Real Time Thoughts on Meet the Press (September 27, 2009)


Today is all about Iran and Afghanistan and David Patterson.

Iran is all about saber rattling itself to power.  But the thing is, of course, nothing has changed on the ground.  The only reason the recent revelations on Iraq are newsworthy–apart from Iran’s neighbors’ nebulous need to reanimate the impulse toward myopic power politics–is that it brings forth some new information that is germane to the possibility of an arms race in the region, and requires us to inquire anew about nuclear proliferation and the steady trade in nuclear secrets.  But, even without this news, this much was the case already: nuclear proliferation was an important issue for U.S. national security; the trade in nuclear secrets was still a game against our favor, one move away to check mate; the very real possibility of an arms race still swims in salty shallow waters.

This is a news story because Iran found out that we knew about Qum.  Now, I’d hope that many of our analysts had already assumed that there exists some positive probability that Iran would have two enrichment sites; one for our books, one for theirs.  Given that this might be a low-probability, high impact development, I’d hope that our government apparati were already drawing up scenarios and contingency plans even while we, the dozing public, and Iran were in the dark.   And now Iran is flexing its medicated muscles.  I think, going forward, its all about getting Iran to concede to U.S. demands to have greater transparency and more IAEA involvement, without necessarily triggering new sanctions. (10:31)

David Gregory is talking to Fmr. President Clinton.  (10:32)  David Gregory (DG) asked Clinton what he thought about Iran and Afghanistan.  Apart from some thoughts on the most recent show of Iran’s turgid capability to shoot off missiles, Clinton more or less gave DG talking points familiar to anyone who reads the NYTimes.  But his delivery seems subtle; he is careful to not overextend the facts on the ground.

Clinton:  He thinks that Obama’s strategy is not to refuse in toto Gen. McChrystal’s recommendation, but to minimax the foreseeable political damage, given Karzai’s tomfoolery.  “An American surge maybe a necessary condition for success…but it won’t be enough.  My guess is to see what happens in the Afghanistan election.”  Clinton seems to think,  essentially, that much turns on whether Karzai will enter into a partnership with the former Foreign Minister and opposition candidate Abdullah Abdullah.

David Gregory: What specific threat does Al Qaeda pose against the U.S?

Pres. Clinton: Logistical and tactical ability to conduct attacks.  We’d begun to route them and then dropped the ball.

On Health Care: Clinton’s analysis is stunningly subtle and insightful.  He is trying to describe the balancing act that Obama’s facing; and it sounds like the POTUS is in a frightful situation.  I think I’ll listen to him for a while, and leave up to you, my reader, the responsibility of looking up what he said.  (10:43)

Now its the Sen’s Kyl and Webb show.

Sen. Jon Kyl on Iran: mmmmmmmm, talking is counter-productive.  Let me put words in Sen. Kyl’s mouth: sanctions, sanctions sanction.  Military threat and some more sanctions.

Sen. Jim Webb on Iran: China was always neutral; China is Iran’s largest trading partner.  Lets not forget that China helped Pakistan establish its own nuclear program.  Let me put words in Sen. Webb’s mouth: let’s get China to support us and force Iran into a corner.  Hu Jintao, don’t let a brother down.

Sen. Jon Kyl: regime change in Iran; put in people who are in accord with the Iranian people.  mmmmmmm….talking point, mmmm.  (Yes, but the Iranian people LIKE their nuclear program)…ummm, I would not use the phrase, “these people”; it smacks of some of the most terrible patches of our 20th century history.

Sen. Jim Webb on Afghanistan:  We have 2 models of counter-terrorism: Somalia or Iraq.  Using Somalia as a model, we go, get our guys and leave Somalia and thereby leave some infrastructure behind.  If Iraq is our model, we duly build up some infrastructure and go about our business, sometimes unsuccessfully, sometimes not; when things cool down, we leave some kind of trained military behind, but leave to our enemy the  enviable infrastructure that we had developed in the first place.

Sen. Kyl is saying all the right things, though with a sort of blind–accept what the military says– mentality.

Sen. Jim Webb is thinking out loud and saying that we need to think about our feasibility set before we complete a strategy revision.  In this situation, I’d begrudgingly agree with him.  He’d be a very good salesman, if this is the pitch Pres. Obama is offering.

David Patterson shaved.  He looks good.  He’s inviting a fight with Obama.  This is a game of chicken that Patterson will lose.  Keep in mind he’s going up against Andrew Cuomo.  And this time Cuomo is playing the game well.

Some personal thoughts:

On Iran:

Sanctions seem to work when the state budget is effectively reduced– not only at the margins but in a demonstrably constraining manner. This is more likely the case in a country like Cuba or Bangladesh (though obviously, as in Cuba, it often destroys a people’s capability set).  Iran’s revenue comes from selling oil on a world market.  And because of this there are countries on the Security Council who could do without snuffing out the lucrative contracts that Iran can negotiate with them.  ‘Nuff said.

Hence, in this case, all sanctions against Iran would do is reduce the state budget at the margins.  Furthermore  if we wanted sanctions to work– in the sense that the leaders of a state are constrained on the policy that triggered the sanctions, either by private spending cuts or by the public demand to change two different sets of things would have to entail.  1) If we triggered sanctions to effect the population as a whole, either we’d be flagrantly unjust in doing so or have to assume that the people will rise up and demand that their leaders halt the sanction triggering policy.  2) Alternatively, we would have to require that sanctions reduce public spending on only those policies that have private benefits.  But of course, given the private benefits, they are hard to measure and hence are not easily subject to monitoring.

Hence we are left with the first option.    This does not strike me as the policy that would endorse a message that we care for the Iranian people.  Moreover when we trigger broad sanctions we would have to assume that the people suppose that the sanctions are just and that they accede to the sanction regime because those sanctions are just.  Finally, the population at large would have to be able to tell what portion of its reduced public spending is caused by, say,  the Ahmedinejad government’s intransigence.

There is no reason to think that any of those assumptions would hold in Iran.  It is more likely the case that the population at large will be enraged by a sanction regime that is far too blunt to be of any political use in our favor.

And there’s that whole canard about sanctions not having worked.  Since sanctions were imposed in 1995 in order to prevent Iran from pursuing its nuclear ambitions, Iran has gone onto develop enrichment capabilities.

On Afghanistan:

General McChrystal’s recommendations are exactly the right ideas to go about fighting a counter-insurgency.  The problem remains that McChrystal’s strategy is a long-term policy recommendation that 1) is not politically advantageous to President Obama 2) risks destabilizing the region, if the recommedations are not carried through exactly as given. 3) risks invigorating a “bring’em home campaign that will surely underlie a Taliban victory in Afghanistan.  (Were that our counterinsurgency strategy were electorally viable!!)

What we need is some mix of Gen. McChrystals strategy and some policy directive that will ensure that we do not take any risks that will require us to back down within 3 years.  Now President Obama does have to increase the troop presence in Afghanistan; doing otherwise would be political suicide.  Perhaps, he might do well to listen to Rory Stewart, Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School.  Stewart recommends that in the medium run, Obama draw down his forces, but engage with the people of Aghanistan in a way that shows that they are not forgotten and that the U.S government is interested in their well-being and their way of life.  Let us not seek a Jeffersonian Democracy (or even a Jacksonian one!!).  Let us make do with a set of credible political practices that require that rulers engage with the public good, for the benefit of the public.  Let us work toward ensuring that Afghanistan can reach the level of military and economic security that Pakistan established forty, fifty or more years ago.  And let us leave behind functioning political machinery that can fix itself when, from time to time it falls apart.  This requires that we be involved in people’s lives, in the ways they want to live them.  This requires that we realize that most Afghans live in villages that are widely dispersed, and central governments interventions are much more than an arms length away for these individuals.  If we choose to go this route, it may be possible to draw down our military involvement to well under 100,000 troops and nevertheless support a functioning (non-narco) state.*

* The alternative is to have 400,000 to 600,000 troops to properly support the property, assets and well-being of the people of Afghanistan.  We’d consign our boys to guarding villages and schools and brigdes.

~ by Faheem Haider on September 27, 2009.

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