NDN Blog

TNR's "Iraq: What's Next? " series

The New Republic's new "Iraq: What's Next? series is worth checking out.  You can find it at http://www.tnr.com/

And what's up with the  Bush-Maliki dinner getting cancelled tonight? Have the wheels really come off the Bushies to that degree?

If you haven't read the Hadley memo on Iraq, you can find it here

And for what amounted to a Saudi threat to turn the Sunni-Shiite struggle in Iraq into a regional war if America leaves, read this remarkable Washington Post op-ed from this morning by a Saudi advisor. 

Afghanistan, not Vietnam

As I wrote the other day, the Soviet experience in Afghanistan is more instructive to those trying to find a way forward in Iraq than the American experience in Vietnam. The failure of the Soviets in Afghanistan hastened the decline of their empire, fueled global jihadism and gave radical Islamic elements a base to export chaos throughout the world. Consider the latest from Iraq, courtesy of the Washington Post:

"The U.S. military is no longer able to defeat a bloody insurgency in western Iraq or counter al-Qaeda's rising popularity there, according to newly disclosed details from a classified Marine Corps intelligence report that set off debate in recent months about the military's mission in Anbar province...

The Marines' August memo, a copy of which was shared with The Washington Post, is far more bleak than some officials suggested when they described it in late summer. The report describes Iraq's Sunni minority as "embroiled in a daily fight for survival," fearful of "pogroms" by the Shiite majority and increasingly dependent on al-Qaeda in Iraq as its only hope against growing Iranian dominance across the capital.

True or not, the memo says, "from the Sunni perspective, their greatest fears have been realized: Iran controls Baghdad and Anbaris have been marginalized." Moreover, most Sunnis now believe it would be unwise to count on or help U.S. forces because they are seen as likely to leave the country before imposing stability.

Between al-Qaeda's violence, Iran's influence and an expected U.S. drawdown, "the social and political situation has deteriorated to a point" that U.S. and Iraqi troops "are no longer capable of militarily defeating the insurgency in al-Anbar," the assessment found. In Anbar province alone, at least 90 U.S. troops have died since Sept. 1."

And this one:

"The Iraq Study Group began two days of intensive behind-closed-doors deliberations yesterday as the White House conceded that Iraq has moved into a dangerous new phase of warfare requiring changes in strategy. In a sign of the growing global concern about Iraq's fate, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan appealed for immediate steps to prevent the country from crumbling into all-out civil war.

"Given the developments on the ground, unless something is done drastically and urgently to arrest the deteriorating situation, we could be there. In fact, we are almost there," Annan said when a reporter asked about the prospects of civil war in Iraq."

Our troops can no longer quell the violence, and as we were reminded this morning, the Iraqi military cannot be counted on to stop what is becoming a Sunni-Shiite conflict. So what is the Iraq Study Group now floating as the big idea for how to deal with all this? Engage Syria and Iran in a series of regional talks. While this is something I have long favored, it seems that policy makers in Washington and their ideas have been overtaken by events in the region; and I no longer see how it is possible for this Administration, this President and even this magical Iraq Study Group to put Iraq and the region back together again.

Whether others can or will step in and help prevent Iraq and the region from sliding into further choas remains to be seen. But without the involvement of the global community, it is hard to see now how Iraq doesn't become a failed state that exports jihadism ala post-Soviet Afghanistan; and for good measure, may fuel a regional Sunni-Shiite conflict to boot.

Update: Tuesday's Times reports,not suprisingly, that Iran and its ally Hezbollah, have been training Shiite militias, and supplying them with weapons:

"WASHINGTON, Nov. 27 — A senior American intelligence official said Monday that the Iranian-backed group Hezbollah had been training members of the Mahdi Army, the Iraqi Shiite militia led by Moktada al-Sadr.

The official said that 1,000 to 2,000 fighters from the Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias had been trained by Hezbollah in Lebanon. A small number of Hezbollah operatives have also visited Iraq to help with training, the official said.

Iran has facilitated the link between Hezbollah and the Shiite militias in Iraq, the official said. Syrian officials have also cooperated, though there is debate about whether it has the blessing of the senior leaders in Syria."

Is Washington in touch with what is happening in the Middle East?

In reading the papers this morning you get the sense that the complexity of our challenge in the Middle East is not well understood by the political dialogue in Washington these days.  So much of the emphasis is on getting our troops out of Iraq, rather than looking at what is the best course for a region that seems to be growing more unstable by the day.  I offered some thoughts yesterday, but as Bush prepares to meet with the Iraqi Prime Minister here are some additional things to chew on:

1. Getting the Iraqis to take more responsibility for their own security.  You hear this phrase said every day.  But what does it mean?  Who are the "Iraqis" we are refering too? The militias, the government? The Sunnis, the Shiites, the Kurds? As a story in the Post today relates this admirable goal seems both politically and operationally unachievable in the short term. 

2.  The Jordanian King yesterday said he believes the Middle East is on the verge of three different, interelated and very dangerous civil wars.  Israeli-Palestinian, Lebanese and Iraqi.   

3.  There has not been enough attention paid to the regional hegemonic aspirations of Iran, and the difficult Sunni-Shiite, Arab-Persian conflicts which undergird a great deal of what is happening in Iraq today.  The American invasion of Iraq created the first Shiite-led Arab state in the modern era, something that was never going to sit well with the Sunni dominated Arab states of the Middle East.  Did we understand what we were doing here? Or what we are proposing as a reasonable long-term governing structure in Iraq?

Don't know about you but I am worried that the Iraq Study Groups recommendations may have already been overtaken by events and the complexity of the Middle East.  For those of you who are Graham Greene fans all of this has a sad and familiar ring to it. 

Finding new words to talk about what is happening in the world

With control of Congress comes the opportunity for Democrats to not just set the nation's agenda but also to find new and better ways to describe the challenges America faces today.  A lot of work will need to be done to liberate America from the simplistic "truthiness" of the Bush era, but I offer three suggestions on areas that need an immediate effort to find new words to help us better understand our world:

1. Our "War in Iraq" should be renamed our "occupation of Iraq," or most accurately, our "failed occupation of Iraq."  To describe what is happening in Iraq, and what our troops are being tasked to do as a "war" is simply not an accurate description of what is our greatest foreign policy challenge.  

2. The "war on terror" and "battle against global jihadism" as the central organizing principle of our foreign policy.  Increasingly, events of great import simply don't fit into this very narrow frame.  Think of a nuclear North Korea, the worsening of our relations with Latin America, the slipping of Russia into a totalitarian police state,global pandemics like AIDS and bird flu. migration and immigration challenges, the rise of China, global climate change, our dependence on foreign energy sources, globalization itself and most importantly the current struggle between the Sunnis and Shias in Iraq, and the related rise of Iran as a regional hegemon. None of these fit neatly into the "war on terror" frame.  

I've always felt that "winning the war on terror" and "defeating jihadism" are really more tactical than strategic goals.  Given the collapse of our foreign policy and our global credibility, America is due for a debate about the strategic goals of our foreign policy in a new century.  The best articulation I'm aware of is one of the most standard- that we should be moving the world towards democracy, liberty, free markets and the rule of law.  Winning the "war on terror" is a tactic to help us achieve these more strategic foreign policy goals.  For as we learned after WWI, we can militarily defeat an enemy but not secure a lasting peace if our defeated enemy do not become successful democracies. 

3.  Afghanistan, not Vietnam.  I believe the most accurate historically analogy for what is happening in Iraq today is not America's experience in Vietnam but the Soviet experience in Afghanistan.  As the President's recent trip showed while America may have lost the battle for Vietnam, the West won the war for Vietnam and against communism.  With Vietnam now on the verge of joining the WTO the Vietnam saga has a happy ending.  It is now neat and clean.  The bad guys may have won but in the end were defeated. 

The Soviet experience in Afghanistan doesn't have such a happy ending.  The Soviet defeat weakened them so that it helped bring down their own empire.  The jihadis came out of Afghanistan battled hardened, and ready to take their fight to the global stage.  The failed state of Afghanistan itself became a base for global jihadism, and exported chaos throughout the world.  It is a story that is still ongoing, and as of today, does not have a happy ending. 

In fact the Soviet abandonment of Afghanistan and what happened next there should be a dramatic lesson for those looking to find a new and better way in Iraq.  Pulling our troops out and leaving Iraq to a bloody regional sectarian war, and leaving Al-Qaeda with a beachhead in western Iraq - as they had in Afghanistan - seems to be a very real and very unappealing potential outcome of all the potential outcomes in Iraq. 

Game time for the Democrats

I hope Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are resting up this weekend.  With Iraq and perhaps the Middle East slipping further and further into chaos, an Administration still running our foreign policy that has little credibility abroad or at home, and no easy or good options for our occupation in Iraq, our two new Congressional leaders are about see the early days of their tenure overwhelmed by a truly momentus foreign policy challenge. 

Like Bush, their time in office may end up being defined by how they manage the worsening Middle East crisis.  Did their involvement lead to a better outcome? Worse? Has America benefited from their leadership? Do they have the staff and organization to manage a crisis of this magnitude? Are they prepared to let other parts of the job go as they work on the central challenge of our day, one that now appears to dwarf all others?

Important questions all.  No matter what our new Speaker and Majority Leader believed they would be doing for the next few months, it is now clear that dealing with our failure in Iraq will be the defining issue of their early days.

A big debate about our 21st century economic strategy is coming

As we've been writing about for more than 18 months, America is due for a big conversation about how globalization is playing out in the early part of the 21st century.   If you are in DC next Thursday, please come by for what will be the first of a series of forums we will be conducting on crafting "a new economic strategy for America."

To me this new strategy should have four main goals: raising the standard of living for American workers, enhancing American's global competitiveness, bringing our government's revenue and expenditures into greater balance and renewing our committment to trade liberalization. 

Change is already on the horizon.  Progress is likely to be made in 2007 on immigration reform and the minimum wage, two issues we've worked a great deal on.  Less clear is what will happen with the various trade deals up for consideration and the revenue/expenditure problem.  

One of my greatest concerns about the emerging economic debate is the natural tendency to consider any one of these four big goals on its own, without understanding how all these complex pieces fit together.  A very good example of this complexity is captured in a thoughtful Washington Post piece today, which discusses the very dire economic and political impact on Latin America if the US slows down its commitment to liberalized trade in the region. 

Happy Thanksgiving all

Lots to be thankful for this year my friends. 

But of course there is much to do.

Keep Jane Harman at Intelligence

I'm with the LA Times, the New Republic and many others in believing Speaker Pelosi should keep Rep. Jane Harman as Intelligence Committee Chair. 

Governing America after the Bush/Hastert/DeLay era is not going to be easy for Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.  These unfortunate years have left a series of big messes, and left many other important challenges unmet.  No area will be tougher, or more important to the country, then putting American foreign policy back on track and re-establishing the credibility of our intelligence services.  To do so, the new Speaker and Majority Leader are going to need the very best team on the field.  Jane Harman should be a leader of this new team. 

There is little question that Jane Harman is one our most respected and thoughtful foreign policy leaders.  While there are difficult internal caucus issues with keeping Rep. Harman at Intelligence, reasonable people can arrive at a solution that works for all involved and keeps Rep. Harman in a position that allows her to make her greatest contribution to finding a better path for the nation.  

Given all the daunting governing challenges in front of her, I have a feeling that in future years Speaker Pelosi will view this decision as one of the simplest things she had to deal with in her early days, and for the good of the nation, hope it gets resolved quickly, and decisvely, and wisely,

To learn more about Rep. Harman, watch her thoughtful remarks at a recent NDN forum in Washington. 

The role of independents in the 2006 elections has been overstated

On Saturday the New York Times ran an op-ed from a Duke professor named David Rohde which ran hard against the early conventional wisdom coming from the elections:

..."THE midterm elections have been widely viewed as a sudden change of direction, with Democrats seizing the wheel from Republicans. While that may be true, the big electoral news — news that has gone largely unnoticed — is this: After decades of weakness, after sideswipes from independent candidates, the two major parties are back. Indeed, they are more potent and influential than at any time in the past century."

There are really two pieces to this argument.  The first is the role of the Parties themselves in relation to other organizations and leaders in the political firmament.  I will not tackle that argument today, though I do agree with him, and a lot of it has to do with the way the internet allows people to have a much more intimate and direct relationship with their parties.  What I do want to write about is a related trend, the increased partisanship of the electorate. 

In the last two elections, 2004 and 2006, 74% of all voters identified themselves as a partisan, either a Republican or Democrat.  Only a quarter, 26 percent, identified themselves as independent.  These ratios did not change from 2004 to 2006. 

In 2004 37% of the electorate described themselves as Democrat, the same Republican.  In 2006 Democrats picked up a point as a share of the electorate, Republicans lost a point, leaving it 38D/26I/36R.  Remarkably stable ratios given that the vote changed from 51/48 R to 52/46 D.  

The early storyline then is that the shift from 2004 to 2006 came about from how independents swung.  They did swing 17 points, from 48R/49D to 39R/57D.  But a far greater shift happened inside the two parties, where there was an 8 point shift within the Democratic electorate, and a 4 point shift inside the Republican electorate, or a total of a 12 point shift. The Democratic vote went from 89/11 to 93/7, and the Republican vote 93/6 to 91/8.   

While less in percentage terms this 12 point shift happened in what is 3/4 quarters of the electorate, and this 18 point shift happened in what is 1/4 of the electorate.   So this means a far greater number of votes shifted in the last two years between and among the parties than shifted with independents - meaning that Democrats owe their victory much more to gains with Democratic and Republican partisans than they do to the gains they made with independent voters. 

This reduced role for independents was evident even in 2004.  John Kerry did what every Democrat was told was necessary to do win the Presidency - he won independents - and yet he still lost the election.  Why? Because the Rove machine pushed the percentage of the electorate that was Republican to an all time high, 37%, equalling the Democratic share, and they kept 93% of these Republicans.  Kerry while winning independents, only won 89% of Democrats.  This difference - between Rove's 93 and Kerry's 89 within their own parties - cost Kerry the election. 

Tim Kaine, writing about his impressive win in Virginia in 2005 in the DLC's magazine recently, described his "Democrats first" strategy, one that seems very much in touch with the notion that winning elections in this more partisan era starts first with expanding and holding one's own partisans:

"Just as Warner had done in 2001, I had to accomplish three things to win in a red state. First, I had to find and energize Democratic voters. Second, I had to share my story with the voters. Third, I had to reach out to independent and Republican voters in a strategic way. And that's exactly what we did."

I'm in no way suggesting that winning with independents was not an important part of how Democrats won in 2006.  Of course the big swing with independents was impressive and critical.  But with so few people considering themselves independents these days, we have to be careful not to overstate their impact.  It is clear from the exit poll data of the last two years that what has been far more important in determining the outcomes of the two elections is what has happened within and between the two parties, which is today about three-quarters of all voters. 

Additionally, Democrats should not discount the power of what Rove, Mehlman and his team did and have left behind. Despite their epic collapse this year, the Republicans only lost a single point of market share as a percentage of the electorate, and today almost 40 percent more Americans consider themselves Republicans than independents, an historically very high number.  As Mehlman said after the 2004 elections, they spent a great deal of money persuading Republicans to vote and to vote Bush.  Their "Republicans first" strategy was actually very successful in many ways, as this investment they made in creating more Republican voters has changed the nature of the American electorate, dimished the influence of traditonal independents, and has indeed made more Republicans than there used to be. 

The problem they had this year wasn't these voters becoming independents and fleeing the party, which one would have expected.  They may have voted Democrat this time, but in this year's exits they still consider themselves Republicans.  To repeat, independents did not gain a single point as a share of the electorate despite the tremendous collapse of the Republican brand.  

Update: Blogger James Hupp has challenged my math in a new post.   He was right about one thing, I had the change in independents to be at 18% when it was 17%.  I changed that above (thanks James).  But in reviewing his calculations, his raw numbers still indicate what I wrote above: it still seems that a 12 point net shift in 74% of the electorate is greater than a 17 point net shift in 26% of the electorate (add the two point net shift for Democrats and away from Republicans)  Hey, if I am wrong with my numbers here I will chuck it.  In reviewing his math this morning am still not convinced (and James of course I had these numbers weighted - a little unfair there.  If we can talk of a 17 point shift with indies you can talk 12 with partisans).  Open to your thoughts. 

Matt Bai on the Dems in today's Times Magazine

Matt's piece today is well worth reading.  Among other things includes a reference to one of our recent post-election memos, summarized here.

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