Op-Ed

America Abroad – A Blog on Current Affairs

Ivo H. Daalder

At America Abroad, the foreign affairs section of TPM Café, Ivo Daalder joins a number of distinguished commentators in a weblog discussion of foreign policy and current events abroad. His posts on the site are reproduced here. For the originals, including extensive commentary, visit America Abroad.


Confronting Failure in Iraq
January 5, 2007

Joe Biden is spot on:

“The worry is that the more Maliki is seen as our puppet, because he is abiding by our timelines and deadlines, the internal political dynamics will become so fragile that the whole government would collapse.”

The challenge will be to make sure the administration doesn’t get away with it.


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Change People, Not Policy
January 5, 2007

Bush said he’ll announce his “new” Iraq policy next week, which likely will just be the old policy with a new fancy title and more troops in harm’s way. But to make the case that he’s really changing policy when he’s not, Bush will replace all of the top military and civilian Americans in Iraq. “This helps the president to make the case that this is a fresh start,” one official tells the Times this morning.

So rather than keeping the people who actually know something about Iraq and have established relations with the Iraqis who will have to make any new policy work, we’re sending in a whole bunch of new faces to try to convince the American people we’re changing course. Don’t think the public will buy it, do you?

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The Iraq Blame Game
January 2, 2007

First it was the Iraqis and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who the administration blamed for the chaos in Iraq. Now, the New York Times tells us in a long exposé, the administration is blaming General George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander on the ground in Baghdad. If only Casey hadn’t insisted that he could do the job with the troops at hand and instead had asked for more American soldiers and Marines earlier, things would be going swimmingly now in Iraq — or so Bush appears to believe. But the problem isn’t Maliki or Casey or even Rumsfeld — the problem is Bush’s failure understand what Iraq is all about.

As he has from day one, Bush insists that this war is one that pits terrorists and extremists against the forces of moderation. “This is an important part of the war on terror,” Bush said last week, referring to Iraq. Well, no. This is about a fierce and increasingly violent competition for power and control inside Iraq — between the majority Shiites who want the power that they were long denied and the minority Sunnis who want to regain the power they long enjoyed and Kurds who want to maintain the independence and territorial control up North they secured 15 years ago. That, not terrorism, is what this war is about.

Unless Bush finally accepts this basic reality, the new strategy that he will shortly announce will only get us stuck deeper into the quicksand that is today’s Iraq.

By the way, the other noteworthy thing in The Times piece was that Bush ordered the Iraq policy review as far back as last September (and decided to fire Rumsfeld at that time as well, making his pre-election lie about keeping Rummy on all the more remarkable). But we know the outcome of the review — which is that we cannot fail and must achieve VICTORY. “It’s a word the American people understand,” he told members of the Iraq Study Group. “And if I start to change it, it will look like I’m beginning to change my policy.”

So what’s taking so long?

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No Intel Needed on Iraq
December 29, 2006

Anyone notice that John Negroponte wasn’t at the Crawford “non-decisional meeting” on Iraq yesterday? As Director for National Intelligence, Negroponte is the only statutory member of the National Security Council who wasn’t actually there.

Guess Bush and Co. don’t think they need any intelligence information on what’s going on in Iraq. They think they already know. And given their record, we can be sure that their “new way forward” on Iraq will have nothing to do with what is actually going on.

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How Civil Wars End
December 29, 2006

The crushing defeat of Islamist forces by the Ethiopian backed Somali transitional government underscores a central truth of all civil wars — such wars typically end only when one side decisively defeats the other. For all the debate about what to do in Iraq, we seem to have lost sight of this essential truth. So the questions for President Bush is this: Which side in Iraq’s civil war are we going to back decisively?

The answer we’re likely to get is: the Iraqi government. But that answer would show that the administration still doesn’t understand what is going on in Iraq. The problem there is not some insurgency that is trying to wrest control of or overthrow a functioning government. The problem in Iraq is that all sides are vying for complete power and control over at least their territory (if not more) and are using violence to achieve that goal. This is as true for the parties that make up the government as it is for those in opposition to it. The Iraqi security forces are part and parcel of the problem — they contain the very same divisions that exist within the society at large and consequently participate in the very violence they are supposed to be countering.

The central reality confronting Iraq today (as it has been for a year or more) is that the country is in a state of civil war. And the central truth confronting U.S. policy toward Iraq is that this civil war will only end when one side defeats the other decisively. The current talk in Washington of escalating troop levels, intensifying training, and enhancing the security presence in Baghdad completely misses the point that all such increases are useless unless they contribute to the decisive defeat of one side in Iraq’s civil war.

So who do we want to win — the minority Sunnis who ran Iraq through brutal repression or the majority Shiites, many of whom are allied with Iran and not a few of whom are more interested in establishing theocratic rule than open and transparent government? If we can’t decide (and, I for one, wouldn’t know how) or if we aren’t willing to bring the kind of decisive force to bear that is necessary to defeat those we would oppose (and I very much doubt anyone in the United States would be prepared for such brutality) then we should get out of Iraq and let the internal forces there decided the country’s future fate. What we cannot and must not do is to pretend that we don’t have to make a choice.

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No Intel Needed on Iraq
December 29, 2006

Anyone notice that John Negroponte wasn’t at the Crawford “non-decisional meeting” on Iraq yesterday? As Director for National Intelligence, Negroponte is the only statutory member of the National Security Council who wasn’t actually there.

Guess Bush and Co. don’t think they need any intelligence information on what’s going on in Iraq. They think they already know. And given their record, we can be sure that their “new way forward” on Iraq will have nothing to do with what is actually going on.

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That Was Then …
December 23, 2006

I was talking to a reporter the other day, arguing that while Bush inherited a lot of problems from Clinton, in each instance he had done everything possible to make things worse. The reporter told me take a look at the 2000 GOP foreign policy platform, and reread the litany of indictments Bush & Co. had issued with respect to Clinton’s foreign policy. So I did. Sure makes for interesting reading.

Some of my favorites:

  • The administration has run America’s defenses down over the decade through inadequate resources, promiscuous commitments, and the absence of a forward-looking military strategy. [As opposed to breaking the Army and Marine Corp, sending troops to war without adequate body armor and equipment, and only deciding to increase force levels five years into a global conflict.]
  • The arrogance, inconsistency, and unreliability of the administration’s diplomacy have undermined American alliances, alienated friends, and emboldened our adversaries. [My all-time favorite!]
  • World trade talks in Seattle that the current administration had sponsored collapsed in spectacular failure. [Doha anyone?] An initiative to establish free trade throughout the Americas has stalled because of this lack of Presidential leadership. [Ah, yes. Bush’s leadership on this issue really has made a difference — 6 years later and we’re not a step closer to a deal.]
  • The problems of Mexico have been ignored, as our indispensable neighbor to the south struggled with too little American help to deal with its formidable challenges. [Think the Mexicans feel they’ve gotten any help from Bush lately? After declaring the relationship with Mexico America’s most important on September 9, 2001, Bush has ignored our southern neighbors ever since.]
  • The tide of democracy in Latin America has begun to ebb with a sharp rise in corruption and narco-trafficking. [And since then, only America’s friends in Latin America have won elections? Not!]
  • With weak and wavering policies toward Russia, the administration has diverted its gaze from corruption at the top of the Russian government, the slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians in Chechnya, and the export of dangerous Russian technologies to Iran and elsewhere. [The biggest mistake wasn’t seeing Putin’s soul?]
  • A generation of American efforts to slow proliferation of weapons of mass destruction has unraveled as first India and Pakistan set off their nuclear bombs, then Iraq defied the international community. Token air strikes against Iraq could not long mask the collapse of an inspection regime that had — until then — at least kept an ambitious, murderous tyrant from acquiring additional nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. [North Korea? Iran? Oh, and what do we do when inspectors in Iraq return?]

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Who and Why: The Concert of Democracies
December 15, 2006

Lots of comments here on the ideas that Jim and I, amongst others, are pushing. Some of them are supportive; most are not. But we’re grateful for all of them (well, almost all of them…). Jim’s addressed some of the issues that have been raised, and a good many other issues are covered in our American Interest article (which, I should make clear, differs in many key ways from what the Princeton Project has proposed). I urge people to read it as well. Here, I’ll confine myself to two big issues that have repeatedly come up: who and why?

Read the Full Opinion




Democratic Allies and Alliances
December 14, 2006

I’ll have more to say shortly in response to the very interesting comments and suggestions our idea of Concert of Democracies has sparked here at America Abroad. For now, I wanted to bring your attention to an oped Jim Goldgeier and I have running in tomorrow’s Financial Times that relates to some of these issues.

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Rummy’s Long Knives
December 12, 2006

He’s not even gone, and already Don Rumsfeld has his knives out for his soon-to-be former boss. First, he tells an interviewer that he was fired because of the “outcome of the election” even though Bush said the opposite. Then, he says that the phrase “‘war on terror’ is a problem for me.” What’s next? That Iraq was a mistake?

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Should Democracies Unite?
December 10, 2006

OK. We’re going to try something different here at America Abroad. Aside from our regular commentary on current events (which we hope will continue at the brisk pace of the last few weeks) we’re going to discuss — debate, I suspect — a big idea, one that transcends the politics and politicians of the moment. It’s the idea of forging a new compact — a concert really — among the world’s liberal democracies to supplement or even supplant other major international organizations, like the United Nations and NATO.

This is an idea some of us at America Abroad have been pushing for quite a while. We don’t agree on the details, and one purpose of this discussion is to see whether those who think this is a good idea can develop a common view of what is involved as well as on how to move forward. But not everyone agrees this is such a good idea — and that includes some of America Abroad regulars, a variety of our regular readers, and many others. We want them to participate as well.

In the next few days, a number of us will post our argument in favor of this idea. Anne-Marie Slaughter and John Ikenberry will elaborate on their proposal to create a Concert of Democracies, which they spelled out on their final report of the Princeton Project on National Security. Tod Lindberg of Policy Review and the Hoover Institution will write about his proposal to negotiate a Treaty on the Democratic Peace. And Jim Lindsay and I will elaborate on our arguments for why we think the democracies should unite, which we spell out in the lead article of the next issue of The American Interest.

But you won’t just see advocates of this idea. You will also get to read what skeptics have to say. Joining us as well for the discussion are James Traub, a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and author of the terrific new book, The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power; Charles Kupchan, of the Council on Foreign Relations and Georgetown University, and Suzanne Nossel, of the Security and Peace Initiative and democracyarsenal.org.

We are looking forward to a good discussion here, and very much hope you will join in.

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A Lost Year?
December 10, 2006

It must be something in the water, but folks over in the White House are clearly becoming delusional.

Here’s one senior official, quoted by the New York Times, worried about pushing the Iraqis too much (to “pull up their socks” as Rummy put it):

“The worry is that the more Maliki is seen as our puppet, because he is abiding by our timelines and deadlines, the internal political dynamics will become so fragile that the whole government would collapse.”

And this would be bad because…? “That would set us back a year.”

And what a year it was: 800 Americans killed; more than 30,000 Iraqis murdered; and over 1 million refugees. With good years like that, what would a bad year look like?


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Our Moral Responsibility in Iraq
December 8, 2006

Rachel asks a good question: What is our moral responsibility to the Iraqi people? It surely is not insignificant, for their predicament is in large measure our doing. But while recognizing that we bear a lot of responsibility, it isn’t at all clear to me that we can live up to it or that remaining in Iraq is the responsible thing to do.

“If you break it,” Colin Powell told George Bush before the war, “you own it.” And so we have for longer now than it took us to fight (and win) World War II. And what’s clear is that we did break Iraq, but we never owned it. The Iraqi people do. If there was a way now — not yesterday, or the day before, but now — in which we could help the Iraqi people to put things back together again or even to prevent things from falling apart further, then by all means let’s do that.

But I don’t know that there is such a way — and not only do I not want to bank any more on the hope that there is, the Iraqi people don’t either. Seven out of ten Iraqis — and eight out of ten non-Kurdish Iraqis — want the U.S. to leave within a year or less. An even greater number of Iraqis believe U.S. forces are provoking more conflict than they are preventing. Under these circumstances, is it our moral responsibility to stay or to leave?

I’d say leaving may be as much the responsible thing to do as would staying. And here’s a thought, one Les Gelb put forward some time ago and Tom Friedman suggested today: what if our leaving didn’t make things worse in Iraq, or possibly even made things better? Perhaps our true responsibility is to give this possibility a try.

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The ISG’s False Hope
December 8, 2006

The biggest problem with the ISG report is that it, like much of Washington, buys into the notion that because the consequences of defeat are so dire we should not accept the reality that we have lost. Even as they paint a devastating picture of the disaster that has befallen Iraq, the commissioners insist that we must continue to try to make things work — bring neighbors in, train Iraqis, urge reconciliation — in the hope that the situation there will turn around and get better. But hope, as Colin Powell was fond of saying, is not a strategy. Worse, it offers Americans and Iraqis the false prospect that with a bit more effort, and a change in policy, defeat in Iraq can be avoided.

Read the Full Opinion




Bush Grabs the Qualifier
December 8, 2006

The trouble with compromise language in commission reports is that those who don’t like your recommendations can quote your words right back at you and then ignore what you say. That’s exactly what George Bush did yesterday:

… as the report said — I don’t — got the exact words, but it was along the lines of depending upon conditions, I believe is what the qualifier was. And I thought that made a lot of sense. I’ve always said we’d like our troops out as fast as possible. I think that’s an important goal.


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“Subject to Unexpected Developments”
December 6, 2006

This, of course, is the key phrase in the Baker-Hamilton Report’s recommendation on U.S. combat forces — as in “by the first quarter of 2008, subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground, all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq.”

So what are the unexpected developments that could mean we should still be there, with all our combat forces, fighting a war?

Not the presence of terrorist groups or training grounds (for which the commission wants to retain special operations forces). Not, surely, the collapse of the Iraqi government or an all-out civil war — neither of which can be termed “unexpected” in any meaningful way.

The only “unexpected development” I can come up with would be if the civil war turns into a regional war, in which the neighbors of Iraq become active and open participants in the war. Not sure what U.S. combat troops would do in such a case, but it might qualify as an “unexpected development.”

Any other ideas?

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If Britain, Why Not the U.S.?
December 6, 2006

Some readers wonder why, if I believe Britain should give up its nuclear weapons, I do not make a similar case in favor of America doing so. Fair question.

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Tony Blair’s Missed Opportunity
December 5, 2006

To no one’s surprise, Tony Blair announced yesterday that Britain will maintain its nuclear deterrent for the indefinite future. “We cannot be sure that a major nuclear threat to our vital interests will not emerge over the longer term,” Blair announced. And so the United Kingdom will commence a modernization program to maintain a nuclear capability it has had for more than half a century. But in reaching this decision, Blair missed a major opportunity to shake up the nuclear status quo.

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The Rumsfeld “Memo”
December 3, 2006

Now we know why Rumsfeld was fired last month. No, it wasn’t because he was in charge of a war that has gone disastrously wrong. And it wasn’t because he suggested that “it is time for a major adjustment [since] what U.S. forces are currently doing in Iraq is not working.” No, I hope Rumsfeld was fired because any one — from the lowest bureaucrat to the highest cabinet officials — who had written a “memo” to the president like the one sent Bush last month ought to have been fired.

Predictably, the press has focused on the fact Rumsfeld called for a major readjustment in Iraq policy days before he was fired (which is presumably why Rumsfeld or someone close to him leaked the memo to The New York Times the Sunday before the Senate opens hearings on his successor). Commentators have also noted the fact that the options Rumsfeld appear to favor all, in one way or another, suggested a retrenchment of the U.S. military role in Iraq (including, in one, the withdraw all U.S. and other foreign forces except for “high-end” special operation forces that would continue to go after terrorists, death squads, and [!] Iranians in Iraq). And he rejected any option to beef up U.S. forces in Iraq or even just in Baghdad.

But what, frankly, was most astonishing about the memo was not the specific proposals, but the total lack of analysis. Here the Secretary of Defense tells the President of the United States that our policy in Iraq is failing. He doesn’t say why and how — just that it is. And then he presents 21 options — 15 “above the line” and six “below the line” — but without providing an explanation of where the line is to be drawn or even what the line represents. He provides no analysis of which opens can be done in what period of time and at how much they would cost. He suggests no prioritizing among them. He is silent on the implications of pursuing some options, but no others. He says some can be pursued simultaneously, but doesn’t indicate which can and which cannot. It’s just a list of musings, with no analytical content or consideration whatsoever.

If this is the kind of “advice” the president has said he valued getting from Rumsfeld for so long, it’s little wonder that we’re in such a deep mess — in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and with respect to our entire military. The only thing to say of this memo, and its author, is good riddance to bad rubbish.

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Rice, Russia, and Democracy
December 2, 2006

“Freedom,” the administration frequently proclaimed a few years ago, “is on the march.” But that was then, this is now. Not only have the administration’s paragons of early democratic success — Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon — each descended into sectarian violence and civil war, but the very international forum that was to promote democracy, the rule of law, and press freedom throughout the Middle East and North Africa has become a joke.

There wasn’t all that much talk about democracy or the rule of law or human rights at the “Forum for the Future” that just concluded its third annual meeting in Jordan — leaders were busy with the more important things of figuring out what to do with a Middle East going up in flames. And then the co-host of the meeting was none other than Russia, where democracy has steadily been curtailed, the rule of law has become the rule of the strong, and investigating journalists are shot, poisoned, and killed.

Asked about the incongruity of Russia co-hosting a meeting on promoting democracy, Condoleezza Rice acknowledged that “there are enormous problems and there have been real setbacks in terms of Russian democracy.” But, and here’s the kicker, it would be mistake to think that “we were going to be better off by isolating Russia somehow from democratic fora.” And why not? Because, Rice argued, its president was elected.

So who’s co-hosting the next pro-democracy meeting? Ahmadinejad? Hamas?

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