Monthly Archives: February 2007

Mr. Negroponte, I Presume

Posted by Cutler on February 28, 2007
Foreign Policy Factions, Iran, Iraq, Right Arabists, Right Zionists, Syria / No Comments

It may be time to abandon all talk of “the Bush administration.”  What we have in Washington are two Bush administrations at war with each other.

There is, of course, the Cheney administration, spoiling for a fight with Iran and sweet on the Shiites of Iraq.

Then there is the other administration.  Call it the “establishment” Right Arabist” of the administration.  That is the one that yesterday resurrected the Baker-Hamilton Report and announced plans to support diplomatic discussions with Iran and Syria.

The last time the Bush administration “blinked” on Iran in June 2006, Right Zionists like Richard Perle blamed Secretary of Sate Condoleezza Rice.

It detracts little from Rice’s influence in the administration to suggest that the “establishment” wing of the administration also received some reinforcement with the formal arrival–also yesterday–of John Negroponte as Deputy Secretary of State, Rice’s number two at Foggy Bottom.

The North Korea deal that so unsettled John Bolton was probably the first sign of a new “establishment” offensive.  Now comes Iran.

The Right Zionists have not yet weighed in about the news of the diplomatic initiative with Iran and Syria, but it won’t be long before the battle is joined.

Still, all is not lost for the Right Zionists.  There is, of course, still Cheney and his wing of the administration.

And–surprise!–things are looking up in the Senate where Dem Zionists are reliably hawkish on Iran and Syria.

Just for kicks, check out Michael Ledeen’s effusive praise for Democrat Senator Carl Levin:

Carl Levin, NeoCon [Michael Ledeen]

Read it twice, I had to. But Carl Levin has endorsed my longstanding proposal to go after terrorist training camps and weapons assembly facilities in Syria and Iran.

Carl Levin, you say?

Yeah, Carl Levin, the newly minted neocon from Michigan. My kinda guy. Just read it and cheer. It’s from hearings yesterday:

SEN CARL LEVIN (D-MI): “Now, in terms of the weapons coming in from Syria, those weapons that you’ve described as coming in from Syria and perhaps other Sunni neighbors are killing our troops. Do we have a plan to address the Syrian weapon source — of killings of our troops?”

JOHN MCCONNELL, Director of National Intelligence: “Sir, I know the military is working that border area to close it down from not only weapons but also jihadists coming in —”

LEVIN: “It’s more than just — we’re trying to close down the Iranian border area too. The problem is that these weapons are coming from a state which is — doesn’t recognize Israel either, just like Iran doesn’t. We’ve got to try to stop weapons coming into Iraq from any source that are killing our troops. I agree with the comments about trying to stop them coming in from Iran, I think we have to try stop them that are going to the Sunni insurgents as well as to the Shia. I was just wondering, does the military have a plan to, if necessary, to go into Syria to go to the source of any weapons coming from Syria? That are going to Sunni insurgents? That are killing our troops? … I think we ought to take action on all fronts including Syria and any other source of weapons coming in, obviously Iran is the focus – but it shouldn’t be the sole focus.”

(Armed Services Committee, U.S. Senate, Hearing, 02/27/07)

A Shiite Tilt?

Posted by Cutler on February 27, 2007
Iraq / No Comments

Those trying to discern any implicit political tilt to the Baghdad security plan should not be satisfied by White House professions of (and demands for) political neutrality and even handedness.

Instead, the best way to trace the contours of US policy is to listen for the howls of protest.

Here comes one now, and it suggests a pro-Shiite tilt.  Here is the Associated Press story:

The most prominent Sunni in Iraq’s fragmented government said Monday that the United States is going to have to come up with a “Plan B” if the current crackdown fails to stem the violence in the capital.

Tariq al-Hashemi, the Sunni vice president, also warned that the Shiite-led government has no choice but to use force against sectarian militias, even though it may be too late to keep them from resuming killings and kidnappings when the Baghdad security crackdown ends…

The option of a political solution failed, and there is no choice now for the government except to use force against these militias – but it’s too late,” he said…

“Up to now, legal procedures have not been observed,” al-Hashemi said. “The human rights of Iraqis have not been respected as they should be. In this regard, this (security) plan is being implemented in the same way the previous ones were. This is surely regrettable.”

At the same time, he said efforts to lure Sunni insurgents to lay down their arms was “moving at the speed of turtles” because the Shiite parties are reluctant “to bring them into the political process.”

“They view the resistance as a terror group that is no different from al-Qaida and that’s the problem we are facing now,” he said of the Shiites.

Choosing to Lose in Afghanistan?

Posted by Cutler on February 26, 2007
Afghanistan, Great Power Rivalry, Russia / No Comments

Vice President Cheney has made unannounced visits to Pakistan and Afghanistan. According to the New York Times, Cheney’s visit to Pakistan was intended to deliver “an unusually tough message” to President Pervez Musharraf.

The decision to send Mr. Cheney secretly to Pakistan came after the White House concluded that General Musharraf is failing to live up to commitments he made to Mr. Bush during a visit here in September. General Musharraf insisted then, both in private and public, that a peace deal he struck with tribal leaders in one of the country’s most lawless border areas would not diminish the hunt for the leaders of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Nobody is going to question the idea that Cheney can deliver a tough message when he wants to (see his latest warnings to Iran).

The real question is whether Cheney actually wants a fight with Musharraf. He might. I’m just not sure.

The “tough” message in Pakistan is being delivered by the House Democrats, not the Bush administration. Indeed, the Bush administration opposed the Pelosi bill that threatened to link Pakistani aid to a crackdown on the Taliban.

For Cheney, however, the problem with a tough message to Pakistan and a crackdown on the Taliban is that such initiatives may ultimately undermine Cheney’s anti-Russian goals in Central Asia.

In an August 5, 1999 article in the Financial Times (“Contest For Regional Supremacy Replaces Cold War Conflict in Afghanistan”), Charles Clover put the post-Cold War history of the Afghan factionalism in the context of geopolitical rivalries:

[T]he war in Afghanistan is not just a tribal or an ethnic conflict but a geopolitical one; that the superpower conflict between the USSR and the US in the 1980s has been replaced by a contest for regional supremacy, pitting Pakistan against Iran and Russia

“The Taliban are not Pakistani mercenaries but they are facilitated and trained by Pakistan. They are permitted to recruit in Pakistan. They are really a transnational, Afghan-Pakistani phenomenon,” said Barnett Rubin, an Afghanistan expert at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations…

Jamiat-i-Islami… [is] the main faction opposed to the Taliban… Burnahiddin Rabbani, who is still recognised internationally as the president of Afghanistan, is the political head of Jamiat…

Funds for the Taliban appear to come mainly from the Gulf states or individuals, according to Mr Rubin. The movement is recognised by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in addition to Pakistan, as the legitimate government of Afghanistan…

[T]he prospect of Pakistani dominantion over Afghanistan proved too threatening for other countries in the region, and an unlikely alliance between Iran and Russia formed to support an anti-Taliban force made up primarily of… Jamiat-i-Islami.

“There is a big Russian and Iranian role with [anti-Taliban] forces, but it is not as extensive as Pakistan’s role with the Taliban,” said Mr Rubin…

Several times a week [anti-Taliban forces fly] an old MI-17 helicopter to Tajikistan, which has signed defence co-operation agreements with Russia and Iran. Tajik airbases such as the town of Kulyab have become centres for Russian and Iranian supplies…

In other words, the Afghani civil war of the 1990s was a proxy battle between US-backed forces–the Saudis, the Pakistanis, and the Taliban–and Russian-backed forces–Iran, India, Tajikistan, and the so-called “Northern Alliance.”

In a recent Washington Post Op-Ed (“Discarding An Afghan Opportunity”), Selig Harrison of the Center for International Policy argues that after 9/11, some elements of the Bush administration supported what amounted to a Russian- and Iranian-aligned “Tajik clique” in Afghanistan:

In 2001 the United States lined up with the Tajik ethnic minority, whose small military force, the Northern Alliance, helped dislodge the Pashtun-based Taliban and has subsequently dominated the Karzai government. Tajik generals and their proxies still control the army as well as key secret police and intelligence agencies hated by the Pashtuns. Karzai, a Pashtun, has attempted to soften Tajik domination with Pashtun appointments to top security jobs, but the real power remains in the hands of a U.S.-backed Tajik clique.

Does Cheney support this “Tajik clique”? Or does he accept NATO’s failure to defeat the Taliban as the price of blocking Russian and Iranian political dominance in Afghanistan?

In a recent Foreign Affairs essay–“Saving Afghanistan“–Barnett Rubin suggests that the US continues to send mixed messages about its geopolitical aims in Afghanistan.

The rushed negotiations between the United States and Pakistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 changed Pakistan’s behavior but not its interests. Supporting the Taliban was so important to Pakistan that Musharraf even considered going to war with the United States rather than abandon his allies in Afghanistan. Instead, he tried to persuade Washington to allow him to install a “moderate Taliban” government or, failing that, at least to prevent the Northern Alliance, which Pakistanis see as allied with India, from entering Kabul and forming a government. The agreement by Washington to dilute Northern Alliance control with remnants of Afghanistan’s royal regime did little to mollify the generals in Islamabad, to say nothing of the majors and colonels who had spent years supporting the Taliban in the border areas. Nonetheless, in order to prevent the United States from allying with India, Islamabad acquiesced in reining in its use of asymmetrical warfare, in return for the safe evacuation of hundreds of Pakistani officers and intelligence agents from Afghanistan, where they had overseen the Taliban’s military operations.

The United States tolerated the quiet reconstitution of the Taliban in Pakistan as long as Islamabad granted basing rights to U.S. troops, pursued the hunt for al Qaeda leaders, and shut down A. Q. Khan’s nuclear-technology proliferation network. But five years later, the safe haven Pakistan has provided, along with continued support from donors in the Persian Gulf, has allowed the Taliban to broaden and deepen their presence both in the Pakistani border regions and in Afghanistan. Even as Afghan and international forces have defeated insurgents in engagement after engagement, the weakness of the government and the reconstruction effort — and the continued sanctuary provided to Taliban leaders in Pakistan — has prevented real victory…

[F]ailing to address Pakistan’s support of the Taliban amounts to an acceptance of NATO’s failure.

Nobody is likely to accuse Cheney of accepting failure easily. Cheney is, however, willing make awkward alliances with unsavory forces in order gain advantage over a strategic rival.

The US and Russia seemed to get on well in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 because any move to unseat the Taliban aided Russian and Iranian allies in Afghanistan.

Perhaps Cheney harbors doubts about the wisdom of this idea.

If Cheney shies away from a direct US confrontation with the Taliban, it is not only because he has been distracted by the “diversion” in Iraq. It is because his attention is focused on Russia.

[UPDATE: The Taliban, on the other hand, is not shying away from a direct confrontation with Cheney.  I guess they didn’t read my blog post.]

The Ice in Rice

Posted by Cutler on February 17, 2007
Foreign Policy Factions, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia / 1 Comment

To my knowledge, nobody has explicitly linked the Saudi-brokered “unity government” deal between Fatah and Hamas to Saudi royal factionalism.  And I’ve seen no news reports to suggest that any royals have criticized the deal.

Give it time.

The US response to the deal–signaled by Secretary of State Rice in comments earlier this week as she departed for the region–was quite icy.

This is not a White House initiative sponsored by the office of the Vice President.  These are not Cheney’s Saudis.  These are Baker’s Saudi’s.

The unity deal between Fatah and Hamas appears to mark a major victory for “unreconstructed,” Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal.   By some accounts, Saudi King Abdullah appears to neither to have pressed for nor received many “pro-Zionist” concessions from Hamas, least of all the recognition of Israel or the renunciation of violence as a tool in the struggle.  Others suggest Hamas may have given a nod toward implicit recognition.

Overall, the Mecca agreement appears to represent a successful Saudi effort to undermine the Bush administration’s Fatah-backed war against the Hamas government.

Regional reconciliation is, in essence, a Baker/Abdullah initiative.  And it aims to include all players–including Putin–in the classic Right Arabist collaborative initiative.

Regional rivalry is the Cheney plan.

So, has Cheney lost his Saudi’s?  Or are they just laying low and deferring to Abdullah for the moment.

The Cheney plan provides for a “regional realignment” that explicitly links the US, Israel and the Saudis in confrontational alliance to battle Iran and Syria via proxy wars within the Palestinian Authority (support for Mahmoud Abbas in a civil war with Hamas), Lebanon (support for Fouad Siniora in a civil war with Hezbollah), and Iraq (support for a campaign against alleged Iranian influence), if not support for an outright military confrontation against Iran itself.

So far, the Saudis royal family appears to be trying to hold together amidst US pressure to pick a side.

How long will that last with Cheney working overtime to cultivate Saudi allies?

Limits of Liberalism

Posted by Cutler on February 15, 2007
Great Power Rivalry, Russia / 3 Comments

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman asks so many of the right questions.  Too bad he provides so few meaningful answers.

Still, his views are so emblematic of the liberal mind that I cannot help find value (although not really enough to want to pay) in watching him construct his world.

One of my favorite questions is the one he asks in his most recent column, “Putin Pushes Back.”  He has recently returned from Moscow and now he wants to know, in essence, “Why do they hate us?

Friedman’s Answer: NATO expansion.

We need to stop kidding ourselves. After the end of the cold war and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in 1991, the Bush I and Clinton administrations decided to build a new security alliance — an expanded NATO — and told Russia it could not be a member.

And let’s not forget that the Russia we told to stay out in the cold was the Russia of Boris Yeltsin and his liberal reformist colleagues. They warned us at the time that this would undercut them. But the Clinton folks told us: “Don’t worry, Russia is weak; Yeltsin will swallow hard and accept NATO expansion. There will be no cost.”

Why would a patriotic dude like Friedman go and join the “blame America first” crowd after all that time defending the American crusade in Iraq (really wanted/wants to do Saudi Arabia, if you listen to the guy)?

Because it is his way of saying that our illiberalism was and is the cause of their illiberalism.  And that goes a long way toward salvaging the idea that there was no internal crisis of liberalism in Russia (or the US).

So, a couple of points:

1. A huge chunk of what went “wrong” in Russia (say, with the rise of the ultra-nationalists in the December 1993 parliamentary elections) was a backlash against the neo-liberal economic proposals (shock therapy, tight monetary policy with its deflationary bias, massive unemployment, relentless austerity) that Friedman constantly champions in his embrace of neo-liberal “globalization.”  The Russian liberals weren’t done in because they were abused by American illiberalism.  The Russian liberals imploded because they championed some of the most politically unpopular economic measures anyone could imagine in Russia.

Did Russian’s want consumer goods?  You bet.  But didn’t they also want cash to pay for all those goodies?  And, honestly, Tom, describe to me again the kind of delayed gratification that was and is required under the neo-liberal plan…

There has always been an antagonism between political liberalization and economic liberalization.  In Russia, it was nothing other than political liberalization itself that put paid to the idea of neo-liberal austerity.

(The preferable model continues to be China where neo-liberalism need not worry about its popular mandate.  It thrives–so far–without all the fuss and bother of political liberalization).

2. We live in a world of great power rivalry.  What that means is that the US is neither the sole source of all things good nor all things evil.  The US is one locus of energy in the Great Game of Empire.  Friedman often oversteps by suggesting that the US is the sole source of all things good.  Here, he oversteps in the other direction by understating Russian “agency” in the Great Game.

Friedman:

Mr. Putin… said: “The process of NATO expansion has nothing to do with modernization of the alliance. We have the right to ask, ‘Against whom is this expansion directed?’ ” We all know the answer: it’s directed against Russia. O.K., fine, we were ready to enrage Russia to expand NATO, but what have we gotten out of it? The Czech Navy?

Disingenuous: we weren’t in it for the Czech Navy.  We offered the Czechs and others a security umbrella, not the other way around.  That has always been the story of NATO, so let’s not kid ourselves.

We were in it for control of Europe, for control of Caspian oil and natural gas, and much else to boot.  So were the Russians.

Friedman:

For those of us who opposed NATO expansion, the point was simple: there is no major geopolitical issue, especially one like Iran, that we can resolve without Russia’s help. So why not behave in a way that maximizes Russia’s willingness to work with us and strengthens its democrats, rather than expanding NATO to countries that can’t help us and are not threatened anymore by Russia, and whose democracies are better secured by joining the European Union?

This makes a mockery of the facts on several fronts.

Can he be serious that all throughout Eurasia countries were “not threatened anymore by Russia”?  The Russian-backed coup in Azerbaijan in wasn’t a threat?  The troops in Georgia weren’t/aren’t a threat?  Russian intervention in Ukraine and Belarus?  Russian control in Turkmentistan?  Russian support for Serbian nationalism?

It takes at least two Great Powers to tango.  We live in a world with at least two–quite a few more, really.

The whole point, in the world of Great Power Rivalry, is that Iran is a “problem” for the US because of its alliance with Russia.  Otherwise, a “deal” would have been done with Iran a long time ago.  This is why Cheney and Putin deserve one another: neither is willing to “share” Iran and so the Russians and the Americans fight over it.

Here is the tough question to send back Friedman’s way: does he advocate a world where Great Powers “share” the bounty of the “periphery”?

Given the very old, very real “Great Power” ambitions of Russia (all of which pre-dated the advent of the Soviet Union and continued on immediately after the demise), Friedman can only be suggesting a return to a world in which Great Powers carve up the “periphery” into exclusive spheres of influence.  Like Roosevelt, Friedman would then grant Russia its sphere of influence (everything but the Baltics, I guess).

I’m no fan of American empire.  I’m no fan of Russian empire.  But neither am I a fan of inter-imperialist collusion at the expense of the rest of the world.  If the “periphery” has any chance at leveraging a better deal in this world, it will have to come through effective efforts to play Great Powers against one another.

Bush Sr’s “New World Order” was specifically designed to try to keep that from ever happening again.  Part of the deal was that Russia could keep Ukraine and much else along with it.  Remember?  Tom?

Does Great Power rivalry always guarantee competition for the “hearts and minds” of the underlying population?  No.

Does it ever have that consequence?

Ask India if it could have won independence from Britain without the threat to go with the Germans in World War II.  A nasty business, but Gandhi’s entire campaign cultivating British conscience pales in comparison on the question of raw leverage for extracting concessions from the British.

While you are at it, ask the Egyptians if they didn’t play the Americans against the British.

And, Tom Friedman, ask the Israelis if they didn’t win statehood by playing both the Americans and the Soviets against the British.

Clear & Present Dangers

Posted by Cutler on February 12, 2007
Iran, Iraq, Isolationism / No Comments

The US is beating the drums for war with Iran.  The news is full of chatter about the emergent US-Sunni Arab alliance against Iran, discussed last summer in my ZNet essay, “The Devil Wears Persian.”

In the last few days, however, the Bush administration has focused on allegations that Iran is supplying deadly weapons used against US forces in Iraq.  The New York Times started the cycle of coverage with a Michael Gordon article that has already generated well-deserved criticism.

Now, major news outlets are reporting on a “long-awaited” presentation of more alleged evidence that Iran has been supplying lethal weapons to Iraqi Shiites.  Both the New York Times and the Washington Post carried news of this unusual “briefing.”  The Post describes the circumstances of the briefing:

The officials said they would speak only on the condition of anonymity, so the explosives expert and the analyst, who would normally not speak to the news media, could provide information directly. The analyst’s exact title and full name were not revealed to reporters. The officials released a PowerPoint presentation including photographs of the weaponry, but did not allow media representatives to record, photograph or videotape the briefing or the materials on display.

Why does it seem like the Bush administration doesn’t want to be pinned down on this one?

Let’s stipulate, if only for the sake of argument, that the allegations are true.  What does it imply about Iraq?  That Iraqi Shiites represent the greatest threat to US forces in Iraq?

Right Zionist Reuel Marc Gerecht argues that Iraqi Shiite militias are not the central problem in Iraq:

Our role now is to stop the radicalization on the Shia side–and you can only do this by breaking the back of the [Sunni] insurgency, something we’ve diligently avoided doing since the fall of 2003. And it’s worthwhile to repeat: They, not the Shia militants, are responsible for the vast majority of American dead and wounded.

One might argue that Iraq Shiite militias are now the greatest threat to Iraqi political stability and national reconciliation, as the Pentagon recently suggested.  Even if that were true, however… even if the US were in Iraq primarily to help achieve national reconciliation… it would still be a very big leap to suggest that Iran is the greatest threat to US troops.

The Bush administration seems determined to “reveal” details about Iran’s efforts to foment violence in Iraq.  What it actually reveals, along the way, is something about the way it views public opinion regarding US foreign policy.  In the case of Iran, as in Iraq, the Bush administration assumes that there is absolutely no appetite for “foreign entanglements” or military adventures unless American lives are (allegedly) directly threatened.

Even when the Bush administration has “intelligible” (if not morally defensible) imperialist ambitions, it feels compelled to develop arguments that focus on immediate threats to US personnel rather than geo-political strategy.

The new “intelligence” on Iran tells us less about Iran than it does about Bush administration views regarding the popular political legitimacy of US empire.

Right Arabist Paul Pillar makes a similar point to Laura Rozen in the National Journal.  [Note: the excerpt on Rozen’s blog leaves off the final part of the Pillar quote about the “more legitimate” concern about the Iranian nuclear threat… As I’ve argued before, many Right Arabists have a soft spot for a hard line on Iran.]

Even if this PowerPoint presentation eventually gets made public … what does this show us as to where Iran is really coming from?” [former National Intelligence Council Middle East analyst Paul] Pillar asked. “What is the larger significance? Even if Iranian assistance to an Iraqi group is proven to everyone’s satisfaction, the [administration’s] policy never rested on that. The policy [is being driven by a] much larger sense of Iran as the prime bete noire in the region, and that is why the administration is trying to put together these coalitions with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the Sunni states, that we’ve been reading about. None of this hinges [on the Iran dossier]. We are not going to call this off if we can’t prove that Iran is furnishing munitions to Iraqi groups…

It is just one more thing — along with the nuclear issue, which is really more legitimate in a basic kind of way — [in the administration’s case that] Iran is doing nasty things, therefore it’s appropriate to beat the drum about Iran. That’s what it’s come down to.”

Geopolitical strategy may be the underlying basis for US policy in the Gulf.  But the Bush administration seems convinced the American people don’t think it is worth the effort.

Hence, the necessary centrality in all cases of an immediate risk, however twisted or convoluted the argument.

The Bush administration, for all its bellicosity, has internalized the anti-imperialist “new isolationism” of the American public.

Rogue JAM

Posted by Cutler on February 08, 2007
Iraq / No Comments

One day after the official “launch” of the Baghdad surge and crackdown, here come the (earliest and totally preliminary) answers to the questions about US policy in Iraq:

Target #1: “Rogue” elements of Moqtada al-Sadr’s Shiite Mahdi Army.  Reuters has the details:

U.S. and Iraqi forces detained Iraq’s deputy health minister on Thursday, a senior member of a radical Shi’ite political group, in the first major sign that a security crackdown in Baghdad was under way.

The U.S. military, without naming anyone, said a senior Health Ministry official had been detained on suspicion of infiltrating rogue members of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia into the ministry.

Ministry officials and witnesses said deputy Health Minister Hakim Zamili, from Sadr’s movement, was detained during the raid by U.S. and Iraqi forces on the Health Ministry in Baghdad.

“He is suspected of funding rogue JAM through large-scale employment of militia members,” a U.S. military statement said, using the acronym for the militia.

BBC even has Zamili’s picture.

So, if this is “rogue” rage, where is the “official” Sadrist movement?

Here is the Financial Times on that rather urgent question:

Last August, this correspondent observed US troops search one of the [health] complex’s buildings and arrest guards whom they believed may have hidden kidnap victims inside.

Later in the nearby battalion headquarters, the Iraqi commander to whom the captives had been transferred was besieged by phone calls from his superiors demanding the men be let go.

Sadrists say that Mr Sadr himself has directed his followers not to confront the US military or the Iraqi government, although this policy may be tested by such a high-profile arrest.

Right.  So, has Sadr been coopted by the Cheney crowd?  Or is he simply lying low.  Is the US moving ahead with a pre-approved program of helping Sadr gain control of his own “unruly” rank and file?  Or is the US spoiling for a fight with Sadr, using this high-profile arrest to draw the Sadrists into a confrontation?

WTF

Posted by Cutler on February 07, 2007
Iraq / 1 Comment

Right now, I only have questions about US policy in Iraq.

1. Is the US preparing for a big counter-insurgency push against the Sunni insurgency?

The Haifa Street battles and the downing of several US helicopters by what appear to be Sunni insurgent forces tend to make it seem that the US is returning to the aggressive anti-Sunni moves from the summer of 2003.

At the same, Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post has been saying that Prime Minister Maliki and his Shiite governing coalition opposed the surge because they really only wanted the US to get out of the way so the Shia could complete the “ethnic cleansing” of Sunni Baghdad.

If Shiite power–the so-called “80 Percent Solution”–is the aim, why not simply “release” the Shia?

2. Is the US preparing to take on Sadr and the Shiite militias?

Recent attacks on senior Sadrist figures seems to point in that direction.

At the same time, the US continues to stand by Maliki even as he appears to be quite dependent on Sadr.

If the goal is to try to close “Pandora’s box” and restore Sunni minority control, why not back a Sunni coup and “release” a proto-Baathist attack on the Shia?

3. Is the US trying to use American soldiers to protect Shiite and Sunni populations from each other in the name of National Reconciliation?

Good luck with that.

4. Is the US preparing for a two-front war against Shiite militias and the Sunni insurgency?

Please…

Our Man in Turkmenistan?

Posted by Cutler on February 05, 2007
Great Power Rivalry, Turkmenistan / No Comments

Sometimes Great Power Rivalry can facilitate democratic or populist uprisings.  Sometimes, not so much.

In Turkmenistan, not so much.  At least, not yet.

The Washington Post has published a report on the “battle” to succeed the late Turkmenistan President Saparmurad Niyazov who died in late December.

Acting President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, 49, will almost certainly win when the Central Asian country’s citizens go to the polls Feb. 11. His opponents, a deputy minister and four regional officials, are willing foils, according to analysts and exiled politicians.

Murad Karyev, the supposedly neutral chairman of the Central Election Commission, has already said Berdymukhammedov is the best man for the job.

Any protests from the US and the idealistic “true believers” in the Bush Administration who reportedly really believe in democracy?  Not so much.

The opposition-in-exile has expressed frustration at what it sees as muted statements from those countries about the need for real democratic change.

In a previous post, I argued that in the Caspian energy pipeline rivalry between Washington and Russia, the Turkmenitstan stakes have been very high.  The Washington Post report explains:

For the outside world, the direction Turkmenistan takes will carry profound implications for energy security. The former Soviet republic is becoming the focus of competition among Russia, China and the West as they vie for its natural gas resources.

Most of Turkmenistan’s gas is now exported through Russian pipelines. The supply could become vital to the ability of Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, to meet rising demand over the next decade. But Western governments would like to see construction of new export routes that bypass Russia and diversify the supply chain, something Niyazov had resisted.

Thus far, however, all of the Great Powers appear content to compete exclusively for the loyalty of the incumbent authorities rather than making an appeal to dissident or popular forces:

Russian President Vladimir Putin has embraced Berdymukhammedov….

The United States and the European Union have stepped up contacts with Turkmenistan’s new leadership.

The US attempt to “flip” the Russian-backed incumbent regime, rather than facilitate rebellion against it, was already clear when Richard A. Boucher, Assistant Secretary For South And Central Asian Affairs, traveled to Turkmenistan for the Niyazov funeral.

Boucher met with Berdymukhammedov and has been clear ever since that he wants to cut a deal at the top:

I wanted to go to the funeral to express our condolences, first of all, to the people of Turkmenistan, but also to signal — to say clearly that we are ready for a new beginning if they’re ready to start something new. And I’m not sure how far I can elaborate it at this point. We’re certainly interested in a smooth and peaceful transition in Turkmenistan. We understand that people have lost their leader and they have hope for the future, but they also have some uncertainty about it, so we want to work with them as they move forward…

As we hope Turkmenistan will move forward to a new future, we’re quite ready for a new relationship…

QUESTION: Yeah, but [Berdimuhhamedov]… didn’t mention anything about the political reforms.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: No, he didn’t. Obviously, we think that needs to be part of the package, creating a more open society, a more dynamic society, more creative society, a better economic opportunity for everyone. Those things all go together, and so we do think that needs to be part of the package; but — you know, where they need — where they’re ready to get started, we’re ready to get started as well. Education, access to information, economic opportunity, entrepreneurship, these are things that are fundamental to creating a more open society and we’d obviously like to see it become a society where people of Turkmenistan get the kind of justice and openness that they deserve.

QUESTION: Almost all Turkmen opposition are currently abroad. Will the United States support Turkmen opposition?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: What we have said, what we’ll continue to make clear is that we look for a more open society where everyone can participate in the social life, the political life, the economic life. That’s fundamental and that needs to be part of the change. But those decisions are going to have to be made in the end in Turkmenistan. And so we’re encouraging that kind of change, but I can’t — we’re not supporting particular people one way or the other. We’re supporting a more open society, and continue to make clear that that’s the direction that we think they have to go.

I know what you are thinking: That Boucher… he must be one of those naive, democracy-loving, idealistic, messianic missionary zealots from the crazy Cheney administration!

But let’s just wait and see.  It ain’t over until it is over.

If the US manages to flip the incumbent regime and get to the natural gas, then all will remain quiet on the US side.  But don’t forget: the incumbent regime is aligned with Putin.  Will Putin remain quiet if the US flips Berdimuhhamedov and he loses his monopoly on the gas?

If Putin pressures Berdimuhhamedov to show Boucher the door, will the US continue to remain silent?  Or will the US suddenly and conveniently discover the virtues of a democratic uprising in Turkmenistan?

Friedman’s Own War in Iran

Posted by Cutler on February 02, 2007
Iran / 2 Comments

In a column back in June 2003 entitled “Because We Could,” Thomas Friedman conceded,

I have to admit that I’ve always been fighting my own war in Iraq.

In other words, Friedman had his own reasons for supporting a US invasion of Iraq but acknowledges that these reasons did not necessarily coincide with the reasons the Bush administration went to war.

Nothing has changed as the Bush administration goes to work on Iran.  Thomas Friedman is fighting his own war in Iran.

In most respects, Friedman’s war in Iran runs parallel to Cheney’s war, as it has in Iraq.

In a previous post, I suggested that Cheney’s Saudi allies might be preparing to launch an oil war on Iran by flooding the market and driving down the price of oil until the Iranian regime either cried uncle (as it seemingly did when the Saudis dropped the price of oil in the late 1980s under Reagan and the late 1990s under Clinton) or collapsed in the face of internal, populist unrest.

Friedman is an ardent supporter of this strategy.  In his February 2, 2007 column–The Oil-Addicted Ayatollahs–Friedman writes:

I’d like to focus on how the Soviet Union was killed, in part, by its addiction to oil, and on how we might get leverage with Iran, based on its own addiction…

By the early 1980s, though, oil prices had started to sink — thanks in part to conservation efforts by the U.S… Oil prices and production kept falling as Mr. Gorbachev tried reforming communism, but by then it was too late…

In 2005, Bloomberg.com reported, Iran’s government earned $44.6 billion from oil and spent $25 billion on subsidies — for housing, jobs, food and 34-cents-a-gallon gasoline — to buy off interest groups. Iran’s current populist president has further increased the goods and services being subsidized.

So if oil prices fall sharply again, Iran’s regime will have to take away many benefits from many Iranians, as the Soviets had to do. For a regime already unpopular with many of its people, that could cause all kinds of problems and give rise to an Ayatollah Gorbachev. We know how that ends. “Just look at the history of the Soviet Union,” Professor Mau said.

In short, the best tool we have for curbing Iran’s influence is not containment or engagement, but getting the price of oil down in the long term with conservation and an alternative-energy strategy. Let’s exploit Iran’s oil addiction by ending ours.

Friedman is not new to this line of thinking.  In an earlier column–“Fill ‘Er Up Dictators“–Friedman wrote:

Bring the price of oil down to $30 and guess what happens: All of Iran’s income goes to subsidies. That would put a terrible strain on Ahmadinejad, who would have to reach out to the world for investment. Trust me, at $30 a barrel, the Holocaust isn’t a myth anymore.

I’m proposing that most of Friedman’s analysis is not like Cheney’s strategy.  It is Cheney’s strategy.

With one exception: Friedman’s special function is to bring the liberals along by aligning the war on Iran to an environmental politics of conservation and alternative energy.  In this, Friedman is fighting his own war on Iran.

It wasn’t conservation that brought down the price of oil in the 1980s or the 1990s.  And Cheney isn’t counting on the Green Party to hit the Iranians.  Cheney is counting on the House of Saud to flood the oil market.

There is a likely relationship between bringing the price of oil down and conservation.  An inverse relationship.

High oil prices make all kinds of energy alternatives (including conservation) viable.  Cheap oil puts the shine back on the old gas guzzling SUV.

Friedman knows that Cheney’s effort to hit the Iranians with low oil prices–the “real” war on Iran–will actually destroy any recent momentum toward energy efficiency, energy alternatives, and conservation.

So Friedman veers off from the Cheney war to fight his own: combine low market prices for oil with high oil taxes on oil consumption.  From “Fill ‘Er Up Dictators”:

[W]e don’t want the price of gasoline to go down in America just when $3 a gallon has started to stimulate large investments in alternative energies…

[W]e still need to make sure, either with a gasoline tax or a tariff on imported oil, that we keep the price at the pump at $3 or more — to stimulate various alternative energy programs, more conservation and a structural shift by car buyers and makers to more fuel-efficient vehicles.

You can propose an oil price crash to hurt Iran.  You can propose an oil price hike in the form of gasoline tax to support energy innovation.  But the two proposals run in opposite directions.

Friedman’s very “real” foreign policy–the one that is closely aligned with Cheney’s foreign policy–demands a collapse in oil prices.  His fantasy oil policy demands the exact opposite.

Friedman’s support for an oil price war on Iran will help rally liberal hawks for Cheney’s war and then leave them high and dry when Friedman is subsequently shocked, shocked to find that the whole affair leads to less conservation and less innovation because, alas, there was no political appetite–least of all from the White House–for his petroleum tax.

If the Saudis drop the price of oil, it may or may not have the predicted consequences in Iran.  But it will certainly diminish the pressure for energy innovation.