Opinion

The Great Debate

Why the U.S. couldn’t stay in Iraq

By Christopher R. Hill
The opinions expressed are his own.

So be it. In a perfect world, the United States and Iraq would have worked out an arrangement by which some U.S. forces would have remained – probably considerably less than 10,000 – to continue to train Iraqi units, to cooperate with Iraqis on anti-terrorism operations, and to provide the necessary signal to all the neighbors – and not just Iran – to keep their hands off Iraq. But this isn’t a perfect world.

Why the deal didn’t happen had little to do with the so-called immunity issues that the U.S. insisted on, protections that our troops have when deployed to many other far-flung countries in the world. The reason was very simple: even Iraqis who benefitted enormously from the security provided by our troops, and for whom the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was the happiest moment of their lives, could not, in the end, support a continuation of foreign troops in their country. Call it visceral. Call it cultural. The fact is, no one likes to be invaded and occupied, and for eight years, told what to do and how to behave. To extend the stay of even just a few U.S. troops was to extend what many Iraqis, mindful of their country’s history, considered another occupation. In the end, Prime Minister Maliki got very little support from any other Iraqi political identity. The Sunnis opposed the extension. So did the Shia. The Kurds, the third element in Iraq’s body politic, may have supported an extension, but they could not carry the day without the Iraqi Arabs.

What happens next, of course, is what everyone wants to know. President Obama talked positively about counting the days until Christmas when the troops will be home. But for many Iraqis, there has been a longstanding, deep-seated view that somehow the Americans, like the many previous foreigners in their lands, would never leave voluntarily. Those Iraqis, many of whom are on the violent fringes of Iraq’s politics, are about to learn something new about these latest “occupiers.”

Much has been made about Iran’s intentions. No doubt, it has been a good few days in Tehran as the Iranians celebrate the departure of U.S. troops from their border. But those Iranians, like the skeptical Iraqis, will keep their fruit juice on ice until the Americans actually leave, because many of them also do not believe that we will leave voluntarily.

Iran has interests in Iraq, but there are definite limits to its influence. Iraq’s Shia don’t need a pep talk about the dangers posed by the Persian Shia. It is instructive to recall that the hated Saddam fought an eight-year brutal and bloody war of attrition against Iran with an army that was 80 percent Arab Shia. True, the Iraqis would like a peaceful relationship with their Iranian neighbor. But they have no interest in falling under their influence. They know the Iranians very well.

Obama’s bold gamble on Iraq

By L Paul Bremer, III
The opinions expressed are his own.

In announcing that all American troops will be out of Iraq by year’s end, President Obama has placed a big bet on the future of Iraq and on America’s position in a restive Middle East. While the initial public response to his decision, in America and in Iraq, may be positive, this will not shield him from the consequences if his bet goes sour.

The single most salient lesson in countries emerging from tyranny is the importance of providing security for the population.  This is not just one of many tasks that must be addressed: security is the essential prerequisite to progress in the other two foreseeable challenges—in Iraq, Egypt and now Libya: beginning a process of political reform and starting economic reconstruction.

The American government learned this lesson the hard way in Iraq.  For several years after Saddam was thrown out, we lacked the comprehensive counter insurgency strategy and sufficient forces needed to provide security to the Iraqi people.  Predictably, security deteriorated as an unholy alliance of Sunni and Shia terrorists, the first backed by al Qaeda, the other by Iran, took advantage the situation.  The deficiencies in strategy and troops while Iraq’s own national security forces were still in training produced a bloody and chaotic year in 2006.

from Ian Bremmer:

Why the GOP is punting on foreign policy

By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.

Three years ago in the presidential primary debates, it would’ve been stunning if practically the only mention of foreign policy had come when a candidate suggested sending troops to Mexico to help fight the drug war. Yet in this year’s contentious Republican debate season, that’s exactly what’s happened, with Texas Governor Rick Perry being the one to float the lead trial balloon.

The surprise here isn’t that Republican candidates’ views on foreign policy are both underdeveloped and unimportant to their base -- more on both of those points later -- but how dramatically our world has changed in the past three years, largely due to the global financial crisis and recession.

Let’s think back even further, to 2000, when another Texas Governor, George W. Bush, promised America that he wouldn’t engage in Clintonian “nation-building” if elected. Needless to say, the shock of 9/11 changed the international calculus, forcing the Bush administration to develop a response that involved two wars and intense diplomacy with nearly every global power and international institution in existence. But the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks has provided a symbolic moment of closure. More importantly, President Obama has largely kept his promise to withdraw troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, outlining a plan more in line with opinion polls than General Petraeus’ guidance.   (Sadly, the withdrawal doesn’t mean Afghanistan won’t face quagmire -- it just means U.S. forces won’t be the ones bogged down.)

Why the GOP defends the wealthy

By David Callahan
The opinions expressed are his own.

With polls showing strong public support for tax hikes on the rich, Republicans should hardly relish a fight with President Obama over “class warfare.” And yet, for weeks, GOP leaders have been bashing the White House for a tax plan that affects just 2 percent of U.S. households and lets the rest of us off the hook.

How is this smart politics?

Maybe it isn’t, but sticking up for the rich is more popular than one might think – and not just in Palm Beach. America is a famously aspirational country and Republicans have long sought to ally themselves with that ethos. If you want to make a pile of money, the GOP is the party for you – or so they say. It vows to clear away barriers to getting rich, like pesky employer healthcare mandates and environmental rules, and let you keep more of your winnings.

Meanwhile, the conservative story goes, all the left cares about is social leveling. Democrats want to punish the successful in order to subsidize the losers, leading us toward a dreary future in which America’s hot shots no longer even make an effort and everyone ends up poorer. As Fox News puts it, Obama favors “takers” over “makers.”

from Ian Bremmer:

Obama’s secret for new jobs

Ian Bremmer sat down with Reuters' Paul Smalera to discuss President Obama's plans to boost the American economy. Watch here:

Tea Party cools as Keynes makes a comeback

By Nicholas Wapshott
The opinions expressed are his own.

Is the Tea Party running out of steam? I ask because there appears to be growing evidence that the Mad Hatters’ wild ride, culminating in Obama’s defeat last month over the debt ceiling at the hands of the Tea Party in Congress, has slowed to a trot. Exhibit one, the entrails of the most recent Pew poll where there is a startling finding. Just two months ago, those who believed trimming the deficit was the nation’s top priority outnumbered those who wanted more spending “to help the economy recover” by ten percent. Today, the number who advocate more government spending to fix the lackluster economy are neck and neck with those who wish to cut the budget deficit without delay.

Why the shift? Well, it seems that some Americans have changed their minds over the issue that lies at the heart of our politics. Today’s great political debate divides along the lines established eighty years ago by John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek. In 1932, when one in four Americans was out of work, Keynes suggested a mixture of policies to pump money into the economy to increase demand and get people back into jobs: keep the cost of borrowing cheap so that businesses could expand; invest in public works that directly employs the jobless; and cut taxes to put cash into people’s pockets. Hayek countered that such expansionist policies were unlikely to work and would have unintended consequences. At the very least they would in the long run fuel inflation and, when the government took its foot off the gas, cause businesses artificially boosted by the measures to go bust.

When Obama was elected in November 2008 he faced an economy that was teetering on disaster. His answer was a Keynesian stimulus package that meant plunging the nation even deeper into debt than George W. Bush had left it after bailing out the banks, enacting a huge tax cut and funding two overseas wars. No sooner had Obama adopted a Keynesian remedy than some of his opponents demanded a Hayekian antidote: paying down the debt as soon as possible. This outbreak of electors’ remorse gave rise to the Tea Party whose argument appeared to be that if a family has to pay off its overdrafts and credit card borrowings when it is going bankrupt, surely a nation should do the same. The 2010 midterms saw the election of a wave of Tea Party candidates, most of whom had pledged not to agree to anything that would either raise taxes or fail to address the national deficit. The raising of the debt ceiling, which had always been a routine matter between the two parties, became a pitched battle, with the president having to bow to the Tea Party’s principles or allow America to default on its debts.

Why is Obama giving Libya to the Russians?

By John Bolton
The opinions expressed are his own.

With President Obama’s Libya policy staggering from one embarrassment to another, last week he and Secretary of State Clinton outdid themselves. They publicly welcomed Russia’s effort to insert itself as a mediator, an act of such strategic myopia that it must leave even Moscow’s leadership speechless.

Permanent Security Council members Russia and China abstained on the initial resolution authorizing force to create a Libya no-fly zone and to protect innocent civilians. By not casting a veto, Russia thereby tacitly allowed military action to proceed. As they did, Russia repeatedly second-guessed and harshly criticized NATO’s operations. Now, as a mediator, Russia will, in effect, have the chance to rewrite the Council’s resolution according to its own lights.

Given the uncertain trumpet sounded by both Obama and NATO, and the still-inconclusive outcome of the “kinetic military action,” the reputation and credibility of U.S. and NATO, militarily and politically, have been gravely impaired. The President likely doesn’t appreciate these wounds as he leans over backwards not to be seen as the regime-changing unilateralist he imagined his predecessor to be.

from Ian Bremmer:

Post-surge Afghanistan and post-surge Obama

By Ian Bremmer
The views expressed are his own.

When President Barack Obama announced in late 2009 that he would send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, few were as pleased as Defense Secretary Robert Gates. A holdover from the George W. Bush administration, Gates had championed the 2007 surge of troops into Iraq, a move that helped turn both the tide in that country and public opinion in the U.S. on its future. Gates and the generals hoped for similar success against the Taliban.

But how do you measure success in a place like Afghanistan? Soldiers, no matter how many, can’t build democratic, financial and industrial institutions overnight. At best, they can help make Afghans safer and life much harder for those who would launch attacks beyond the country’s borders. By that measure, the record of both surges is mixed, if generally positive. But post-surge, one thing is certain: Obama allowed Gates to prosecute the war on his terms, but new Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will be asked to implement a plan that has less to do with Kandahar than with Capitol Hill.

Withdrawal is the right move, maybe the only move, for Team Obama. The president has gotten the politics of the moment exactly right, yet again. In the first half of his term, he retained Bush’s team at the Pentagon and reshuffled his top generals, namely David Petraeus, through various leadership positions in Iraq and Afghanistan. A surge that seemed to be working was allowed to play out, and Bush was likely to take the blame if the strategy failed. But President Obama knows that Bush’s burdens are now his—the economy, jobs and the wars.

Digital media and the Arab spring

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By Philip N. Howard, author of “The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam,” and director of the Project on Information Technology and Political Islam at the University of Washington. The opinions expressed are his own.

President Obama identified technology as one of the key variables that enabled and encouraged average Egyptians to protest. Digital media didn’t oust Mubarak, but it did provide the medium by which soulful calls for freedom have cascaded across North Africa and the Middle East. It is difficult to know when the Arab Spring will end, but we can already say something about the political casualties, long-term regional consequences and the modern recipe for democratization.

It all started with a desperate Tunisian shopkeeper who set himself on fire, which activated a transnational network of citizens exhausted by authoritarian rule. Within weeks, digitally-enabled protesters in Tunisia tossed out their dictator. It was social media that spread both the discontent and inspiring stories of success from Tunisia across North Africa and into the Middle East.

Bernanke’s high stakes poker game at the G-20

By Peter Navarro
The opinions expressed are his own.

Ben Bernanke is about to play the biggest poker hand in global monetary policy history: The Federal Reserve chairman is trying to force China to fold on its fixed dollar-yuan currency peg. This is high-stakes poker.

Although Bernanke will not be sitting at the table to play his quantitative easing card when all the members of the G-20, including China, meet this week in South Korea. Every G-20 country is suffering from an already grossly under-valued yuan pegged to a dollar now falling rapidly under the weight of Bernanke’s QE2. In fact, breaking the highly corrosive dollar-yuan peg is the most important step the G-20 can take for both robust global economic recovery and financial market stability.

Regrettably, China continues to believe — mistakenly — that the costs of a stronger yuan in terms of reduced export-led growth outweigh three major benefits: increased purchasing power to spur domestic-driven growth, significantly lower costs for raw materials and energy, and a dramatic reduction in speculative hot flows rapidly pushing up inflation.

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