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Tim Johnson

Our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family.  Like many, we wish him a speedy and successful recovery.

Vali Nasr on Iran in the New Republic

A new favorite of mine, Vali Nasr, has a good piece in the New Republic this week.  An excerpt:

OOver the past three years, and with mounting alarm, Iran has steadily held Washington's gaze, gaining ever more notoriety as one of the most serious foreign policy challenges confronting the United States. An Islamist regime that was being written off on the eve of the second Gulf war is now asserting itself on the world stage and shows no sign of being subdued. Iran sees itself as a great power, and it is pursuing the nuclear capability that would confirm this self-image. It believes that it can play a global role and expects to be treated as a peer by the United States. Washington was certainly caught off guard by the surge in Iranian influence, and more so by the confident and provocative attitude that the country's hard-line leadership has lately put on display. As Iran has become more important to the United States, so has the problem of dealing with the Iranian question become the bugbear of the Bush administration. America's Iraq policy is becoming more and more overshadowed by America's Iran policy, whatever that is. The Bush administration has staked a very great deal on Iraq, but in the end it may be the administration's handling of Iran, more than of North Korea or even of Al Qaeda, that defines the Bush era in foreign policy.

No Way Out

The postponing of the Administration's new plan for Iraq until next year makes it clear the Administration no longer has any idea what to do in the Middle East, and that their inability to let go of a discredited and failed strategy in Iraq is endangering our national security and driving the Middle East to further chaos.

At the core of the Administation's ideological struggle is their inability to admit there is no longer a way to solve the problems of the Middle East through war and military means. Everywhere one turns there is mounting evidence that one of the core recommendations of the ISG Report - a massive diplomatic effort to restore political and economic stability to the region - is an essential part of any future strategy, but that of course would mean the Administration would have to acknowledge the limits of the military path.

Lets review the dead-ends we keep hitting: The Saudis again warned that the region was about to descend into a Sunni-Shiite war. The Administation's idea of a "Shiite tilt," would certainly accelerate this regional war, and would of course strengthen the region's Shiites, including Iran and Hezbollah, no friends of America. The Iraqi PM this week announced that a significant increase in American advisors to the Iraqi police and military - an idea central to virtually every American plan for Iraq - was a non-starter. Gruesome killings and bombings continued this week. And things have become so bad that the Pentagon leaked a plan it is hatching to restart government run factories in Iraq to help tackle the 70% unemployment rate...so we have come to the point where our most conservative government in over a century is resorting to a Soviet-inspired public jobs program to bolster their prospects in Iraq.

So what is the one idea that seems to be gaining currency in the White House? More troops. But to do what? Crush the Sunni-led insurgency in the center and north? Disarm the Shiite militias, supported by Iran and a critical part of the current coalition government? Attack the growing Al Qaeda presence in Anbar? While important, it is certainly not a critical step to restoring stability to the country. How can 20,000 additional troops solve the political and economic challenges underlying the current descent of Iraq, and solve the problems we've been unable to solve these past 3 1/2 years?

As the Inspector General of the Iraq Reconstruction said this week: "The solution in Iraq is not primarily a military one. It is primarily an economic and political solution."

Until the Administation comes to terms with this essential reality, there is no way forward, and no way out, of our current terrible troubles in the Middle East. And as the ISG Report made plain, the current path leads to a diminshed America, a regional Sunni-Shite war, a renewed Al Qaeda in the heart of the Middle East and oil soaring to new and dangerous levels.

Read "The Shia Revival" by Vali Nasr

Few books have taught me than Vali Nasr's new book, The Shia Revival.  It has influenced a great deal of my writing in recent weeks, and is essential reading for those wanting to better understand what is happening in the Middle East today.  From its closing chapter:

It is clear today the America cannot take comfort in an imagined future for the Middle East, and cannot force the realization of that future.  Such an approach guided the path to war in Iraq and has proven to be unworkable.   The lesson of Iraq is that trying to force a future of its liking will hasten the advent of those outcomes that the United States most wishes to avoid.   Through occupation of Iraq, America has actually made the case for radical Islam – that ours is a war on Islam – encouraging anti-Americanism and fueling extremism and terrorism.  The reality that will shape the future of the Middle East is not the debates over democracy or globalization that the Iraq war was supposed to have jump-started but the conflicts between Shias and Sunnis that it precipitated.  In time we will come to see this as a central legacy of the Iraq war.  

You can buy it now on Amazon or at your local book store, and is a very strong complement to the new Iraq Study Group report.  It can be a little dense at times, but it is well worth the effort. 

Administration floats Iraq options

The Washington Post reports on the deliberations inside the White House, and says the President will offer his new plan for Iraq and the Middle East the week of December 18th:

As pressure mounts for a change of course in Iraq, the Bush administration is groping for a viable new strategy for the president to unveil by Christmas, with deliberations now focused on three main options to redefine the U.S. military and political engagement, according to officials familiar with the debate.

The major alternatives include a short-term surge of 15,000 to 30,000 additional U.S. troops to secure Baghdad and accelerate the training of Iraqi forces. Another strategy would redirect the U.S. military away from the internal strife to focus mainly on hunting terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda. And the third would concentrate political attention on supporting the majority Shiites and abandon U.S. efforts to reach out to Sunni insurgents.

As President Bush and his advisers rush to complete their crash review and craft a new formula in the next two weeks, some close to the process said the major goal seems to be to stake out alternatives to the plan presented this week by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. The White House denied trying to brush off the study group's report and said those recommendations are being considered alongside internal reviews.

But the growing undercurrent of discussions within the administration is shifting responsibility for Iraq's problems to Iraqis. Sources familiar with the deliberations describe fatigue, frustration and a growing desire to disengage from Iraq. The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the deliberations.


On the political front, the administration is focusing increasingly on variations of a "Shiite tilt," sometimes called an "80 percent solution," that would bolster the political center of Iraq and effectively leave in charge the Shiite and Kurdish parties that account for 80 percent of Iraq's 26 million people and that won elections a year ago.

Vice President Cheney's office has most vigorously argued for the "80 percent solution," in terms of both realities on the ground and the history of U.S. engagement with the Shiites, sources say. A source familiar with the discussions said Cheney argued this week that the United States could not again be seen to abandon the Shiites, Iraq's largest population group, after calling in 1991 for them to rise up against then-President Saddam Hussein and then failing to support them when they did. Thousands were killed in a huge crackdown.

The Times reports that progress has been made on a deal that would share the oil revenues of the country, an essential part of any strategy that hopes to restore stability to the region. 

My quick take on the Post story is that the Administration still seems remarkably focused on military solutions to our challenges in the Middle East.  As we've written here, a great deal of what is now emerging in the Middle East needs diplomatic imagination and a new vision for how all the pieces are going to fit together.  For example, the "Shiite tilt" floated above will of course end up strengthening the region's Shiites, including the Iranians and Hezbollah.  How does that strategy jibe with our desire to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, and bringing stability back to the region? In a recent Post op-ed, a Saudi advisor made it clear that if the US embarked on a "Shiite tilt," it could end up bringing about a regional Sunni-Shiite war. 

Where is State? Where is Condi in all this? Is the dismissal of regional talks and diplomacy an ideological decision, or one that pragmatically assumes this Administration does not have the credibility or talent to bring about diplomatic progress?  As we evaluate the emerging options from the White House, the prism must be - will it bring stability to the region? And do more than just lessen our domestic political exposure to a worsening situation on the ground in Iraq.

What's the plan Mr President?

The Iraq Study Group's Report has fueled a critical national conversation about our government's strategy for the Middle East and Iraq.  The Bush Administration's approach, despite hundreds of billions spent, ten of thousands of American casualties, and a great loss of our prestige, has left the Middle East much more dangerous and unstable than we found it.  In the next few months we must settle on a new approach that responds to the gravity of the situation there today, as described by the ISG in its executive summary:

The challenges in Iraq are complex. Violence is increasing in scope and lethality. It is fed by a Sunni Arab insurgency, Shiite militias and death squads, al Qaeda, and widespread criminality. Sectarian conflict is the principal challenge to stability. The Iraqi people have a democratically elected government, yet it is not adequately advancing national reconciliation, providing basic security, or delivering essential services. Pessimism is pervasive.

If the situation continues to deteriorate, the consequences could be severe. A slide toward chaos could trigger the collapse of Iraq’s government and a humanitarian catastrophe. Neighboring countries could intervene. Sunni-Shia clashes could spread. Al Qaeda could win a propaganda victory and expand its base of operations. The global standing of the United States could be diminished. Americans could become more polarized. (add - Iran could become a nuclear power, the Lebanese government could fall, a regional Sunni-Shiite war could break out, oil could soar to unprecedented levels). 

As was widely reported (Times, Post), yesterday Bush threw more cold water the Report, and said he was coming up with a new strategy of his own.  We should welcome the President's change of heart, and his recognition that his current Middle Eastern strategy has failed.  But if he has rejected the two central premises of the ISG Report, two relatively simple steps, then we need to hold his new proposal to the highest standard - how it is proposing to restore stability to what has become the most troubled region of the world? How is it dealing with this reality of the Middle East as expressed in these two paragraphs above?

As I wrote yesterday, I have very little faith that this Administration has the capacity to imagine a different and better path forward.  Their simplistic foreign policy vision seems very ill-equipped to deal with the complexities in front of them (like the rise of the Shiites); Rice has been greatly diminished; and her most important advisory positions are vacant.  The Times' David Sanger has a must-read piece on the ideological battle underlying the Report's conclusions, and captured here:

They start from completely different places,” said Dennis Ross, the Middle East negotiator who worked for Mr. Baker years ago and left the State Department early in the Bush administration. “Baker approaches everything with a negotiator’s mindset. That doesn’t mean every negotiation leads to a deal, but you engage your adversaries and use your leverage to change their behavior. This administration has never had a negotiator’s mind-set. It divides the world into friends and foes, and the foes are incorrigible and not redeemable. There has been more of an instinct toward regime change than to changing regime behavior.”

So the test for the President in these next few weeks is to show that he understands the gravity of the situation in the Middle East, recognizes that our strategy isn't working, and offers a new strategy, grounded in a new diplomatic approach, that works to restore stability in what has become the most troubled and dangerous region in the world today.

The ISG Report: A Modest Step Forward

The ISG Report is out.  Read it for yourself here

My quick initial take is that the ISG Report is a modest but important step forward.  It's greatest contribution is that it is going to begin a process where America can come to a new and deeper understanding of what is happening today in Iraq and the Middle East.  As I've been writing these past few weeks, I've been very concerned that the debate happening here in the US has been much more focused on lessening our exposure to trouble in the Middle East, rather than imaging and working towards a way that brings greater stability to a very critical and unstable region of the world, one made much more unstable by our recent actions. 

The Report is appropriately sobering. From the executive summary:

In this report, we make a number of recommendations for actions to be taken in Iraq, the United States, and the region. Our most important recommendations call for new and enhanced diplomatic and political efforts in Iraq and the region, and a change in the primary mission of U.S. forces in Iraq that will enable the United States to begin to move its combat forces out of Iraq responsibly. We believe that these two recommendations are equally important and reinforce one another. If they are effectively implemented, and if the Iraqi government moves forward with national reconciliation, Iraqis will have an opportunity for a better future, terrorism will be dealt a blow, stability will be enhanced in an important part of the world, and America’s credibility, interests, and values will be protected.

The challenges in Iraq are complex. Violence is increasing in scope and lethality. It is fed by a Sunni Arab insurgency, Shiite militias and death squads, al Qaeda, and widespread criminality. Sectarian conflict is the principal challenge to stability. The Iraqi people have a democratically elected government, yet it is not adequately advancing national reconciliation, providing basic security, or delivering essential services. Pessimism is pervasive.

If the situation continues to deteriorate, the consequences could be severe. A slide toward chaos could trigger the collapse of Iraq’s government and a humanitarian catastrophe. Neighboring countries could intervene. Sunni-Shia clashes could spread. Al Qaeda could win a propaganda victory and expand its base of operations. The global standing of the United States could be diminished. Americans could become more polarized.

This last paragraph is particularly important.  For what the Report lays out well is how America can lessen its exposure to the chaos in Iraq and the Middle East.  What it does much less persuasively is lay out a plan for how to bring stability back to the region, rollback Al Qaeda's gains and contain Iran's provocative ambitions.  It calls for a major diplomatic effort, but led by who? By a President who doesn't even talk to the Democrats here in America? By a discredited and weakened Condi Rice, who now has three of her most critical staff positions unfilled, including UN Ambassador?

This part of the Report is more prayer than policy.  It is interesting to note the response from Iraq:

BAGHDAD, Dec. 6 -- The Iraq Study Group's prescriptions hinge on a fragile Iraqi government's ability to achieve national reconciliation and security at a time when the country is fractured along sectarian lines, its security forces are ineffective and competing visions threaten to collapse the state, Iraqi politicians and analysts said Wednesday.

They said the report is a recipe, backed by threats and disincentives, that neither addresses nor understands the complex forces that fuel Iraq's woes. They described it as a strategy largely to help U.S. troops return home and resurrect America's frayed influence in the Middle East.

Iraqis also expressed fear that the report's recommendations, if implemented, could weaken an already besieged government in a country teetering on the edge of civil war.

"It is a report to solve American problems, and not to solve Iraq's problems," said Ayad al-Sammarai, an influential Sunni Muslim politician.

The report arrives at a time of turmoil within the Iraqi government. Senior politicians from Iraq's two major sects, Sunnis and Shiites, have been assassinated or kidnapped in recent weeks. Entire ministries are under the control of sect-based political parties with their own militias.

Three weeks ago, as many as 150 employees were abducted from the Higher Education Ministry, run by a Sunni, by men in police uniforms who said they were from the Interior Ministry, which is controlled by Shiites. And last week, powerful politicians loyal to radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr walked out of the government, and have yet to return.

U.S. diplomats have been urging Iraq's government to engage in a process of national reconciliation aimed at giving Sunnis a greater role, but the Shiite-led administration has been largely unwilling to do so. It is unclear whether increased pressure, as called for by the group led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former representative Lee H. Hamilton, will result in Shiite leaders moving forward with a new power-sharing agreement.

The mistrust and divisions within the weak unity government are so deep that it is not certain whether the study group's recommendations -- such as using outside powers to exert diplomatic pressure and building a well-trained Iraqi army -- can be effective, or might instead deepen the political and sectarian rifts.

"The main obstacle and challenge is the current government," said Wamidh Nadhmi, a political analyst in Baghdad. "The Baker-Hamilton report is insisting on national reconciliation. This has not been done, only in government propaganda."

For months, the Bush administration has pressured the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to take steps toward bringing the warring groups together and tackle Iraq's violent militias and corruption. But the Iraq Study Group recommends withdrawing U.S. support if the Iraqis fail to show advances.

"If the Iraqi government does not make substantial progress toward the achievement of milestones on national reconciliation, security, and governance, the United States should reduce its political, military, or economic support for the Iraqi government," the report's executive summary says.

For some Iraqis, the statement suggested that the report's authors did not grasp, or refused to acknowledge, the diverse ambitions, rivalries and weaknesses that plague the government. The Kurds have dreams of creating an independent state. The Sunnis appear leaderless, yet seek a political voice. The Shiites are riven by feuds. There are disagreements over partitioning Iraq, over whether to restore members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to their old jobs, over whether amnesty should be given to opponents of the government and the U.S. occupation.

Maliki, who controls no militia of his own, also depends on Sadr for political support, making it politically suicidal for him to attempt to dismantle Sadr's Mahdi Army, the largest and most violent militia in Iraq.

"It comes far too close to having the U.S. threaten to take its ball and go home if the Iraqi children do not play the game our way," Anthony Cordesmann, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an e-mailed analysis, referring to possible withdrawal of support.

Some Iraqis expressed astonishment at a recommendation in the report calling for Iraq's National Police and its police commandos, overseen by the Interior Ministry, to be shifted to the control of Defense Ministry, where the commandos would join the army. There is growing evidence that the majority-Shiite police are infiltrated by Shiite militias and death squads.

Iraqis said that although it might appear to make sense to place the commandos under the majority-Shiite army, which has largely escaped militia infiltration, the recommendation could bring unintended consequences. The Interior Ministry is Shiite-controlled, while the Defense Ministry is headed by a Sunni.

"This is an intervention in the Iraqi structure of the state," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish legislator. "This will also be seen as a point for the Sunnis, at the expense of the Shias."

Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq analyst for the International Crisis Group, said such a shift could force the Defense Ministry into an internal policing role that it is not equipped to address. "The more they get dragged into internal policing, they may become sectarianized," Hiltermann said.

"This demand -- no one will execute it," said Hasan Suneid, a legislator and close aide to Maliki. "It's not realistic."

Other challenges face any attempt to implement the report's recommendations. Iraqis have little trust in the army, which is poorly equipped and trained, to provide security. U.S. troops agree with this assessment.

The ISG Report is a modest but important step forward.  History will view it as a truly vital contribution if our leaders in Washington now focus on the part not well addressed in the report - crafting a strategy to restore stability to this troubled region.

Thoughts on foreign policy and the ISG report

For those wanting a new course for America's foreign policy this is a very important week.  Tuesday UN Ambassador John Bolton resigned. Yesterday the Senate Armed Services Committee voted unanimously to confirm a new Secretary of Defense.  Today the Iraq Sudy Group releases its much anticipated report. 
To help you think through the meaning of these critical new developments, I send along links to several pieces I've written in recent days on America's foreign policy, Iraq and the Middle East.  Please also check our blog daily, as we will be continuing to weigh in on the important events of our time.  And feel free to offer your thoughts about our thinking either on our blog, or to me directly.  

Feedback, of course, is welcome. 

The continued migration of adspend from old to new media

The New York Times reports on the fall Advertising forecasting season, and not suprisingly it is titled: Troubling ’07 Forecast for the Old-Line Media but Not for the Online.  An excerpt from the piece:

Still, reactions to the predictions for 2007 depend upon the perch from which they are considered. Those in the traditional media like television and newspapers will no doubt frown after hearing that most forecasters expect at best flat growth in ad spending for them.

Those who sell ads on Web sites, on the other hand, are likely to be beaming at the high double-digit percentage gains being predicted for them.

“The trend that will continue to affect the media universe in 2007 is the ongoing shift in advertising dollars from traditional media into nontraditional media, most notably the Internet,” Fitch Ratings concluded in an outlook report.

Television, radio and newspapers will “experience slow growth and ongoing audience declines,” according to the report, “and ad spending continues to follow consumer patterns.”

For more on our research and recommendations about how progressives can be thinking and using new media and the new tech, visit our NPI site at www.newpolitics.net, or join us today in Washington for a NPI event on the new tools for 2008. 

Clemons on Bolton

Steve Clemons over at the Washington Note has a very good piece on the implications of the Bolton resignation.  One of the more interesting things he discusses is how our government is now without an UN Ambassador, Counselor to the Secretary of State and Undersecretary of State.  I'd add while Rice herself seems to be being upstaged and perhaps undermined by the Baker-Hamilton Commission.  All of this comes at a time when representing America to a skeptical world is perhaps more important than its been in a very long time. 

The Bolton departure is another example of how the neocon regime is collapsing, and we are arriving at a juncture we call the end of the conservative ascendency.  The way things have been run is ending.  A new era is being born.  But Bush and his team are still in charge, however intellectually exhausted and politically defeated they are.  How they fill these senior State positions, and whether Rice stays on, is going to be a critical test of how deeply involved this Administration will be in crafting what comes next for American foreign policy. 

For as I've been writing these last few weeks (here and here for example), right now our great tests abroad are diplomatic, political and of our capacity to imagine a different and better course for the world.  We've relearned that the use of force has its limits, a lesson this country learned painfully after WWI and did not repeat after WWII.  The question now is what are the governing principles behind American foreign policy in the 21st century? How do we see our role in the world? What lessons have we learned from our experience in Iraq, and the increasing chaos in the Middle East? Will we have time to start looking more strategically at some of the other challenges we face? Immigration? Latin America? The rise of China? The descent of Russia? North Korea? Global climate change? Globalization itself?

It seems that one of the great services our new Congress could provide for the American people is a robust set of hearings on the great foreign policy facing America in the 21st century.  Help provide fodder for the big debate we must have in the years ahead as we all look to dig out from the mess left behind by Bush and his team.

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