Archive for February, 2009


Obama’s Budget: Some Winners & Losers

February 28, 2009
(Getty Image)

(Getty Image)

It was a busy week for the Obama administration, not least of which was the unveiling of the FY 2010 Federal Budget (read the story here and find the details of the proposed budget here). There’s a lot to say about this document. But I will spare you the lot of observations and share just three.

State appears to be a big winner in this budget. It’s funding is scheduled to increase from 47.2 billion to 51.7. That is, by my own back-of-the-envelope calculations, more than a 9% increase—a big bump up—the biggest percent jump of any department.

Compare that with Defense. Their baseline budget, excluding supplemental funding for Iraq and Afghanistan, and excluding any sort of bridge funds, will be 534 billion for FY 2010. Though enormous in absolute terms, the amount is barely a 4% increase over its baseline budget of 513 for the 09 fiscal year.

That could mean trouble. DoD is known to get nasty when its budget starts to tighten. And DoD personnel are some of the best media handlers in the Beltway, better even than the leaky-faucets that seem to be everywhere inside the CIA. Watch out then for signs of an interservice rivalry, especially over cuts to special programs, the Airforce and Navy in particular. Watch out also for how this political hot potato will be handled by Obama’s administration. And whether Secretary Gates will be able to manage the contest with his reputation in tact.

Last, and little known, is a big hit to President Bush’s pet program, the Millenium Challenge Corporation. This was first created by President Bush after his announcement of it in the 2004 State of the Union speech. Since then the corporation has been lushly funded—assigned 1.5 billion in 2008. Obama’s budget would almost cut that in half, to 875 million. This means not only will Obama kill one program that Bush was especially fond of, and was bright spot in his administration. In addition, Obama, in an effort to find money for his budget, may have starved a program that had been considered the most effective aid agency in the government.

by the Miserly Budget Monitor


Responsible Withdrawal?

February 25, 2009
Obama Introducing His National Security Team (Reuters Image)

Obama Introducing His National Security Team (Reuters Image)

The news agenda is buzzing with rumor of Obama’s plan for troop withdrawal from Iraq (read here). The official announcement has yet to be made; and it isn’t even certain yet when, or if, it will be announced. But supposing the details are right, and that about 100k troops will be withdrawn by August 2010, it raises several questions.

First, will the US assume an overwatch role subsequent to the major troop draw down? If it does, what sort role will that be? Training and equipping only? Or will it also police Arab-Kurdish disputes in the north? Or sectarian militias in the west and center of Iraq?

Second, what will be the schedule for the remaining 30 to 50 thousand troops in Iraq? Will the US withdraw them all by the end of 2011? Or have them stay longer as a residual force?

Third, are the Iraqi Security Forces in fact ready to handle the security challenges in Iraq? Particularly counter-insurgent and counter-militia operations? And how much additional assistance will the US need to provide to stand up the Iraq airforce, logistic, and command and control infrastructure?

Fourth, how flexible is the withdrawal plan? If there is an uptick in violence will Obama suspend or resurge troops into Iraq?

Fifth, the initial accounts are that the National Security Council reached consensus around the timetable for a draw down. But there is another rumor that General Petraeus and General Odierno had vigorously dissented. If so, inside the deliberations, who led the pro-withdrawal faction? And who were its chief opponents?

by the Inveterate Insider


The Castro-Chavez Alliance—Should the US Try to Sever it?

February 24, 2009
Raul Castro (left) Hugo Chavez (right) (AP Photo)

Chavez (right) Presents Raul (left) with a Replica of Simon Bolivar's Sword (Reuters Image)

Past practice of the US in Latin America has been gruff. Governments the US could not patient often became the focus for regime change. Organize a coup; send in the marines; foment an insurgency; establish a blockade; enforce an embargo—these were just some of the historic implements of the US in Latin America.

For that reason it is all the more surprising that Bush did not adopt any of these alternatives with Venezuela. Hugo Chavez has been one of the most, if not the most, provocative of US opponents. Who could forget Chavez’s acerbic comment at the UN that “The devil came right here…” in reference to Bush’s earlier speech “And it still smells of sulfur”. Or the sabotage of Bush’s March 2007 South American trip when Chavez shadowed him at every stop, and lambasted the President after each.

But Chavez has not confined himself to verbal bluster only, he has actively reached out to opponents of the US to build an anti-American coalition. Think of Chavez’s visit to Tehran, or  his deal with Moscow to buy tens of thousands in small arms. Perhaps even more interesting has been his effort to knit together an Andean anti-US bloc with Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, and Nicaragua, to create a kind of strategic counterweight to the US in Latin America.

But despite the several challenges, the Bush administration was not provoked to act. Instead they ultimately pursued a policy of cautious indifference toward Chavez. The question then for President Obama is whether the Bush approach should be continued? Or if not, instead attempt more proactive diplomacy? And if so, should it be coercive? Or conciliatory?

There are yet no public signals what the Obama administration intends to do. In fact, despite the recent flurry of US diplomatic activity, there appears to be no forthcoming initiatives in regards to Latin America.

But that could be a mistake. After the recent constitutional referendum, Chavez looks set to stay in power for the foreseeable future. And with Venezuela hurting from the low price of oil, the time might be ripe to attempt an aggressive diplomatic counter-offensive.

If so, would Cuba be the place to start? Advocates argue that Raul Castro, compared with Chavez, is low-hanging fruit. If Obama were to go after him first, he would place his administration in a position better to either engage, or leverage, Chavez in the future. In addition Cuba is a good test case for the diplomacy of rapprochement—the exact same Obama is trying to organize with Iran. And were he to succeed, the US could finally retire it’s stubborn Cold War policy of isolation.

It’s an interesting thought. But the maneuver will be tricky, not to mention risky. And if the road to Caracas leads through Havana, it will certainly be a long and circuitous route. In any case, there is present no crisis in US-Venezuela or US-Cuba relations. And absent any urgency, chances are the Obama administration will simply leave this policy on auto-pilot.

by Crotchety Caudillo


Would Plan Colombia Work in Afghanistan?

February 22, 2009
(AP Photo)

Stock of Seized Drugs Burns Outside of Kandahar (AP Photo)

A country gripped by war. Insurgent groups rival for power. The drug trade is the mainstay of the economy. All but the capitol is unsafe to go. Of course this is not Afghanistan I am describing but Colombia of ten years ago.

Fast forward to 2009 and by the lights of many Plan Colombia appears a success. The area of acreage under cultivation is down; availability of cocaine in the US, and purity, is also down. Perhaps more significant, insurgent groups seemed to have suffered some signal defeats, and may be irreversibly in decline. In March 2008 Colombia launched an attack on a FARC base that resulted in killing the groups leader. And in July Colombia executed a dramatic rescue of fifteen hostages, including Ingred Betancourt, something unprecedented in the history of hostage-takings.

The question then for US policy-makers is can this model for Afghanistan work? What specific lessons can be learned? Are there any policies that can be borrowed wholesale? Or is Afghanistan too different in too many regards for Plan Colombia to succeed?

US support for the Plan was primarily military. Most of the money was spent to train and equip the Colombian military to eradicate or interdict narcotic producers. In Afghanistan it has been different. ISAF, and in particular the British, not the Afghan army, has been the element spearheading the counter-narcotic operation. This has been because the Afghan army is too small and too incapable. And much of the poppy production is in Helmand, and neighboring provinces, which are areas beyond the control of national forces. Kabul then appears far weaker in comparison to Bogota to make Plan Colombia viable.

But if not the Afghan’s who? Many lawyers think that US military forces cannot engage in direct counter-narcotic operations by virtue of the Posse Commitatus Act. And it may be that narcotics in Afghanistan are an issue not truly vital to US interests. Comments by Gates and Holbrooke suggest the US is ultimately focused on an anti-Al Qaeda mission only, and do not envision a larger nation-building effort of the Afghan state. As the Secretary of Defense said:

Afghanistan is the fourth- or fifth-poorest country in the world, and if we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose.

That is probably right. But if there is a lesson to be taken from Colombia, it is that counter-narcotic and counter-insurgency efforts are intimately intertwined. And if the US were to shirk one, it will be hard to win the other. The US then may have to define its goals either very narrowly, or else very broadly.

by Policy Junky


Is Germany Russia’s Trojan Horse in Europe?

February 20, 2009
Putin and Merkel Review Troops in Berlin (AP Photo0

Putin and Merkel Reviewing Troops in Berlin (AP Photo)

It has been an enduring feature of Russian diplomacy to keep the gates of Europe open. Alexander I was careful to do so with the creation of the Holy Alliance between Austria, Prussia, and Russia after the Napoleonic war. And again, following the humiliation in the Crimean war, Russia was quick to draw close with Bismarck and Germany; and when not, she did so later with France.

It is for that reason that Russia’s isolation during the Cold War was startling diplomatic blunder, and explains why she made such vigilant effort to unmake the western alliance whenever the opportunity appeared.

Do Germany’s recent actions, or inactions as it were, then signal Russia’s final return in from the cold?

Germany was once the keystone of the western alliance and NATO defence planning.  But of late, under the direction of Schroeder and now Merkel, Germany has appeared to drift.

Critics accuse Germany of truckling to Russia. She was slow to respond to Russia’s intervention in Georgia. Merkel famously refused to describe Russian action in condemnatory language. And when later at the NATO summit Georgia and Ukraine were considered for membership application, Merkel led the German delegation to veto the plan.

There is also the less dramatic but no less significant inaction during the Ukraine-Russia gas dispute. Germany was callously unwilling to take sides in the dispute. And since it has ended, Germany not just moved slowly to free herself from the vicissitudes of Russian gas supply, but the opposite even.  Germany is sizeably increasing her dependence on Russian energy with the construction of the Nord Stream pipeline underneath the Baltic Sea; a project which is chaired by former Chancellor Schroeder.

It is difficult still to be certain whether Germany will tilt more towards Russia, or whether the recent leadership in Berlin is really an anomaly in German foreign policy. But if not, one wonders to ask: has Russia finally infiltrated the mighty western alliance? And if so, in what direction will German foreign policy now go?

by Excitable Worrywart


Rituals of the US-Iran Mating Dance

February 18, 2009

(AP Photo left, Getty Image right)

Cupid is notorious for making strange targets with his arrows. But this past Valentine’s Day featured an especially awkward couple: Obama and Ahmadinejad.

In a short span of time the two have traded already several love letters. Ahmadinejad sent first a message in November to congratulate Obama for his election victory. After his inauguration Obama returned the gesture with mention in his Al Arabiya interview of possible outreach to Iran. Ahmadinejad however played hard to get,  and demanded as a precondition an apology for past indiscretion.

Obama’s response came last week when, during his first press conference as President, he explained:

…my national security team is currently reviewing our existing Iran policy, looking at areas where we can have constructive dialogue… And my expectation is in the coming months we will be looking for openings that can be created where we can start sitting across the table… Now it’s time for Iran to send some signals that it wants to act differently as well…

Ahmadinejad had a signal ready the next day.

The new US administration has announced they would bring about change and that they want to hold dialogue. This change must be fundamental, not a mere tactical move. The Iranian nation is ready to hold talks, but talks in a climate of fairness with mutual respect.

To be sure the flirtation is a little uncomfortable, but the chemistry feels right. The question then is not if but when these two—the US and Iran—will have their first diplomatic date?

The answer is hard to forecast. But hopeful admirers should watch for four things.

First, what next steps will the Obama administration take to break the ice? Will they act in secret through back-channels? Or by envoy in public?

Second, will Obama demand that Iran first suspend its enrichment program in return for reciprocal suspension of sanctions? Or will he allow Iran to continue its uranium enrichment program even while negotiations proceed?

Third, what issues does Obama want on the table? The nuclear program? Support for Hezbollah and Hamas? Security of Israel? And does he want them negotiated all at once? Or will he confine the agenda to a few issues only?

Fourth, who will lead US engagement with Iran? And will they wait until after the Iranian elections?

Diplomatic romance however is no easy task. The international dating scene is ruthless (“All’s fair in love and war”), and there are a myriad of issues that could yet cause the new couple to split. It is no place then for the faint of heart. But, so the proverb says, the course of true love never did run smooth.

by the Amative Attaché


Hillary’s Opening to China

February 16, 2009

(AP Photo)

(AP Photo)

Does Secretary Clinton intend to steer US-China relations in a whole new direction?

That was the strong message she and her retinue seemed to signal with their insistent mention that climate change will be the major item for discussion during her visit to Beijing this week (read here).

Already the US-China agenda contains a full set of issues on hand. And then there are the titanic issues that have come to define the relationship: trade-finance miscellanea, and the Six-Party talks. No doubt climate change is an important, emerging problem for diplomacy to consider. The question is: Is now the time? And are bilateral talks the place?

Human rights were another famous issue included in the agenda for US-China negotiations by President Carter and later President Clinton. But discussion led nowhere, and proved to be a positive irritant for building trust and moving forward on other issues. It was for precisely that reason that President Bush 43 took a soft tone on human rights complaints with China, and ignored calls by rights-advocates for the President to boycott the Beijing Olympics because of the treatment of Tibetans.

Secretary Clinton is then taking a risk. Climate change should perhaps be on the agenda, but it is an issue the Chinese will not compromise on easily. China signed up to the Kyoto Protocol only on the condition that it be included among the countries for whom emission targets were non-binding. And economic growth, of which industrial policy is the biggest component, is at the core of the Beijing government’s agenda. Negotiating limits to those policies will come with hesitation, and only after strenuous US effort.

What then does the Secretary plan to offer the Chinese to get them to come along? What other part of her agenda is she prepared to sacrifice to make progress here? Or does she have no sincere interest in the issue, and does she merely want to steer the relationship away from purely economic questions and reclaim China policy from the Treasury Department?

Secretary Clinton quite understandably wants to prove her bona fides as a stateswoman. But her initiative with China is a gamble. And with several foreign policy prima donnas strutting around the Obama administration, such as Biden, Holbrooke, Ross, not to mention the President himself, Clinton will have to be careful not to embarrass herself into irrelevancy.

by China Casuist