One of the most critical decisions America has to make in the Middle East is how are going to manage perhaps what is now the most important regional dynamic, one created by our occupation of Iraq, the growing Sunni-Shiite tensions in the region. We installed in Iraq the first Shiite-led Arab government in the history of the Middle East, strenghtening the region's Shiites, including Iran. Of late our government, worried about the rise of Iran, seems to be leaning back towards the region's Sunni powers, overlooking their own "intervention" in Iraq's domestic politics and tacit support of radical Sunni groups. But in this story to run in tomorrow's Times, Bush apparently has remembered that those who attacked us on 9/11 were Sunni extremists, and that they are regrouping in Pakistan:
WASHINGTON, Feb. 25 — President Bush has decided to send an unusually tough message to one of his most important allies, President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, warning him that the newly Democratic Congress could cut aid to his country unless his forces became far more aggressive in hunting down operatives with Al Qaeda, senior administration officials say.
The decision came after the White House concluded that General Musharraf is failing to live up to commitments he made to Mr. Bush during a visit here in September. General Musharraf insisted then, both in private and public, that a peace deal he struck with tribal leaders in one of the country’s most lawless border areas would not diminish the hunt for the leaders of Al Qaeda and the Taliban or their training camps.
Now, American intelligence officials have concluded that the terrorist infrastructure is being rebuilt, and that while Pakistan has attacked some camps, its overall effort has flagged.
“He’s made a number of assurances over the past few months, but the bottom line is that what they are doing now is not working,” one senior administration official who deals often with Southeast Asia issues said late last week. “The message we’re sending to him now is that the only thing that matters is results.”
Democrats, who took control of Congress last month, have urged the White House to put greater pressure on Pakistan because of statements from American commanders that units based in Pakistan that are linked to the Taliban, Afghanistan’s ousted rulers, are increasing their attacks into Afghanistan....
In the past few months, as the situation in Iraq has deteriorated, the Bush Administration, in both its public diplomacy and its covert operations, has significantly shifted its Middle East strategy. The “redirection,” as some inside the White House have called the new strategy, has brought the United States closer to an open confrontation with Iran and, in parts of the region, propelled it into a widening sectarian conflict between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush Administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the Administration has coöperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by Iran. The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.
One contradictory aspect of the new strategy is that, in Iraq, most of the insurgent violence directed at the American military has come from Sunni forces, and not from Shiites. But, from the Administration’s perspective, the most profound—and unintended—strategic consequence of the Iraq war is the empowerment of Iran. Its President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has made defiant pronouncements about the destruction of Israel and his country’s right to pursue its nuclear program, and last week its supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on state television that “realities in the region show that the arrogant front, headed by the U.S. and its allies, will be the principal loser in the region.”
One of the great challenges facing America in the post-Bush era will be whether the credibility loss we've suffered globally will be limited to Bush, or will permanently hamper our efforts aboard.
The LA Times has a front page story today that once again questions the credibility of the American government on a major issue of the day:
VIENNA — Although international concern is growing about Iran's nuclear program and its regional ambitions, diplomats here say most U.S. intelligence shared with the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency has proved inaccurate and none has led to significant discoveries inside Iran.
The officials said the CIA and other Western spy services had provided sensitive information to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency at least since 2002, when Iran's long-secret nuclear program was exposed. But none of the tips about supposed secret weapons sites provided clear evidence that the Islamic Republic was developing illicit weapons.
"Since 2002, pretty much all the intelligence that's come to us has proved to be wrong," a senior diplomat at the IAEA said. Another official here described the agency's intelligence stream as "very cold now" because "so little panned out."
The reliability of U.S. information and assessments on Iran is increasingly at issue as the Bush administration confronts the emerging regional power on several fronts: its expanding nuclear effort, its alleged support for insurgents in Iraq and its backing of Middle East militant groups.
The CIA still faces harsh criticism for its prewar intelligence errors on Iraq. No one here argues that U.S. intelligence officials have fallen this time for crudely forged documents or pushed shoddy analysis. IAEA officials, who openly challenged U.S. assessments that Saddam Hussein was developing a nuclear bomb, say the Americans are much more cautious in assessing Iran.
American officials privately acknowledge that much of their evidence on Iran's nuclear plans and programs remains ambiguous, fragmented and difficult to prove.
Governor Bill Richardson, one of America's most experienced diplomats, weighs in today with a thoughtful op-ed on Iran in the Washington Post:
The recent tentative agreement with North Korea over its nuclear program illustrates how diplomacy can work even with the most unsavory of regimes. Unfortunately, it took the Bush administration more than six years to commit to diplomacy. During that needless delay North Korea developed and tested nuclear weapons -- weapons its leaders still have not agreed to dismantle. Had we engaged the North Koreans earlier, instead of calling them "evil" and talking about "regime change," we might have prevented them from going nuclear. We could have, and should have, negotiated a better agreement, and sooner.
As the International Atomic Energy Agency just confirmed, Iran has once again defied the international community and is moving forward with its nuclear program, yet the Bush administration seems committed to repeating the mistakes it made with North Korea. Rather than directly engaging the Iranians about their nuclear program, President Bush refuses to talk, except to make threats. He has moved ships to the Persian Gulf region and claims, with scant evidence, that Iran is helping Iraqi insurgents kill Americans. This is not a strategy for peace. It is a strategy for war -- a war that Congress has not authorized. Most of our allies, and most Americans, don't believe this president, who has repeatedly cried wolf.
Saber-rattling is not a good way to get the Iranians to cooperate. But it is a good way to start a new war -- a war that would be a disaster for the Middle East, for the United States and for the world. A war that, furthermore, would destroy what little remains of U.S. credibility in the community of nations.
A better approach would be for the United States to engage directly with the Iranians and to lead a global diplomatic offensive to prevent them from building nuclear weapons. We need tough, direct negotiations, not just with Iran but also with our allies, especially Russia, to get them to support us in presenting Iran with credible carrots and sticks.
The Post reports this morning on some new, interesting thinking by Senator Biden and other Senate Democrats to revisit the original Congressional authorization of our war in Iraq.
While I think there is a lot of merit in this emerging approach, I am not convinced that describing what is happening in Iraq as a "civil war," or "sectarian violence" is the most accurate way to be describing the complexity of what is happening there today. For example, the importance of rising regional tensions between Sunnis and Shiites - a major new dynamic in the Middle East, and one that I'm not convinced we have come to terms with yet - is captured yet again in this story in the Times.
The Times also features an op-ed today by Abbas Milani that lays out a very plausible path forward for our policy towards Iran. It concludes with this strong graph:
War and peace with Iran are both possible today. With prudence, backed by power but guided by the wisdom to recognize the new signals coming from Tehran, the United States can today achieve a principled solution to the nuclear crisis. Congress, vigilant American citizens and a resolute policy from America’s European allies can ensure that this principled peace is given a chance.
Wherever we go from here, I am proud of those leaders in both parties who have not accepted the failed approach of the Administration, and working, diligently, to chart a better course for our policy in the Middle East.
The Times has a good story today looking at how the internet is changing traditional advertising practices:
IF the 20th century was known in marketing circles as the advertising century, the 21st may be the advertising measurement century.
Marketers are increasingly focused on the effectiveness of their pitches, trying to figure out the return on investment for ad spending. That is spurring most of the major media — along with many large research companies like Arbitron, Nielsen and Taylor Nelson Sofres — to improve the methods by which they measure audiences.
The ability of newer digital media to provide more precise data has also led traditional media like television, radio, magazines and newspapers to try upgrading the ways they count consumers.
“There’s a little something called the Internet, something that all other media are trying to get as accountable as,” said Jon Mandel, chief executive at the NielsenConnect unit of the Nielsen Company in New York, which brings together data from various Nielsen divisions.
For more on our thinking about the emergence of a 21st century media, follow this blog and visit www.newpolitics.net, the home of our think tank for politics, the New Politics Institute.
At the end of the last Congress Senator John McCain successfully led the fight to pass something called the Military Tribunal Bill. Among other things, it stripped anyone in the US who is not a current citizen of their habeas corpus rights.
Practically what this means is the President can now detain non-US citizens indefinitely, even those here legally, without judicial review. If this sounds extraordinary, it is.
The Times weighs in with a strong editorial, American Liberty at the Precipice, calling for these fundamental rights to be restored. Jeffrey Smith, a former CIA general counsel, also weighs in on this issue and other issues related to Military Tribunals, torture and rendition. Both should be read to gain a better understanding of this important legislative opportunity this year.
I strongly believe that the coalitions working to improve our immigration system need to take up this effort too. There should be little doubt that unless this remarkable legislative overreach is fixed, it will deter future immigration to the US, and may even cause current, legal immigrants to leave.
I've been a little suprized that those businesses heavily dependent on foreign workers have not been more vocal in their opposition to what Senator McCain and the President have done. It not only is a betrayal of America's historic commitment to liberty and the rule of law, but in the modern global economy, it will undermine the business model of many of our fastest growing and most important companies.
Additional note - As a friend just wrote in, there is a deep irony behind this. While Senator McCain may be working to grant legal status to 11 milliion undocument workers in the US today through is strong leadership on comprehensive immigration reform, his Military Tribunal Bill ensures that when they become legal they will still lack one of the most fundamental rights guarenteed to previous immigrants since the founding of our country.
There is a central dynamic in American politics today, one that is driving everything else - the enthusiastic repudiation of Bush era ideology and politics by leaders of both parties. It is my belief that the failings of the Bush era, historic by any standard, will haunt by conservatism and the Republican Party for many years to come. And as we head into 2008, it will be very difficult for the Republican Presidentials to distance themselves from this disapointing era, particularly the man who has been their primary enabled, John McCain.
To see how hard this is going to be for McCain, check out this tortured excerpt from an AP piece, via CNN:
BLUFFTON, South Carolina (AP) -- Republican presidential candidate John McCain said Monday the war in Iraq has been mismanaged for years and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will be remembered as one of the worst in history.
"We are paying a very heavy price for the mismanagement -- that's the kindest word I can give you -- of Donald Rumsfeld, of this war," the Arizona senator said.
"The price is very, very heavy and I regret it enormously." McCain told an overflow crowd of more than 800 at a retirement community near Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.
McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, complained that Rumsfeld never put enough troops on the ground to succeed in Iraq.
"I think that Donald Rumsfeld will go down in history as one of the worst secretaries of defense in history," McCain said to applause.
The comments were in sharp contrast to McCain's statement when Rumsfeld resigned in November, and failed to address the reality that President Bush is the commander in chief.
"While Secretary Rumsfeld and I have had our differences, he deserves Americans' respect and gratitude for his many years of public service," McCain said last year when Rumsfeld stepped down.
My guess is that by the end of this year the Republican Presidential Primary will be a race to distance one self from Bush himself, and not just his politics. Of course this won't be pretty or easy, and makes the GOP path to the White House in 2008 a hard one.
In recent days the Administration has brought to our attention how Iranian operatives, the Quds Force, are aiding Shiite militias in Iraq. You can see Tim Russert question Tony Snow about this here.
But what about Pakistan? Their intelligence services have long aided the Taliban, and appear to be doing so again. The Times has a major story today about how Bin Laden and Al Qaeda are regrouping, and regaining some of their former operational strength from a new base camp in Pakistan. Another story details how a recent bombing in Iran was likely to have come from operatives based in Pakistan. As I wrote yesterday, there have been many stories in recent months about Sunni insurgents inside Iraq, some allied with Al Qaeda and some not, have been receiving financial support from Sunnis in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East. These insurgents, of course, have killed many more people in Iraq than the Shiite militias, and are considered far more dangerous.
Why is all this activity by Sunni extremists equally troubling to our government as what is happening with the Quds Force? In our current desire to isolate Shiite Iran, are we looking the other way on the growing strength of radical Sunni elements in the Middle East? Are we shooting for some kind of balance, believing the Shiites have a grown a little too powerful, so we need to let the Sunnis regroup? But aren't these radicals the same ones who attacked us on 9/11, are the ones who we are surging to subdue, and whose growing power requires more troops in Afghanistan?
As those in Congress, of both parties, who have been bravely fighting the President these last few weeks look to their next act, my hope is that their goal is to create a new strategy for the Middle East that makes sense of all this. While focusing on troop levels is important, our goal should be to force a big conversation about a new strategy, one that now must deal with this very new dynamic unleashed by our actions, the growing regional struggle for power between the Sunnis and Shiites. Redeploying the troops is a tactic - but what is the strategy?