Thursday, July 30, 2009

Iraq Update

As agreed in November 2008 between U.S. President George Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, July 1, 2009 was set as the date for transferring sovereignty over military operations in Iraq. As the 130,000 U.S. forces still in Iraq pulled back from cities and towns and settled in temporary base camps in less populous areas, Baghdad took full command and control of decisions on the conduct of all military and police operations in Iraq.

After a mere month, it has already become apparent that what George Bush thought he had negotiated in November with al-Maliki in no way reserved for the remaining American forces any say in day-to-day operations by Iraqis. President Bush apparently thought that the 130,000 U.S. troops left in Iraq as “combat trainers” would be allowed to participate in actual operations against insurgents that the Iraqi army was conducting.

The Iraqis saw the U.S. mission differently – or at least different from what the Pentagon thought. Washington was expected to continue training Iraq forces in counter-insurgency. Americans were also to execute defensive actions to protect their bases – nothing radical about that. But when it came to implementing offensive operations, Iraq commanders set their own pace – often planning and initiating operations that ignore suggestions from U.S. counterparts acting as “trainers” expecting to deploy with the Iraq units.

There were more sensitive issues between U.S. and Iraqi commanders. One nearly induced a complete melt-down with Iraq soldiers following a firefight between U.S. soldiers and insurgents in which Iraqi noncombatants were wounded. While American officials were examining the incident, an Iraqi army general arrived and, having listened to the civilians, declared that the U.S. soldiers had indiscriminately fired their weapons near or at civilians when returning the insurgent’s fire. The Iraqi general ordered his soldiers to arrest the Americans for breaking the November 2008 agreements, but within hours he was reversed by the Iraq prime minister.

A similar “foreign trainer” sticking point has soured relations with British forces that had remained in Iraq in July to help with training of the Iraqi navy. The November 2009 accords had not included UK troops as part of the foreign contingent remaining in Iraq as military instructors. This “omission” was to be remedied by the Iraqi parliament in July through legislation. As is the custom in Iraq, parliament takes time off in August. This year the legislature ended its session without taking up the issue. This omission forced the UK to pull its 150 Royal Navy sailors back to Kuwait where they would normally remain until the Iraqis reconvened. This year, however, Ramadan runs from late August to late September, which means the legislation will not be considered before October at the earliest.

The most recent clash involving Washington and Baghdad interests reveals just how far the Iraqis are pushing in exercising the sovereignty they have reclaimed from the Americans.

For a number of years, Washington has provided support and resources for a “terrorist” group of Iranians whose base is in Iraq. Known as the Mujaheddine –e Khalq (MEK), they have been providing information on the current development of Tehran’s nuclear power/weapon program in return for being supported and protected by American intelligence. Tehran has asked Baghdad to expel the insurgents back to Iran. Al-Maliki was willing to evict the Iranian group in order to improve political exchanges with Iran despite continuous tensions along their border.

And speaking of politics, it is not too much to watch relations between Kurdish Iraq and Arab Iraq sour. How oil contracts are awarded – and who profits – remains contentious. Last weekend’s election by the Kurds for their parliament saw the emergence of a new party that successfully challenged the prevailing status quo. And the failure to resolve the fate of Mosul as an ethnic Kurd or Arab city may provide Baghdad with an excuse to deploy more army and police units into the northern provinces in a bid to regain influence – a move the former Kurdish pesh merga undoubtedly will resist.

More to come on Afghanistan.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

When Rainbows Fail: A Thought Experiment

Somewhere, Dorothy is assured, there is a way for her and Toto to get to Oz and from there to Kansas. It seems so easy, a single, resolute step “over the rainbow” back to her family and friends in Kansas. But there is a catch: the rainbow has no substance, no “materiality.” It is ephemeral, an apparition of the ability (or power) of water to bend the sun’s light and separate that light into four “colors” that humans see in the sky.

The principal problem Dorothy faces is that first step, the one that becomes “material” when intent to act – a form of “fantasy” or imagination – is in fact transformed into action. But this is immediately followed by the second, third, and every “next step” demanding its transformation into “materiality.” As she travels on the “yellow-brink road,” the weight of materiality keeps accumulating. With one final dash, she reaches Oz, only to discover that the wizard’s city is a Potemkin fantasy. When the wizard’s balloon unexpectedly drifts away “over the rainbow,” Dorothy is left with no way and no road back to Kansas from Oz.

Dorothy is not the only American caught in a fantasy. In fact, fantasy overpowered reality sometime about the mid-point of the 20th century when Washington committed itself to continuous high military spending to defeat Moscow and Beijing in the international arena. Before the start of the 21st century, America stood at two for two – barely.

By 2008, it was clear that the U.S. could not balance the costs of ever-expanding Pentagon expenditures with the obligations that government provides, the basic services contributing to overall national security. For 60 years, Pentagon war-alchemists had attempted to sustain military security through the power of deficit spending and a dwindling stock of gold bullion. When that disappeared, budgeters went back to their books looking for how alchemists made gold from lead – and hoping they could discover how to do it. That too, however, was fantasy. The only course open was to paint the lead with gold leaf; pretend it was 24 carats; and hope renewed diplomacy could avoid the collapse of the global economy and the rise of insecurity throughout human societies.

The depth of the insecurity engendered by armed conflict did have two lessons for America, First, people cannot live forever in the unaccountable realm of rainbows. Choices and the depth of a population’s commitment to their dream will be tested by sub-national groups who dream their own transnational fantasy of domination “over the rainbow.”

Second, “national security,” like the rainbow, will be a reality only when it is finally transformed into a multi-facetted ephemeral phenomenon – political, economic, legal, military, social, and environmental. In this century, security is less a physical state and more of a psychological sense of being. But when the psychological sense is lost, as in the current global economic downturn, too often leaders may decide to take off with the “pot of gold” that anchors the end of rainbows in our fantasies.

When this occurs, the danger is that everyone comes to disbelieve in the rain, in the sun, and even in the rainbow.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Modern Trends: Violence vs. Reconciliation

Like the proverbial “bolt from a cloudless blue sky” that strikes and kills with no warning, the incidence of lethal political violence generated around the globe in 2009 is rising in frequency and fury. This is particular true over the last five weeks during which national governments seemed surprised if not stunned by the origin and subsequent development of opposition mass movements.

During the Cold War in Europe, similar events took place in Poland, East Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia in the 1950s and 1960s. But in these instances the opposition was confronting a foreign power – the Soviet Union – that exercised its military might with little regard for the population or the formality of international relations with “outside” nations.

What is distinctive about the battles being fought today in the streets is the fury and the frequency of what can be termed “spontaneous public violence.” It has been directed against ruling and often unaccountable cliques. It has not revealed any sense of conspiracy or organization ready to replace the current ruling elites. The latter slowly react both with traditional force, common claims of foreign interference, and the full propaganda apparatus of the ruling cabal.

The list of the countries – Iran, western China, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Honduras – whose ruling elites are under siege by their publics may be short, but together they speak volumes about how globalization is altering the use of violence in organizing human society.

Even as battles raged in the streets of the five countries mentioned above, social scientists were examining the role of violence in the formation of primate “cultures” from apes to chimpanzee to humans. The May 2009 issue of Scientific American included an article titled “Taming the Urge to War.” Based on a research paper – “The Evolution of Human Aggression: Lessons for Today’s Conflicts” – authored by 17 anthropologists and other scientists, the study concluded that primates, including humans, are not biologically predestined by their DNA to engage in unending lethal violence.

Early observations of primates (including humans) provided insight into how these different groups (e.g., “troops”) organized themselves structurally to survive attacks by competitors. Lethal attacks generally were avoided unless one side had a clear preponderance in numbers over the competition. Now new research involving chimpanzee “troops” has uncovered a contradictory trend, what the research paper termed “meet and greet” in lieu of “fight and kill.” In other words, the propensity for lethal violence between different primate “families” is no more likely occur than an outbreak of “reconciliation” following instances of violence between troops. The extent of such “peacemaking” commonly includes food sharing, mutual grooming, and hugging after “spats” between the groups.

Which trend – “compulsive violence” or reconciliation – prevails depends on the level of mutual “interdependencies” that exist between a dominant and a dependent troop. While the relationship may in fact be asymmetric, what is crucial is the perception that power is balanced between the different groups regardless of the disparity in the number of chimpanzees in each group.

Among humans, the choice seems to be influenced by the opportunity to deepen the level of interdependency of populations that are becoming larger, more educated, and above all more attuned to the latest trends in “one-on-one” communications that the mouthpieces of “official” news cannot shut down or obliterate. In fact, the spontaneity and the breadth of the opposition to ruling circles worked as well as it did because there were few if any leaders around which the public could gather for direction and to launch a competing political paradigm.

One puzzling aspect that emerges in the study is that humans are “less risk adverse” than other primate groups. This suggests that increased aggression is fostered when the distribution of power among groups becomes unbalanced either for positive (cultural achievement) or negative (climatic distortions) causes.

The sequence of events in Teheran in June is the most vivid example of a country under siege by its public. In fact, the June marches, while initially peaceful, became violent when unofficial “security forces” employed physically harsh measures similar to the tactics used 30 years ago by the shah’s secret police. Religious leaders led the protests in 1979 that forced a major realignment of power in Iranian society. June 2009 presents a new context and a new division of the power balance. The spontaneous nature of the opposition reflected an unconscious resentment of ad hoc “moral police” by large numbers of young, educated, unemployed and communication-savvy voters capable of rapid accumulation and exercise of the preponderance of national power. Their drive to end clerical misgovernment and corruption allowed them to form new interdependencies and to participate in the race to capture new opportunities arising from the globalization of economic and political power.

Violence, according to official sources in Teheran, has abated in Iran. Amazingly, less than two dozen were killed. But the struggle is not over; it has merely moved from the city streets to venues where power is being redistributed in rooms with all the doors are closed to public scrutiny and international review. If consensus emerges on the distribution of power, and if the balance reflects the public’s perception that legitimate governance is possible only in the context of a viable social contract, humans may have finally discovered the gains available when lethal violence is discarded in favor of “reconciliation” between contending rivals.

Iran will choose its own solution, just as other countries will when facing the same challenge to government legitimacy. What is clear in general is that humans are increasing the formative pace of political, economic, and social interdependencies which lower the level of institutional violence around the globe.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Going Nuclear Zero

For a number of months last year and spilling into the first quarter of this year, I co-authored a book that is on the verge of being published. Its principal author is an elderly gentleman who, in the 1970s, joined with like-minded anti-military organizations to lobby Congress against spending billions of dollars to create and deploy a massive nuclear weapons arsenal. Vietnam may have ended with a clear loss to U.S. conventional arms, but the Pentagon was not about to accept a parallel end for nuclear weapons.

The outcome of this insane nuclear weapon arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States finally “stabilized” when each side had amassed more than 10,000 nuclear weapons. Hundreds of these warheads were deployed on intercontinental missiles, on heavy bomber airplanes poised for immediate launch, and on nuclear-powered submarines. By 1980, many delivery systems were on “hair triggered” alert, giving Kremlin and White House leaders as little as 30 seconds to decide for or against war.

In 1983, an undergraduate at Columbia University wrote for a campus magazine an article titled “Breaking the War Mentality.” In his magazine article he decried the habit of rival leaders to warn their opponents of the advantages and disadvantages in nuclear conflict of “first” and “second” and other “retaliatory” options available to the military machines.

Like most articles or even assigned student papers
prepared for seminars, the magazine article was soon
forgotten and mislaid. Some 26 years later, another Columbia graduate going through yellowed school
magazines he still had discovered that his 1983 classmate had retained interested in the subject and now was in a position of power to change academic recommendation into pragmatic actions.

This week the person who wrote that article came to the Kremlin for his first visit as the President of the United States. One of his goals was to continue a process begun by one of his predecessors in the Oval Office: to gradually reduce the total number of deployed nuclear warheads from 10,000 to no more than 6,000 warheads (and as few as 2,200 weapons) and no more than 1,600 delivery systems for each side before the agreement expired in December 2009. That goal – the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) – had already been reached by the time President Obama set foot in Moscow, leaving open to the two presidents to press forward with a new treaty limiting nuclear warheads for each side to between 1,000 and 1,500.

There are still unresolved issues on nuclear weapons to be worked on by the White House and the Kremlin: arsenals that continue to grow in Pakistan and India and probably Israel; Iran’s work on nuclear energy policy and possibility for its own weapon development; the sustainability of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; and efforts to design new weapons by North Korea. But each of these can be addressed by governments, non-governmental organizations, and by mass movements throughout the globe that are pushing for the abolition of all nuclear warheads in every arsenal of any size in every country.

In the earlier time, many who opposed the build-up of nuclear stockpiles considered their position to be the only sane one – and so called their organization SANE. After a quarter century, yesterday’s SANE members are once again in the field aiming, along with a new and committed generation, to move from 1,500 weapons to zero – and this time to hit a real nadir point.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

July 5th

Today is July 5.

For Americans its significance is straight forward: July 5th is the day after the one on which, 233 years ago, 56 men approved and signed a document they called a “declaration of independence” -- after which a number of them left Philadelphia before agents of King George could detain them. (Overall, during the War of Revolution, five signers of the Declaration of Independence were captured by the British.)

The Americans’ main motivation for sundering relations between a monarch and his subjects was justified on the premise that the king could not impose taxes on anyone who was not represented in parliament. (This was often not the case, for members of parliament often occupied a seat because of social or economic position or because of heredity.) By the start of the 1770s, the crown and parliament were locked in a struggle over who would control the expenditure of the tax revenue flowing from the colonies to the power centers in London. The British had defeated their European rivals in North America a decade earlier only to learn that the price of defending constitutional government could be high.

Not only did London not get its taxes, the king and parliament provoked the opposite response from a number of prominent American merchants, ship owners, and other notables who felt that their interests were not being represented in parliament. At the level of the “common man” in the colonies, the chief complaint was interference by royal agents and even by British soldiers in the affairs of a public that had little affinity for the military. While neither king or parliament succeeded in wresting taxes from the colonies, the governing committee for the rebellion proclaimed by the “declaration of independence” -- the Continental Congress -- had no better success. In a sense, the Americans simply outlasted the British.

Like the British 233 years later, the United States finds itself in a similar condition. It spends more on its military forces and more on active armed conflict than any other country. But the battlefields are far away and the death and destruction inflicted on civilians undermines the very declaration on which our own independence rests.

For six years United States forces have been at war, and the outcome remains unclear even as another campaign begins. What we have failed to recognize is that our national principles are not transferable to others.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Closer to Leaving Iraq

Yesterday, June 30, 2009, may well become known as Independence Day in Iraq. If so, I would expect those who celebrate might be jumping the gun a bit.

June 30 is the second milestone on the road of transferring to the Iraqi government full responsibility for the security of their country. (The first milestone centered on creating and sustaining (funding) the indigenous Sunni “Sons of Iraq” militias that turned against al Qaeda in al-Anbar province and in Baghdad.) According to the non-binding mutual agreement reached last year between Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, all U.S. military combat units were to withdraw from Iraq’s cities by June 30. U.S. units will occupy more remote temporary bases and patrol Iraq’s borders.

At the time the agreement was finalized at the end of 2008, it contained a restriction on U.S. operations that now has inverted consequences. Baghdad insisted that Washington not initiate any military operation from Iraqi territory against Iran or Iranian forces. The rationale for this restriction was seen by Iraq as an important curtailment on any U.S. effort to pull Iran into confrontation with Iraq.

As timing would have it, the restriction now seems to apply to Teheran than to Washington. The violent struggle of a significant portion of Iran’s voters in the recent Iranian presidential ballot caught the mullahs and religious leadership off guard. Demonstrations were so widespread that the ayatollah’s shock troops, the 168,000 black-clad Revolutionary Guard whose commander is Iran’s Supreme Leader, were called into supporting the conservative militia to oppose the reformists.

The government response to the electoral dispute may finally prove to be the start of political realignment in Iran that has languished in the country for 30 years. If so, the momentum this time may be against the cleric establishment rather than for it. The final throw of the dice may rest on the Revolutionary Guard’s decision on purity of religious belief inside Iran rather than pragmatic diplomacy with its neighbors.

This may be even more significant for Iraq than for Iran.