Opinion

The Great Debate

Obama, Moses and exaggerated expectations

-Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own-

President Barack Obama is close to the half-way mark of his presidential mandate, a good time for a brief look at health care, unemployment, war, the level of the oceans, the health of the planet, and America’s image. They all featured in a 2008 Obama speech whose rhetoric soared to stratospheric heights.

“If…we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I’m absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs for the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last best hope on earth.”

The date was June 3, 2008. Obama had just won the Democratic Party’s nomination as presidential candidate. He was also winning the adulation of the majority of the American people, who shrugged off mockery from curmudgeonly Republicans who pointed out that the last historical figure to affect ocean levels was Moses and he had divine help when he parted the Red Sea.

Obama took to the campaign trail again this month to help Democratic candidates for the mid-term elections on November 2 and he would need divine intervention to prevent his party from losing control of the House and possibly the Senate.

The vote is in part a referendum on his first two years in office and the adoration has faded, not least because it would have been difficult for anyone to actually meet the high expectations he raised in dramatic speeches.

9/11 and the nine year war

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The following is a condensed version of George Friedman’s geopolitical column for STRATFOR, a global intelligence company where Friedman is chief executive officer.

It has now been nine years since al Qaeda attacked the United States. And it has been nine years of America primarily focusing on the Islamic world. Over this period of time, the United States has engaged in two multi-year, multi-divisional wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, inserted forces in other countries in smaller operations and conducted a global covert campaign against al Qaeda and other radical jihadist groups.

In order to understand the last nine years, we must understand the first 24 hours of the war — and recall our own feelings in those 24 hours. First, the audacious nature of the attack was both shocking and frightening. Second, we did not know what was coming next.

Iraq, America and hired guns

Here is a summary of America’s future role in Iraq, in the words of President Barack Obama: “Our commitment is changing — from a military effort led by our soldiers to a diplomatic effort led by our diplomats.”

And here is a note of caution about that promised change: “Current planning for transitioning vital functions in Iraq from the Department of Defense to the Department of State is not adequate for effective coordination of billions of dollars in new contracting, and risks both financial waste and undermining U.S. policy objectives.”

Obama’s statement came in an Aug. 2 speech in which he confirmed that by the end of this month, America’s combat role would end. The 50,000 American soldiers remaining in Iraq (down from a peak of almost 170,000) would advise, train and support Iraqi security forces. By the end of next year, the last U.S. soldier would come home.

WikiLeaks and the psychology of leaking

The following is a guest post by Kerry Sulkowicz, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who is the managing principal of Boswell Group LLC. He advises business and political leaders on the dynamics of authority and governance, leadership transitions, and psychological due diligence. The opinions expressed are his own.

With the publication last week of WikiLeaks’ trove of classified documents on the Afghanistan war, the focus has been on the devastating picture they provide of the war. But a critical piece of the puzzle is not being addressed: what are the motivations of the leakers?

According to WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange, the documents reveal “the more pervasive levels of violence” and “the general squalor of war.” Sadly, that’s no surprise.

Afghanistan and America’s troubled backyard

The United States is spending around $6.5 billion a month on the war in faraway Afghanistan, where a large part of its effort is meant to help the government assert its authority, fight corruption and set up functioning institutions.

Closer to home, the U.S. has allotted $44 million a month to help the governments of its closest neighbours – Mexico and Central America – assert their authority, fight corruption and set up functioning institutions.
The two cases raise questions about American priorities. If money were the only gauge, one might draw the conclusion that it is 147 times more important for Washington to bring security and good governance to Afghanistan than to America’s violence-plagued next-door neighbours — Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

In the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez alone, 6,000 people have died in the past two and a half years, a number that dwarfs the military death toll of Afghanistan since the war there began in 2001. Central America, according to a U.N. report, has become the region with the world’s highest murder rate, an average of about 1,300 a month.

In Afghanistan, history rhymes

The faltering war in Afghanistan brings to mind a famous quote attributed to Mark Twain and a less famous one by Robert Gates, the U.S. Secretary of Defense. Twain: “History does not repeat itself but it rhymes.” Gates: “Tough decisions: … how to get out, when, and without losing face.”

The Gates quote, in his 1996 memoir (From the Shadows), refers to the Soviet leadership which by the mid-1980s had decided to end its disastrous occupation of Afghanistan but had not figured out exactly how to do that.

The last Russian soldier left Afghanistan in February 1989, at the end of an exit strategy which began with a sharp increase in the number of troops and centered on building up government forces to fight an insurgency rapidly gathering momentum.

from The Great Debate UK:

Following the aid money with Linda Polman

As political leaders wrangle over how best to deal with warring factions in hot spots around the world, enclaves of humanitarian aid workers grapple with how best to help innocent victims of violence.

Author and journalist Linda Polman proposes in "War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times" that since the end of the Cold War, there is much more at stake than the simple distribution of billions of dollars in aid money each year to fix crisis situations. Aid agencies relegated in the past to the peripheries of war zones and refugee camps now play a very different role.

An estimated 37,000 international non-governmental organisations follow the flow of aid money and compete with each other for billions of dollars, Polman writes, reporting that Organisation of Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD) donor countries contribute $120 billion (84 billion pounds) a year for developmental cooperation and an estimated $11.2 billion for emergency humanitarian relief. Some $6 billion a year is channeled into humanitarian aid out of the combined tax revenues of the world's richest countries, she says.

Obama, Karzai and an Afghan mirage

Last year, under the leadership of President Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan slipped three places on a widely respected international index of corruption and became the world’s second-most corrupt country. It now ranks 179th out of 180, a place long held by Somalia.

According to a United Nations report published in January, Afghans paid $2.5 billion in bribes in 2009, roughly a quarter of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (not counting revenue from the opium trade). The survey, based on interviews with 7,600 people, said corruption was the biggest concern of Afghans.

On the military front in a war more than halfway through its ninth year, attacks on U.S. forces and their NATO allies totaled 21,000 in 2009, a 75 percent increase over 2008, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) a week before Karzai’s visit to Washington. The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, noted that Taliban insurgents had set up a “widespread paramilitary shadow government…in a majority of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.”

Dirty money and the war in Afghanistan

In a long report on the war in Afghanistan for the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations last summer, one sentence stood out: “If we don’t get a handle on the money, we will lose this war to corruption.”

The money in this context meant the funds, from multiple illicit sources, that finance the Taliban who are fighting the United States and its allies in a war that is now in its ninth year. Dirty money is greasing corruption on a scale so monumental that Afghanistan ranks 179 (out of 180) on the latest index compiled by Transparency International, a watchdog group based in Berlin.

Part of the reason for the country’s dismal standing: for much of the war the U.S. military ignored the booming drug trade (Afghanistan accounts for around 90 percent of the world’s opium, the raw material for heroin) and the drug money flowing to the insurgents, estimated at up to $400 million a year. Add kickbacks contractors pay directly to the Taliban to avoid having their projects blown up or their workers kidnapped, add money diverted from development funds and soon you talk about serious money.

American intelligence and fortune-telling

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– Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own —

Hot on the heels of  what President Barack Obama called a potentially disastrous “screw-up” by the civilian intelligence community, here comes a devastating report on shortcomings of military intelligence in Afghanistan, by the officer in charge of it. He likens the work of analysts to fortune-telling.

The report is highly unusual both because of its almost brutal candor and the way it was published, outside military channels. Even more unusual: the three authors hold out journalistic skills as models to emulate for gathering and putting together intelligence.

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