Will He Stay Or Will He Go?

Some confusing news from Washington today. The New York Times alleges that President Obama “plans to lay out a time frame for winding down the American involvement in the war in Afghanistan” while The Wall Street Journal reports that the White House has come up with a “revamped war strategy in Afghanistan that includes tens of thousands of additional U.S. forces and benchmarks for the eventual transfer of Afghanistan’s defense to the Afghan government.”

Next Tuesday the president is scheduled to meet with members of Congress before speaking at West Point where he will outline his exit strategy for the war. Apparently, the Times believes this signals a “winding down” of the American involvements in spite of the sending 30,000 extra troops.

According to an anonymous official, Obama “wants to give a clear sense of both the time frame for action and how the war will eventually wind down” although for now, it seems, we will see a lot more action first before anything winds down. There is no talk of even a time frame yet, let alone withdrawal. The Times‘ assessment therefore would seem rather premature at this stage.

Whatever the president says on Tuesday he is likely to be attacked for it from both the left and the right. Where the latter calls upon him to send in even more additional troops than he already will, Michael Moore suggest in The Huffington Post that Obama fire General Stanley McChrystal — even though just last May he replaced the previous commander, General David McKiernan for failing to implement a more irregular strategy. Firing another general just six months later seems rather like a bad idea but then again, Moore apparently has utterly no idea what the war is about.

I know you know that there are LESS than a hundred al-Qaeda left in Afghanistan! 100,000 troops trying to crush a hundred guys living in caves? Are you serious? Have you drunk Bush’s Kool-Aid? I refuse to believe it.

You better start believing it, Mr Moore. Obama might become a “war president” as you so dread, but he understands that the United States must persevere in Afghanistan. This war is of immense importance to maintain America’s credibility as well as the security of the region. That Obama remains determined to bring it to a successful end deserves praise for that reason.

Swiss Vote to Ban Minarets

In a referendum proposed by the Swiss People’s Party, the Schweizerische Volkspartei, an alliance of farmers and urban conservatives, a majority of Swiss voters (57.5 percent) agreed to ban the construction of minarets in their country. The government, perfectly democratic, will uphold the outcome while assuring Muslims, mostly immigrants from the Balkans and Turkey, that the vote does not represent “a rejection of the Muslim community, religion or culture.”

It seems odd that one of the wealthiest and safest countries in the world should be so frightened of this architectural display of Islamic culture, especially when one considers that of the 150 mosques and prayer rooms in Switzerland, just four boats minarets with only two more planned. None conduct the traditional call to prayer. Moreover, of the circa 400,000 Muslims in the country, out of a total population of some 7.5 million, virtually none adhere to the codes of dress and conduct associated with orthodox Islam. In other words, the Muslim presence in Switzerland is hardly noticeable.

The Associated Press notes that the vote “taps into anxieties about Muslims that have been rippling through Europe in recent years, ranging from French fears of women in body veils to Dutch alarm over the murder by a Muslim fanatic of a filmmaker who made a documentary that criticized Islam.” In fact, Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders immediately called for a similar referendum to be held in the Netherlands today. Considering the opposition he faces in parliament, such a referendum, let alone a ban, is unlikely to come about, but with his support currently polling at around 17 percent (making him the second largest party), Wilders’ fierce crusade against what he believes is a growing Muslim corruption of Western culture is telling.

Unlike the United States, which actually fell victim to a destructive attack by Muslim extremists, most European countries never experienced such extremism first hand. Yet the countries that have (specifically Britain and Spain) seem the least determined to wipe out any traces of Islamic culture whereas in France, the Netherlands and Switzerland, countries that have significant Muslim populations, fear is more widespread.

When Geert Wilders declares the Quran a “fascist” book and proposes to outlaw it, he finds many people agreeing with him. Now, a majority of the Swissdemand that no more minarets be erected in their streets. These are all outward displays of Islam however. Burning the Quran or banning minarets will do little to diminish the threat of Muslim extremism. Quite to the contrary, such measures might well strengthen the fundamentalists in their conviction that the West intends to wage a religious war against them.

Meanwhile, the voice of moderate Islam is overlooked. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims who have adapted perfectly to Western culture while retained part of their heritage feel threatened. While perhaps not an explicit infringement of their freedom to worship, the Swiss ban of minarets is a sad display of intolerance all the same that is terribly unbecoming of a country renowned for its democratic tradition.

Does the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq Invasion Matter?

The role of the United Kingdom in the international arena has been one of much debate over the past three decades, but more particularly since the ending of the Cold War. Summed up neatly by former Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, the United Kingdom has been ‘punching above its weight’ internationally effectively, driving international policy at the UN during a period of American uncertainty following the disastrous American-led Somalian adventure in the early and mid-1990s and dominating the UN Security Council discussions under Sir David Hannay (then British ambassador to the UN).

This confidence has been knocked more recently through the long engagement in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan is Britain’s longest engagement since the nineteenth century, and while public sentiment is still generally behind engagement, Prime Minister Brown and American president Obama have been framing their words with care in the run-up to increased troop deployments, speaking of defending American and British streets from terrorism, rather than rebuilding some far away land’s political infrastructure.

Behind Afghanistan still lurks the specter of Iraq. While American troops remain with boots on the ground, pressure to disengage from Iraq is increasing — British troops withdrew from the country earlier in 2009, and publically, the United States intend to have combat troops out of the arena by August 2010, having already withdrawn from Iraq’s cities in July 2009.  Given the strong feelings expressed by both supporters and opposers of the invasion of Iraq in 2001, the British electorate had repeatedly been informed by the government that an enquiry into the Iraq war would be held once British troops had been withdrawn.

Following the official launch of the Iraq Inquiry on 30 July 2009, the first evidence was heard on 16 November 2009.  According to Sir John Chilcot:

Our terms of reference are very broad, but the essential points, as set out by the Prime Minister and agreed by the House of Commons, are that this is an Inquiry by a committee of Privy Counsellors. It will consider the period from the summer of 2001 to the end of July 2009, embracing the run-up to the conflict in Iraq, the military action and its aftermath. We will therefore be considering the United Kingdom’s involvement in Iraq, including the way decisions were made and actions taken, to establish, as accurately as possible, what happened and to identify the lessons that can be learned. Those lessons will help ensure that, if we face similar situations in future, the government of the day is best equipped to respond to those situations in the most effective manner in the best interests of the country.

The Inquiry committee members are Sir John Chilcot (Chairman), Sir Lawrence Freedman, Sir Martin Gilbert, Sir Roderic Lyne and Baroness Usha Prashar.

The first week of the Inquiry’s evidential hearings proved interesting, and included:

  • British policy toward Iraq in 2001, 24 November, Chairman’s Opening Statement;  Simon Webb, Peter Ricketts and William Patey
  • Weapons of Mass Destruction, 25 November, William Ehrman and Tim Dowse
  • The Transatlantic Relationship, 26 November, Christopher Meyer
  • Developments in the United Nations, 27 November, Jeremy Greenstock

For many, it is this opening week which is probably the most important, and hinges upon two important questions — was the invasion of Iraq by the American-led international force legal, and, whether legal or not, when was the decision to invade taken?

British politicos and public interactions with the media, not least upon radio and television debates, demonstrate that the latter of these two questions is considered the most important. In many ways, the timing of the decision to invade is important, but not for the obvious reasons. The previous Clinton Administration had passed the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998 in the United States, with a stated claim of regime change in Iraq, although not much publically perceptable action was subsequently seen. The Act aimed to work through the Iraqi opposition to establish regime change, but did not sanction invasion. There are numerous UN Security Council Resolutions (UNSCRs) on Iraq, but the most important were UNSCR 678, 687, and 782 which set out Iraq’s obligations over weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the territorial integrity of Kuwait. UNSCR 1205 of 1998 framed the possibility of military action in the event of non-compliance under the WMD declarations. Discussions over the toppling of Saddam and regime change in Iraq by members of the public — including ex-soldiers who fought in the first Gulf War — focus upon the viability of ‘going all the way to Baghdad’ after expelling Iraqi forces from Kuwait, often concluding that such a proposition was not possible due to the resources available and the threat of becoming bogged down in a long guerilla war. Other arguments for removing Saddam are premised upon the authoritarian and inhumane nature of the regime, and the humanitiarian reasons for invasion. However, these discussions miss the point. The first Gulf War was fought to preserve the territorial integrity of a sovereign state which had been invaded by another state, as protected under the UN Charter, and the responsibility of the UN Security Council to preserve — i.e., to protect Kuwait’s right to exist as a state against invasion by Iraq. To then ‘go on to Bagdhad’ would have violated the very ideals and international obligations under which Iraqi forces had been expelled from Kuwait. Humanitarian intervention was a very popular premise in the early 1990s, until events in Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Somalia (amongst others) deterred further military adventures on the part of Western powers in the name of humanitarian intervention. Besides, humanitarian affairs falls under the UN’s 6th Committee and not the 7th (the Security Council), and has no remit under international law for military action on its humanitarian merits.

These international obligations then frame the engagement with Iraq until the decision to invade was taken. The Second Gulf War was undertaken due to Iraq’s perceived refusal to oblige with UNSCRs on WMD since UNSCR 687, despite the work of the UN’s Weapons Inspection teams. This was made clear under Tony Blair’s statements to the House of Commons, and was the remit under which the House of Commons voted to take the United Kingdom to war. If UNSCR 1441 is seen as giving permission for military action — despite omitting the key wording of ‘all necessary measures’ — then this is only due to the obligations of Iraq under the WMD issues included in previous UNSC resolutions. Only subsequently has the public vocabulary changed to include ‘regime change’ — something which is illegal under international law, under which the two Gulf Wars were fought. If regime change was the true reason for invasion, UNSCR1441 does not permit military action for this, and this then makes the invasion illegal, and its proponents and instigators liable to prosecution for war crimes.

This is why the timing of the decision to invade is so important. If a decision was made, as intimated by some evidence already given to the Chilcot Inquiry, in a private meeting between Tony Blair and George Bush early in 2002 to invade Iraq to instigate regime change, then the legality of the invasion is questionable (to say the least) under UNSCR1441. 

This is why those private meetings between President George Bush and Prime Minister Blair are so crucial to the Inquiry. However, only George Bush and Tony Blair are able to speak of the events in those meetings. Blair is to give evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry, and this is one reason why the Inquiry matters.

Is Obama Failing in the Middle East?

The Obama Administration got off to a promising start in the Middle East. It announced to refocus on the war in Afghanistan; the president himself delivered a fine speech in Cairo, Egypt, in which he called upon the Muslim world to end “the cycle of suspicion and discord” and special envoys were appointed for Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as Israel and Palestine.

Now, almost a year later, the new strategy doesn’t seem to have amounted to much yet. Even The New York Times, typically supportive of the Democratic administration, has to admit that Barack Obama’s credibility in the region has “diminished”. The awkward strategy of publicly demanding a settlement freeze from the Israelis and getting none has deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. The administration, writes the paper, “apparently had no plan for what they would do if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said no.”

Netanyahu offered a compromise — a ten month freeze, exempting Jerusalem and the construction of schools, synagogues and 3,000 homes that were already being built. Although this went far beyond anything Israel had promised so far in relation to the settlements, the president insisted on more and in doing so, he strengthened the Palestinians in their resolve. They rejected the offer. Read more “Is Obama Failing in the Middle East?”

Medvedev’s New Russia

After last year’s infamous power shift it seems that President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia is more and more able or willing to distance himself from his precedessor and mentor Vladimir Putin. Although Medvedev is just as happy as Putin to maintain close ties with rogue states as Iran and Venezuela he has also launched efforts to ally with rising powers as Brazil, India and China within the so-called “BRIC” and nearby Central Asian states within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). With the other BRIC-states, Russia seeks to greaten its diplomatic and financial leverage on the world stage while within the SCO, it maintains relations with its neighbors. On top of that, Medvedev welcomed a reconciliatory President Obama in Moscow this summer to talk about reducing nuclear warheads.

All in all, the Russian president appears to do well abroad. Internally however he must struggle with an economy that performs poorly and a war machine that is hopelessly outdated. The other three BRIC-states have been able to climb out of their recession already but Russia probably has to wait until 2012. The Economist called it “the price Russia is paying for failing to develop its own financial markets and to tame inflation.” The two are inextricably linked because of the averge Russian citizen who deems life too uncertain to put some of his money in the bank, let alone contemplate an insurance of any kind. Rather he likes to spend every ruble he earns as quickly as possible.

Medvedev is determined nonetheless. On November 12 he spoke before the Russian Parliament and announced his intention to transform his country into “a global power on a completely new basis.”

Our country’s prestige and national prosperity cannot rest forever on past achievements. After all, the oil and gas production facilities that generate most of our budget revenue, the nuclear weapons that guarantee our security, and our industrial and utilities infrastructure — most of this was built by Soviet specialists.

Russia, therefore, must modernize and it must modernize today. Democracy, transparency, and a clean and healthy service economy are supposed to do away with a past of authoritarianism and heavy industry. Similarly, Russia must start (or continue) to conduct foreign policy on twenty-first century terms.

Instead of chaotic action dictated by nostalgia and prejudice, we will carry out an intelligent domestic and foreign policy based on purely pragmatic aims.

The rhetorics are followed by a series of concrete promises that are meant to reshape Russian society: pensions and unemployment benefits will go up, Medvedev says; war veterans will be housed more properly; and the flow of credit will be encouraged to strenghten consumption. At the same time, Russia must become less dependent on gas and oil and develop alternative energies, including biofuels. The medical and ICT-sectors are to be expanded while Medvedev intends to invest more in space technology. Schools, institutions, court, even Russia’s timezones are all up for reform.

Lastly, Medvedev pledges to restore the country’s proud military by purchasing thirty ballistic land- and sea-based missiles, five Iskander missile systems, about three hundred modern armoured vehicles, thirty helicopters, 28 combat aircraft, three nuclear-powered submarines, one corvette-class battleship and eleven spacecraft. “All this simply has to be done,” says Medvedev. But things don’t quite stop there. On top of buying a whole lot of military hardware, the Russian president promises to invest in state-of-the-art equipment and improved military education.

Only one thing Medvedev neglected to mention though; that is, how Russia will pay for it all.

Be Nice to China

In The Washington Post, Robert Kagan and Dan Blumenthal describe the Obama Administration’s new approach toward China as “accommodating”. What this entails precisely, no one knows, but what we do know is that the White House likes to call its policy “strategic reassurance,” or: convincing the Chinese that they’re really not out to bomb Bejing any time soon. It’s about time.

Up until now, Washington still seemed to consider China a future rival more than anything. The previous administration did very little to change that view. Quite to the contrary, it launched a partnership with Australia, India and Japan to counterbalance China’s growing naval potential; a potential that is greatly overestimated anyway. Moreover, China is virtually ignored when it comes to Afghanistan although it has shown itself able and willing to contribute to the economic reconstruction of the country.

In a speech this summer before the Council on Foreign Relations, American secretary of state Hillary Clinton finally appeared to put some distance between the Sinophobia of the previous years and her own approach. She wants to encourage all rising powers to become “full partners” in her multilateral world while acknowleding China’s economic significance to the United States. Read more “Be Nice to China”

Why Do We Bowl?

Bowling Alone cover
Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000)

In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam suggests that we act politically because of a shared trust and sense of community. Other political scientists (such as Benedict Anderson) believe that cultural cleavages are what drive us to act. Still others (Lipset, Almond, Verba) think that a shared tradition and shared cultural norms are what drive our political activity. These culturalist schools of political science all have merits and all can explain some past forms of political motivations.

Putnam’s idea of shared trust (“social capital”) and sense of community can explain a lot and is closely related to those who believe in a shared tradition and cultural norms as motivational factors. Read more “Why Do We Bowl?”

Brain Dead Conservatism

In The Washington Post, Steven Hayward lays out his argument that conservatism has become a brain-dead movement:

Consider the “tea party” phenomenon. Though authentic and laudatory, it is unfocused, lacking the connection to a concrete ideology that characterized the tax revolt of the 1970s, which was joined at the hip with insurgent supply-side economics. Meanwhile, the “birthers” have become the “grassy knollers” of the right; their obsession with Obama’s origins is reviving frivolous paranoia as the face of conservatism. (Does anyone really think that if evidence existed of Obama’s putative foreign birth, Hillary Rodham Clinton wouldn’t have found it 18 months ago?) Read more “Brain Dead Conservatism”

What We Call the News

This title stolen from JibJab’s song of the same title found here.

In talking about the information networks of the twenty-first century, one cannot omit the rise of the Internet and the revitalization of conversational media.

As lecturer Alex Whalen has told us, in the first era of the American newspaper, conversation was key; the back page of every newspaper was left blank for people to leave their comments. These newspapers were passed from person to person and the conversation was looked upon by the founders as vital to a republic.

Indeed, in the words of Jack Anderson, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist:

Thomas Jefferson… He advocated and supported a free press and yet Thomas Jefferson was savaged by the press. He was excoriated by the press. He was abused more by the press than Bill Clinton or Richard Nixon or anybody that we have had in recent times. Thomas Jefferson was savaged by the press. Excoriated. And he was human. He didn’t like it. He went nose to nose with a couple of editors in Philadelphia. He said to one Philadelphia paper: “Nothing in this paper is true, with the possible exception of the advertising, and I question that.” And yet that wise Thomas Jefferson, in a moment of truth, said, “If I had to choose between government without newspapers and newspapers without government, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the latter.” After all he had been through, he was wise enough to understand. And there is no one here that has been through as much as Thomas Jefferson.

But now, with information almost instantly available to us from more sources than we have ever had available to us before, what effect will this conversation have?

For a little less than a century, we have been completely reliant on one-way media — television, newsreels, radio — that turn the general public into passive consumers of information.

Now, with tools like this blog and the newly-added comment sections on the websites of major news outlets, as well as online forums and Twitter, conversation is making news interactive again, much like in colonial times. Read more “What We Call the News”

Why Van Rompuy Might Be a Wise Choice After All

When the Belgian prime minister Herman Van Rompuy was selected to become Europe’s very first “president” of sorts, all media were quick to characterize his election as the kind of compromise that is so typical of how the continent continues to handle its political future. Especially across the pond, newspapers were weary of the man. Both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal called him a step backward for Europe: with Van Rompuy at the top, the Americans seem to think, the union can never hope to claim its rightful stake in world politics.

Van Rompuy is something of a bore, that much even the greatest Europhile ought to admit. He was picked over the likes of Tony Blair because he is a conservative and a patient negotiator. Germany, France and especially the United Kingdom don’t care for a Brussels that dictates foreign policy to them: the larger states believe, for good reasons, that they’re quite able to look after their own interests overseas. Besides, Van Rompuy is known to oppose Turkey’s entry into the union: a position that Germany and France both share.

At the same time, whoever occupies the position of permanent chairman of the European Council (which is really all the “presidency” entails) must be able to satisfy the many smaller member states. Hence, the chairman had to come from such a smaller member state himself. Someone of a higher profile, like Blair, would never have been able to secure support in all countries on the continent — that is not even mentioning his initial support for the Iraq War which so many Europeans opposed.

Anita Kirpalani describes the “cautious choice” for Van Rompuy as a wise one therefore. In Newsweek she writes that with Van Rompuy and Baroness Ashton, Europe “picked people who actually have a chance at fostering consensus,” especially on what to do with Afghanistan and Iraq. “What looks like timidity might just lead to a stronger Europe after all.”