Mitt Romney: Diplomatic Dunce

Mitt Romney says that the Australian foreign minister told him that America is in decline and wants Romney policies to bring it back.

A few hours later, the Australian foreign ministry states that Romney’s account is “not correct.”

In other words, about to head on a foreign trip, Romney has managed to get into a spat with a longtime US ally before he even leaves the country.

Perhaps that is what the Australian foreign minister told Romney, although I doubt it.  In any event, you can be damn sure that any diplomat would not welcome a presidential candidate using a private conversation for political fodder.  The test of a foreign policy leader is whether he or she can keep things confidential.  Romney has just failed that test.  Unless, of course, they are his tax returns.

The next time Romney asks the leader of a foreign government for information, perhaps the answer should be “we’ve told you all you need to know.”

Quote of the Day: The Impact of Obamacare

From Laurie Garrett of the Council on Foreign Relations:

Political pundits will now argue the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court decision and the likelihood that Republican opponents to the health reform law will be able to overturn it through legislation. But perhaps it will now be possible for an HIV-infected individual in Mississippi or Alabama to have access, at taxpayers’ expense, to the same level of care as the U.S. government supports for comparable individuals in Johannesburg.

Yup.  Unless the governors of those states decide that they would prefer to have Third World conditions.  Which they might.

By the way: let’s start calling it Obamacare now.  As more people reap its benefits, we might as well reap the credit.

Israel and America in 2012: Wait for November

As long as people are making predictions for the new year, I’ll hazard something myself: Israel and America will have a loud diplomatic dispute about 11 months from now.

President Obama’s initial attempts at jump-starting the Mideast peace process were well-intentioned and sound from a policy perspective, but somewhat naive politically.  Demanding a settlement freeze, after all, conforms with decades of US policy and is necessary for the political and demographic survival of the Jewish state.

What he did not count on — but should have — was the Leninism of the Republican Party and the anti-Zionism of the current Israeli government.  The GOP’s current commitment to putting party over country means that it will undermine any policy initiative, no matter how positive, that does not contribute to its assumption of power.  Thus, the right wing immediately spread the meme of Obama’s supposed anti-Israel outlook.  This is nonsense: of all the Presidential candidates, only Obama seems to know or care about the impending demographic disaster that will occur if the settlements persist.  As for the Likud (and its US adjunct, also in the GOP), it seems oblivious to all of this, insisting that Israel is a democracy even if the settlements make it impossible ever to withdraw from the territories.  (Note: this does not mean withdrawal now is necessary; rather, it must be possible, and the maintenance of hundreds of thousands of settlers in West Bank makes that close to impossible).

Seeing the political writing on the wall, Obama backed off.  He basically had no other choice.  But after the election, he will.

This is true whether or not he wins re-election.  It is not too hard to imagine a series of Security Council resolutions demanding settlement freezes, or recognizing a Palestinian state.  They might clarify UN Resolution 242/338 by saying that “the territories” referred to in those resolutions comprise all of the territories in mandatory Palestine conquered in 1967.  These resolutions will not be anti-Israel, but rather anti-Likud, which as I noted above, is now a basically anti-Zionist party.

In the past, we could easily expect a US veto.  But after Election Day, President Obama is a lame duck either way — his term will end either in January 2013 or January 2017.  He will be untouchable politically. It is no accident that Ronald Reagan — that well-known enemy of Israel — initiated the formal US dialogue with the PLO in December 1988, when he had one month left in his term.  It will not be hard for Obama to tell his UN representative to abstain from these motions.  I think he will be particularly happy not to take the phone call from Netanyahu. 

All of this assumes, of course, that the status quo remains in place for the next 10 months — which it might not.  I still believe that even a politician as crass, unprincipled, and oleaginous as Netanyahu will not want to commit national suicide by attacking Iran.  Ditto with mullahs in Tehran.  If not, not.  Then we will have bigger problems.  But assuming complete madness does not overtake the Middle East (always arguable), the smash will come in about 11 months.

The fall of the House of Qaddafi

Juan Cole says it’s just about over.

Juan Cole says it’s about over. Tunisia and Egypt recognized the insurgent government overnight. Is the House of Assad next?

The best argument against the NATO intervention was that it wouldn’t work. Apparently it did.

That’s not to say that we should expect a smooth road ahead in Libya, any more than in Egypt or (let’s hope) Syria. Still,

When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,
And hear their death-knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near,
How can I keep from singing?

Focusing on the Wrong Drug in Mexico and Central America

Like Mark, I attended the Yale Globalization Center conference on drug policy organized by President Ernesto Zedillo and Professor Jody Sindelar. The most interesting thing I learned from the panels and participants is that the attention of the U.S. public regarding drugs is focused on debates that don’t matter much for our friends south of the border (i.e., what should we do about marijuana?). Meanwhile cocaine, which has dropped off the public’s radar, is absolutely central to what is occurring in Mexico and Central America.

Mexican gangs grow marijuana and ship it north, no muss no fuss, but to control the cocaine trade they need to look to South American suppliers and the land trade route through which the drug flows. Recently the gangs have established a substantially greater presence — with attendant violence and corruption — in places such as Guatamala, Nicauragua and El Salvador. Whether U.S. policy on marijuana gets tighter, looser or stays the same makes little difference to these Central American countries, but our policies toward cocaine have huge consequences for them.

More generally, the financial import of marijuana to the Mexican gangs seem to be declining. The gangs are diversifying into a range of other criminal and legitimate businesses, making drugs a smaller part of their revenue stream. The U.S. marijuana market is perhaps one sixth of that shrinking slice of the pie. In contrast, despite the increasing diversification of the gangs into non-drug businesses, cocaine remains massively important to them, likely accounting for more revenue than all the other drugs put together. With cocaine’s almost one hundred fold markup from Bogota to Laredo and its incredible weight to value ratio, even a shrinking U.S. cocaine market is extraordinarily lucrative.

Is Pakistan an Ally or an Enemy? How about “neither”?

Daniel Larison objects to attacks on Pakistan’s loyalty as an ally, noting (correctly) that allies don’t always agree.  Jeffrey Goldberg also sticks up for Pakistan as an ally. (h/t Sullivan)

I think we’re getting to the point where these terms don’t make much sense as regards Pakistan.  There are countries and non-state actors out there that are US allies, and there are countries and non-state-actors that are US enemies.  And you know what?  There are countries and non-state actors out there that are neither one.

Let’s make the hardly-bulletproof-but-still-reasonable assumption that most nations follow what they perceive to be their interests, whether that is some sort of overarching “national interest” or the collection of interests of individuals and groups within those societies.  Those nations whose interests very strongly dovetail with the United States we will call “allies”, and those whose interests are rarely aligned with the United States we can call “enemies.” 

Where is Pakistan?  It is in neither of these camps.  It has no use for Al Qaeda, but probably welcomes Taliban rule in Afghanistan because the Taliban will never ally with India.  It probably doesn’t want nuclear proliferation, but isn’t averse to selling some secrets to get foreign exchange.  It certainly doesn’t want a nuclear war, but it does want Kashmir, and isn’t averse to having groups of terrorists attack India if for other reason than domestic political consumption.

The Cold War is over.  We are in a very complicated multipolar world with far more powers than even Europe in the 19th century.  Most nations will be neither our allies or our adversaries.  We should be getting used to it by now.

This is so obvious I’m not even sure why I had to write it, but several years of “you’re either with us or against us” has obviously taken its intellectual toll.

Some random notes on Libya, while waiting for a clue

1. What happened to the “water’s edge” principle?
2. Not a good way to encourage non-proliferation.
3. If you support expensive humanitarian interventions that kill people, why not cheap humanitarian interventions that don’t kill people. Is it the killing you like, or is it spending lots of public money?

I haven’t the foggiest notion what the President should have done or should do about Libya; I’m not even sure what he is doing. So I’m going to comment on side-issues instead:

1. It was unfair to call opponents of the Iraq War “unpatriotic.” If they thought the war was a bad idea, it was patriotic to say so. Especially since they turned out to be right. On the other hand, the word “unpatriotic” seems to apply reasonably precisely to the Republicans who last week were denouncing Obama for not intervening in Libya and are now, as our planes are in the air, giving Gaddafi every possible signal that he is not in fact facing a United States of America.

2. One clear disadvantage of the intervention: We’ve now signaled all the tin-pot dictators in the world that there’s benefit in having nukes (N. Korea) and no protection from renouncing nukes. That’s not the signal we wanted to give.

3. And yes, it’s depressing that “conservatives” – and some liberals – oppose cheap humanitarian measures that don’t involve killing people, but have no problem with expensive humanitarian measures that do involve killing people. It’s not that Tomahawks directly compete with bed-nets, but it’s hard to figure out an argument for paying for Tomahawks but not bed-nets, if the point is to relieve human suffering.

If you support the Libyan venture but not bed-nets, is it the killing you like, or is it spending lots of public money?

“Reactive” versus “Strategic”? Please.

Foreign policy analysis will get a lot better when we stop using flatulent phrases like “strategic”, “reactive,” “leadership” or “realistic.”

Foreign Policy reports that President Obama decided last Tuesday evening to intervene in Libya after a “highly contentious” meeting.  This contrasts to some extent with the administration’s posture in regard to Tunisia and Egypt.   And it displeases some:

“In the case of Libya, they just threw out their playbook,” said Steve Clemons, the foreign policy chief at the New America Foundation. “The fact that Obama pivoted on a dime shows that the White House is flying without a strategy and that we have a reactive presidency right now and not a strategic one.”

I literally don’t know what this means.  First, perhaps the reason why “the playbook” changed in Libya was that Qaddafi was sending in tanks to murder his own people, and that unlike with Egypt and Tunisia, we had a very contentious if not hostile relationship with Libya, despite more recent detente.

And that leads to the second problem: this opposition of “reaction” and “strategy.”  Clemons surely understands that the United States does not control events; there are 6 billion people in the world, more than 150 governments, and the United States is not a unipolar power.  Put another way, part of being “strategic” is that you have to react to events.  There’s no other way.

Foreign policy analysts love to genuflect at the memory of Dean Acheson, Harry Truman’s Secretary of State.  Acheson never thought that South Korea was in the vital interests of the United States; neither did anyone else.  But when confronted with the sort of naked aggression unleashed by the North on June 25, 1950, the administration felt it had no choice.  Should it have watched as the North Korean communists took over the whole peninsula?

Maybe the administration saw this as a relatively cheap way to get on the side of the pro-democracy movement in the Arab world.  True?  Maybe not.  Maybe it will be a disaster.  But that won’t be because it is “reactive”.  If it works, then someone will later call it “opportunistic.”

George W. Bush was “strategic.”  As Stephen Colbert wisely noted, “He believes the same thing Wednesday as he did on Monday, no matter what happened on Tuesday!”  Is that better?

Foreign policy analysis will get a lot better once we stop throwing around words like “strategic” or “reactive” — or for that matter, “realistic”, “principled,” “leadership”, or “tough.”

A Libyan Insurgency Would Not Look Like Iraq

Even if Libya turns into a quagmire, here are three reasons why a Qaddafist insurgency would pale in comparison to Iraq.

Never doubt the intensity of a Sullivan scorned (at least politically, that is).  He is now excoriating the President for his Libya policy, and raising fears of a Libyan quagmire akin to Iraq.  Although one would have to be willfully blind not to feel a lot of trepidation over whatever we call Obama’s Libya policy (A war?  A police action?  A humanitarian intervention?), even a Qaddafian insurgency would not be nearly as deadly as Iraq’s.  There are a few reasons for this:

1)  Population and population density.  Iraq has more than 31 million people; Libya, roughly 6 million.  Yes, you heard that right: 6 million.  It’s a very large country, but it’s basically empty, mainly because it is mostly desert.  It would require far less troops, even under the assumption that the US would commit troops there (which would indeed be crazy, but I’m assuming worst-case scenario here).  Before oil was discovered, there was not much there: little wonder that it wasn’t colonized by the Europeans until 1911, and only then by the Italians, desperate for something after they suffered a humiliating defeat at Adowa to the Ethiopians a few years earlier.

2)  Safe harbors in neighboring countries.  Right now I’m reading Alastair Horne’s magnificent history of the Algerian War of Independence, A Savage War of Peace.  Very highly recommended.  Horne makes the point that the FLN could regroup and gain stregnth away from French forces by adopting safe harbors in neighboring Tunisia and Morocco.  In Iraq, insurgents could go to Iran and Syria, and Sunni insurgents got help from the Saudis.  This will be far harder in Libya.  Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco do not figure to help out.  Chad, Niger and Sudan might, but anyone pursuing Qaddafists will have little compunction pursuing them over the border, and Chad and Niger, highly dependent upon foreign aid, can be pressured into cutting off support.

3)  Past experience.  Insurgents can appeal to civilians by promising relief from hated regimes and by posing as apostles of national liberation: thus, Muqtada al-Sadr with Iraqi Shiites, or the FLN, or Ho Chi Minh or (fill in blank).  That will be much harder for Qaddafists to do.  They might get support from those ethnic groups from which Qaddafi’s family comes, but civilians will be under no illusions.  This hardly always works, see, e.g. the Taliban, but surely it will have a lot of effect, especially as a Libya-Iraq comparison.

None of this is to say that Libya won’t be a quagmire, or that Obama was right (or even constitutional) in taking his actions (although on balance I think he was — for later).  Rather, it is to say that if we are assessing Libya, we shouldn’t think that it is Iraq Act Two.

“Free Jonathan Pollard?” At what price?

Obama should tell Netenyahu, “Let’s make a deal.”

It appears that Benjamin Netenyahu intends to ask Barack Obama for the release of Jonathan Pollard. Since the PM has given the President nothing but tsuris since he took office, I don’t see that Obama owes him any favors. This isn’t a matter of “What have you done for me lately?”; it’s more like “What have you ever done for me?”

So, in Obama’s shoes, I’d be purely transactional. Since Pollard seems to be a big deal in Israel, I’d ask for something large. And since Bibi’s word notoriously isn’t worth the spit behind it, I wouldn’t trade for mere promises. My first impulse would be to say that Pollard’s release is available as part of a completed (not merely signed) peace deal, and not otherwise. In the words of the Clancy Brothers song, “When Ireland gets her freedom, bhoy, you’ll get your motor car.”

On the question of what would be the right thing to do with respect to Pollard as an individual, I’d tend to say “Let him out,” in keeping with my general view that multi-decade prison terms are mostly unjustified. Surely there’s no policy argument for keeping Pollard behind bars any longer: twenty-five years is plenty for deterrence, and at this distance in time Pollard surely doesn’t have any more secrets to divulge. So my tentative opinion is that his continued confinement is pointless cruelty.

On the other hand, it’s not as if Pollard hadn’t earned some hard time. He sold vital secrets for money, and apparently not only to Israel: South Africa was another client, and allegedly he tried to peddle his wares to Pakistan as well, in addition to feeding information to his then-wife to help her in business. He’s in a medium-security prison, so his physical conditions of confinement aren’t intolerable. So if he spends a few more years locked up as a pawn in US-Israel diplomacy, I don’t think you could really call that “injustice.” (He gets out in 2015 in any case.)

It turns out there’s a joker in the Pollard deck, one that the newspapers mostly don’t talk about: the unremitting hostility to the idea of letting him out on the part of Jews in the national-security establishment. After all, if Pollard claims that it was his moral obligation as a Jew – a “racial imperative” – to sell out (legitimately) classified material, including details about communications intelligence, that puts into question the reliability of every Jewish citizen. He’s the original Shande für de Goyim: a Jew whose bad behavior casts discredit on other Jews among non-Jews.

Anyway, if the Israeli government wants to insist on the principle of not being too hard on people who release classified information, maybe it could let up on Mordechai Vanuatu, who at least acted on (twisted) principle rather than for cash. He’s no longer in prison, but it wouldn’t really damage Israeli national security to let him leave the country, as he wants to do. Like Pollard, he’s no hero – he acted not out of disapproval of nuclear proliferation, but out of hatred for the existence of Israel as a state – but that was a long time ago. And, unlike Pollard, the information he revealed was embarrassing – Israel had done a good job of keeping its acquisition of nuclear weapons secret – but not actually security-threatening. As with Pollard, there comes a time to say “Genug iz genug!”