Russian Bear Still Roaring

“The bear still has teeth,” notes Robert D. Kaplan, writing for The Atlantic. The Obama Administration’s decision to scrap the Eastern European missile defense system has left some former Soviet satellite states at the mercy of Moscow once again — or at least, that’s how they see it.

Understandably, some Poles and Czechs reacted to Obama’s announcement with outrage. They’ve backed the United States in most of the wars and deployments of the past decade. Now their reward turns out to be continued exposure to the designs of Russia.

Moreover, the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939 “still sends shivers down the spines of Poles,” according to Kaplan, because they fear an economically powerful but energy-dependent Germany joining forces with the military powerful Russia. Poland has no geographical barrier to protect itself against such an unholy alliance while it is exactly for the sake of having barriers that Russia is resistant to the pro-Western course of many Eastern European governments.

There is little threat of actual invasion, that much Kaplan admits, but Russia has other methods at its disposal: “organized crime networks, intelligence operations, and constant intimidation.” Besides, no matter how Westernized countries as Poland and the Czech Republican may have become, “Russians will always be able to operate there more easily than most Westerners, because of their related Slavic languages.”

So why is the United States letting this happen? Because it needs Russia’s help — “to put pressure on Iran, to help us with supply routes into Afghanistan, and, perhaps, to balance against China.” But Russia is far from a reliable partner. It maintains its own agenda with regard to Iran which it does not want to upset and enflame Islamic extremism on Russia’s fringes. And with China, Russia sits in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and in the informal BRIC alliance along with Brazil and India. It seems unlikely that Russia will ever definitively pick the American side in its struggle against either, present and future, antagonist.

Is it worth to risk the allegiance of Eastern Europe in order to please Russia then? Yes. Because as much as losing that allegiance would hurt Washington, making an enemy out of Russia once again would be all the more devastating.

The Quiet War in Yemen

It is a conflict that has been going on for several years but one that receives little attention in our Western media: the war in Yemen. Since 2004 the Shiite Zaidis of North Yemen have been in rebellion against the country’s central government. The Zaidis, a minor sect within Shī‘ah Islam, are one of the most impoverished groups in Yemen and feel discriminated against by the government. Thousands of people have already been killed in the onslaught with tens of thousands more fleeing the conflict zone.

The Yemeni government accuses Iran of supporting the Zaidis while an Iranian Grand Ayatollah once described their uprising as a jihad. Yemen can boast the support of Saudi Arabia and, indirectly, that of the United States although it is especially the former that worries about the violence on its southern borders.

Out of precaution, Saudi Arabia built a wall along parts of the border but increasingly it has had to resort to military force to stop Zaidi fighters from entering the kingdom.

The conflict flared up again last July when in the Sa’dah province, nine foreigners were abducted by Zaidi rebels of which six are still missing. During the weeks thereafter, the Zaidis managed to gain ground until the government launched a major offensive on August 11 with air- and missile strikes against known Zaidi bases in the border area with Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi kingdom got involved early November when a sentry was shot by rebels and border patrols were fired upon. On November 5, Saudi Arabia also launched airstrikes against Zaidi bases, claiming to target only rebels within its borders but actually involving itself in the Yemeni war.

Yemen can use the Saudi help. The government lacks both the funds and the public support to wage a violent campaign in the north and so far, it has been unable to break the deadlock.

It remains to be seen to what extent foreign countries, Saudi Arabia foremost among them but possibly the United States also, are willing to emerge themselves in the trenches to win this battle for Yemen. With the support of American intelligence and special forces, the war could easily be decided in Yemen’s favor but Washington risks upsetting Iran and Islamic fundamentalists worldwide which, considering the American presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, is not a welcome prospect right now.

Hillary Clinton Speaks on Human Rights

American secretary of state Hillary Clinton testifies to the House Committee on Foreign Relations in Washington DC, December 2
American secretary of state Hillary Clinton testifies to the House Committee on Foreign Relations in Washington DC, December 2 (DoD/Chad J. McNeeley)

Elaborating on the statement President Obama made when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize last week — “Only a just peace based upon the inherent rights and dignity of every individual can truly be lasting” — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke at Georgetown University in Washington DC about human rights today.

“We cannot separate our democracy, human rights and development agendas,” she argued. “They are mutually reinforcing and united in service of a common purpose: to create a world where all people have the opportunity to fulfill their God-given potential.” Read more “Hillary Clinton Speaks on Human Rights”

Brown Bashing the Rich

It’s not good to be rich in Britain. One is properly punished there for making too much money as becomes a welfare state. From every Briton that earns over £150,000 (or $243,000) a year, the government takes half of that in income tax. The well-off now face a further cut to tax relief on their pension contributions. An announced increase in the inheritance tax threshold has been put on hold but the taxman is still going after those with offshore bank accounts for it seems that in Britain today no crime is worse than the outrageous practice of tax evasion.

Even The Economist is upset and it calls Gordon Brown’s bashing of the rich “bad politics and rotten economics.” With elections arriving in a little over six months, Labour is doing everything it can to prove that it is still the “party of the many” whereas the Conservatives are branded as the “protectors of privilege and gleeful spending slashers.”

An extra tax on bankers’ bonuses this year is meant to smooth over voters but it does little to aid Britain’s ailing economy. The last of the G20 countries to be mired in recession, all the Labour government can think of doing is spending more money in the hope that such Keynesian methods will save Britain from further stagnation.

Now, with what will probably turn out to be a dreadful election ahead, Gordon Brown and his party are throwing themselves up as defenders of the common man again. Bashing the rich isn’t all about class politics though. As The Economist points out, the government needs the additional funds badly to keep its social services running, the imperfectly reformed National Health Service first among them. These are “disproportionately used by the poor” while “their employees tend to vote Labour.” By looking after the state, the party is looking after its core vote. The paper doesn’t like it one bit:

Britain has much experience of class politics, and none of it has been good. Class politics makes for bad economics: the state swells, public money gets wasted and entrepreneurs grow nervous. And it makes for a sad country, too: divisions deepen, suspicion flourishes and the social contract frays. When the time comes to judge the parties’ electoral strategies, voters should remember that.

The President’s Men

Who really runs American foreign policy? It is an intriguing question because as much as President Obama is the face of his country to the rest of the world, he is not alone in the decisionmaking process.

Besides the secretaries of state and defense, Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates, Obama is surrounded by his national security advisor, the former Marine Corps General James Jones, and the experts of the National Security Council. Not all of these people are old friends. To the contrary: the president ran against Mrs Clinton in the primaries while both Gates and Jones served previous administration. So how have things played out? Read more “The President’s Men”

Communism in Green

While the revelations of “Climategate” are still making headlines and world leaders meet in Copenhagen to discuss global warming, slowly but steadily more and more commentators are questioning the dubious qualities of environmentalism. Indeed, some are comparing it outright to totalitarian ideologies of the past.

Charles Krauthammer, writing for The Washington Post, quoted Czech president Vaclav Klaus as warning that environmentalism is well underway to become the new socialism. Or, as Krauthammer puts it, “the totemic ideal in the name of which government seizes the commanding heights of the economy and society.”

Socialism having failed so spectacularly, the left was adrift until it struck upon a brilliant gambit: metamorphosis from red to green. The cultural elites went straight from the memorial service for socialism to the altar of the environment. The objective is the same: highly centralized power given to the best and the brightest, the new class of experts, managers and technocrats. This time, however, the alleged justification is not abolishing oppression and inequality but saving the planet.

Krauthammer calls on Congress to bring these overzealous bureaucrats to a halt. Saving the planet is one thing, but trampling on the United States Constitution and sacrificing the economic order that has long brought the country prosperity might rather be too high a price to pay for it.

Global warming is real but “Climategate” unveiled some of the weaknesses of the environmentalist school that cannot be ignored. The evidence that says man is responsible for the process appears inconclusive at this stage but that is not the most pressing question politically. Rather we should ask ourselves whether the alternative provided by the eco-socialists, which borders on a rejection of industrial society and promotes self-sufficiency, is realistic and morally justified.

For it is industry that provides many of the answers to climate change in the form of renewable energies, fuel efficient engines, genetically enhanced crops, dams to protect regions from flooding and systems to warn against imminent weather hazards. Turning back the clock three hundreds years and abandoning the enormous technological progress that has been made in the meantime is not just impossible — it wouldn’t solve our problems.

The Next Republican Candidate

President Obama has hardly completed his first year in office or speculation about which Republican will run against him in 2012 has surfaced already. With leftovers from the last election as Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin probably too right wing and therefore unelectable, Mitt Romney remains the most high profile of potential candidates. Another name is being tossed around Washington however: the name of John Thune, the 48 year-old junior senator from South Dakota whose staunchly conservative views and youthfulness might well lure Republicans into electing their own version of Barack Obama.

Some media have been quick to pick up on the news. The New York Times described him as charming while Politics Daily is positively smitten with the man. He is “handsome”, “passionate” and “has gone out of his way to bolster his conservative bona fides,” we learn. For example, Thune called his faith his “anchor” and joined the effort to amend the United States Constitution with a ban on same-sex marriage. He supported the invasion of Iraq as a war of liberation — to bring religious freedom to the country would “open the door, obviously, for the Christian faith there as well,” he said. The Republican base might like to hear things like this, but how will he speak to moderates?

On his website, the senator does some more Republican smoothtalking by defending the Second Amendment right to own and bear arms while writing that “government has a duty to promote and protect the family” and pledging to “continue to fight for the life of the unborn,” meaning: abortion is a no-go unless the mother’s life is threatened.

On the other hand, he talks about the need to protect the environment, promote sustainable energy and reform health care — positions that independent voters might find appealing.

On some of the most important issues that an American president must deal with — the economy, homeland security and foreign policy — Thune volunteers no more than slogans however. “America must have a strong military,” he says. We must reduce the tax burden to promote growth. “Our tax dollars should be spent wisely” and law enforcement officials should have “the tools they need to fight the War on Terror.”

Since Thune isn’t a candidate for the presidency yet, it would perhaps be unfair to demand that he elaborates on these position. Right now though, it’s all the Republican talking points that no one can really disagree with — who doesn’t want America to have a “strong military”? and who doesn’t think that “tax dollars should be spent wisely”? — lacking a vision that anyone contesting Barack Obama in 2012 must be able to display.

Ayn Rand and the Christian Right

Politico announced it last month: “Ayn Rand is having a mainstream moment.” The fountainhead of Objectivism, the philosophy that holds man as an heroic being and values life as an end in itself, died in 1982 but two recent biographies, rumors of an Atlas Shrugged (1957) film adaption and her embrace by the popular right have reinvigorated interest in Ayn Rand’s work. Reason Magazine summed it up on their December cover: “She’s back!”

As Politico notes, this revived popularity “comes at a time of renewed government intervention in the private sector. […] It’s an era of big government all too similar to the dystopia described in Atlas Shrugged.” Not surprisingly therefore Congressmen and media personalities that are skeptical of this comeback of big government are more prone than ever to come out as Objectivists.

That is not to say that the right has embraced Rand entirely. Writing for the National Review Peter Wehner, a former Bush Administration official, describes Objectivism as “deeply problematic and morally indefensible.” Rand herself, he believes, was “a nut”. Her small-government philosophies have “very little to do with authentic conservatism,” according to Wehner, “at least the kind embodied by Edmund Burke, Adam Smith […] and James Madison. […] What Rand was peddling is a brittle, arid, mean, and ultimately hollow philosophy.” Why? Because Rand was an atheist and therefore represented “the antithesis of a humane and proper worldview.”

Bill Greeley, a blogger at the New Clarion is not impressed. “Authentic conservatism was the first enemy of capitalism,” he counters. Wehner has not to fear Ayn Rand so much — “it’s capitalism, human nature and ultimately the facts of reality” that are religion’s foremost enemies.

The Christian Science Monitor is rather more pragmatic in its assessment of Rand’s newfound popularity and gives the floor to Jennifer Burns, author of Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (2009). “Though she’s not religious,” writes Burns, “Rand brings a strong sense of good and evil to the debates over economic policy.” The Christian Right, she opines, “is being swept to the side by the rush of events.” That might be overly optimistic though considering how brain-dead the GOP has become in recent years, it wouldn’t be a bad development at all.

Can We Win in Afghanistan?

Writing in July 2008, retired United States Army General Barry McCaffrey, a Gulf War veteran and critic of the initial American strategy in Iraq, assessed the war in Afghanistan and concluded the following.

  1. “Afghanistan is in misery.” Life expectancy is low and violence and crime are rampant. At the time, McCaffrey expected Afghan governance to worsen at least until the summer of 2010.
  2. An enormous majority of the Afghan people reject the Taliban but have little faith in the government’s ability to provide them with security and jobs. They do trust the foreign forces but are suspicious about their long-term commitment.
  3. Afghan and NATO forces are militarily superior to the insurgents but they “cannot win through a war of attrition.”
  4. The war has basically run into a stalemate while Afghanistan’s political elite is “focused more on the struggle for power than governance.”
  5. Additional forces are required to break the deadlock.
  6. There is no “sensible coordination of all political and military elements of the Afghan theater of operations” which is hampering the war effort.

General McCaffrey specifically called on NATO to provide more troops. International cooperation was, and is, of the utmost importance in winning the war, he wrote — more than a year ago.

In a similar finding last November, the general appeared all the more pessimistic. “The Taliban believe they are winning,” he wrote and the Afghan people “do not know who will prevail.” Their trust in the Afghan government has declined further while allied casualties have “gone up dramatically.”

There is some reason to be hopeful though. “The Afghan National Army is a growing success story,” and “ISAF is reinforcing just in time to rescue the deteriorating tactical situation.”

David Betz at Kings of War is skeptical however. He notes that none of McCaffrey’s original six concerns have really been addressed. That seems only partly true.

Yes, Afghanistan is still in a deplorable state. Civilian casualties and unemployment figures remain high while the military and ideological power base of the Taliban might well be gaining strength. They are waging a successful propaganda campaign that portrays the Taliban as a disciplined and truly Islamic alternative to the corrupt and incapable Kabul government and to the Western troops which they claim intend to occupy the country indefinitely.

President Obama attempted to counter this claim when he announced a timetable for the withdrawal of American forces; a decision that General McCaffrey thinks was the wrong one:

Our focus must now not be on an exit strategy — but effective execution of the political, economic, and military measures required to achieve our purpose.

The United States cannot appear to be “scuttling from Afghanistan,” agrees Betz. “We most definitely should, however, have our eyes on the exit and how to achieve the most seemly passage through it as is possible.” Why, yes, eventually. But right now, foreign troops are all that stand between Afghanistan and the Taliban ruling it once again.

The president’s date for the ‘beginning of the end’ will not see the immediate and complete evacuation of NATO forces. Rather, as Secretaries Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates explained on December 2 while testifying before the Senate Armed Services and House Foreign Affairs Committees, the United States is in Afghanistan for the long run — even though it will be with fewer troops

Throughout his election campaign, President Obama stressed the importance of winning the war in Afghanistan. Afghanistan, he knew, was the ground where the real War on Terror was being waged. He was right. With the recent inclusion of Pakistan in the administration’s approach to the war, the United States has the ability, and must gather the will, to defeat the forces of extremism that operate from the mountainous border region between the two South Asian states and from where they continue to threaten the stability of that entire region.

Obama Last Transatlanticist?

Will Barack Obama turn out to be the last transatlantic American president? Nicholas Kitchen wonders in The Washington Note. Although his wind of change met the approval of nearly all of Europe, a series of diplomatic gaffes and mishaps has strained relations, he claims.

The Obama Administration supposedly downgraded ties with Britain from a “special relationship” to a “special partnership” — whatever the difference there might be. As James Pritchett has argued, such a downgrading is not unnatural: Britain simply isn’t the global power it used to be, not in economic nor in military terms and the United States have little reason to pretend otherwise. Kitchen seems to consider it a failure nonetheless.

And it’s not just Britain that Obama managed to upset. No, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy expressed their “annoyance” with his administration’s “attitude toward sensitive historical anniversaries” apparently. According to Kitchen these “diplomatic contretemps” were the products of a serious divide:

[O]ver the best response to the financial crisis and in particular the issue of regulation of complex financial services instruments, with Mirek Topolanek using the Czech Republic’s presidency of the European Union to describe American bailouts and stimulus policies as “the road to hell”.

And what does Obama do? He goes to Asia and declares himself the “Pacific president”.

Outrageous? Not really. Kitchen is fair to note that it’s mostly the Europeans themselves who are to blame:

[T]he truth remains that if Europe wants to be a major player on the world stage it needs to think of its role more strategically and systemically if the United States is not to regard the relationship with China as its most important bilateral tie.

There is probably little that will prevent the Americans from considering the latter relationship of greater significance, however, and for good reason: the Sino-American relationship is bound to define the twenty-first century, one way or another.

At the New Atlanticist, James Joyner defends the Obama Administration’s Pacific orientation. That is not to say Washington has forgotten about Europe, he writes. “Just because other countries now get more attention doesn’t mean the transatlantic relationship isn’t the most important one.”

[I]t’s difficult to imagine an evolution of the international system that would have China — or any other rising power — coming to have more similar values and interests than exists between the United States and Western Europe.

If not for the military and political alliance, that is still strong no matter how little attention President Obama were to pay to it; the cultural and economic ties between both sides of the North Atlantic would suffice to ensure mutual dependence for decades to come. The Obama Administration isn’t neglecting Europe. It simply realizes that there are more partners out there.