Friday, June 29, 2007


“It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.”

“If you don’t like change, you’ll like irrelevance even less.”
Former U.S. Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki

For some reason, as I was leafing through email that purports to bring the news, it seemed as if more than the usual amount of change w is in the wind. That impression, of course, can be manipulated by the editors and other “gatekeepers” who decide what and to whom to send emails as much as by my own choice of what emails to open, which to trash, and which are relevant to what I do.

It is possible that I am a bit more sensitized to the phenomena of change given that Great Britain, where I lived and worked for six years, saw a change in political leadership after a decade in which Tony Blair was Prime Minister. Blair, who handed off to his Chancellor of the Exchequer (the second most powerful position in the British government), Gordon Brown, was within hours appointed as a special envoy of “The Quartet” (EU, Russia, United States, UN) that has for years been trying to push to completion the off-and-on Israeli-Palestine “negotiations” that are to arrive at a two-state“ final status” agreement.

For his part, the new Prime Minister moved to replace key cabinet members, appointing David Miliband, the current environment minister, as the new Foreign Minister (Secretary of State equivalent). Like Brown, Miliband is expected to look for the earliest opportunity to pull British troops from Iraq.

Another interesting early appointment by Prime Minister Brown is that of Lord Mark Malloch Brown as Minister for Africa, Asia, and the UN. Malloch Brown, who served in the UN Secretariat as deputy to then Secretary-General Kofi Annan, was critical of the ambivalent attitude of U.S. administrations toward the UN – except when a president wanted the imprimatur of the Security Council for some action.

Before taking over as prime minister, Gordon Brown expanded the Department for International Development (DFID) whose mission is to assist poverty stricken countries. Observers expect that under Brown and Malloch Brown DFID will focus on Africa an Asia.

What will be interesting to watch over the next 15 months is how the U.S. and UK interact in Africa as the Pentagon implements its plan to create a new African Command. Unlike other geographical commands, AFRICOM’s responsibilities will include not only military affairs (training, equipping, conducting joint exercises, keeping al-Qaeda from establishing terror enclaves) but also “nation building” activities that the military has gone to great lengths elsewhere to avoid.

Yet another change, this one announced by President Bush, is the appointment of the first U.S. envoy to the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) that has been in existence for 38 years. Yet even in making the announcement at the rededication of Washington’s Islamic Center, Bush went after Syria and Iran for repressing the freedom of their citizens. Moreover, at a meeting June 19 between Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Bush revealed he intended to increase military aid to Tel Aviv by at least $50 million each year for 10 years. This would run annual military aid to the Israeli Defense Forces from $2.4 billion to $3 billion. The question now is whether Egypt’s annual aid package will also be increased to re-establish the unwritten 3-to-2 ratio of aid for Israel and Egypt that began in 1979 with the signing of the Camp David Accords. This increase would complete the conversion of the $1.2 billion in aid from the State Department’s Economic Support Fund.

And what do the African nations think of all this? There’s no doubt that the reception accorded the creation of AFRICOM has been underwhelming. So far, North African countries that have been approached as the location of the new command’s headquarters have all said no – and this is exactly the areas where religion (Islam) and politics are most closely integrated. Considering that right now these North African countries have official links to NATO, they may see AFRICOM as a downgrading of U.S. and European interest in solving the many problems of this band of countries on the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

How the U.S. Lost the Gulf

It is March 2008; U.S. forces in Iraq have been maintained at “surge” levels. The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been replaced twice in the in last nine months. The current cabinet, a coalition dominated by technocrats and secularists, includes military officers who hold the Defense and Internal Security portfolios as well as former Baathists. Even so, its hold on power is shaky as the sectarian militias of the religious parties still pose a possible security threat – a threat that that continues to roil the politics of the Gulf and the larger Middle East.

There is some good economic news: oil production finally is above pre-March 2003 levels – and has shown a small but steady increase in each of the last four months.

Next door in Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khameini and his inner circle have grown weary of what it sees as U.S. stalling tactics on ending sanctions against Tehran (the quid pro quo for Tehran’s full cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency). Moreover, even though the coalition troops are half-way through their final six month UN-endorsed “stability operation” in Iraq, the U.S. still not announced whether it will ask the Iraq government for permanent basing rights.

Sensing a possible change in the balance of power in the Gulf as the coalition military forces leave Iraq, the Iranians secretly approach Saudi Arabia with a proposal to stabilize the political-economic conditions in the Persian Gulf – Caspian Sea oil fields. The core of the proposal calls for Riyadh and Tehran to pressure Baghdad diplomatically (with the sectarian militias always in the background) to reject any form of a residual U.S. military presence in Iraq. In return, both Iran and Saudi Arabia would assist the re-development of Iraq’s oil sector, enabling the three countries to form a powerful sub-OPEC triumvirate.

Such a scenario might seem far-fetched given the history of ethnic and religious sectarianism that Westerners ascribe to the Gulf and the Greater Middle East. However, the revival of widespread violence associated with the historical Shi’a – Sunni sectarianism is largely the result of an inexcusable misreading of the region’s history and the subsequent mishandling of the post-March 2003 occupation by the U.S.-led coalition. Given its origin, this violence should decline in parallel with the departure of the western coalition. Equally, the departure of foreign forces will elevate the Iraqi military from its present regional (and thus essentially tribal) security focus to the broader national horizon, both in terms of its operations and its national symbolism. And in this latter role, it would re-affirm the self-identity of Iraq and Iraqis.

Given the abject mess the U.S. intervention has created in the Gulf, Washington may well find that its “help” will be rejected by more nations more often than in the past – more so in areas such as the Persian Gulf that have resources on which the U.S. economy depends just to function. While the U.S. cannot be excluded from any area where international waters or airspace exists, its freedom of action could be curtailed if a majority of nations in a region objected.

Such a stance seems improbable, but until a few months ago, many foreign policy “experts” thought it just as improbable that the Iranians and Saudis would open high-level discussions and exchange high-level visits. Somehow, despite a huge presence in the Gulf for years, it is evident that the U.S. still does not understand that part of the world. One can hope that those vying to succeed George Bush as president take time to study both the “catastrophic success” of the last six years in Iraq and the history of the broader Middle East which has been the crossroads where competing cultures have met and intertwined – and still do today.

The next president will have the opportunity to shape the history of the Middle East by the simple act of pulling all U.S. military forces from Iraq, Such action, which he or she could order to begin immediately after taking the oath of office if Pentagon planners have done their job, could be completed by the end of 2009.

Were this to happen (it seems improbable that Bush will change course in the time remaining in his presidency), historians of the 21st century may look back on the mayhem in the Gulf in the first 10 years of the century as an ending, not a beginning. That is, the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq – while resting on only a quasi-religious rationale – are the Islamic equivalent of the 30 Years’ War which redrew the religious boundaries between the Protestant and Catholic realms in Europe and ended the Holy Roman Empire.

Thereafter, Europe focused its energies more on political-economic rather than political-religious concerns. Once the western armies leave Iraq, it will also be able to put sectarianism aside and, along with the wider Middle East, rebuild its political-economic sectors and rejoin the community of nations as a fully functioning nation-state.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Cogito ergo Cheney

Many western philosophers look upon Rene Descartes (1595-1650) as the Father of modern philosophy. In his Meditations on First Principles, Descartes examines the processes involved in reasoning – that is, how humans are able to “know” anything. His conclusion is popularly phrased in Latin as “Cogito ergo sum”– “I think, therefore I am.”
(In the Meditations, his formulation is translated as “I think, I exist.”)

Many U.S. constitutional and foreign policy specialists look upon Vice-President Dick Cheney as the author ( or perhaps “father”) of a number of “first principles” in the conduct of the administration of George W. Bush, especially in the so-called “war on terror.”

This juxtaposition (definitely not a comparison) came to mind as I read the current multi-part series by the Washington Post on the revolutionary influence and highly individualistic style of the Vice-President when dealing with the process of policy formulation in the administration of George Bush. On national defense in general and the so-called “war on terror” in particular, Cheney’s influence is as unmistakable as was Descartes’ on subsequent western philosophy for nearly three centuries.

This is not to elevate Cheney to the level of Descartes, but merely to point out that there are certain parallels in the methodology developed or employed by each man in pursuit of his goals. For Descartes the philosopher – scientist, the objective was to demonstrate that scientific knowledge depended on the power of reason to analyze information and not on what the body might or might not sense about “reality.” His approach was to doubt everything that we “know” about the physical world because we have no reliable way of proving that the objects we sense actually exist as they are part of the “not I.” All any individual can be sure of is this “I” that we know does exist because it is experienced as mind not dependent on the external senses. But once this “I” is irrefutably established, we can explore the physical universe that we experience through a multitude of daily interactions.

For Cheney the business executive – politician, the overriding objective as vice-president has been to isolate and seize control over certain areas of governance. Having cut them off from the “outside world,” he would with great secrecy develop unilateral and U.S. centric policy, get President Bush’s endorsement (and often get Bush to announce it) and then try to make the world conform to the policy as dictated rather than deal with allies and friends whose own interests might not completely agree with the Cheney mind-set. Only when forced by circumstances he absolutely could not manipulate has he acceded to internationalism

Descartes characterized his opponents as skeptics – those who doubt everything simply for the sake of doubting. Descartes too, begins by doubting everything, but he asserts that this is but a device that allows him to re-start with a clean slate the quest to determine how we can know anything with absolute certainty and therefore know “truth.”

Cheney characterizes his opponents as inconsistent “flip-floppers” and indecisive. During the 2994 presidential campaign, he opined that had Democrats been in power in 1990, they would have been so indecisive that no response would have been made to reverse Saddam Hussein’s conquest of Kuwait.

Cheney lives in a world where truth is what he sees as possible and right is anything that will block bad possibilities from being translated from thought into action that harms the U.S. In post-September 11, 2001 America, Cheney is “absolutely convinced that the threat we face now, the idea of a terrorist in the middle of one of our cities with a nuclear weapon, is very real and that we have to use extraordinary measures to deal with it.” That message was voiced as a looming “truth” in February 2002 in an obviously coordinated series of presentations by Cheney, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, and then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice in which all three referenced the reality that a “smoking gun in the form of a mushroom cloud” loomed in America’s future unless Saddam Hussein was removed from power.

Indeed, without identifying by name who was leading the war hawks, Bob Woodward in his book, Plan of Attack, notes that in the post-September 11, 2001 White House “there's some pressure to go after Saddam Hussein.” In fact, it seems more likely that it was Cheney, not Bush, who was the real hidden hand that directed the Pentagon to re-examine and start updating its contingency plans for Iraq.

Cheney, the Secretary of Defense in the George H. W. Bush administration when Iraq invaded Kuwait, said that he fully supported the elder Bush’s decision not to press on to Baghdad after Saddam’s troops were routed from Kuwait. In a largely unnoticed August 1992 speech in Seattle, Washington to the Discovery Institute, Cheney told the audience that his opposition rested on the question of “how many additional American casualties is Saddam worth? And the answer is not very damned many. So I think we got it right, both when we decided to expel him from Kuwait, but also when the president made the decision that we'd achieved our objectives and we were not going to go get bogged down in the problems of trying to take over and govern Iraq."

Yet, with minor modifications, this was exactly the approach attempted in 2003.What happened then was exactly what Cheney said in 1992 would have been the case had Desert Storm reached Baghdad:

"All of a sudden you've got a battle you're fighting in a major built-up city, a lot of civilians are around, significant limitations on our ability to use our most effective technologies and techniques.”

If this was what Cheney saw would be the case in 1991, what changed in the intervening 12 years? Given Cheney’s penchant for going to “undisclosed” locations and operating in great secrecy, we may never know. One wonders if even Dick Cheney knows other than he has a vision of American in which he believes so strongly that no information can change it.

But whereas Descartes’ ground of certainty is the power of reason to affirm the “I” – a dynamic process -- Cheney’s ground of certainty is fixed, frozen in time, unable to be modified, and held with an almost religious fervor that passes for perfect certainty.

That used to be the realm of the gods alone.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Military Commissions Take 2

In a previous posting I covered the rulings of two military judges at Guantanamo Bay who were to hear the cases of two of the men incarcerated at the U.S. enclave. One reader asked for some elaboration on the passage reading: "rights and protections of detainees that, were proceedings held in the “normal” U.S. military court system using the Manual for Courts-Martial and the Uniform Code of Military Justice or in the federal civilian court system, would be afforded them."

With Secretary of Defense Robert Gates revealing that he has been pushing to close GITMO, with former Secretary of State General Colin Powell calling for closing GITMO “this afternoon” not tomorrow, and – according to White House Press Secretary Tony Snow – even President Bush wanting to close GITMO “in a responsible manner,” this seems an opportune time to meet this request.

To really do a thorough study would require consideration of a series of interlocking issues such as:

- the nature of the struggle against al-Qaeda and its affiliates;

- international authorizations or the lack thereof for military actions undertaken by the U.S. and coalition countries;

- unilateral exercise of “extra-territoriality” claimed by the U.S., creation of “new” categories of detainees and other questionable pronouncements by the U.S. president; and

- defining the battlefield and the entities of the U.S. government that operate on that battlefield – which trails off on what the president must tell Congress about clandestine operations, including the program for extraordinary renditions and the observance of international treaties, especially the Geneva Conventions.

Suffice to say that the twin rulings earlier this month, together with the ruling by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit that the Pentagon cannot hold a civilian resident of the United States indefinitely without charges, have increased the pressure to move ahead smartly. But the fact that a scheduled meeting at the White House quickly took on the characteristics of a hot potato within the defense and foreign affairs sector. The latest news has no one ready to handle the issue.

The Guantanamo military commissions originally were established by President Bush in his Military Order #1. These commissions were challenged in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld on the basis that the Pentagon determines who will be the judge, who will be the jury, the offences that are to be prosecuted, and the rules of evidence.

The Uniform Code of Military Justice (USMJ) and the Manual for Courts-Martial are the basic documents for the justice system of the U.S. military. These grew out of the U.S. civilian legal system protecting the rights and due process for all Americans, laws for the conduct of land warfare, the 1907 Hague Conventions and the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Article 36 of the UCMJ gives the president the authority to establish procedures in time of war to be used in cases brought before “courts-martial, military commissions and other military tribunals, and procedures for courts of inquiry.” To the extent possible, the “principles of law and the rules of evidence generally recognized in the trial of criminal cases in the United States district courts” will be followed. Moreover, “All rules and regulations made under this article shall be uniform insofar as practicable and shall be reported to Congress.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that while President Bush, in his military order, had determined that applying “the principles of law and the rules of evidence generally recognized in…criminal cases in the U.S. district courts” to trials of enemy combatants was not practicable, he had not made the same determination with regard to rules for courts-martial.” This omission was even more egregious, said the court, when coupled with the presidential rule that the accused could be excluded from the courtroom while the trial went forward, denying the accused the right to confront his accusers.

The court, concluding that the rules and procedures for regularly constituted courts-martial were “practicable” and that Commission Order #1 “deviates in many significant respects from these rules,” held that order violated Article 36 and could not be used to try GITMO detainees.

Similarly, Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions calls for the use of “regularly constituted courts” that “afford all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.” The Supreme Court held that the government had not shown any compelling reason why it could not use the “regular” courts-martial system to try terror suspects. (Of passing interest, the Court noted that “properly constituted or “regularly constituted” are not defined in Common Article 3, but other sources of international law and international humanitarian law provide the clear meaning of the phrase.)

Looking back, Bush, by calling the struggle to suppress terrorism a “war,” boxed himself into a corner with regards to the minimum standards for interrogating and trying detainees. Creating the category of “unlawful enemy combatants” was a transparent attempt to end run both the Geneva Conventions and U.S. law.

So far, it hasn't succeeded.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

This Price Isn't Right

There can be few things worse in political life than to fail to fulfill the expectations of the public that voted for a candidate who campaigned specifically to represent the community’s views in parliament or congress.

Yet that seems to be what is unfolding in the 110th Congress. The unambiguous message of last November’s midterm election was to get U.S. combat troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan and end the “war on terror.” While it is true that the Senate Democrats have a razor-thin majority – a shift in party or caucus affiliation by a single senator would throw majority control to the Republicans (the 50-50 tie would be broken by the Republican vice-president in his constitutional role as President of the Senate) – leaders of both parties have yet to implement the electorate’s charge: pass significant legislation that will:

- bring the war in Iraq to an end;

- bring the war in Afghanistan to a close;

- disband the “global war on terror”; and

- redirect resources to combat terrorism to international and national police forces.

Two attempts to move legislation – one a binding resolution calling for a date certain for withdrawing troops from Iraq, the other a non-binding resolution laying out specific timelines to be met by the Iraqi government – failed. However, the provision on timelines, part of the original 2007 Fiscal Year Emergency Supplemental Appropriations bill, was the first such measure to reach President Bush’s desk – prompting the first veto of his presidency. (The provision was not part of the revised legislation that Bush subsequently signed.)

The next attempt to implement the people’s direction will be the Defense Authorization bill. Although the details remain unclear, leaders from both parties appear to be in the final stages of reaching agreement on the number of amendments that will be brought up for consideration by the whole Senate. The Senate plan for moving this legislation is to debate and vote on amendments before the July Fourth recess and vote on the entire bill and send it to the President for signature or veto during the three weeks the Congress is in session during July.

But as fatalities continue to climb and more billions disappear every week, the American public is growing impatient for meaningful action. There is growing suspicion that a majority if not a supermajority in Congress is more interested in playing the politics of this war than in dealing with its policy dimensions. Many in the U.S. public think that if Congress were really committed to ending the war, they would vote for amendments repealing the original authorization to go to war. This would not cut funding, but it would represent a serious and significant symbolic statement to the White House that the Congress, at least, recognizes that the public wants this war to end – and soon.

President Bush may sign the Authorization bill as it would provide “political cover” for the White House to step up pressure on the Iraqi government to meet the benchmarks to which Baghdad has agreed. The real fight will come over the Defense Appropriations legislation.

This year, in accordance with congressional direction in the FY2007 appropriations legislation, the president included war funding ($142 billion) in the overall request for the Pentagon for FY2008. It now appears that the Iraq funding request will be considered as a stand-alone bill in September while the rest of the president’s request for the Pentagon will be examined in July and may possibly even be passed before the August recess. The amendment policy on this bill also remains unclear, but expect only minor changes as Members remain very wary about casting a negative vote on any bill dealing with defense spending lest they leave themselves open to charges of failing to support the troops.

And it is exactly at this point that politics trumps policy and re-election prospects subvert principle. Members have fallen for administration blackmail: a vote against funding the war sends a debilitating message of “no-confidence” in the war and in those waging war on behalf of the nation, thus devaluing their sacrifices. The reality is that as long as the wars are funded, which is to say as long as politics trumps policy, the sacrifices will continue and will continue to fall directly on only a few – the wounded (physical and mental), the dead, their families and friends.

To gauge just how serious this Congress is about doing the people’s will to end the war, count back from the November 2008 presidential election to July 1st, 2007 – less than 10 days from now – and slot in the legislative actions related to the ongoing war as well as other significant war-related events

July 2007 FY2008 Defense Authorization passes

August 2007 Recess

September FY2008 war spending passes; report on “surge” sent to

Sep-Oct 2007 2008 Defense Appropriations (less war funding) passes

Nov-Dec 2007 Recess; progress report for third quarter 2007 sent to

January 2008 State of the Union; rotation of troops with extension of
surge levels announced and a “possible” drawdown timeline
to begin in summer

February 2008 President submits FY2009 budget with additional funds for
war fighting still above $100 billion

The submission of the FY2009 defense budget will confirm that the next president will enter office with a significant U.S. military presence still in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Feb-Mar 2008 Progress report for last quarter of 2007 sent to Congress

Politically, the Republicans will look for some reduction in troop levels – possibly as many as 50,000 – to begin in the summer and be completed by the end of October 2008. They will cite recent (April-May) “testimony” by field commanders that improved Iraqi security forces make possible the proposed decrease in U.S. troops – that is, the reduction is policy-driven, not political.

The Democrats will dispute this latter claim but will be content to follow the same timing for the FY2009 defense authorization and appropriations bills as they did for FY2008. Politically, the Democrats would be just as content to go into the last two months before the election with the wars continuing at full tilt.

Sixteen months remain until the next general election. It would be unconscionable for the Congress to fail to effect a policy change on Iraq in this period of time. Should Congress fail to move ahead or follow the lackluster schedule outlined above, the nation can expect at least another 1,000 U.S. fatalities in Iraq (based on the totals for the past 16 months) and additional direct monetary costs just for Iraq coming to $100 billion. And to these must be added the thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians and security forces and the costs to coalition countries.

This is too high a price to pay in anyone’s blood and anyone’s treasure, especially when the only brake on changing a bankrupt policy is political gamesmanship.

If this is the level to which our system has deteriorated, we might as well elect people like Bob Barker, the just retired 35 year host of television’s “The Price is Right” He might appreciate a new day job.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Shades of Iraq:

According to Bush, it’s worth it

No, this is not President George Bush talking about Iraq or the more general and never-ending “war on terror” to which he has committed the United States.
This is Lieutenant Colonel Garry Bush, who is in overall command of military and civilian personnel in what is called the Coalition Munitions Clearance Program. (“Team Blows Up Fodder For Bombs,” Boston Globe, June 17, 2007 U.S. and coalition ground forces invaded Iraq in March 2003 and toppled Saddam’s regime, they unexpectedly found that they literally were sitting on a massive conventional arms dump – everything from pistol and rifle ammunition to artillery and mortar shells, mines, tank rounds, plastic explosives, rockets and bombs. Initial estimates ranged as high as 2 million tons of explosive materials, most of it unguarded and a not insignificant amount buried.

Simply mapping the locations of the ammunition dumps was a major task, one that – as with the nuclear sites – was not done as the coalition forces moved across Iraq because there were insufficient supporting or follow-on troops to guard the dumps and perform other assigned tasks. And even though the total munitions discovered seems to be closer to 600,000 tons, the failure to secure the explosives, shells, and cartridges provided an opportunity for Saddam loyalists, criminal enterprises, and others to secrete thousands of munitions that have since been “recycled” into vehicular suicide bombs and improvised explosive devices.

The work falls to EOD or Explosive Ordnance Demolition units and civilian contractors who use controlled explosions to explode the excess and often outdated ammunition. (Yes, like some foods, ammunition has a “Use By” date beyond which its reliability cannot be guaranteed.) LTC Bush estimates that his command has destroyed about 366,000 tons of Saddam-era munitions and still has another 150,000 tons to go – assuming that no other large storage complexes beyond the 66 discovered so far are found. So far, the unit has suffered five deaths associated with munitions handling. Monetary costs are above one billion dollars and continue to rise.

While the members of the Coalition Munitions Clearance Program destroy the big dumps, coalition and Iraqi security forces report they are finding twice the number of small caches of weapons since before the “surge” into Baghdad and al-Anbar province.

Meanwhile, the U.S and the UK, in a sudden Eureka moment of awareness and fiscal accountability, have introduced in the UN Security Council a new draft resolution that would formally end UNMOVIC, the UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission whose members were charged with uncovering and destroying Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, work the commission did until right before the U.S.-led invasion.

When the regime fell in early April, Washington, which had delighted in vilifying UNMOVIC for its failure to find either stockpiles of weapons or advanced research programs, refused to let the UN agency back into Iraq to complete its investigation for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons work.

Instead, the Bush administration created its own inspection agency – the Iraq Survey Group or ISG – with a maximum authorized end strength of 1,400 personnel from the U.S., UK, and Australia. In the end, the ISG’s final report, presented October 6, 2004, did nothing more than validate the work of the 100 UNMOVIC inspectors: Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, no means to produce them, and no active research program to acquire them.

Undoubtedly, considering the lives lost, the lives forever ruined, the other costs of this war, has there ever before been so high a price paid by so many from such a large number of countries for such a huge miscalculation that turned up zero promised results?

Friday, June 15, 2007

Gaza: Another Day, Another Fracture

As the smoke clears above Gaza, the 3,680 human beings per square kilometer that are crammed into this virtual prison must be wondering what comes next.

According to news reports, Hamas is now the sole authority in Gaza. The next time something goes amiss, they – to paraphrase Richard Nixon – don’t have Fatah to blame. And the “blame” may well come very quickly. Since March 2006, the U.S. has provided the very minimum in humanitarian aid to the Palestinians – and nothing else. Tel Aviv has refused to forward taxes it collects for the Palestinian Authority on goods that cross the border.

Fatah’s corrupt officials and ministries will quickly become Hamas’ corrupt officials. Qassam rockets fired into Israel may provoke heavier responses from the Israeli Defense Force on the theory that only Hamas members and supporters are in Gaza, thereby setting in motion a spiral of violence.

That is, this is what could happen should Washington squander the opportunity that this very real crisis presents to initiate a more radical and more positive course of diplomacy than it has managed to muster in the entire first 6½ years that George W. Bush has been in the White House.

Another scenario would start with the proposition that the danger of the whole region going up in flames demands a radical and public course change by the United States, by the Quartet (UN, EU, Russia, U.S.) and the Arab League using the Mecca agreement as the basis for discussions with no preconditions. Hamas had accepted in that agreement that it would respect all international treaties and other agreements reached by preceding Palestinian regimes, a concession that, over time, would have pulled them more and more into the multitude of tasks associated with governing 3 million people and leaving less time and reason to continue calling for the destruction of Israel.

This fracture, however, has become very personal, with both sides assassinating their opponents and looting and burning homes. Moreover, Fatah supporters reportedly have been labelling Hamas fighters "Shi'a collaborators" -- the ultimate insult to a Sunni -- because of alleged Iranian backing for Hamas.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Mosques and Money

It was almost prescient: “My nightmare – the thing that keeps me up at might – is a failure of Iraqi security forces, somehow, catastrophically, mixed with a major Samarra-mosque-type catastrophe.”

That was Major General Joseph Fil Jr., commander of the 1st Cavalry Division, speaking last week from Baghdad. Today (nightfall in Iraq) the second of the two scenarios Fil described happened – and not at any mosque but at Samarra’s Golden Dome (Imam al-Askari) mosque, the same one whose destruction in February 2006 unleashed a reign of sectarian terror in Iraq. This time, the attack against the site of one of Shi’a Islam’s holiest shrines destroyed the two minarets that survived the first attack. U.S. military officials suspect an “inside job” as the minarets were brought down using planted explosives.

Iraqi and U.S. officials will, over the next few days, confirm the type of explosive used and may even be able to identify which group – and possibly the two or three individuals who carried out the destruction of the minarets. They will, in a phrase, successfully complete a forensic study of the material aspects of this incident.

What this examination will not do, however, is answer with assurance the question of why a second attack on this partially demolished site, even if it is sacred to Shi’as.
One possibility is to demonstrate the ineptness if not the corruptness of the security forces in general and those at the site – a combination of Shi’a and Sunni police and troops – in particular despite the $20 billion spent to train and equip Iraqi security formations.

This is hardly news, either to Iraqis or to Americans. But this is not and should not be the sum-total of the response by the Bush administration and the generals in the field. Left to themselves, the civilian and military brass in the Pentagon and the White House national security structure will do what they know best, since they have been doing it ever since March 2003. They will continue to ask for more money; they will ask for greater latitude in spending the money, not just in Iraq and in the U.S. but throughout the world wherever the Puzzle Palace detects allies “under threat.”

The creeping militarization of foreign assistance over the 45 years since the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 became law is picking up momentum. And the longer U.S. forces are in Afghanistan and Iraq, the more pronounced this trend will become. Traditionally, the State Department has developed and set in place a coordinated approach – both outreach and response – to other countries. Ambassadors were the “person-in-charge” representing the President and the nation and responsible for U.S. citizens who came into the country.

That changed in the aftermath of World War II when organized units of U.S. armed forces remained in various countries. These troops were commanded by the military through the Pentagon to the President as commander in chief. The Pentagon then divided the globe into “unified commands” to oversee preparations for war anywhere within the area of each command and to oversee military training exercises with the armed forces of friendly nations. Belatedly, the State Department assigned a senior officer with ambassadorial rank as an “advisor” to the military commander of each region.

The Pentagon now wants to be given another blank check – permanent authority to spend one billion annually as it sees fit to equip and train other military forces in the “global war on terror.” Moreover, the Puzzle Palace also wants greater latitude to disperse economic and humanitarian aid to friendly countries.

Watch for the coming showdown in Congress over what is called Section 1206 funding.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Abuse of Power

Just as the unitary presidency is under fire, so too is the UK government for abuse of power.

Unless you live in Great Britain or fly in B-52, B-1, or B-2 bombers, you may well have never heard of the Chagos Islands. But if you were told that the Chagos archipelago was in the Indian Ocean some 500 kilometers south of the Maldives, you might well guess that this is the group of 65 islands that includes Diego Garcia, at 44 km2 the largest island and therefore the location of the U.S. air base.

Some quick background:

In the 1960s, the Soviets were courting India and the U.S. was tied down in Vietnam. Should India fall under the Soviet’s sway, the U.S. position in the Persian Gulf would be outflanked across the Arabian Sea (neutralizing Pakistan) all the way to Africa as Washington had no reliable anchor south of the Strait of Hormuz. Coincidentally, in 1965 the UK created the British Indian Ocean Territory, bringing under one office three British dependencies.
In a secret deal between Washington and London, the UK agreed to “lease” the largest island to the U.S. and to move the 2,000 inhabitants in return for preferable pricing from the Pentagon for U.S. military equipment and parts. Although the law the UK government used as the basis of the removal of the Chagossians was not passed until 1971, the process of “cleansing” the archipelago started in 1967 and took six years.

In 2000, the original islanders and their descendants, now numbering some 5,000, won a significant victory when the High Court ruled that the 1971 act could not be used to remove an entire population from their place of abode. (The UK tried, to no avail, to convince the High Court that the inhabitants of the Chagos, because they were descendents of African slaves and Indian plantation laborers, at best had “contractual rights” to the islands, not the rights of “indigenous” or native people as do Native Hawaiians or New Zealand Maoris. Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary when the 2000 decision from the law lords was announced, declined to appeal the decision, but in true UK fashion, called for a “feasibility study” on how to approach the resettlement question. Of note in the decision, the court ruled that Diego Garcia could not be opened for resettlement, something the islanders had not requested.

From the islanders’ perspective, the ruling both set in place the basic principle of their “right of return” and pointed to the next hurdle: who would pay for re-resettling the islanders? The logical response: the UK government. But this remedy was dealt a blow in 2003 when another High Court judge ruled against the islanders on three points: an insufficient amount of reliable evidence of what had transpired at the time of the evictions; the islanders’ lack of standing as to ownership of the land; and – most puzzling – the probability that the claim would not succeed even though the issue of their unlawful removal had effectively been settled in the 2000 case.

Grounds for an appeal proved persuasive. The Court found unpersuasive the UK government’s argument that “national security” was a sufficient justification for excluding the islanders from the entire archipelago. In an appeal to a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals, the government relied on what is called an Order in Council under the Royal Prerogative – equivalent to a presidential finding – that no one had a “right of abode’ in the archipelago. Moreover, the court ruled that the discretionary power of the Royal Prerogative, while nominally belonging to the crown, is used by the government and thus is subject to judicial review.

The ruling further forbade the government from taking the case to the House of Lords. However, the government may appeal directly to the highest legal authority – the law lords – the equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Friday, June 08, 2007

War Update and Statistics

As expected, fatalities in the Iraq war in May were up sharply.

The 126 U.S. fatalities in May marked this as the third deadliest month of the Iraq war.

That surge of fatalities continued in the early days of June, with 27 dead reported in the first seven days – all from hostile causes. At this rate, fatalities will be in the 115 to 120 range by the end of the month.

The U.S. troop buildup announced January 10 by President Bush is now complete with the arrival of the last of the 30,000 additional troops assigned to try to quell the violence in Baghdad and al-Anbar province. The price in lives came high; the last 500 U.S. fatalities (from 3,000 to 3,500) occurred in just 5¼ months. This is the shortest time in the Iraq campaign, including the initial period of “major combat operations,” in which 500 American service personnel have died; the next shortest period to date is 6 months.

Given that the bulk of the combat forces are Army and Marines, it is ironic that the 3,500th fatality was an Air Force noncommissioned officer working in intelligence and counterintelligence.

Of the major combat units – divisions – deployed and re-deployed to Iraq, losses have been heaviest in two Marine units: 1st Marine Division (341) and 2nd Marine Division (217). The heaviest losses in Army Divisions are in the 1st Cavalry (211) and 82nd Airborne Divisions.

Coalition forces other than the U.S. have collectively suffered 277 fatalities; well over half – 150 – of these are British.

The upper limit of Iraqis killed in the violence or otherwise dying from causes associated with the occupation remains the 650,000 “excess deaths” reported in the British medical journal The Lancet earlier this year. Since January 2005, the combined losses among Iraqi civilians and insecurity organizations (national police, border guards, special commandos, etc) are at least 39,300, according to figures from the Iraqi Ministry of Health, the UN, and press reports. .

Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan consists of three elements: 36,750 soldiers from 37 countries in the International Security Assistance Force; another 11,000 U.S. troops under direct U.S. command; and 25 provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs). U.S. losses here stand at 398 killed with another 199 dead from other coalition countries. Of these latter, the British have suffered 59 killed and the Canadians 56. As Britain draws down in Iraq, it is planning to add forces to Afghanistan. A few German parliamentarians, on the other hand, are pressing for withdrawing their soldiers as a result of the deaths of three Germans.

As in Iraq, the number of Afghan civilians killed in the war is unknown. However, a high ranking Afghan police official noted that there has been a sharp increase in the number of uniformed officers killed in clashes with suspected Taliban.

Statistics on the wounded mirror the difference in the size of the forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the Iraq campaign, as of May 19, the Pentagon listed 25,549 U.S. service personnel as having suffered wounds since the start of the fighting in March 2003. In the Afghanistan fighting, 1,636 service personnel have been reported wounded through May 23.

On the home front, at least 7 Republican senators are supporting bills that would either implement the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group or a non-binding proposal that calls from the tripartite decentralization of Iraq.

Then there is the comment by Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, the president’s choice as the new Washington “war czar,” at his confirmation hearing yesterday before the Senate Armed Services Committee: “The question, in my mind, is not to what extent we can force them or lever them to a particular outcome, but rather to what degree do they actually have the capacity themselves to produce that outcome, and if produced – or if pressed too hard, will we in turn end up with an outcome that really isn’t worth the paper it’s written on?” Not much of an endorsement of the Baghdad regime.

And finally, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will not recommend the president re-nominate General Peter Pace as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for an additional 2-year term. Pace will complete six years as either the Vice-Chairman or Chairman this summer.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Showdown at the Baghdad Corral

In Iraq, after more than four years, President Bush may be about to get what he has been hoping for: a clear reading on the Iraq situation that is free of U.S. politics.

But he might not like what he gets.

This is nothing to do with the progress report due next month or the evaluation promised for September by General Petraeus or even the Government Accountability Office’s non-partisan review due in early September.

No. What the president may well get is a vote by the Iraqi parliament that ends the UN mandate, thereby removing the fig leaf of UN approval for the continued occupation of Iraq by U.S. – led coalition forces.

The stage for such a vote has already been set by the Iraqi parliament’s vote on a binding resolution that requires Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to submit any proposed extension to the parliament for its approval. In the past, the prime minister has by-passed the parliament – noticeably so last December when, without consulting the Iraqi legislature, he sent a letter to the UN Security Council requesting a 12 month extension of the mandate.

As prime minister, al-Maliki can veto the just-passed binding resolution. Even the most ardent opponents of the U.S. and coalition troop presence concede they probably do not have the two-thirds majority to override a veto. (One must assume that al-Maliki has learned the political art of the parliamentary “whip” to line up enough “sure” votes that, added to those he can get by making “concessions” on less important items, will command a majority in his favor.)

The great unknown in all this, however, is how the Iraqi population might react to a veto. With polls consistently showing a majority – and an ever-expanding majority – of Iraqis calling for the departure of foreign troops, a veto could create a powerful political backlash against al-Maliki, one so powerful that it could swing votes away from al-Maliki and toward the nationalists. This would be more likely the case should a vote to override come on top of confirmation by General Petraeus of what, indeed, is beginning to look like a failed military “surge” strategy by the U.S.

In both the Petraeus report and that by the GAO, the key, measurements are likely to be the number of attacks on Iraqi security forces and the number of Baghdad “neighborhoods” the U.S. declares “pacified.” Should the former be up and the latter not rise above 300-325 (there are 457 in all), al-Maliki just might not want to risk losing a vote of “no confidence,” which this would be as it entails for Iraq a significant strategy shift. Such a loss undoubtedly would plunge the country into a political as well as a military morass.

Signing the binding resolution, on the other hand, would shift the pressure from al-Maliki and put it on Washington, for the Iraqi nationalists in parliament have enough strength to demand that a definitive timetable be set for foreign troops to leave as a condition for extending the UN mandate for six months.

There is little doubt that Bush would be unhappy to get that kind of news from Baghdad as it would put to the test his own promise to withdraw U.S. troops should that request be made by the Iraqi government. On the other hand, he could assume the tone of an unidentified senior military officer in Baghdad quoted in a recent Wall Street Journal article who believes the U.S. has “been too passive and deferential to Iraqi sovereignty.”

Admittedly, there are many “coulds,” “woulds,” “mights,” and “maybes” in this analysis, but that is the nature of Iraq today. Yet this very uncertain state is ready-made for Bush, who thinks of himself as “the decider.” He decided a long time ago that Iraq would be a democracy, and a vote by the Iraqi parliament would be proof of his vision. All he would need after that is to decide just how long the U.S. would take to withdraw, at which point he could declare “”victory” and leave office completely vindicated – even if his victory kills thousands more .

Monday, June 04, 2007

Omar Khadr Beats GITMO -- For Now

On May 23, Senator Tom Harkin (IA) introduced the “Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility Closure Act of 2007.” The proposed legislation requires the president to close the Department of Defense detention facility not later than 120 days following enactment of the bill into law.

Like Abu Ghraib, “GITMO” has become a by-word around the world for mistreatment of prisoners by the U.S. and violations of Common Article III of the Geneva Conventions. Lawyers for some of the detainees have spoken of the despair that afflicts some of the prisoners, especially among those who have been incarcerated there for the more than five years since the first temporary confinement facility, Camp X-Ray, was opened in January 2002. Despair has led to four suicides and more than two dozen unsuccessful attempts, with the last suicide just this past May 31.

Since the beginning of the year, DoD has been moving forward to exercise the flawed tribunal procedures afforded it under the Military Commissions Act of 2006. This law curtails rights and protections of detainees that, were proceedings held in the “normal” U.S. military court system using the Manual for Courts-Martial and the Uniform Code of Military Justice or in the federal civilian court system, would be afforded them.

Until today, only one arraignment had been held – a very abbreviated one in which the “Australian Taliban” David Hicks agreed to a plea bargain in which he “confessed” to providing material support to the Taliban. He was then allowed to return to Australia – and Aussie government expense – to serve the remaining nine months of his “sentence.”

On June 4, a second, much more contentious procedure began – and then ended abruptly when the military judge ruled that he had no jurisdiction in the case.

The entirely unexpected ruling came in the opening minutes of the arraignment of Omar Ahmed Khadr, a Canadian by birth whose family, according to U.S. military prosecutors, had ties with al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden (with his father and brothers he moved to Afghanistan where at one point they were living in the same compound with bin Laden).

The ruling came on a matter of language: Omar, who had been at Guantanamo for some five years, had been classified as an “enemy combatant” by the “combatant status review tribunal” (CSRT) created by President Bush’s Military Commissions Order Number 1 of March 2002. After these commissions were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2006, Congress passed the Military Commissions Act in late 2006 which empowered the Pentagon to conduct trials before special military courts of those classified as “alien unlawful military combatants.” Because this was not the staus assigned to Omar, the judge ruled that Omar could not be tried for war crimes at GITMO.

The controversy that was expected, over Omar’s age and status as a “child soldier” – he was 15 or younger at the time of his alleged war crimes: murder and attempted murder of U.S. soldiers, conspiracy, proving material support, and spying – never came up because of the military judge’s ruling.

This will likely prove only a temporary delay because the Bush administration will probably direct the Pentagon to have the Guantanamo CSRTs amend the classifications they use to conform to the definition in the Military Commissions Act. While the White House might press for Congress to amend the act, the chance that a Democratic Congress would comply must be considered low.

While the controversy over Omar’s age – and therefore his classification as a “child soldier” under international law – seemed like it would be front and center early in the trial, what remains equally suspect about the prosecution’s case is the charge of murder or attempted murder in violation of the laws of war. It is precisely the fact that a state of armed conflict exists that lifts the killing or the attempted killing of an armed opponent on what is clearly a field of battle (as evidenced by the use of automatic weapons, hand grenades, and combat aircraft), out of the category of murder for which a combatant could be tried in a civil court.

To fall back on the lack of a “uniform” as the basis for a murder charge may be the government’s rationale, but this could not have been known at the time the U.S. forces surrounded the compound occupied by Omar’s group. From the volume of fire emanating from the compound there could be no doubt that this group opposed the U.S. presence and that they were carrying and using their arms openly – that is, they were operating as a resistance movement.

Moreover, if the prosecutors insist that Omar is a criminal and it is necessary to try him for murder and the other “crimes” for which he stands accused, the proceedings should follow the standards of fairness and due process recognized by most civilized nations.

So what does all this have to do with Senator Harkin’s proposed legislation? Today’s ruling is another in a long and growing list of administration missteps that make any “trials” or other legal proceedings at GITMO highly suspicious to non-Americans. In fact, GITMO proceedings have become such a legal and public relations fiasco that they call into question whether the United States still recognizes the rule of law as the basis for public policy decisions.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has already urged the president to close GITMO; it’s time for another, stronger push – one backed this time by the American people.

Friday, June 01, 2007

The May Numbers

The shoot-down of the Chinook helicopter in Helmand province in Afghanistan added seven coalition fatalities to this year’s total, bringing the number to 95. By nationality, the losses were five U.S., one Canadian and one Brit. At the current rate of fatalities, U.S. losses for the year will be slightly under the 98 killed in 2006. Total killed in Afghanistan since October 7, 2001 are 395 U.S. and 196 coalition troops. Of the latter, 58 are from Britain and 56 are Canadians. U.S. wounded through March 2007 total 1,121.

Troops committed to Operation Enduring Freedom under NATO command total 33,000 (International Security Assistance Force or ISAF) and are in all provinces. Afghanistan also hosts 25 Provincial Reconstruction Teams (12 run by the U.S.) but not all positions on all teams are filled – some lack up to 60 percent of their personnel. Separately, the U.S. maintains an additional 11,000 troops in Afghanistan.

When May started, U.S. dead in Iraq totaled 3,351. I estimated that the next milestone of 3,500 would be reached in very late June and would be almost the shortest interval – about 6 months – in which 500 deaths were recorded. With 124 deaths in May, 83 percent of the deaths that would mark this sad milestone have already happened. And if May is replicated, the remaining 25 deaths will be added before the end of the first week in June.

Total fatalities among the coalition troops in Iraq stand at 276. Iraqi fatalities are said to be 1,932 for May. U.S. wounded total 25,549 since the war in Iraq began.