Middle East

Democratic Congressman: pulling out may not be enough of a plan for Iraq

In The Politico today, Representative Joe Sestak (D-PA), a former 3-star Admiral who served in the Navy for 31 years, explains why he feels the Democrats' current plan for Iraq is insufficient. Although Sestak voted yesterday to withdraw troops by April of 2008, he expressed serious misgivings about the current incarnation of the bill. From his thoughtful statement:

"We need a strategic approach to ending this war because the consequences of failure are immense. Congress is close, as it should be, to ending this tragic misadventure but we need to set a date certain for a safe redeployment. Ending this war is necessary, but insufficient.  How we end it, and by what means, are more important for our troops' safety and our own security.

...I voted for this bill, but I did so reluctantly for it does little to define the how and why within a strategic approach to redeploy from Iraq with a date certain and leave behind the possibility of an un-failed Iraqi state. We owe such a comprehensive explanation to the country and the world for it is our responsibility to do so when the consequences are so great for our nation and Congress is the one to soon enforce an end to it by its own force of law."

Clearly, "Staying the Course" has not been an effective strategy in Iraq, and the American people are increasingly unhappy with the Bush Administration's gross mishandling of this war. But Sestak warns fellow Democrats against taking a similarly simplistic approach to withdrawl.

What's the Plan, Mr President?

In a new letter, Senate Democrats challenge the President to explain his foreign policy strategy:

The President

The White House

Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President:

       Press reports today indicate that the National Counterterrorism Center, our government’s top counterterrorism experts, recently concluded that Al Qaeda has significantly rebuilt itself since 2001 and is now as strong as ever.  Earlier this week, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff stated he believes the country faces an increased chance of a terrorist attack this summer.  Additionally, today's Initial Benchmark Assessment Report outlines that the Iraqi government has failed to meet any of the key benchmarks they set for themselves, demonstrating that the war in Iraq continues to head in the wrong direction.  These developments are the latest troubling indicators that your national security strategy is making America less secure and has left America vulnerable to terrorist attack. 

      It has become increasingly obvious that the war in Iraq has only exacerbated the terrorist threat.  Iraq has now become what it was not before the start of the conflict there, namely a training ground and launching pad for a new generation of terrorists.  Your focus on Iraq has permitted Al Qaeda to gather strength elsewhere to the point where Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell recently concluded that the next attack on America most likely “would be planned and come out of the [Al Qaeda] leadership in Pakistan.”  Meanwhile, repeated and extended deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan have stretched our military to the breaking point and reduced readiness to levels not seen since Vietnam.  Finally, most Guard and Reserve units in our states no longer have the equipment they need to perform their tasks, either abroad or here at home in the event of a national emergency or a disaster.

       It is precisely because of our concerns about these developments that Senate Democrats have been pushing to rebuild and reequip our military, fully implement the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations, enhance our special operations and intelligence capabilities, and, perhaps most urgently, change your strategy in Iraq.  We are surprised that you and many congressional Republicans have resisted these efforts and concerned that you continue to do so.

      We ask that you immediately inform Congress through the appropriate channels of (1) the near-term steps your Administration has taken or plans to take to address Secretary Chertoff’s heightened concerns about the terrorist threat, and (2) the strategy to reverse the alarming growth of Al Qaeda and affiliated extremist groups.

      Thank you for your consideration of these views and we look forward to your prompt response.


      Harry Reid

      Richard J. Durbin

      Charles E. Schumer

      Patty Murray

I had some thoughts about all this this morning. 

A failed foreign policy

Morning shows and the am papers all leading with the story that Al Qaeda is regrouping, stronger than ever.  Sec. Chertoff was on Fox talking about the threat, so it seems as if this is a White House strategy to scare folks during the upcoming Senate debate. 

But is this is a good strategy? Doesn't it just reinforce that the Administration's foreign policy has been an utter failure in every way? Al Qaeda is stronger.  Iraq has failed, and will end up exporting chaos throughout the region and the world.  Our traditional allies in the Middle East and Pakistan are losing ground to radical elements.  Israel is weaker than before.  Iran is closer to having nuclear weapons.  Our standing in Latin America is at an all time low, and Hugo Chavez's influence is on the rise.  Russia is becoming an ever more important problem.  Afghanistan is not coming along as promised.  On trade liberalization  Doha has stalled, TPA expired and prospects for important trade agreements with South Korea and Columbia look dim.  No action has been taken on combating climate change, and our military has been severely degraded.  

Does the Administration really want to broaden this debate beyond Iraq?

I say "bring it on."

Iraqi government warns of regional chaos

From the Times:

BAGHDAD, July 9 — The Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, warned today that an early American withdrawal from Iraq could bring on an all-out civil war and regional conflict, pointedly telling the United States that it had responsibilities to continue lending support to the Baghdad government.

Mr. Zebari also asserted that Iraq’s neighbor Turkey had massed 140,000 troops near his country’s northern border and urged it to resolve differences with dialogue, not through force.

Mr. Zebari was speaking after a violent weekend in which more than 220 people were killed in Iraq, including 150 by a truck bomb in one of the deadliest single attacks since the American invasion in March 2003.

Asked if the Iraqi government’s was aware of the growing pressure on President Bush from Congress to impose a timetable for withdrawing American forces from Iraq, Mr. Zebari said his government was holding a “dialogue” with some congressmen.

“We explain to them the dangers of a speedy withdrawal and leaving a security vacuum, and the dangers vary from civil war to dividing the country or maybe to regional wars,” he said.

“Some people might disagree with this assessment, but in our estimation the danger is huge. Until the Iraqi forces and institutions complete their readiness, there is a responsibility on the U.S. and other countries to stand by the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people to help build up their capabilities.”

Mr. Zebari’s comments came after some Sunni and Shiite leaders called on Iraqi civilians to take up arms to defend themselves, amid frustration that Iraqi security forces had failed to halt the deadly suicide attacks....

White House considering changing its Iraq Strategy

David Sanger of the Times has a huge front page story about internal deliberations in the White House.  It starts:

White House officials fear that the last pillars of political support among Senate Republicans for President Bush’s Iraq strategy are collapsing around them, according to several administration officials and outsiders they are consulting. They say that inside the administration, debate is intensifying over whether Mr. Bush should try to prevent more defections by announcing his intention to begin a gradual withdrawal of American troops from the high-casualty neighborhoods of Baghdad and other cities.

Mr. Bush and his aides once thought they could wait to begin those discussions until after Sept. 15, when the top field commander and the new American ambassador to Baghdad are scheduled to report on the effectiveness of the troop increase that the president announced in January. But suddenly, some of Mr. Bush’s aides acknowledge, it appears that forces are combining against him just as the Senate prepares this week to begin what promises to be a contentious debate on the war’s future and financing.

Four more Republican senators have recently declared that they can no longer support Mr. Bush’s strategy, including senior lawmakers who until now had expressed their doubts only privately. As a result, some aides are now telling Mr. Bush that if he wants to forestall more defections, it would be wiser to announce plans for a far more narrowly defined mission for American troops that would allow for a staged pullback, a strategy that he rejected in December as a prescription for defeat when it was proposed by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.

“When you count up the votes that we’ve lost and the votes we’re likely to lose over the next few weeks, it looks pretty grim,” said one senior official, who, like others involved in the discussions, would not speak on the record about internal White House deliberations....

Post series on Cheney: a must read

We will be talking about this new Post series on Cheney for a long time.  The 2nd installment runs today.  There is so much in here that it defies a quick am blog post, and is both informative and tragic at the same time.

Coming to terms with today's Middle East, continued

Of all the emerging challenges we face in the new post-Iraq Middle East, there is perhaps no more important one than what to do in and with Iraq itself.  In a Sunday Outlook piece, Ray Takeyh and Steven Simon offer thoughts on what to do with the reality of Iraq today, not the fantasy place invoked from time to time by members of the Administration and their allies.  It begins:

Last week's bloodshed in Iraq and the bombing of what remained of the historic Shiite shrine in Samarra and of two Sunni mosques in Basra were more reminders of a terrible truth: The war in Iraq is lost. The only question that remains -- for our gallant troops and our blinkered policymakers -- is how to manage the inevitable. What the United States needs now is a guide to how to lose -- how to start thinking about minimizing the damage done to American interests, saving lives and ultimately wresting some good from this fiasco.

No longer can we avoid this bitter conclusion. Iraq's winner-take-all politics are increasingly vicious; there will be no open, pluralistic Iraqi state to take over from the United States. Iraq has no credible central government that U.S. forces can assist and no national army for them to fight alongside. U.S. troops can't beat the insurgency on their own; our forces are too few and too isolated to compete with the insurgents for the public's support. Meanwhile, the country's militias have become a law unto themselves, and ethnic cleansing gallops forward.

To read the whole piece, click here.  For more on this series, click on the Middle East tag above.

Coming to terms with today's Middle East, continued

Yes, back to our favorite policy theme this morning.  Robin Wright of the Post takes a sweeping look through the results of our foreign policy in the Middle East.   It isn't pretty:

The Middle East is in flames. Over the past week, war erupted among the Palestinians and their government collapsed. A Shiite shrine in Iraq was bombed -- again -- as the new U.S. military strategy showed no sign of diminishing violence. Lebanon battled a new al-Qaeda faction in the north as a leading politician was assassinated in Beirut. And Egyptian elections were marred by irregularities, including police obstructing voters, in a serious setback to democracy efforts.

U.S. policy in the region isn't faring much better, say Middle East and U.S. analysts.

"It's close to a nightmare for the administration," Ellen Laipson, president of the Henry L. Stimson Center and former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council, said in an interview from Dubai. "They can't catch their breath. . . . It makes Condi Rice's last year as secretary of state very daunting. What are the odds she can get virtually anything back on track?"

Each flash point has its own dynamics, but a common denominator is that leaders in each country -- Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak -- are each pivotal U.S. allies.

"The people we rely on the most to help are under siege, just as we are," said Bruce Riedel, a Brookings Institution fellow and former National Security Council staffer. "Three of the four leaders may either not make it [politically] through the end of the summer or find themselves irrelevant by then."

The broad danger is a breakdown of the traditional states and conflicts that have defined Middle East politics since the 1970s, said Paul Salem of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Beirut office. An increasing number of places -- Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories -- now have rival claimants to power, backed by their own militaries.

Also, once divided by the Arab-Israeli conflict, the region is now the battleground for three other rivalries: the United States and its allies pitted against an Iran-Syria alliance in a proxy war regionwide, secular governments confronted by rising al-Qaeda extremism, and autocratic governments reverting to draconian tactics to quash grass-roots movements vying for democratic change.

Extremists are scoring the most points. "Gaza is the latest evidence that most of the trends are pointed in the wrong direction. It's yet another gain for radical forces. It's another gain for Iran. It's another setback for the U.S., Israel and the Sunni regimes," said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and State Department policy planning chief during President Bush's first term. "The United States has not shown that moderation pays or will accomplish more than violence."

A second danger is that conflicts now overlap. "You can't look at Lebanon or Iraq or the Palestinians or Syria or Iran and try to deal with them separately anymore. You could have 10 years ago. Now they are politically and structurally linked," said Rami Khouri of the American University of Beirut.

Khouri said the United States deserves a good share of the blame for a confluence of disasters spawning pessimism and anger across the region..

Coming to terms with today's Middle East, continued

Yes, we return to our main foreign policy theme again this morning, starting off with a front-page Washington Post piece by Glenn Kessler appropriately titled: "Takeover by Hamas Illustrates Failure of Bush's Mideast Vision."

It begins:

Five years ago this month, President Bush stood in the Rose Garden and laid out a vision for the Middle East that included Israel and a state called Palestine living together in peace. "I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror," the president declared.

The takeover this week of the Gaza Strip by the Hamas militant group dedicated to the elimination of Israel demonstrates how much that vision has failed to materialize, in part because of actions taken by the administration. The United States championed Israel's departure from the Gaza Strip as a first step toward peace and then pressed both Israelis and Palestinians to schedule legislative elections, which Hamas unexpectedly won. Now Hamas is the unchallenged power in Gaza.

After his reelection in 2004, Bush said he would use his "political capital" to help create a Palestinian state by the end of his second term. In his final 18 months as president, he faces the prospect of a shattered Palestinian Authority, a radical Islamic state on Israel's border and increasingly dwindling options to turn the tide against Hamas and create a functioning Palestinian state.

"The two-state vision is dead. It really is," said Edward G. Abington Jr., a former State Department official who was once an adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Abbas, whose bouts of vacillation have irritated U.S. officials, yesterday dissolved the Palestinian government in response to Hamas's takeover of Gaza. U.S. officials signaled that they will move quickly to persuade an international peace monitoring group -- known as the Quartet -- to lift aid restrictions on the Palestinian government, allowing direct aid to flow to the West Bank-based emergency government that Abbas will lead.

"There is no more Hamas-led government. It is gone," said a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the administration must still consult with other members of the Quartet. He said that humanitarian aid will continue to Gaza, but that the dissolution of the Palestinian government is a singular moment that will allow the United States and its allies to create a "new model of engagement."

This senior Administration official is correct - we are at a moment, as a nation, that we have to come to terms with the extraordinary failure of our entire Middle East strategy.  Our investment in the region has been immense in terms of lives, money and prestige.  And today our traditional allies are in retreat, and non-Western forces are on the rise.  This "new model of engagement" suggested above is a concept we need for the entire region, not just in Palestine. 

To see previous iterations of this discussion, you can scroll down or click on the Middle East, National Security or Iraq tags above.

Coming to terms with today's Middle East, continued

So yes this morning we return to one of the main themes we've been discussing over the past year - the need for America to come up with a comprehensive approach to the problems of the post-Iraq Middle East.

Imagine for a moment if we had no troops in Iraq.  Pakistan is weakening.  Lebanon and Palestine are descending into civil wars.  The Taliban have returned to Afghanistan.  Bin Laden is still on the loose.  Iraq of course is on the verge of becoming a failed state, Al Qaeda there is gaining strength (and regional legitimacy), and its chaos is starting to be exported to the rest of the region.  Iran is governed by an extemist, moving towards nuclearization, and is very aggressively establishing itself as perhaps the most important nation in the Middle East today.  Regional Sunni-Shiite tensions are driving a new and more complicated regional dynamic.  Our most important ally in the region, Israel, has a Prime Minister at 3%, and is in an extended political meltdown. 

Taken together it is becoming clear that the West's traditional regional allies are in retreat and new and less pro-Western forces are on the rise.  While there are many reasons to be concerned about the growing instability in the Middle East, the overarching one is oil.  Keeping the region's oil flowing at reasonable prices is of course one of the most important goals of our foreign policy, either Democrat or Republican.  And we have to start talking openly about how growing chaos in the region could spread, and eventually begin to threaten the petroleum lifeblood of the world's economy. 

So, if we had no troops in the region, would we be having a different conversation here in the US and around the world? Would be talking about regional conferences of reconciliation? Special envoys? UN Troops? An American-led peace conference? Would the American Secretary of State be engaged in ongoing shuttle diplomacy, essentially moving to the region for an extended period of time? Would our President be engaged daily in bringing world leaders together to find a better path? Or would we just sit back and let the region fall into greater chaos?  Or do what the Administration has done, which is take the one act most likely to accelerate the regional chaos?  Or have the Treasury Secretary give speeches whining about the lack of cooperation of our allies?  

We need a new conversation about what is happening in the Middle East today.  The stakes are high, and our current government is wedded to a strategy that is without doubt harming the long-term security interests of the United States.  But our answer must become more than a robust discussion about the role of our troops in the region.  We need a new strategy for the Middle East - diplomatic, economic, military - that takes into account the realities of the region today. 

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