properly resourced counterinsurgency strategy in place — it’s important to understand the situation on the ground, including public sentiment, which is a crucial component of a successful COIN strategy.

A new report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), “Shaping the War in Afghanistan: The Situation in the Spring of 2010,” provides useful information, much of it culled from other recent reports and surveys (like the Department of Defense’s April report on progress toward security and stability in Afghanistan and an analysis of public opinion in Afghanistan conducted by ABC News, the BBC, and ARD).

Among the encouraging data points:

  • After steep declines in recent years there’s been a 30-point advance in views that the country is headed in the right direction; 70 percent now say so, the most since 2005. Afghans’ expectations that their own lives will be better a year from now have jumped by 20 points, to 71 percent, a new high. And there’s been a 14-point rise in expectations that the next generation will have a better life, to 61 percent.
  • Seventy (70) percent say living conditions are better now than they were under the Taliban.
  • Sixty-eight (68) percent of Afghans continue to support the presence of U.S. forces in their country – and nearly as many, 61 percent, favor the coming surge of Western troops initiated by President Obama.
  • There’s been a 14-point gain from last year, to 83 percent, in the view among Afghans that it was right for the United States to invade and overthrow the Taliban just more than eight years ago. And the number of Afghans who say attacking Western forces can be justified has dropped sharply, from 25 percent a year ago to 8 percent, a new low. (It jumps to 22 percent in the South – but that’s half of what it was there a year ago.)
  • President Karzai’s performance rating is only 40 percent in Helmand but 72 percent in the rest of the country – making him, by my count, more popular in Afghanistan than President Obama is in America.
  • Afghans confidence in their government reached a new high (since polling started in September 2008). Between September and March of 2009, Afghan confidence in the national administration increased by six percentage points to 45 percent, confidence in the provincial governor increased by five percentage points to 47 percent, and confidence in the district governors increased by six percentage points to 44 percent. When asked if the government was heading in the right direction, 59 percent of Afghans responded “yes.” This represents an increase of eight percent over the previous September 2009.
  • In March 2010, 30 percent of Afghans believed that the government was less corrupt than one year prior while 24 percent believed that it was more corrupt.

On the other side of the ledger:

  • Just 38 percent rate the work of the United States in Afghanistan positively – up 6 points in the past year, but far below its peak, 68 percent, in 2005. (NATO’s ratings are as low, and flat.) Fifty-one (51) percent have a favorable view of the United States overall – vastly below its high point, 83 percent, in 2005. And U.S. favorability drops to 35 percent in the East and 29 percent in the South (vs. 59 percent in the rest of the country) – again, plummeting where the United States is most actively engaged in combat.
  • Just 42 percent in the South and East support the presence of U.S. forces in their area, compared with 78 percent in the rest of the country.
  • More Afghans say the United States and NATO are doing worse, not better, in avoiding civilian casualties, by 43-24 percent. (This may reflect dismay over widely publicized individual incidents, such as the bombing of a pair of hijacked fuel tankers in September that killed scores of civilians in Kunduz province.
  • Nearly all Afghans – 95 percent – say official corruption is a problem in their area, up 23 points since 2007. Seventy-six (76) percent say it’s a big problem; both are new highs.
  • Only 29 percent of Afghans had a very good or good opinion of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), with an additional 34 percent reporting a neutral rating.
  • We are focusing on 121 districts that have been deemed as critical to success. Of those 121, there are just 29 (24 percent) in which the population sympathizes with the Afghan government. While doubts about Afghan governance, writ large, doesn’t translate directly into support for the Taliban, which is still much-hated, it certainly doesn’t help matters. (In addition, the data for the 121 districts are not necessarily indicative of all of Afghanistan, especially given that they are the focus of the COIN campaign precisely because of the level of threats within them.)
  • Just 38 percent rate the work of the United States in Afghanistan positively – up 6 points in the past year, but far below its peak, 68 percent, in 2005. (NATO’s ratings are as low, and flat.) Fifty-one (51) percent have a favorable view of the United States overall – vastly below its high point, 83 percent, in 2005. And U.S. favorability drops to 35 percent in the East and 29 percent in the South (vs. 59 percent in the rest of the country) – again, plummeting where the United States is most actively engaged in combat.
  • Just 42 percent in the South and East support the presence of U.S. forces in their area, compared with 78 percent in the rest of the country.
  • More Afghans say the United States and NATO are doing worse, not better, in avoiding civilian casualties, by 43-24 percent. (This may reflect dismay over widely publicized individual incidents, such as the bombing of a pair of hijacked fuel tankers in September that killed scores of civilians in Kunduz province.)
  • Nearly all Afghans – 95 percent – say official corruption is a problem in their area, up 23 points since 2007. Seventy-six (76) percent say it’s a big problem; both are new highs.
  • Only 29 percent of Afghans had a very good or good opinion of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), with an additional 34 percent reporting a neutral rating.
  • We are focusing on 121 districts that have been deemed as critical to success. Of those 121, there are just 29 (24 percent) in which the population sympathizes with the Afghan government. While doubts about Afghan governance, writ large, doesn’t translate directly into support for the Taliban, which is still much-hated, it certainly doesn’t help matters. (In addition, the data for the 121 districts are not necessarily indicative of all of Afghanistan, especially given that they are the focus of the COIN campaign precisely because of the level of threats within them.)

It’s quite a mixed picture, then — but since the beginning of 2009, a low-water mark, we’ve seen an increase in the performance ratings of the Afghan army, the Afghan government, Hamid Karzai, and the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

The CSIS report also documents the rising intensity of the fighting, the increase in IED attacks, opium-poppy-cultivation trends, the growth in the (licit) GDP, and the growing strength of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police (the ANA has largely exceeded its recruiting goals between 2009 and 2010 and now includes more than 112,000 Afghans; the ANP now counts more than 102,000 Afghans in its ranks). And according to the most recent Department of Defense report, 52 percent of Afghans believe insurgents are the greatest source of insecurity, while only 1 percent believes the National Army/Police are primarily to blame. In the words of the DoD report: “This perception provides an opportunity for the Afghan Government, with the support of the international community, to improve its legitimacy and enhance popular perception of the government.”

In the end, increasing the legitimacy of the government will be key as to whether the war has a successful outcome. Nobody understands this better than David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal.

Stay tuned.

We have reached a key juncture in the Afghanistan war. Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal have spent the last year getting the right “inputs” in place, meaning getting the structures right, putting the best leaders in charge, developing the right concepts, providing the authority and resources necessary, and so forth. We are now at the very early stages of the “output” phase, with a counterinsurgency (COIN) offensive in Helmand province that began in February and a forthcoming offensive in Kandahar. This campaign will unfold over the next 18 months or so and will go a long way toward determining the outcome of the war.

As we enter this new phase of the war — with, for the first time, a properly resourced counterinsurgency strategy in place — it’s important to understand the situation on the ground, including public sentiment, which is a crucial component of a successful COIN strategy.

A new report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), “Shaping the War in Afghanistan: The Situation in the Spring of 2010,” provides useful information, much of it culled from other recent reports and surveys (like the Department of Defense’s April report on progress toward security and stability in Afghanistan and an analysis of public opinion in Afghanistan conducted by ABC News, the BBC, and ARD).

Among the encouraging data points:

  • After steep declines in recent years there’s been a 30-point advance in views that the country is headed in the right direction; 70 percent now say so, the most since 2005. Afghans’ expectations that their own lives will be better a year from now have jumped by 20 points, to 71 percent, a new high. And there’s been a 14-point rise in expectations that the next generation will have a better life, to 61 percent.
  • Seventy (70) percent say living conditions are better now than they were under the Taliban.
  • Sixty-eight (68) percent of Afghans continue to support the presence of U.S. forces in their country – and nearly as many, 61 percent, favor the coming surge of Western troops initiated by President Obama.
  • There’s been a 14-point gain from last year, to 83 percent, in the view among Afghans that it was right for the United States to invade and overthrow the Taliban just more than eight years ago. And the number of Afghans who say attacking Western forces can be justified has dropped sharply, from 25 percent a year ago to 8 percent, a new low. (It jumps to 22 percent in the South – but that’s half of what it was there a year ago.)
  • President Karzai’s performance rating is only 40 percent in Helmand but 72 percent in the rest of the country – making him, by my count, more popular in Afghanistan than President Obama is in America.
  • Afghans confidence in their government reached a new high (since polling started in September 2008). Between September and March of 2009, Afghan confidence in the national administration increased by six percentage points to 45 percent, confidence in the provincial governor increased by five percentage points to 47 percent, and confidence in the district governors increased by six percentage points to 44 percent. When asked if the government was heading in the right direction, 59 percent of Afghans responded “yes.” This represents an increase of eight percent over the previous September 2009.
  • In March 2010, 30 percent of Afghans believed that the government was less corrupt than one year prior while 24 percent believed that it was more corrupt.

On the other side of the ledger:

  • Just 38 percent rate the work of the United States in Afghanistan positively – up 6 points in the past year, but far below its peak, 68 percent, in 2005. (NATO’s ratings are as low, and flat.) Fifty-one (51) percent have a favorable view of the United States overall – vastly below its high point, 83 percent, in 2005. And U.S. favorability drops to 35 percent in the East and 29 percent in the South (vs. 59 percent in the rest of the country) – again, plummeting where the United States is most actively engaged in combat.
  • Just 42 percent in the South and East support the presence of U.S. forces in their area, compared with 78 percent in the rest of the country.
  • More Afghans say the United States and NATO are doing worse, not better, in avoiding civilian casualties, by 43-24 percent. (This may reflect dismay over widely publicized individual incidents, such as the bombing of a pair of hijacked fuel tankers in September that killed scores of civilians in Kunduz province.
  • Nearly all Afghans – 95 percent – say official corruption is a problem in their area, up 23 points since 2007. Seventy-six (76) percent say it’s a big problem; both are new highs.
  • Only 29 percent of Afghans had a very good or good opinion of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), with an additional 34 percent reporting a neutral rating.
  • We are focusing on 121 districts that have been deemed as critical to success. Of those 121, there are just 29 (24 percent) in which the population sympathizes with the Afghan government. While doubts about Afghan governance, writ large, doesn’t translate directly into support for the Taliban, which is still much-hated, it certainly doesn’t help matters. (In addition, the data for the 121 districts are not necessarily indicative of all of Afghanistan, especially given that they are the focus of the COIN campaign precisely because of the level of threats within them.)
  • Just 38 percent rate the work of the United States in Afghanistan positively – up 6 points in the past year, but far below its peak, 68 percent, in 2005. (NATO’s ratings are as low, and flat.) Fifty-one (51) percent have a favorable view of the United States overall – vastly below its high point, 83 percent, in 2005. And U.S. favorability drops to 35 percent in the East and 29 percent in the South (vs. 59 percent in the rest of the country) – again, plummeting where the United States is most actively engaged in combat.
  • Just 42 percent in the South and East support the presence of U.S. forces in their area, compared with 78 percent in the rest of the country.
  • More Afghans say the United States and NATO are doing worse, not better, in avoiding civilian casualties, by 43-24 percent. (This may reflect dismay over widely publicized individual incidents, such as the bombing of a pair of hijacked fuel tankers in September that killed scores of civilians in Kunduz province.)
  • Nearly all Afghans – 95 percent – say official corruption is a problem in their area, up 23 points since 2007. Seventy-six (76) percent say it’s a big problem; both are new highs.
  • Only 29 percent of Afghans had a very good or good opinion of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), with an additional 34 percent reporting a neutral rating.
  • We are focusing on 121 districts that have been deemed as critical to success. Of those 121, there are just 29 (24 percent) in which the population sympathizes with the Afghan government. While doubts about Afghan governance, writ large, doesn’t translate directly into support for the Taliban, which is still much-hated, it certainly doesn’t help matters. (In addition, the data for the 121 districts are not necessarily indicative of all of Afghanistan, especially given that they are the focus of the COIN campaign precisely because of the level of threats within them.)

It’s quite a mixed picture, then — but since the beginning of 2009, a low-water mark, we’ve seen an increase in the performance ratings of the Afghan army, the Afghan government, Hamid Karzai, and the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

The CSIS report also documents the rising intensity of the fighting, the increase in IED attacks, opium-poppy-cultivation trends, the growth in the (licit) GDP, and the growing strength of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police (the ANA has largely exceeded its recruiting goals between 2009 and 2010 and now includes more than 112,000 Afghans; the ANP now counts more than 102,000 Afghans in its ranks). And according to the most recent Department of Defense report, 52 percent of Afghans believe insurgents are the greatest source of insecurity, while only 1 percent believes the National Army/Police are primarily to blame. In the words of the DoD report: “This perception provides an opportunity for the Afghan Government, with the support of the international community, to improve its legitimacy and enhance popular perception of the government.”

In the end, increasing the legitimacy of the government will be key as to whether the war has a successful outcome. Nobody understands this better than David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal.

Stay tuned.

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An Encouraging Picture of Iraq

In his most recent report, The Situation From Iraq: A Briefing from the Battlefield, Anthony Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), writes this:

No one can spend some 10 days visiting the battlefields in Iraq without seeing major progress in every area. A combination of the surge, improved win and hold tactics, the tribal uprising in Anbar and other provinces, the Sadr ceasefire, and major advances in the use of IS&R have transformed the battle against Al Qaida in Iraq. If the US provides sustained support to the Iraqi government — in security, governance, and development — there is now a very real chance that Iraq will emerge as a secure and stable state.

This is an important development. Dr. Cordesman, a respected voice on international affairs, has been highly critical of the lack of adequate post-war (Phase IV) planning in Iraq. He has long warned about the dangers of exiting Iraq prematurely and was a critic of those who argued we should divide Iraq into three ethno-religious entities. At the same time, Cordesman has been skeptical about the possibility of achieving stability in Iraq. Certainly no one could accuse Cordesman of wearing rose-colored glasses when it comes to Iraq.

On May 2, 2006, Cordesman wrote:

No one can argue that the prospects for stability in Iraq are good. At best, the formation of a government will be the prelude to four months of debate over the constitution and every other divisive issue. There will follow two months of political struggle over a referendum to approve the result and Iraqis must then decide whether they can live with implementing the result. The “best case” is probably political turmoil well into 2007 and probably 2008… Even if victory is realistically defined as “muddling through” over half a decade more – the “2010 solution” – the odds are, at best, even.

On January 29, 2007, Cordesman (accurately) assessed things this way:

The insurgency in Iraq has become a “war after the war” that threatens to divide the country and create a full-scale civil conflict. It has triggered sectarian and ethnic violence that dominates the struggle to reshape Iraq as a modern state… Since its inception in the spring of 2003, the nature of the fighting in Iraq has evolved from a struggle between Coalition forces and former regime loyalists to a much more diffuse conflict, involving a number of Sunni groups, Shi’ite militias, and foreign jihadists, and which has spread to become a widespread civil conflict . . .

On February 5, 2007, in the aftermath of the President’s speech announcing the “surge,” Cordesman wrote this:

President Bush has presented a new strategy for the war in Iraq that may be able to defeat the insurgency and reverse Iraq’s drift towards large-scale civil war. His speech has, however, raised many questions as to both the risks it will create over the coming months and the real-world ability to actually implement his plans.

It turns out that the real-world ability to implement Bush’s plan was better than many thought. The risks were actually opportunities. And now, a year and a month after the surge was announced, we have seen progress far beyond what virtually anyone, even advocates of the surge, could have imagined.

We are still some distance away from Iraq emerging as a secure and stable state. “Serious threats can still bring defeat or paralysis over the coming years,” according to Cordesman, “although this seems significantly less likely than during the fall of 2007.” Yet, as Tony Cordesman now says, there is a very real chance that a secure and stable Iraq – one that is an ally instead of an adversary in the war against militant Islam – may yet come to pass. If it does, it will be an achievement of enormous, and perhaps even historic, consequence.

In his most recent report, The Situation From Iraq: A Briefing from the Battlefield, Anthony Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), writes this:

No one can spend some 10 days visiting the battlefields in Iraq without seeing major progress in every area. A combination of the surge, improved win and hold tactics, the tribal uprising in Anbar and other provinces, the Sadr ceasefire, and major advances in the use of IS&R have transformed the battle against Al Qaida in Iraq. If the US provides sustained support to the Iraqi government — in security, governance, and development — there is now a very real chance that Iraq will emerge as a secure and stable state.

This is an important development. Dr. Cordesman, a respected voice on international affairs, has been highly critical of the lack of adequate post-war (Phase IV) planning in Iraq. He has long warned about the dangers of exiting Iraq prematurely and was a critic of those who argued we should divide Iraq into three ethno-religious entities. At the same time, Cordesman has been skeptical about the possibility of achieving stability in Iraq. Certainly no one could accuse Cordesman of wearing rose-colored glasses when it comes to Iraq.

On May 2, 2006, Cordesman wrote:

No one can argue that the prospects for stability in Iraq are good. At best, the formation of a government will be the prelude to four months of debate over the constitution and every other divisive issue. There will follow two months of political struggle over a referendum to approve the result and Iraqis must then decide whether they can live with implementing the result. The “best case” is probably political turmoil well into 2007 and probably 2008… Even if victory is realistically defined as “muddling through” over half a decade more – the “2010 solution” – the odds are, at best, even.

On January 29, 2007, Cordesman (accurately) assessed things this way:

The insurgency in Iraq has become a “war after the war” that threatens to divide the country and create a full-scale civil conflict. It has triggered sectarian and ethnic violence that dominates the struggle to reshape Iraq as a modern state… Since its inception in the spring of 2003, the nature of the fighting in Iraq has evolved from a struggle between Coalition forces and former regime loyalists to a much more diffuse conflict, involving a number of Sunni groups, Shi’ite militias, and foreign jihadists, and which has spread to become a widespread civil conflict . . .

On February 5, 2007, in the aftermath of the President’s speech announcing the “surge,” Cordesman wrote this:

President Bush has presented a new strategy for the war in Iraq that may be able to defeat the insurgency and reverse Iraq’s drift towards large-scale civil war. His speech has, however, raised many questions as to both the risks it will create over the coming months and the real-world ability to actually implement his plans.

It turns out that the real-world ability to implement Bush’s plan was better than many thought. The risks were actually opportunities. And now, a year and a month after the surge was announced, we have seen progress far beyond what virtually anyone, even advocates of the surge, could have imagined.

We are still some distance away from Iraq emerging as a secure and stable state. “Serious threats can still bring defeat or paralysis over the coming years,” according to Cordesman, “although this seems significantly less likely than during the fall of 2007.” Yet, as Tony Cordesman now says, there is a very real chance that a secure and stable Iraq – one that is an ally instead of an adversary in the war against militant Islam – may yet come to pass. If it does, it will be an achievement of enormous, and perhaps even historic, consequence.

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Mixed Message on Iran

I recently spent a week in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia as part of a delegation of American policy wonks and former government officials organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. One of the big subjects of our discussions with Emiratis and Saudis, both in government and out of it, was the looming threat from Iran, which is felt keenly by its Sunni neighbors.

All agreed that Iran is a major menace. There was disagreement about whether military action is warranted; many said they dreaded the prospect of another war, but many others (including senior government officials) said that a prophylactic air strike was better than the alternative—a nuclear Iran dominating the region.

Whatever you think about the desirability of a preemptive strike, one thing is clear: it would be the height of foolishness for the United States to take that option off the table. Only if the mullahs think they face a serious military threat are they likely to slow down their quest for the bomb.

Thus it was puzzling to see Admiral William Fallon, head of U.S. Central Command, telling the Financial Times that, as the headline had it, “U.S. strike on Iran ‘not being prepared.’” The content of the article was a bit more complex: while Fallon was quoted as saying that a strike is not “in the offing,” he continued, “That said, we have to make sure there is no mistake on the part of the Iranians about our resolve in tending to business in the region.”

The Iranians can be forgiven for having grave doubts about U.S. resolve, however, when the senior U.S. military figure in the region is going out of his way to assure them that their threatening actions will not result in American military action.

I recently spent a week in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia as part of a delegation of American policy wonks and former government officials organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. One of the big subjects of our discussions with Emiratis and Saudis, both in government and out of it, was the looming threat from Iran, which is felt keenly by its Sunni neighbors.

All agreed that Iran is a major menace. There was disagreement about whether military action is warranted; many said they dreaded the prospect of another war, but many others (including senior government officials) said that a prophylactic air strike was better than the alternative—a nuclear Iran dominating the region.

Whatever you think about the desirability of a preemptive strike, one thing is clear: it would be the height of foolishness for the United States to take that option off the table. Only if the mullahs think they face a serious military threat are they likely to slow down their quest for the bomb.

Thus it was puzzling to see Admiral William Fallon, head of U.S. Central Command, telling the Financial Times that, as the headline had it, “U.S. strike on Iran ‘not being prepared.’” The content of the article was a bit more complex: while Fallon was quoted as saying that a strike is not “in the offing,” he continued, “That said, we have to make sure there is no mistake on the part of the Iranians about our resolve in tending to business in the region.”

The Iranians can be forgiven for having grave doubts about U.S. resolve, however, when the senior U.S. military figure in the region is going out of his way to assure them that their threatening actions will not result in American military action.

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An American Defense Policy

Everyone in Washington claims to favor bipartisanship. The difficulty occurs when someone actually tries to practice it. This instantly and inevitably triggers sniping from partisans.

For a small but telling example, see this Washington Times article (previously linked to on contentions) about the selection of John Hamre to chair the Defense Policy Board, a prestigious but powerless group of senior statesmen who advise the Secretary of Defense on various issues. The board used to be headed by Richard Perle, who became a lightning rod for the administration’s detractors. Now Robert M. Gates has selected Hamre, a quintessential technocrat who is currently president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and who, during the Clinton administration, served as comptroller of the Pentagon and Deputy Secretary of Defense.

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Everyone in Washington claims to favor bipartisanship. The difficulty occurs when someone actually tries to practice it. This instantly and inevitably triggers sniping from partisans.

For a small but telling example, see this Washington Times article (previously linked to on contentions) about the selection of John Hamre to chair the Defense Policy Board, a prestigious but powerless group of senior statesmen who advise the Secretary of Defense on various issues. The board used to be headed by Richard Perle, who became a lightning rod for the administration’s detractors. Now Robert M. Gates has selected Hamre, a quintessential technocrat who is currently president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and who, during the Clinton administration, served as comptroller of the Pentagon and Deputy Secretary of Defense.

Hamre is a well-respected figure known for his solidly centrist views and not someone, you would think, who would excite much partisan passion—especially when appointed to nothing more than an advisory position. Yet Bill Gertz of the Washington Times manages to dredge up toxic quotations from anonymous detractors:

“With or without his approval, President Bush’s team has apparently begun the transition to the third Clinton administration,” said one official, in reference to the possible election of Hillary Rodham Clinton next year. “We can see now that with the possible exception of the President himself, their hearts and minds just never were into governing as Republicans.”

“This begs the question of whether the Secretary agrees with the Hamre-Clinton policies, like gays in the military, Draconian defense cuts, women in combat, and environmental friendliness,” said a defense official.

The Hamre-Clinton policies? Give me break. What are these dreaded policies anyway? Are conservatives supposed to be opposed to “environmental friendliness”? Women are already in combat, and it hasn’t been an issue. Gays are also becoming more accepted within the military. As for “Draconian defense cuts,” they were instigated by the administration of Bush Senior following the end of the Cold War.

Whatever you make think of these policies, they are not determined by second- or third-level Pentagon officials; they come right from the top. To blame or credit Hamre for these initiatives is akin to blaming or crediting former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and former Undersecretary of Defense Doug Feith for launching the Iraq War—a canard spread only by crackpots.

Give it a rest, guys.

Hamre is exactly the kind of centrist Democrat to whom the Bush administration should have been reaching out from the start. I realize it’s a myth that “politics stops at the water’s edge”—but it’s a nice myth and one that policymakers on both sides would do well to cultivate. And that means cultivating figures from the other side of the aisle.

We shouldn’t have a Republican or Democratic defense policy. We need an American policy.

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Taiwan’s Rejection

Taiwan’s rejection—for the fifteenth time in a row—by the agenda-setting committee of the General Assembly of the United Nations last Wednesday may well be seen, before too long, to have been a turning point. After all, who can believe that Taiwan will be turned down another fifteen times?

Chinese diplomats are nervous. They don’t want Taiwan even on the agenda, because they fear, correctly, that an open discussion might not go their way. They know that no one believes on principle that Taiwan should be excluded. Other countries are simply afraid of China.

How long can China continue to intimidate otherwise free-thinking nations? The answer is, not indefinitely.

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Taiwan’s rejection—for the fifteenth time in a row—by the agenda-setting committee of the General Assembly of the United Nations last Wednesday may well be seen, before too long, to have been a turning point. After all, who can believe that Taiwan will be turned down another fifteen times?

Chinese diplomats are nervous. They don’t want Taiwan even on the agenda, because they fear, correctly, that an open discussion might not go their way. They know that no one believes on principle that Taiwan should be excluded. Other countries are simply afraid of China.

How long can China continue to intimidate otherwise free-thinking nations? The answer is, not indefinitely.

Consider India. In an article on the op-ed page of the Times of India, Ramesh Thakur, formerly a senior vice rector of the U.N. University in Tokyo, wrote:

The biggest and longest running scandal is the way in which Taiwan has been banned from the U.N.. Taiwan is refused membership, is not granted observer status, and does not figure in the U.N.’s statistical databases.

Concluding that the exclusion of Taiwan “has little to do with the merits of the application and everything to do with the geopolitics of China as a permanent member of the Security Council,” Thakur asked:

Where does this leave all the fine talk of democracy, human rights, and self-determination in Kosovo, East Timor, and elsewhere? Taiwan is better credentialed than most of them. Its population of 23 million is almost the combined total of Australia and New Zealand, and bigger than scores of U.N. member states, including East Timor (under one million) and Kosovo (over two million).

To our shame, official jaws in Washington have been clenched tightly shut with respect to this issue, except when reiterating hoary formulas whose authors, with a handful of exceptions, are long dead.

The Bush administration portrays Taiwan’s increasingly audible demands as no more than local political posturing and manipulation, for which their elected president is to blame, and resolutely declines comment on the merits of Taiwan’s case.

Some former officials, however, are talking sense: Michael Green, for instance, Bush’s former top Asian aide, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He was recently quoted as saying:

For the U.S. side, we need to recognize the issue of identity in Taiwan is not a political game, it’s not a tactical move in Taipei, it’s a very fundamental issue, not at all unique to its 23 million people…. Look at Korea, Japan, the national identity is at the top of the agenda in every country in Asia and there is no reason why Taiwan should be any different.

Thakur and Green are absolutely right. The issues and processes they describe will not disappear or cease simply because we and China wish they would. We are dealing with nationalism. Difficult as it may be, we need to think ahead.

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Rational Optimism on Iraq

The evidence of gains being made on the ground in Iraq continues to pile up.

See, for instance, this article by Robert Burns, the Associated Press’s veteran military writer. Burns has just returned from his 18th trip to Iraq to report: “The new U.S. military strategy in Iraq, unveiled six months ago to little acclaim, is working.”

Or this new report by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He traveled to Iraq with Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution recently, and while his findings are not quite as positive as theirs, he nevertheless writes: “While all the half-truths and spin of the past have built up a valid distrust of virtually anything the Administration says about Iraq, real military progress is taking place and the U.S. team in Baghdad is actively seeking matching political and economic progress.”

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The evidence of gains being made on the ground in Iraq continues to pile up.

See, for instance, this article by Robert Burns, the Associated Press’s veteran military writer. Burns has just returned from his 18th trip to Iraq to report: “The new U.S. military strategy in Iraq, unveiled six months ago to little acclaim, is working.”

Or this new report by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He traveled to Iraq with Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution recently, and while his findings are not quite as positive as theirs, he nevertheless writes: “While all the half-truths and spin of the past have built up a valid distrust of virtually anything the Administration says about Iraq, real military progress is taking place and the U.S. team in Baghdad is actively seeking matching political and economic progress.”

Unfortunately, that matching political progress has not yet materialized. To be sure, there have been surprising and encouraging gains at the local level where Sunni tribes are increasingly turning against al Qaeda. But at the national level the political gridlock is worse than ever. The latest news from Baghdad is that five ministers belonging to Ayad Allawi’s secular Iraqiyah party have suspended their participation in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s cabinet (though they continue to run their ministries). This comes on top of similar boycotts by the six ministers from the Iraqi Consensus Front, the major Sunni party, and six ministers from Moktada al-Sadr’s radical Shiite party. In all, seventeen ministers, or nearly half the cabinet, are not participating in its deliberations at the moment.

Confidence in Maliki’s government seems to be plummeting, and various Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish chieftains seem to be farther apart than ever when it comes to vital legislation, such as the law to share Iraq’s oil wealth.

Of course, no serious proponent of the “surge” expected that Iraqis would get their act together overnight. In fact, the theory has always been that gains in security are a necessary prerequisite for the major political factions to make compromises. Since the gains in security are just beginning, it is far too soon to say that political progress won’t happen, too. After all, who would have predicted the turnaround in the attitude of the tribes that has occurred over the past year? Yet even supporters of the surge—a group to which I belong—must admit, if we’re being honest with ourselves, that it’s dismaying to see the political situation regressing, at least at the national level, even as the security situation is progressing.

That doesn’t mean it’s prudent to wash our hands of Iraq, or give up on the surge. Cordesman’s report, making the case for “strategic patience,” has it right. But even the most ardent backers of General Petraeus should not let their hopes run out of control. Given how bad the situation was by the time Petraeus took over, there is still a possibility he could do everything right and fail.

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