Commentary Magazine


Topic: Central Asia

What Can the GOP Senators Get?

Untangling fact from fiction and sneer from substance in a Maureen Dowd column is not a task for the fainthearted, especially when she wades into matters of policy. But let’s give it a shot. She writes:

But faced with the treaty’s unraveling, with possible deleterious consequences for sanctions on Iran and supply lines for our troops in Afghanistan, Obama had no choice. Even if the treaty doesn’t much affect our strategic security, it affects the relationship with Russia and our standing in the world. And resetting the relationship with Russia, with his buddy Dmitri, is the president’s only significant foreign policy accomplishment.

We will start with the accurate part: Obama has no other foreign policy accomplishments aside from whatever he has gotten out of our newly styled relationship with Russia. This is called “reset” because it sounds so much better than “appeasement.” Putin has much to show for his dealings with Obama. Missile-defense facilities were yanked out of Poland and the Czech Republic. We’ve been rather mute about the Russian thugocracy’s repressive tactics, and Russia still occupies a chunk of Georgia.

But what exactly has Obama accomplished? The Swiss cheese sanctions against Iran, which are not slowing the mullahs’ rush to nuclear powerdom, are not much to write home about. In fact, the Russians helped build and load fuel into the Bushehr nuclear plant, which seems to have accelerated the Iranian nuclear program. And then there is the alleged help in Afghanistan. Jamie Fly has debunked that one:

Unfortunately, only five supply flights occurred in the first six months of the program, an underwhelming number considering the administration’s bold projections.  This failure to meet expectations prompted Politico’s Ben Smith to remark that it was “hard to see this as a particularly major achievement of a revived relationship.”  Philip Gordon, the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Russian Affairs, recently stated that as of June 18, only 275 flights had occurred over Russian territory.  Had the administration’s bold projections proved accurate, nearly 3,500 flights should have already occurred.

Russia has also played an extensive role in undermining NATO transportation capabilities in other countries throughout the region, and in some cases has actively worked against U.S. efforts to adequately supply forces in Afghanistan. Recently, the United States was forced to triple its annual leasing rights payments to Bishkek after Moscow placed significant pressure on Kyrgyzstan to remove the U.S. air base at Manas.  A Russian-influenced campaign led to the ouster of President Bakiyev of Kyrgyzstan and placed the tenuous status of the Manas air base again in peril.  If continued unrest in Kyrgyzstan leads to a closure of Manas, Russian intransigence in Central Asia could prove to be very costly for the American war effort.

So we are down to voting for an arms-control treaty, regardless of the merits, because otherwise Obama will look worse than he already does. Does this sound familiar? It’s akin to the Middle East peace talks bribe-a-thon, which was also meant to save the president from embarrassment (but merely has convinced onlookers, as one Israel expert put it, that the Obama diplomats “have taken leave of their senses”).

And what of the timing? In the case of both the Middles East and New START agreements, the deals must happen NOW — again, because Obama needs a boost.

Perhaps Sen. Jon Kyl had it wrong in declaring there will be no treaty ratification in the lame duck session. Really, that’s not the way to manage Obama. Instead, it’s time for the GOP senators to name their price. The Israelis got planes, promises to be defended in the UN, and a guarantee that the Obama team absolutely, positively won’t ask for any more settlement freezes. What could the GOP Senate get? They have already secured a multi-billion-dollar modernization plan, but is that really “enough”? Obama, you see, is desperate to get a deal, so the Republican senators should get creative — agreement on the Bush tax cuts, a dealing on spending cuts, etc. Too much? Oh no, the Republicans can tell the White House that this is called “reset.” And the name of the game is to create an exceptionally imbalanced relationship in which the only benefit to Obama is the right to tout his dealmaking skills.

Untangling fact from fiction and sneer from substance in a Maureen Dowd column is not a task for the fainthearted, especially when she wades into matters of policy. But let’s give it a shot. She writes:

But faced with the treaty’s unraveling, with possible deleterious consequences for sanctions on Iran and supply lines for our troops in Afghanistan, Obama had no choice. Even if the treaty doesn’t much affect our strategic security, it affects the relationship with Russia and our standing in the world. And resetting the relationship with Russia, with his buddy Dmitri, is the president’s only significant foreign policy accomplishment.

We will start with the accurate part: Obama has no other foreign policy accomplishments aside from whatever he has gotten out of our newly styled relationship with Russia. This is called “reset” because it sounds so much better than “appeasement.” Putin has much to show for his dealings with Obama. Missile-defense facilities were yanked out of Poland and the Czech Republic. We’ve been rather mute about the Russian thugocracy’s repressive tactics, and Russia still occupies a chunk of Georgia.

But what exactly has Obama accomplished? The Swiss cheese sanctions against Iran, which are not slowing the mullahs’ rush to nuclear powerdom, are not much to write home about. In fact, the Russians helped build and load fuel into the Bushehr nuclear plant, which seems to have accelerated the Iranian nuclear program. And then there is the alleged help in Afghanistan. Jamie Fly has debunked that one:

Unfortunately, only five supply flights occurred in the first six months of the program, an underwhelming number considering the administration’s bold projections.  This failure to meet expectations prompted Politico’s Ben Smith to remark that it was “hard to see this as a particularly major achievement of a revived relationship.”  Philip Gordon, the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Russian Affairs, recently stated that as of June 18, only 275 flights had occurred over Russian territory.  Had the administration’s bold projections proved accurate, nearly 3,500 flights should have already occurred.

Russia has also played an extensive role in undermining NATO transportation capabilities in other countries throughout the region, and in some cases has actively worked against U.S. efforts to adequately supply forces in Afghanistan. Recently, the United States was forced to triple its annual leasing rights payments to Bishkek after Moscow placed significant pressure on Kyrgyzstan to remove the U.S. air base at Manas.  A Russian-influenced campaign led to the ouster of President Bakiyev of Kyrgyzstan and placed the tenuous status of the Manas air base again in peril.  If continued unrest in Kyrgyzstan leads to a closure of Manas, Russian intransigence in Central Asia could prove to be very costly for the American war effort.

So we are down to voting for an arms-control treaty, regardless of the merits, because otherwise Obama will look worse than he already does. Does this sound familiar? It’s akin to the Middle East peace talks bribe-a-thon, which was also meant to save the president from embarrassment (but merely has convinced onlookers, as one Israel expert put it, that the Obama diplomats “have taken leave of their senses”).

And what of the timing? In the case of both the Middles East and New START agreements, the deals must happen NOW — again, because Obama needs a boost.

Perhaps Sen. Jon Kyl had it wrong in declaring there will be no treaty ratification in the lame duck session. Really, that’s not the way to manage Obama. Instead, it’s time for the GOP senators to name their price. The Israelis got planes, promises to be defended in the UN, and a guarantee that the Obama team absolutely, positively won’t ask for any more settlement freezes. What could the GOP Senate get? They have already secured a multi-billion-dollar modernization plan, but is that really “enough”? Obama, you see, is desperate to get a deal, so the Republican senators should get creative — agreement on the Bush tax cuts, a dealing on spending cuts, etc. Too much? Oh no, the Republicans can tell the White House that this is called “reset.” And the name of the game is to create an exceptionally imbalanced relationship in which the only benefit to Obama is the right to tout his dealmaking skills.

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Yemen and the Biden Strategy

One of the most useful prisms through which to view Yemen and Somalia is that of the “Biden strategy” for the War on Terror. The strategy’s outlines are provided in this article, one of many recounting Biden’s advocacy of over-the-horizon counterterrorism during the interminable seminar on Afghanistan last year:

Biden urged the president to consider a narrow counterterrorism mission, heavy on Special Forces and Predator drone strikes, which would require far less manpower than the military was seeking. … [He] continues to argue that it may not be possible to defeat the Taliban and stabilize Afghanistan at a reasonable cost.

Administration policy in Yemen and Somalia has been an even purer example of applying the Biden strategy. Team Obama has disavowed any intention of enlarging U.S. goals or the military footprint in either nation (see here and here, for example). The U.S. is there only to hunt terrorists, suppress piracy, and supply humanitarian aid, with a little military aid thrown in on the side.

Obama has so rigorously eschewed having any greater designs on the region that his administration seems to have missed some very basic geopolitical facts; e.g., that the pirate-infested waters of the Gulf of Aden lie between Yemen and Somalia and are the main path by which terrorists — and refugees — travel between their unruly shores. Yemen and Somalia function, in many ways, as a “system”; they share problems and displaced populations; and their neighbors — like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti, and Sudan — claim equities in their turmoil. Proposing to interact with this region solely by executing drone attacks and distributing aid, as if that will immunize the U.S. against unpleasant levels of involvement, is as much a fool’s errand as it is in Central Asia.

The U.S. is already deeply embedded in the region, with our naval task force combating piracy, our joint military headquarters in Djibouti, and our Special Forces and military training activities in Yemen. Now Obama wants to increase our counterterrorism activities in Yemen, deeming it a greater source of terrorism than Pakistan. In Somalia, meanwhile, where the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) is trying to retake the south from the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab terror group, the commander of U.S. Africa Command has stated — for the first time — a U.S. willingness to train Somali TFG troops directly.

The intensifying war on terrorists in Yemen is reminiscent of the U.S. posture in Southeast Asia in the early 1960s. There are, unfortunately, parallels in multiple realms. Human-rights groups are decrying the collateral damage done by U.S. strikes (like this one in December 2009). Yemen itself is rent by factional insurgencies; one of them, the Southern Movement, has ambiguous relations with al-Qaeda. The moral hazard of U.S. cooperation being exploited by the Yemeni government to go after its internal opposition cannot be discounted. Such allegations are already being made by Amnesty International and others. But the strongest parallel with Southeast Asia 50 years ago is the administration’s passion for Special Forces, military advisers, and standoff air strikes.

What happens in Yemen will not stay in Yemen: it will spill over and affect the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight terror there, but it does mean we will be unprepared for the consequences of doing so if we rely only on the Biden strategy. Perhaps the American people have let Team Obama maintain the fiction that we are executing a distant, hands-off strategy there, but regional circumstances won’t allow it much longer. Obama is inviting things to come to a head by ramping up Special Forces operations and drone attacks in Yemen, which will stretch the Biden method to the breaking point.

We are already involved in Yemen’s fate: we’ve been shooting there for years. Somalia may be next. We are backing into a problem we should be meeting head-on. Our strategy should, at the very least, recognize the limits of our ability to ignore local and regional politics when we are hunting our enemies and enforcing our policies on someone else’s territory.

One of the most useful prisms through which to view Yemen and Somalia is that of the “Biden strategy” for the War on Terror. The strategy’s outlines are provided in this article, one of many recounting Biden’s advocacy of over-the-horizon counterterrorism during the interminable seminar on Afghanistan last year:

Biden urged the president to consider a narrow counterterrorism mission, heavy on Special Forces and Predator drone strikes, which would require far less manpower than the military was seeking. … [He] continues to argue that it may not be possible to defeat the Taliban and stabilize Afghanistan at a reasonable cost.

Administration policy in Yemen and Somalia has been an even purer example of applying the Biden strategy. Team Obama has disavowed any intention of enlarging U.S. goals or the military footprint in either nation (see here and here, for example). The U.S. is there only to hunt terrorists, suppress piracy, and supply humanitarian aid, with a little military aid thrown in on the side.

Obama has so rigorously eschewed having any greater designs on the region that his administration seems to have missed some very basic geopolitical facts; e.g., that the pirate-infested waters of the Gulf of Aden lie between Yemen and Somalia and are the main path by which terrorists — and refugees — travel between their unruly shores. Yemen and Somalia function, in many ways, as a “system”; they share problems and displaced populations; and their neighbors — like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti, and Sudan — claim equities in their turmoil. Proposing to interact with this region solely by executing drone attacks and distributing aid, as if that will immunize the U.S. against unpleasant levels of involvement, is as much a fool’s errand as it is in Central Asia.

The U.S. is already deeply embedded in the region, with our naval task force combating piracy, our joint military headquarters in Djibouti, and our Special Forces and military training activities in Yemen. Now Obama wants to increase our counterterrorism activities in Yemen, deeming it a greater source of terrorism than Pakistan. In Somalia, meanwhile, where the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) is trying to retake the south from the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab terror group, the commander of U.S. Africa Command has stated — for the first time — a U.S. willingness to train Somali TFG troops directly.

The intensifying war on terrorists in Yemen is reminiscent of the U.S. posture in Southeast Asia in the early 1960s. There are, unfortunately, parallels in multiple realms. Human-rights groups are decrying the collateral damage done by U.S. strikes (like this one in December 2009). Yemen itself is rent by factional insurgencies; one of them, the Southern Movement, has ambiguous relations with al-Qaeda. The moral hazard of U.S. cooperation being exploited by the Yemeni government to go after its internal opposition cannot be discounted. Such allegations are already being made by Amnesty International and others. But the strongest parallel with Southeast Asia 50 years ago is the administration’s passion for Special Forces, military advisers, and standoff air strikes.

What happens in Yemen will not stay in Yemen: it will spill over and affect the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight terror there, but it does mean we will be unprepared for the consequences of doing so if we rely only on the Biden strategy. Perhaps the American people have let Team Obama maintain the fiction that we are executing a distant, hands-off strategy there, but regional circumstances won’t allow it much longer. Obama is inviting things to come to a head by ramping up Special Forces operations and drone attacks in Yemen, which will stretch the Biden method to the breaking point.

We are already involved in Yemen’s fate: we’ve been shooting there for years. Somalia may be next. We are backing into a problem we should be meeting head-on. Our strategy should, at the very least, recognize the limits of our ability to ignore local and regional politics when we are hunting our enemies and enforcing our policies on someone else’s territory.

Read Less

Hypocrisy Run Amok

The Washington Post reports:

Beneath its commitment to soft-spoken diplomacy and beyond the combat zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Obama administration has significantly expanded a largely secret U.S. war against al-Qaeda and other radical groups, according to senior military and administration officials.

Special Operations forces have grown both in number and budget, and are deployed in 75 countries, compared with about 60 at the beginning of last year. In addition to units that have spent years in the Philippines and Colombia, teams are operating in Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia.

It’s always reassuring to learn that the White House is hypocritical and not entirely naive in its approach to terrorism. Like its defense of “no rules apply at Bagram,” it is some evidence that the un-Bush approach is selectively applied. No caterpillars to annoy terrorists who show up here, but no habeas corpus rights at Bagram. Mirandize a bomber who makes it here, but kill him — and his unfortunate family members — in his home country with a drone. I’m not quite seeing how this justifies the moral preening, but it’s good to know the administration doesn’t believe all of its own spin. Now, if it would just recognize who the enemy is and that U.S. soil is a battlefield too, we’d be making some progress.

There is also this snippet well down in the body of the story:

The United Nations, in a report this week, questioned the administration’s authority under international law to conduct such raids, particularly when they kill innocent civilians. One possible legal justification — the permission of the country in question — is complicated in places such as Pakistan and Yemen, where the governments privately agree but do not publicly acknowledge approving the attacks.

Former Bush officials, still smarting from accusations that their administration overextended the president’s authority to conduct lethal activities around the world at will, have asked similar questions. “While they seem to be expanding their operations both in terms of extraterritoriality and aggressiveness, they are contracting the legal authority upon which those expanding actions are based,” said John B. Bellinger III, a senior legal adviser in both of Bush’s administrations.

And speaking of hypocrisy, the administration that is expanding the use of techniques that kill entirely innocent civilians won’t extend latitude to the Israelis to act in self-defense when phony peace activists attack their troops? And then Obama complains that Israel isn’t considering our interests. Perhaps George W. Bush’s “failing” was candor and sincerity. Obama isn’t about to make that error.

The Washington Post reports:

Beneath its commitment to soft-spoken diplomacy and beyond the combat zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Obama administration has significantly expanded a largely secret U.S. war against al-Qaeda and other radical groups, according to senior military and administration officials.

Special Operations forces have grown both in number and budget, and are deployed in 75 countries, compared with about 60 at the beginning of last year. In addition to units that have spent years in the Philippines and Colombia, teams are operating in Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia.

It’s always reassuring to learn that the White House is hypocritical and not entirely naive in its approach to terrorism. Like its defense of “no rules apply at Bagram,” it is some evidence that the un-Bush approach is selectively applied. No caterpillars to annoy terrorists who show up here, but no habeas corpus rights at Bagram. Mirandize a bomber who makes it here, but kill him — and his unfortunate family members — in his home country with a drone. I’m not quite seeing how this justifies the moral preening, but it’s good to know the administration doesn’t believe all of its own spin. Now, if it would just recognize who the enemy is and that U.S. soil is a battlefield too, we’d be making some progress.

There is also this snippet well down in the body of the story:

The United Nations, in a report this week, questioned the administration’s authority under international law to conduct such raids, particularly when they kill innocent civilians. One possible legal justification — the permission of the country in question — is complicated in places such as Pakistan and Yemen, where the governments privately agree but do not publicly acknowledge approving the attacks.

Former Bush officials, still smarting from accusations that their administration overextended the president’s authority to conduct lethal activities around the world at will, have asked similar questions. “While they seem to be expanding their operations both in terms of extraterritoriality and aggressiveness, they are contracting the legal authority upon which those expanding actions are based,” said John B. Bellinger III, a senior legal adviser in both of Bush’s administrations.

And speaking of hypocrisy, the administration that is expanding the use of techniques that kill entirely innocent civilians won’t extend latitude to the Israelis to act in self-defense when phony peace activists attack their troops? And then Obama complains that Israel isn’t considering our interests. Perhaps George W. Bush’s “failing” was candor and sincerity. Obama isn’t about to make that error.

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Flawed Methodology

CIA operations on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border suffered a significant setback last week when seven Agency officers were killed and another six badly injured in a suicide bombing apparently perpetrated by one of the Agency’s local informants. (Hot Air has a good summary here.)

The attack at Chapman Base means both more and less than it seems to. This is unquestionably an important operational setback, but it’s also in the nature of campaigns against insurgencies to produce incidents like this one. Relying on informants who may turn out to be duplicitous is often dictated by circumstance, something we learned quite thoroughly in Vietnam; and Central Asia has been notorious for such local informants throughout the history of the West’s interactions there.

Still, the features of this attack should give us pause. It was timed to take place when the CIA’s base commander would be present: according to a Taliban chief, the bombing was meant as retaliation for U.S. drone strikes on Taliban leaders. This development is emblematic of the position in which U.S. forces will increasingly find themselves wherever our antiterrorism posture shifts to greater reliance on standoff strikes. The position is ultimately untenable: in order to acquire the necessary targeting intelligence we must have operatives on the ground using local contacts, and therefore be perpetually vulnerable to attacks like the one at Chapman Base. But with each drone strike, the likelihood of retaliatory attempts on our intelligence assets increases.

A key lesson from both Vietnam and Iraq, articulated by General McChrystal in his August 2009 recommendation, is that populations are not won over until they have a trustworthy civil infrastructure in which they feel safe. In its absence, we have no prospect of being able to fully trust local informants in the AfPak border region. Even the most reliable informant may submit to extortion if his family is threatened. The results are likely to include misleading intelligence as well as physical threats to our operatives. The CIA can take precautions, of course, meeting its informants off-base and avoiding large gatherings like the one last week. But that will merely make the insurgents work a little harder to bring off assassinations.

We can only speculate as to why this attack wasn’t mounted until December 2009. Given Obama’s accelerated dependence on drone attacks and his general security posture, an obvious possibility is that Taliban leaders calculate now, as they did not before, that this is the most efficient means of targeting both our strategy and our will. The insistence of the Obama administration on the notion that its goal in Afghanistan is not to win the populace over according to the counterinsurgency model favored by McChrystal, means the situation for our forces in remote areas will not improve. Nor do we have any intention of improving it. Keep that in mind as 2010 unfolds. More such attempts by the Taliban are likely, but that will not mean we have encountered an insoluble problem. It will merely mean we have chosen the wrong method.

CIA operations on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border suffered a significant setback last week when seven Agency officers were killed and another six badly injured in a suicide bombing apparently perpetrated by one of the Agency’s local informants. (Hot Air has a good summary here.)

The attack at Chapman Base means both more and less than it seems to. This is unquestionably an important operational setback, but it’s also in the nature of campaigns against insurgencies to produce incidents like this one. Relying on informants who may turn out to be duplicitous is often dictated by circumstance, something we learned quite thoroughly in Vietnam; and Central Asia has been notorious for such local informants throughout the history of the West’s interactions there.

Still, the features of this attack should give us pause. It was timed to take place when the CIA’s base commander would be present: according to a Taliban chief, the bombing was meant as retaliation for U.S. drone strikes on Taliban leaders. This development is emblematic of the position in which U.S. forces will increasingly find themselves wherever our antiterrorism posture shifts to greater reliance on standoff strikes. The position is ultimately untenable: in order to acquire the necessary targeting intelligence we must have operatives on the ground using local contacts, and therefore be perpetually vulnerable to attacks like the one at Chapman Base. But with each drone strike, the likelihood of retaliatory attempts on our intelligence assets increases.

A key lesson from both Vietnam and Iraq, articulated by General McChrystal in his August 2009 recommendation, is that populations are not won over until they have a trustworthy civil infrastructure in which they feel safe. In its absence, we have no prospect of being able to fully trust local informants in the AfPak border region. Even the most reliable informant may submit to extortion if his family is threatened. The results are likely to include misleading intelligence as well as physical threats to our operatives. The CIA can take precautions, of course, meeting its informants off-base and avoiding large gatherings like the one last week. But that will merely make the insurgents work a little harder to bring off assassinations.

We can only speculate as to why this attack wasn’t mounted until December 2009. Given Obama’s accelerated dependence on drone attacks and his general security posture, an obvious possibility is that Taliban leaders calculate now, as they did not before, that this is the most efficient means of targeting both our strategy and our will. The insistence of the Obama administration on the notion that its goal in Afghanistan is not to win the populace over according to the counterinsurgency model favored by McChrystal, means the situation for our forces in remote areas will not improve. Nor do we have any intention of improving it. Keep that in mind as 2010 unfolds. More such attempts by the Taliban are likely, but that will not mean we have encountered an insoluble problem. It will merely mean we have chosen the wrong method.

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Obama’s India Blunder

When Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visits the White House next week, Obama and his administration would do well to employ their much-practiced skills at making nice. New Delhi rightly fears outside meddling after this week’s U.S.-China Joint Statement, which contained a sentence widely interpreted as an affront to India:

The two sides [China and the United States] welcomed all efforts conducive to peace, stability and development in South Asia. They support the efforts of Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight terrorism, maintain domestic stability and achieve sustainable economic and social development, and support the improvement and growth of relations between India and Pakistan. The two sides are ready to strengthen communication, dialogue and cooperation on issues related to South Asia and work together to promote peace, stability and development in that region.

The Joint Statement’s timing was particularly bad considering the recent India-China border dilemma. Both countries have reportedly increased troop presence near the blurry border, and the Dalai Lama’s visit to Indian territory that is still claimed by China did little to improve the relationship. China has emphasized that its “more pronounced” territorial issue is its border dispute with India. So New Delhi has good reason to be nervous about Chinese prying at Washington’s behest.

A spokesman from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs quickly commented on the Joint Statement, stating that “a third country role cannot be envisaged nor is it necessary” regarding India-Pakistan relations.

Already, both China and the United States are trying to downplay the significance of the Joint Statement reference.

China’s Foreign Ministry denied that a discussion took place between Obama and Chinese heads of state about U.S.-India nuclear cooperation, and its statement emphasized Beijing’s support of regional stability. The spokesperson added that China “values its friendly cooperation with” India and Pakistan and “hopes to see relations between the two continue … improve and grow.”

But India can hardly be blamed for frustration at the Obama administration’s mixed message. Yesterday, Robert Blake, the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, said the United States welcomes China’s participation in stabilizing the India-Pakistan region. But he also added, “We have always said, in terms of Indo-Pakistan relations, that’s really up to India and Pakistan to decide how and when and the scope of that.” Also yesterday, William Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, declared that better relations with China do not necessarily come at the cost of India.

One can only hope that the ill-considered phrasing of the Joint Statement won’t hinder next week’s discussions. No doubt Obama will want Prime Minister Singh’s support on nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and security in Afghanistan and Pakistan, not to mention climate change. That Singh is the first head of state to visit the Obama White House in itself highlights the importance of Indian cooperation. If the mix-up is merely linguistic, it can be overcome. But if the lack of clarity lies within Obama’s foreign policy itself, expect a rocky summit. Obama’s diplomacy and eloquence will be tested as he attempts to please both India and China.

When Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visits the White House next week, Obama and his administration would do well to employ their much-practiced skills at making nice. New Delhi rightly fears outside meddling after this week’s U.S.-China Joint Statement, which contained a sentence widely interpreted as an affront to India:

The two sides [China and the United States] welcomed all efforts conducive to peace, stability and development in South Asia. They support the efforts of Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight terrorism, maintain domestic stability and achieve sustainable economic and social development, and support the improvement and growth of relations between India and Pakistan. The two sides are ready to strengthen communication, dialogue and cooperation on issues related to South Asia and work together to promote peace, stability and development in that region.

The Joint Statement’s timing was particularly bad considering the recent India-China border dilemma. Both countries have reportedly increased troop presence near the blurry border, and the Dalai Lama’s visit to Indian territory that is still claimed by China did little to improve the relationship. China has emphasized that its “more pronounced” territorial issue is its border dispute with India. So New Delhi has good reason to be nervous about Chinese prying at Washington’s behest.

A spokesman from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs quickly commented on the Joint Statement, stating that “a third country role cannot be envisaged nor is it necessary” regarding India-Pakistan relations.

Already, both China and the United States are trying to downplay the significance of the Joint Statement reference.

China’s Foreign Ministry denied that a discussion took place between Obama and Chinese heads of state about U.S.-India nuclear cooperation, and its statement emphasized Beijing’s support of regional stability. The spokesperson added that China “values its friendly cooperation with” India and Pakistan and “hopes to see relations between the two continue … improve and grow.”

But India can hardly be blamed for frustration at the Obama administration’s mixed message. Yesterday, Robert Blake, the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, said the United States welcomes China’s participation in stabilizing the India-Pakistan region. But he also added, “We have always said, in terms of Indo-Pakistan relations, that’s really up to India and Pakistan to decide how and when and the scope of that.” Also yesterday, William Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, declared that better relations with China do not necessarily come at the cost of India.

One can only hope that the ill-considered phrasing of the Joint Statement won’t hinder next week’s discussions. No doubt Obama will want Prime Minister Singh’s support on nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and security in Afghanistan and Pakistan, not to mention climate change. That Singh is the first head of state to visit the Obama White House in itself highlights the importance of Indian cooperation. If the mix-up is merely linguistic, it can be overcome. But if the lack of clarity lies within Obama’s foreign policy itself, expect a rocky summit. Obama’s diplomacy and eloquence will be tested as he attempts to please both India and China.

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It’s a Gas

Why is Dmitry Medvedev now reporting himself to be losing patience with Iran? The likelihood that he is blowing hot merely as a prelude to blowing cold again is, of course, pretty strong, given his failure to demonstrate any reliable support for tougher sanctions to date. But Medvedev’s protestations to President Obama in Singapore coincided with a Russian announcement that the nuclear reactor at Bushehr, which depends on Russian technical support, will not be brought online in 2009 as previously projected. This is a material setback for Iran’s overall nuclear program – and comes on top of Moscow’s continued refusal to deliver the S-300 air-defense system Iran contracted to buy in 2007.

Nothing in Russia’s history of dealing with revolutionary Iran supports the conclusion that Medvedev wants to get tough with Iran because he shares a common purpose with the Western powers to prevent Iran’s nuclearization. But Russia is wielding bargaining chips with Tehran at the moment, and is uttering vague words that might be interpreted by optimistic Westerners as support for intensified sanctions. Is Moscow seeking to leverage something from the West – or from Iran?

The clue to this puzzle may be flowing through pipelines in Central Asia. Iran is actually the key to what is being hailed in the region as the liberation of gas-rich Turkmenistan from the stranglehold of Gazprom. Turkmenistan, with the world’s fourth-largest reserves of natural gas, is no small prize. Its gas production was second only to Russia’s in total Gazprom output, until a pipeline explosion in April prompted a cutoff by Ashgabat amid allegations that Gazprom had sabotaged the pipeline to intimidate the Turkmens. Gazprom accounts for 10 percent of Russian GDP and 25 percent of federal tax revenues, but its highest-producing Siberian fields are being quickly depleted of their recoverable gas, with production from them expected to decline to nil by as early as 2020. Control of Turkmen gas is a major financial issue for Moscow.

Turkmenistan has found pipeline partners in Iran and China, however, and next month anticipates inaugurating an increased gas flow to Iran that could ultimately connect it, through Turkey, with the Nabucco pipeline that will bypass Gazprom to bring gas to Europe. By one route or another, the pipeline through Iran promises to be a gateway to Western consumers. President Berdymukhamedov emphasized his country’s gas independence in October by replacing most of the oil- and gas-industry officials in Turkmenistan. On November 1, in a fresh start after their ugly gas-pricing dispute of 2008, Turkmenistan welcomed a delegation from Iran seeking to eliminate customs barriers, increase trade, and jointly develop oil and gas infrastructure in the Caspian Sea.

Russia has never hesitated to twist foreign arms for Gazprom, whose revenues prop up the state and make its military acquisition program possible. It’s considerably more likely that Iran is being pressured on its gas arrangements with Turkmenistan than that Russia’s government has begun seeing the Iranian nuclear problem through Western eyes.

Why is Dmitry Medvedev now reporting himself to be losing patience with Iran? The likelihood that he is blowing hot merely as a prelude to blowing cold again is, of course, pretty strong, given his failure to demonstrate any reliable support for tougher sanctions to date. But Medvedev’s protestations to President Obama in Singapore coincided with a Russian announcement that the nuclear reactor at Bushehr, which depends on Russian technical support, will not be brought online in 2009 as previously projected. This is a material setback for Iran’s overall nuclear program – and comes on top of Moscow’s continued refusal to deliver the S-300 air-defense system Iran contracted to buy in 2007.

Nothing in Russia’s history of dealing with revolutionary Iran supports the conclusion that Medvedev wants to get tough with Iran because he shares a common purpose with the Western powers to prevent Iran’s nuclearization. But Russia is wielding bargaining chips with Tehran at the moment, and is uttering vague words that might be interpreted by optimistic Westerners as support for intensified sanctions. Is Moscow seeking to leverage something from the West – or from Iran?

The clue to this puzzle may be flowing through pipelines in Central Asia. Iran is actually the key to what is being hailed in the region as the liberation of gas-rich Turkmenistan from the stranglehold of Gazprom. Turkmenistan, with the world’s fourth-largest reserves of natural gas, is no small prize. Its gas production was second only to Russia’s in total Gazprom output, until a pipeline explosion in April prompted a cutoff by Ashgabat amid allegations that Gazprom had sabotaged the pipeline to intimidate the Turkmens. Gazprom accounts for 10 percent of Russian GDP and 25 percent of federal tax revenues, but its highest-producing Siberian fields are being quickly depleted of their recoverable gas, with production from them expected to decline to nil by as early as 2020. Control of Turkmen gas is a major financial issue for Moscow.

Turkmenistan has found pipeline partners in Iran and China, however, and next month anticipates inaugurating an increased gas flow to Iran that could ultimately connect it, through Turkey, with the Nabucco pipeline that will bypass Gazprom to bring gas to Europe. By one route or another, the pipeline through Iran promises to be a gateway to Western consumers. President Berdymukhamedov emphasized his country’s gas independence in October by replacing most of the oil- and gas-industry officials in Turkmenistan. On November 1, in a fresh start after their ugly gas-pricing dispute of 2008, Turkmenistan welcomed a delegation from Iran seeking to eliminate customs barriers, increase trade, and jointly develop oil and gas infrastructure in the Caspian Sea.

Russia has never hesitated to twist foreign arms for Gazprom, whose revenues prop up the state and make its military acquisition program possible. It’s considerably more likely that Iran is being pressured on its gas arrangements with Turkmenistan than that Russia’s government has begun seeing the Iranian nuclear problem through Western eyes.

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The Giants Meet

Today, Dmitry Medvedev arrived in Beijing on his first foreign trip since assuming the Russian presidency. The two authoritarian giants wasted no time criticizing American plans to create a missile defense shield. In a joint statement, Medvedev and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao said such a defensive system “harms the strengthening of trust between states and regional stability.”

Yet Medvedev did not fly all the way to the Chinese capital to make a rhetorical jab at Washington on something he can do nothing about. The Russian first wanted to remind the West that Russia has other friends. Putin’s initial foreign trip as president took him to London in 2000 to indicate that he was going to look to Europe and the Atlantic Alliance. His successor seeks to convince us that he can reverse that forward-looking orientation.

Second, Medvedev boarded a plane to make a second–and more immediate–point, this one intended for his Chinese hosts. Putin stopped off in Belarus on his way to England in 2000. Eight years later, Medvedev visited Kazakhstan before China. The former Soviet republic borders both Russia and China and represents a crucial prize in the seemingly eternal contest for Central Asia between Moscow and Beijing. Although the two large states see that their interests coincide when it comes to undermining the American superstate-hence all the talk about missile defense as well as a proposed treaty on banning weapons in space-they have plenty of differences among themselves.

The overriding reality is that both Russia and China need the West more than they need the other. Russia inked a $1 billion uranium enrichment deal today with China, and this will help bring the two nations together. Yet their bilateral trade last year was a puny $48 billion. In comparison, America’s bilateral trade with China was $386.7 billion during the same period and accounted for all but $6.2 billion of China’s overall trade surplus of $262.5 billion.

The Bush administration has allowed Moscow and China to throw darts at America, as if their growing relationship did not matter. Whether or not this passivity was justified in the past, the growing cooperation between the Chinese and Russians is now consequential. They are, for example, cooperating to block Western efforts on Iran, undoubtedly the most important matter at this moment. So, it’s about time for Washington to tell the autocrats in Moscow and Beijing that they are either with us or against us when it comes to solving urgent problems. They need us more than we need them. Now, when the international system looks as if it will fall apart, is the time to make this point in public. After all, Medvedev and Hu have no hesitancy in telling us off.

Today, Dmitry Medvedev arrived in Beijing on his first foreign trip since assuming the Russian presidency. The two authoritarian giants wasted no time criticizing American plans to create a missile defense shield. In a joint statement, Medvedev and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao said such a defensive system “harms the strengthening of trust between states and regional stability.”

Yet Medvedev did not fly all the way to the Chinese capital to make a rhetorical jab at Washington on something he can do nothing about. The Russian first wanted to remind the West that Russia has other friends. Putin’s initial foreign trip as president took him to London in 2000 to indicate that he was going to look to Europe and the Atlantic Alliance. His successor seeks to convince us that he can reverse that forward-looking orientation.

Second, Medvedev boarded a plane to make a second–and more immediate–point, this one intended for his Chinese hosts. Putin stopped off in Belarus on his way to England in 2000. Eight years later, Medvedev visited Kazakhstan before China. The former Soviet republic borders both Russia and China and represents a crucial prize in the seemingly eternal contest for Central Asia between Moscow and Beijing. Although the two large states see that their interests coincide when it comes to undermining the American superstate-hence all the talk about missile defense as well as a proposed treaty on banning weapons in space-they have plenty of differences among themselves.

The overriding reality is that both Russia and China need the West more than they need the other. Russia inked a $1 billion uranium enrichment deal today with China, and this will help bring the two nations together. Yet their bilateral trade last year was a puny $48 billion. In comparison, America’s bilateral trade with China was $386.7 billion during the same period and accounted for all but $6.2 billion of China’s overall trade surplus of $262.5 billion.

The Bush administration has allowed Moscow and China to throw darts at America, as if their growing relationship did not matter. Whether or not this passivity was justified in the past, the growing cooperation between the Chinese and Russians is now consequential. They are, for example, cooperating to block Western efforts on Iran, undoubtedly the most important matter at this moment. So, it’s about time for Washington to tell the autocrats in Moscow and Beijing that they are either with us or against us when it comes to solving urgent problems. They need us more than we need them. Now, when the international system looks as if it will fall apart, is the time to make this point in public. After all, Medvedev and Hu have no hesitancy in telling us off.

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Some Things Never Change . . .

Death, taxes, and The Nation‘s desire to further the interests of Russian autocrats, to name but a few. The magazine’s lead editorial this week is a thing to behold. Entitled “Neocon NATO Delusions,” it purports to tell the story of how

many neoconservative and neoliberal hawks, including presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain, see Bush’s globalized NATO as the forerunner of a concert of democracies that will replace the UN.

The Nation is purportedly a progressive magazine. Yet it stands opposed to an emergent “concert of democracies.” Why on earth? Because this “globalized NATO” threatens to “encircl[e] Russia and sidelin[e] the United Nations.”

Sound familiar? Russia’s argument against NATO expansion runs along the same lines. But this is hardly the first time the magazine has made Vladimir Putin’s case for him. In a recent essay, contributing editor Robert Dreyfuss complained about John McCain’s calls for an “expanded NATO that will bump up against Russian interests in Central Asia and the Caucasus.” Strange that such a stridently progressive magazine would sympathize with a government that kills journalists and imprisons dissidents. (Or a political figure like Putin, who has enjoyed for the most part unmixed support from George W. Bush.)

In an excellent essay in the current New Republic, Robert Kagan lays out how “autocracy is making a comeback.” Rather than working through international organizations like the United Nations, Russia (and China) are using them to delay international action on issues including the ongoing genocide in Darfur, the humanitarian catastrophe in Zimbabwe, the repression in Burma, and sanctioning Iran. And Putin has personally decried liberal groups (like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) as “vulgar institutions.”

In an uncertain world, though, it’s nice to know that some things never change: The Nation is still a collection of useful idiots serving the cause of tyranny.

Death, taxes, and The Nation‘s desire to further the interests of Russian autocrats, to name but a few. The magazine’s lead editorial this week is a thing to behold. Entitled “Neocon NATO Delusions,” it purports to tell the story of how

many neoconservative and neoliberal hawks, including presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain, see Bush’s globalized NATO as the forerunner of a concert of democracies that will replace the UN.

The Nation is purportedly a progressive magazine. Yet it stands opposed to an emergent “concert of democracies.” Why on earth? Because this “globalized NATO” threatens to “encircl[e] Russia and sidelin[e] the United Nations.”

Sound familiar? Russia’s argument against NATO expansion runs along the same lines. But this is hardly the first time the magazine has made Vladimir Putin’s case for him. In a recent essay, contributing editor Robert Dreyfuss complained about John McCain’s calls for an “expanded NATO that will bump up against Russian interests in Central Asia and the Caucasus.” Strange that such a stridently progressive magazine would sympathize with a government that kills journalists and imprisons dissidents. (Or a political figure like Putin, who has enjoyed for the most part unmixed support from George W. Bush.)

In an excellent essay in the current New Republic, Robert Kagan lays out how “autocracy is making a comeback.” Rather than working through international organizations like the United Nations, Russia (and China) are using them to delay international action on issues including the ongoing genocide in Darfur, the humanitarian catastrophe in Zimbabwe, the repression in Burma, and sanctioning Iran. And Putin has personally decried liberal groups (like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) as “vulgar institutions.”

In an uncertain world, though, it’s nice to know that some things never change: The Nation is still a collection of useful idiots serving the cause of tyranny.

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Our Bases in Europe

To his credit, Bob Gates continues to unravel some of the misguided decisions made by his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld. His latest decision, as noted in this article, is to stop the drawdown of U.S. troops in Europe.

Rumsfeld was determined to close down or downsize major U.S. bases on the continent that had been in existence for decades, principally in Italy and Germany. He had already reduced the U.S. troop presence to 43,000 from 62,000 two years ago, and he planned further cuts down to 24,000 by the end of next year. Gates has now stopped the exodus, and pledges to maintain U.S. troops at their current level in Europe. This comes on top of his welcome decisions to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps and to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq—both decisions that Rumsfeld should have made years ago.

The impetus for Rumsfeld’s base realignment plan was seemingly logical—the cold war was over and U.S. troops were no longer needed to defend Germany from the Red Army. But in practice what Rumsfeld envisioned didn’t make so much sense—moving most of the troops back to the U.S., and then having small numbers of them rotate for brief periods through new “lily pad” bases established in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and elsewhere, which lacked longterm housing for our forces.

The idea of creating new bases on the new frontiers of freedom makes sense. But moving the bulk of the U.S. troops to permanent bases in “CONUS” (the continental United States) made less sense. The transition would have been a costly one, with new quarters having to be built for the troops and the government having to pick up vast moving costs.

Other costs would have been geopolitical rather than financial: the shift called into question the U.S. commitment to Europe. It also put U.S. forces farther away from future trouble spots in the Middle East, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. (Germany, for all its disagreements with U.S. policy decisions, has never hindered the efficient movement by rail, sea, and air of U.S. troops from its soil to battlefields in the Middle East.)

Finally, there is a cultural cost involved: generations of American soldiers and their families generally have enjoyed living for a few years in Europe, and this has fostered closer trans-Atlantic cultural links. It is hard to see why it is good either for Europeans or Americans to have more troops consolidated on giant, dusty bases in the middle of Texas or other uncongenial spots back home.

To his credit, Bob Gates continues to unravel some of the misguided decisions made by his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld. His latest decision, as noted in this article, is to stop the drawdown of U.S. troops in Europe.

Rumsfeld was determined to close down or downsize major U.S. bases on the continent that had been in existence for decades, principally in Italy and Germany. He had already reduced the U.S. troop presence to 43,000 from 62,000 two years ago, and he planned further cuts down to 24,000 by the end of next year. Gates has now stopped the exodus, and pledges to maintain U.S. troops at their current level in Europe. This comes on top of his welcome decisions to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps and to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq—both decisions that Rumsfeld should have made years ago.

The impetus for Rumsfeld’s base realignment plan was seemingly logical—the cold war was over and U.S. troops were no longer needed to defend Germany from the Red Army. But in practice what Rumsfeld envisioned didn’t make so much sense—moving most of the troops back to the U.S., and then having small numbers of them rotate for brief periods through new “lily pad” bases established in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and elsewhere, which lacked longterm housing for our forces.

The idea of creating new bases on the new frontiers of freedom makes sense. But moving the bulk of the U.S. troops to permanent bases in “CONUS” (the continental United States) made less sense. The transition would have been a costly one, with new quarters having to be built for the troops and the government having to pick up vast moving costs.

Other costs would have been geopolitical rather than financial: the shift called into question the U.S. commitment to Europe. It also put U.S. forces farther away from future trouble spots in the Middle East, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. (Germany, for all its disagreements with U.S. policy decisions, has never hindered the efficient movement by rail, sea, and air of U.S. troops from its soil to battlefields in the Middle East.)

Finally, there is a cultural cost involved: generations of American soldiers and their families generally have enjoyed living for a few years in Europe, and this has fostered closer trans-Atlantic cultural links. It is hard to see why it is good either for Europeans or Americans to have more troops consolidated on giant, dusty bases in the middle of Texas or other uncongenial spots back home.

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A New Bomber?

The National Journal has an interesting article in the current issue on “The Air Force’s Next Bomber,” by Sydney Freedberg. Unfortunately, it’s not available for free online. (For the paid version, see here). But the gist is that the Air Force, after years of pressure from Congress and political appointees in the Department of Defense, reluctantly has agreed to begin developing a new bomber by 2018. Yet many analysts doubt whether the Air Force is serious.

To an outsider this might seem like a head-scratcher. Why wouldn’t the Air Force want a new airplane? The need for a new bomber seems clear given that, of the current bomber fleet of 180 aircraft, more than half are B-52’s that were last built in 1962. They still perform admirably, but it’s not clear how much longer we can continue to rely for our defense on aircraft that are older than the pilots. Yet the Air Force hasn’t been planning to get any more bombers for decades—not until 2037, when the B-52 turns 75. (Would you drive a 75-year-old car?) The last addition to its bomber fleet was the B-2 stealth bomber, of which it now has 21, the last having arrived in 1997.

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The National Journal has an interesting article in the current issue on “The Air Force’s Next Bomber,” by Sydney Freedberg. Unfortunately, it’s not available for free online. (For the paid version, see here). But the gist is that the Air Force, after years of pressure from Congress and political appointees in the Department of Defense, reluctantly has agreed to begin developing a new bomber by 2018. Yet many analysts doubt whether the Air Force is serious.

To an outsider this might seem like a head-scratcher. Why wouldn’t the Air Force want a new airplane? The need for a new bomber seems clear given that, of the current bomber fleet of 180 aircraft, more than half are B-52’s that were last built in 1962. They still perform admirably, but it’s not clear how much longer we can continue to rely for our defense on aircraft that are older than the pilots. Yet the Air Force hasn’t been planning to get any more bombers for decades—not until 2037, when the B-52 turns 75. (Would you drive a 75-year-old car?) The last addition to its bomber fleet was the B-2 stealth bomber, of which it now has 21, the last having arrived in 1997.

All of the Air Force’s creative energy has been poured into acquiring super-expensive, short-range fighter-bombers—the F-22 and F-35. Both are sexy and fun to fly, but have small bomb capacities and flight ranges. The National Journal notes their limitations in a prospective war with China:

Even from the nearest U.S. bases, in South Korea, the F-22 and the F-35 may well penetrate the outer layers of enemy defenses only to run out of fuel long before they reach any target. Slow, bulky tankers can refuel the short-range fighters in midair, but would never perform this delicate operation in full view of hostile radars. Thus, strike planes must rely on their internal fuel tanks once they enter enemy airspace. The F-22 has an estimated combat radius—the maximum distance it can fly before it must return to base—of 540 nautical miles; the still-in-development F-35 will be slightly better, at about 633 miles. Either fighter could hit, say, Tehran from bases in Kuwait, or Beijing from South Korea. But if U.S. allies balked, or if the bases came under fire, or if, in China’s case, key targets were hidden deep in Central Asia—like the Xichang space facility from which China test-launched an anti-satellite missile in January—the fighters would simply run out of gas.

By contrast, the article notes, the B-2 has a combat radius of 3,000 miles. During the Kosovo conflict, B-2’s flew all the way to Belgrade from Missouri and back without ever landing (but with multiple in-flight refuelings). So why doesn’t the Air Force want more bombers like the B-2?

The service advances plenty of arguments for its preference, but none is particularly convincing. More germane may be a fact noted by the National Journal: “Nearly half of all Air Force generals are fighter pilots, but less than 5 percent have bomber backgrounds.”

This is one case where it’s imperative that civilian leaders not defer to the preferences of the uniformed services. The Air Force needs more bombers—and more UAV’s (unmanned aerial vehicles)—even if it’s not what the fighter jocks prefer.

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Command Performance

The recent spate of appointments of admirals to top “joint” jobs within the U.S. armed forces is, so to speak, making waves within the military. The Army feels especially miffed that, at a time when it is carrying the major burden of fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, its representation in the most senior jobs is as low as it’s ever been.

As an Associated Press article notes, “Of the U.S. military’s nine combat commands, only two are run by Army generals, and that number will be cut in half when Bryan Brown retires next month as the senior officer at U.S. Special Operations Command.”

General Brown, a veteran of Army Special Operations Forces, is being replaced by Admiral Eric Olson, a veteran SEAL. At the same time, Admiral Mike Mullen, the current Chief of Naval Operations (i.e., the Navy chief of staff), has been nominated to replace Marine General Peter Pace as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; his deputy will be Marine General James Cartwright.

In other personnel shifts, Admiral James Stavridis became head of Southern Command last fall, while more recently Admiral Timothy Keating has become head of Pacific Command. The latter is a traditional Navy billet. But what really rankles the Army is that Keating’s predecessor, Admiral William Fallon, has taken over Central Command (covering the Middle East, East Africa, and Central Asia), whose leadership traditionally has rotated between the Army and Marine Corps. Of the nine unified combatant commands, the Army will be left with just one—European Command, where General Bantz Craddock is the boss.

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The recent spate of appointments of admirals to top “joint” jobs within the U.S. armed forces is, so to speak, making waves within the military. The Army feels especially miffed that, at a time when it is carrying the major burden of fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, its representation in the most senior jobs is as low as it’s ever been.

As an Associated Press article notes, “Of the U.S. military’s nine combat commands, only two are run by Army generals, and that number will be cut in half when Bryan Brown retires next month as the senior officer at U.S. Special Operations Command.”

General Brown, a veteran of Army Special Operations Forces, is being replaced by Admiral Eric Olson, a veteran SEAL. At the same time, Admiral Mike Mullen, the current Chief of Naval Operations (i.e., the Navy chief of staff), has been nominated to replace Marine General Peter Pace as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; his deputy will be Marine General James Cartwright.

In other personnel shifts, Admiral James Stavridis became head of Southern Command last fall, while more recently Admiral Timothy Keating has become head of Pacific Command. The latter is a traditional Navy billet. But what really rankles the Army is that Keating’s predecessor, Admiral William Fallon, has taken over Central Command (covering the Middle East, East Africa, and Central Asia), whose leadership traditionally has rotated between the Army and Marine Corps. Of the nine unified combatant commands, the Army will be left with just one—European Command, where General Bantz Craddock is the boss.

Suspicious souls within the Army are starting to wonder if there is a conspiracy against the men and women in green, perhaps a holdover from the tenure of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld was intensely suspicious of the Army for not being in synch with his high-tech (and highly misguided) plans to “transform” the armed forces. Or perhaps, some self-flagellating Army officers speculate, this is a sign that their service isn’t doing a good job of producing competent senior leaders.

Both explanations are plausible. But it’s also possible that there may be less here than meets the eye.

Consider that the Army at the moment holds the two most important combat commands in the entire U.S. armed forces. General David Petraeus is the senior commander in Iraq, while General Dan McNeill is the senior commander in Afghanistan. Neither position is as publicly prestigious as that of combatant commander. But those jobs are of much greater actual significance at the moment than running, say, Southern Command (with responsibility for Latin America). They are probably even more significant than running Central Command—which may be why Defense Secretary Robert Gates felt free to appoint an admiral to that position, knowing that our land wars would still be run by army four-stars.

These trends also tend to go in cycles. Not long ago the Army was grousing not about Navy admirals but about Marine Corps generals, said to be “overrepresented” in senior Army ranks. Marines, for their part, were upset that two Army generals—Tommy Franks and John Abizaid—had taken successive charge of Centcom. Many wondered why a leatherneck (such as the eminently qualified Lieutenant General Jim Mattis) wasn’t picked.

My sense—and it’s only a sense, since I have no inside information—is that the top jobs are filled nowadays based more on personal qualifications than on service politics. It’s who you know and what your reputation is that count, rather than which uniform you wear. And since the top jobs are so political, it’s often the most astute political infighter, rather than the most brilliant and inspired leader, who gets the appointment.

But the recent appointments do seem to reflect a decline in intra-service parochialism—precisely what the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act was supposed to accomplish. So the latest appointments should not occasion too much grinding of teeth, even in the Army. After all, before long the other services may well be complaining about too many green-suiters at the top.

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