What Did You Really Mean, Mr. Secretary?

About a week ago, I went to listen to one of my heroes, James Baker, give an interview to another one of my heroes, Evan Smith.

To my great pleasure and satisfaction, Smith asked questions mostly about US foreign policy. Baker was great at answering these questions. As I expected, he was very measured in his responses, urging members of current administration to continue with their policy of reaching out to Iran and suggesting they might try to reach out to Hamas as well. And yes, Baker is a Republican. And no, he wasn’t facetious. He even praised Obama Administration for its policies in Afghanistan. His only criticism was that Obama set a deadline for troop withdrawal and Baker thought this was a bad idea.

During the q&a section, I got to ask a question exactly about Baker’s comment on this troop withdrawal date. With my heavy Russian accent (which becomes even heavier when I’m nervous, which I was) I asked something close to this:

“Mr. Secretary, several minutes ago you criticized Obama Administration for setting a deadline for troop withdrawal. And yet we now know that several days ago, one of the most prominent insurgency leaders, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, sent a delegation to Kabul, to negotiate with Karzai’s government over possible reconciliation. Spokesperson for this delegation went on the record to say that this visit would have never happened had President Obama not set this deadline. How would you comment on such development?”

Baker’s answer was short and simple. He thought that these talks are actually not that important and that

“those Taliban that don’t send a delegation to Kabul, they know when we gonna start pulling out and when you are in a war it’s not a good idea, at least I don’t think, to tell your enemy that we will fight for six months and then we are leaving.”

First of all, Hezb-i-Islami, which is a rebel group and a political party headed by Hekmatyar, is not Taliban and we are not at war with Hezb-i-Islami.  And also, by condemning these talks, Baker went against everything he said prior to my question.

Just several minutes before, Baker suggested that current administration should not only continue talking to Iran but also should seriously consider reaching out to Hamas. Perhaps indirectly, similarly to the way Bush 41 reached out to PLO, but nonetheless, reach out. Baker also said, and I quote,

“I’m not one of these people who thinks you either talk to people  or you shoot at them. There is middle ground. . . And I’m not one of these people who thinks that by talking to an enemy you somehow give him something. You don’t if you know that you are doing.”

So, we can talk to an enemy. . . only not Taliban.

You know better than that, Mr. Secretary. What did you really mean?

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Watch Evan Smith’s conversation with James Baker here: http://www.texastribune.org/videos/2010/mar/30/conversation-james-baker/. My question and Baker’s response are at 49:40 – 50:58.

Mohammad Daoud Abedi’s comments are available here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/24/world/asia/24afghan.html?ref=todayspaper. Abedi is a spokesperson for Hekmatyar’s delegation.

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No Prospects of War Between Russia and Georgia… Yet

With a one-year anniversary of the August War coming up and with Georgia claiming that Russia is shifting the border of South Ossetia farther into Georgian territory, everyone wants to know whether hostilities are going to renew. I suggest that another August War is highly unlikely, since neither side sees it as beneficial to attack first.

In case of Georgia, neither domestic public nor international community will stand for another offensive. Last year’s military move into South Ossetia was not only heavily criticized by NATO countries such as Germany and France, it was also heavily discredited at home. In retrospect we can see numerous reasons for which Saakashvili made the first move (1.fulfilll election promise of retaking lost territories 2.provoke disproportionate retaliation which would damage Russian reputation) and these reasons seem rational. Having this same step repeated again, however, is another matter and the prospects of a pay off from another offensive are now significantly lower.

Russia’s offensive into Georgia will also make little sense. Russia has already scored a significant victory over Georgia last summer. It was not only able to move into Georgia’s proper, it was also able to pretty much get away with it. Saakashvili’s name is discredited, South Ossetia and Abkhazia are under Russia’s control, and Russia-NATO, Russia-US, and Russia-EU relations are steadily moving past last year’s incident.

Most importantly, both countries would be thrilled to have the other make the first offensive move. This way Georgia will be able to say “told you so” to international community in terms of Russia’s imperialist tendencies and Russia will be able to reinforce its point that South Ossetia and Abkhazia need protection from Georgia.

Therefore, both countries might try to provoke an offensive by getting on each other’s nerves. This would explain why Georgia has been so vocal in its request to get American troops as part of EUMM (european peacekeeping mission in Georgia.) Similarly, Russia has raised the level of combat readiness of its troops in South Ossetia. Both sides also exchanged accusations of firing across the de facto Georgia-South Ossetia border.

The bottom line – watch out for provocations on both sides. Other than that, another August War is unlikely. Both countries are better off with the status quo and making overt offensive moves would be irrational.

Doctrine of Pre-emption? Not so Fast.

One more popular misconception: the Iraq war was launched with the purpose to pre-empt Hussein’s use of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Again, such notion is not accurate. Even if we did think that Saddam possessed WMDs, the war still cannot be called preemptive; instead, it should be called preventive. The distinction is not simply semantical: preventive attack violates norms of international behavior, while preemptive strike doesn’t.

The difference lies in the nature of threat. If threat is imminent (adversary poses imminent threat of attack), think Syrian and Egyptian forces mobilized on Israel’s borders in 1967, then a country is justified to launch an attack. If threat is not imminent (adversary is developing capabilities that some day might become threatening), think the early days of Cold War and Soviet’s attempts to develop nuclear weapons, then an attack is not justified.

By all accounts, the war in Iraq was launched preventively and the Bush Administration, by calling it preemptive, attempted to blur this very important distinction. Unfortunately, they succeeded.

Proud to be a Cockroach?

Today, again, heard a popular misconception that Hutu militants were the ones who started calling Tutsis “cockroaches” – this is not accurate. Tutsi militants, while out of power in Rwanda, were operating from neighboring countries and were calling themselves “inyenzi” or “cockroaches,” because of their intension to infiltrate the entire country and be resistant towards attempts to exterminate them. True, Hutu militants did use the word to denigrate Tutsis during the 1994 genocide,  but they were not the first ones to come up with it.

President Will Gain from Gates Controversy

Remember the race speech that candidate Obama gave in Philadelphia? Arguably, this speech became one of the best moments for Obama as a presidential candidate and it came as a response for something that politically almost killed him – the controversy over his association with Jeremiah Wright.

Something similar will happen after the most recent dispute over race involving professor Gates and officer Crowley. Just imagine the photo op: the president, the policeman, and the African-American scholar drinking beer together and mending fences. I can already see the headline: “President Obama: Healing Racial Wounds of America.”

IN OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH IRAN, WE HAVE NOTHING TO FEAR BUT FEAR ITSELF

WITH UPDATED AFTERWORD

Americans who remember the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979, in which a group of Iranian students took over the American embassy and held 52 U.S. diplomats hostage for 444 days, can’t help but dislike the theocratic regime still in place in Iran. Democratic or Republican, all four of the most recent U.S. administrations pursued a policy of having no diplomatic presence in Iran. This policy has been in place for almost 30 years.

Today we know that Iran is developing its own nuclear program. Remembering 1979, we feel uneasy about this whole Iran-becoming-a-nuclear-power thing. We don’t know exactly why we are scared: combining nuclear weapons and Iran in one sentence just doesn’t sound good.

This blind fear, fueled by our past administration’s calls to disengage Iran from the world by any means possible, is inexcusable. With our eyes closed, we refuse to consider the possibility that our perception of the Iranian threat is not matched by the reality of this threat. The truth is, we know very little about the country. Perhaps if we knew more, we would see that it is irrational of us to be afraid of Iran, and it is rational of them to be afraid of the United States.

With an alarming proximity to five nuclear powers (Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Israel), Iran is located in one of the most volatile regions of the world. It doesn’t exactly fit into this volatile region either, given the historic tensions between Persia and the Arab countries, including an eight-year war between Iran and Iraq.

Now, in addition to this already uncomfortable geopolitical situation, Iraq is currently occupied by the United States, the world’s strongest military and nuclear power. Another neighbor of Iran, Afghanistan, is occupied by NATO, the world’s strongest military alliance.

All these international tensions could have been relieved if Iran was a strong, wealthy, and consolidated state. Its internal health, however, just like its international standing, is not stable. Aggravated by falling oil prices, economic hardships persist: 40 percent of the Iranian population lives below the poverty level; inflation and unemployment are in double-digits. President Ahmadi-Nejad’s inability to improve the economic situation in Iran makes him increasingly unpopular. His overblown and often bombastic rhetoric towards the United States and Israel does not sit well even with Ayatollah Khamenei, the true leader of Iran. Political opposition to Ahmadi-Nejad is gaining strength, with some speculating that he will face tough challenges in his re-election bid next year.

In such a turbulent international and domestic environment, the development of a nuclear program for peaceful and military purposes is this regime’s best bet for its political survival. It works well with the domestic audience because international opposition to Iran’s right to develop its own nuclear program fuels nationalist feelings among the Iranian population. It also helps with Iran’s international standing since, as Fareed Zakaria, a prominent international relations scholar, put it, “in the world of international politics, a nuclear program is the ultimate insurance policy.”

Don’t agree with Zakaria? Look at India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea. All four of these countries have nuclear weapons programs; all four of them acquired these weapons illegally. When the world, the United States included, had to face the reality of these countries being nuclear powers, serious consequences did not follow. In fact, quite the opposite happened: Israel, which till this day does not admit to having a nuclear weapons program, is one of the United States’ closest allies; India is on the verge of signing a nuclear agreement with the United States; Pakistan, despite violations of democratic principles by President Musharraf and despite Al-Qaeda’s haven formed on the Pakistan-Afghan border, enjoys unprecedented support of the U.S. government; North Korea has been paid to get rid of its nuclear weapons and is no longer considered, by the United States, a part of an Axis of Evil. It seems clear that wonderful things happen to countries after they establish their nuclear programs. Is it not a wise choice for Iran to proceed with enrichment of uranium and face the consequences after its weapon is developed? Given the precedents, these consequences are certainly better than the ones Iran is facing now. The bottom line is that incentives for Iran to continue with its nuclear program are far greater than disincentives.

Realizing that Iran is on its way to becoming a nuclear power, however, should not make us afraid. Before it is too late, we need to make sure that our government, and whoever is in charge of it, starts serious negotiations with Iran. Instead of putting Iran on the same level with Hitler and threatening the coming of World War III, our government needs to make a break with the failed 30-year policy of calling Iran irrational and refusing to negotiate. Perhaps it’s time to try something new. After all, we are currently in negotiations with Kim Jong Il, a much more belligerent and irrational dictator (Khamenei did not starve two million of his people) of an expansionist country (North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950; the Islamic Republic of Iran has never invaded another country), and we were able to persuade him to drop an already established nuclear program.

The best way to convince our leaders to abandon their failed policies towards Iran is to stop our own hysteria over Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. According to the February Gallup poll, 25 percent of Americans consider Iran the U.S.’s greatest enemy. Only 9 percent of Americans, according to the same poll, think that North Korea is our biggest foe, even though it is North Korea that has nuclear weapons, and not Iran. It is time to stop allowing our irrational fears to dictate our policies. We need to let go of our embedded dislike of the regime and be adults here. Direct talks are necessary and the United States, unlike Iran, has no excuse for being afraid to negotiate.

AFTERWORD IS IN A SECOND RESPONSE

Bush is no Batman, unless Batman is Two-Face

By Anna Cherkasova

The twin towers not rebuilt, bin Laden not brought to justice, Al-Qaeda not destroyed: just a few key failures, among so many, of George W. Bush’s presidency.

When confronted with such a reality, members of the Bush Administration prefer to stick to a three-word response; “history will judge” has become their ultimate brush off of criticism. Instead of admitting to their mistakes, the members of the Bush Administration tell us that in hindsight Bush will be recognized as one of the most underestimated presidents in U.S. history.

Adrew Klavan, a popular novelist, went as far as to compare Bush to Batman who has preserved the freedom of an ungrateful people and has never taken credit for it.  “Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand,” writes Klavan in his Wall Street Journal op/ed. “Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past.”

“When heroes arise who take those difficult duties on themselves,” Klavan continues, “it is tempting for the rest of us to turn our backs on them, to vilify them in order to protect our own appearance of righteousness.” President Bush, unlike his critics, according to Klavan, has shown his “fortitude and moral courage in this time of terror and war.”

And no, Klavan is not being facetious. He is not borrowing his propagandist punch lines from Mein Kampf either. Klavan is simply presenting his view of President Bush as a vilified superhero who is not going to be recognized while in office. And when out of office, who knows.

Bush himself is less sanguine about his post-presidential chances to be viewed as Batman. With less than 100 days left in office, he has been scrambling to save his eight-year legacy. In foreign policy alone, members of his administration have made a number of significant changes. They have been negotiating with North Korea, toying with the idea of establishing a first-in-30-years diplomatic presence in Iran, and speaking of “time horizons” for withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.

Despite Bush’s panic-stricken attempts at scrambling for resurrection, however, his chances of becoming a hero in the eyes of many Americans may be better than he realizes. 

If Barack Obama gets elected, for example, and, as promised, gradually withdraws troops from Iraq, deep ethnic, regional, and sectarian divides in that country, not contained by an American military presence, could provoke a civil war. Under such developments, the public media, an influential framer of public opinion, will likely blame Obama for a surreptitious withdrawal of American troops and accuse him of having poor judgment and a lack of military understanding.  Bush, on the other hand, will get some positive media coverage for bringing the violence down while in office, causing an upward movement in his approval rankings. As a result, the article by Klavan, comparing Bush to Batman, will get more publicity, and some of the estranged republicans will regret breaking away from the flock. Dick Cheney will give us his signature half- smile and mumble “I told you, history will judge.”

As unfortunate as it is, the public media suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder as it is impulsive, forgetful, and easily distracted. When and if, after a troop withdrawal, violence breaks out in Iraq, very few of the media outlets will mention the original fallacy of going into Iraq, forgetting not only that this particular decision caused the unleashing of the conflicting coalitions in the first place, but also that Iraq was undeservingly invaded based on a weak, insufficient, and, to some extent, fabricated proof of Saddam Hussein’s ties to terrorists and his ability to produce weapons of mass destruction.

Such media coverage will not be fair, but it is certainly likely, given the media’s goal of presenting the audience with a simple message and screaming headlines. Precedents are abundant.

Ronald Reagan, for example, because of his “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall” comment and other similar tough-on-the-Soviets remarks, gets credit for managing and winning the Cold War. George H.W. Bush, on the other hand, despite his remarkable achievements such as securing loose nuclear weapons on the post-Soviet area and brokering an inclusion of East Germany in the NATO alliance, still lives in Reagan’s shadow. Presidents such as John Kennedy, who forced Soviets into the race to the moon (thus bankrupting them) or Jimmy Carter, who militarily supported Afghani mujahedeen in order to push Soviets into that destined-to-fail conflict, are also completely underestimated in their efforts to bring the Cold War to an end.

So just as Reagan’s legacy was helped by an undeserved credit for victory in the Cold War, Bush’s legacy could be somewhat restored not only by an undeserved but also a false credit for keeping the peace in Iraq.

Despite possible future temptations to turn Bush into Batman, however, we should avoid falling into such a trap and try to stay on message here. Regardless of the outcome of the war in Iraq, we should never forget that this war should not have even been authorized; that when Bush is gone, bin Laden is still going to be at large and Al-Qaeda will still be alive and well. We should also remember that the World Trade Center, a symbol of American greatness, will still not be rebuilt, leaving an empty space as a reminder of Bush’s failure as a U.S. president.

So no, Mr. Klavan, Bush is no Batman and he never will be. With Iraq staining his already dubious legacy, he looks more like Harvey “Two-Face,” who flipped a double-headed coin for his country’s future and proceeded with the wrong war in Iraq, leaving the right war in Afghanistan for a future president, hopefully a true hero, to handle.