National Security

Changing US Policy Towards Iran

Don't miss this must-read from Laura Rozen in the National Journal.  The basic thesis:

While the Iraq debate was gripping Washington over the past few weeks, the Bush administration was also shifting its policy toward neighboring Iran -- in a more confrontational direction.

U.S. officials, who asked not to be identified, say that the Iran policy has expanded from focusing chiefly on Iran's nuclear ambitions to challenging Tehran's suspected misbehavior across the Middle East. Indeed, one source said succinctly that the new policy is geared to "confront Iran in every way but direct armed conflict, using all means short of war."

Also be sure to read Simon's analysis of the recent NYT article on moderate Arab governements' sponsership of anti-US propaganda in response to, again from Rozen, this development:

Middle East analyst Daniel Byman, who is the director of Georgetown University's Security Studies Program, said, "The most popular people in the Islamic world right now, and the two most popular people in Egypt, are Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And their popularity is increasing. They are like Che Guevara."

Cheney: Saying Administration blundered in Iraq is "hogwash"

The Vice President gave a rather remarkable interview yesterday on CNN.  Read the story and see the interview here.

Senator Hagel: "This is a ping pong game with American lives"

Watch Hagel speak out against escalation...

Iraq's Government: Bush's version and reality

Last night the President gushed about the Iraqi political system:

And in 2005, the Iraqi people held three national elections — choosing a transitional government, adopting the most progressive, democratic constitution in the Arab world and then electing a government under that constitution.

 A few paragraphs later he implored Iraqi leaders to step up: "now is the time for their government to act."

Perhaps the President should spend a little less time repeating his "elections solve everything" mantra, and a little more time looking at the underlying reasons that he has to keep begging, bribing and cajoling the Iraqi Government to play its part.   The NYT today looks at the shockingly bad attendance levels of Iraqi legislators and how that is damaging Iraq's fragile democracy.

Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, the speaker of Parliament, read a roll call of the 275 elected members with a goal of shaming the no-shows.

Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister? Absent, living in Amman and London. Adnan Pachachi, the octogenarian statesman? Also gone, in Abu Dhabi.

Others who failed to appear Monday included Saleh Mutlak, a senior Sunni legislator; several Shiites and Kurds; and Ayad al-Samaraei, chairman of the finance committee, whose absence led Mr. Mashhadani to ask: “When will he be back? After we approve the budget?”

It was a joke barbed with outrage. Parliament in recent months has been at a standstill. Nearly every session since November has been adjourned because as few as 65 members made it to work, even as they and the absentees earned salaries and benefits worth about $120,000.

Part of the problem is security, but Iraqi officials also said they feared that members were losing confidence in the institution and in the country’s fragile democracy. As chaos has deepened, Parliament’s relevance has gradually receded.

LA Times suggests Administration is exaggerating the case against Iran

Scant evidence found of Iran-Iraq arms linkU.S. warnings of advanced weaponry crossing the border are overstated, critics sayBAQUBAH, IRAQ — If there is anywhere Iran could easily stir up trouble in Iraq, it would be in Diyala, a rugged province along the border between the two nations.

The combination of Sunni Arab militants believed to be affiliated with Al Qaeda and Shiite Muslim militiamen with ties to Iran has fueled waves of sectarian and political violence here. The province is bisected by long-traveled routes leading from Iran to Baghdad and Shiite holy cities farther south in Iraq.

But even here, evidence of Iranian involvement in Iraq's troubles is limited. U.S. troops have found mortars and antitank mines with Iranian markings dated 2006, said U.S. Army Col. David W. Sutherland, who oversees the province. But there has been little sign of more advanced weaponry crossing the border, and no Iranian agents have been found.

In his speech this month outlining the new U.S. strategy in Iraq, President Bush promised to "seek out and destroy" Iranian networks that he said were providing "advanced weaponry and training to our enemies." He is expected to strike a similar note in tonight's State of the Union speech.

For all the aggressive rhetoric, however, the Bush administration has provided scant evidence to support these claims. Nor have reporters traveling with U.S. troops seen extensive signs of Iranian involvement. During a recent sweep through a stronghold of Sunni insurgents here, a single Iranian machine gun turned up among dozens of arms caches U.S. troops uncovered. British officials have similarly accused Iran of meddling in Iraqi affairs, but say they have not found Iranian-made weapons in areas they patrol.

The lack of publicly disclosed evidence has led to questions about whether the administration is overstating its case. Some suggest Bush and his aides are pointing to Iran to deflect blame for U.S. setbacks in Iraq. Others suggest they are laying the foundation for a military strike against Iran....For more on the Administration's new focus on Iran, you can find these following three essays: Pakistan is helping the Taliban. Now what?; Why is the Administration surprised that Iran is gaining regional influence?; and and the Rise of the Shiites.  

Pakistan is helping the Taliban. Now what?

As we all try to dig out of the mess left by the Bush years, we will have to increasingly be turning our attention to what is happening in Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

The current issue of Foreign Affairs has an article that makes the claim that Afghanistan, Bin Laden's former (and current home?), is slipping away from the West.  A Times story today confirms what many have believed - that the resurgence of the Taliban, a radical Sunni group closely aligned with Al Qaeda, is being supported by the our "ally" in the region, Pakistan. 

Western diplomats in both countries and Pakistani opposition figures say that Pakistani intelligence agencies — in particular the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence and Military Intelligence — have been supporting a Taliban restoration, motivated not only by Islamic fervor but also by a longstanding view that the jihadist movement allows them to assert greater influence on Pakistan’s vulnerable western flank.

More than two weeks of reporting along this frontier, including dozens of interviews with residents on each side of the porous border, leaves little doubt that Quetta is an important base for the Taliban, and found many signs that Pakistani authorities are encouraging the insurgents, if not sponsoring them...

Two questions immediately come to mind here.  

1. What is the American government's plan to prevent Afghanistan from sliding into chaos, and once again becoming a haven for radical Sunni elements, ones that did in fact launch the 9/11 attack on the United States?  Can Senator Biden's excellent set of hearings on American foreign policy take this on in the coming weeks?

2.  Why is okay for us to talk to and work with Pakistani and Saudi elements who are known supporters of Al Qaeda, and not talk to Iran? We have all come to learn that this Administration is prone to simplistic thinking, meaning that they have the capacity to reduce complex situations down to an argument so simple that it is no longer an accurate representation of what is happening on the ground.  I think we are in such a moment with the Administration's single-minded focus on making Iran - not Al Qaeda, not the Taliban, not repressive autocracies - the new regional uber-threat in the Middle East. 

Why is it okay for us to talk to, and work with, nations like China, Russia, Venezuela, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, all of whom are engaged in activities we strongly oppose, but cannot talk to Iran, a traditional "great power" player in the Middle East?  The Persians have been players on the world stage since the time of the Greeks, long before the existence of many of the nations on the current National Security council.  What makes the Iranians so different from these other countries? And how we can possibly contemplate isolating a government so closely aligned with the governing party of our great project in Iraq, a government who as recently as 2001 helped us defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan?

Given the close cultural, political, religious and economic ties Iran has to critical actors in both Afghanistan and Iraq, I don't believe it is possible for us to imagine bringing a sustained and lasting peace to the region without active Iranian involvement.  Here I agree wholeheartedly with the Iraq Study Group report.  We need to talk to and engage all the regional actors in the regional peace process.  We should have no illusions about who we are dealing with, but without such a process the President's policy really is "stay the course" plus, and almost guarenteed to fail. 

If recent press reports are to be believed, the current radical leader of Iran is under increasing pressure at home.  If his power is derived to some degree from the fear of future American belligerence, why not complement our moving carriers into the Persian Gulf with a public overture to him and his government? No deals, just a meeting, a high profile meeting?  Or a public meeting of low level foreign advisors?  My own sense is that by doing so we will undermine the entire rationale of his public argument at home, and accelerate the departure of this terrible regional actor. 

One of the great choices America will have to make in the coming years is whether we take sides in the millenial-long struggle for power in the Middle East between the Arabs and Persians, the Sunnis and the Shiites.  By eliminating Iran's two great regional enemies, the Taliban and Saddam, we tipped the regional balance towards the Persians and the Shiites.  Now our actions seem to be intent on tipping everything back a little towards the Arabs and the Sunnis.  But is this a game we want to, or are truly able to play?  The Post has a must-read story today on these Sunni-Shiite tensions are playing out in the region's media, something we wrote about a few days ago.   

No matter how we look at our future policy in the Middle East, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, Iran is and will always be at its center.  Just a few years ago the Iranian government helped us defeat the Taliban, and have like us have a great interest in slowing rise of radical Sunni Islam.  It is time we start getting smarter about to look at our long-term interests there, and work towards a goal of not isolating Iran but engaging them in bringing their region to a more modern, democratic and peaceful place.

Attorney General Gonzales v. Senator Specter

This is really incredible.  We've written about the Bush Administration's decision to strip foreigners of their Habeas Corpus rights before, and Simon just linked to Glenn Greenwald's excellent analysis.  But it is worth reading the actual exchange to see the Attorney General, the highest legal authority in the land, say that he doesn't believe that Habeas Corpus is a guaranteed right, and to see Senator Specter rebuke him.  Make sure to read to the end, Specter definitely saves his best critique for last...

SPECTER: Where you have the Constitution having an explicit provision that the writ of habeas corpus cannot be suspended except for rebellion or invasion, and you have the Supreme Court saying that habeas corpus rights apply to Guantanamo detainees — aliens in Guantanamo — after an elaborate discussion as to why, how can the statutory taking of habeas corpus — when there’s an express constitutional provision that it can’t be suspended, and an explicit Supreme Court holding that it applies to Guantanamo alien detainees.

 GONZALES: A couple things, Senator. I believe that the Supreme Court case you’re referring to dealt only with the statutory right to habeas, not the constitutional right to habeas.

 SPECTER: Well, you’re not right about that. It’s plain on its face they are talking about the constitutional right to habeas corpus. They talk about habeas corpus being guaranteed by the Constitution, except in cases of an invasion or rebellion. They talk about John Runningmeade and the Magna Carta and the doctrine being imbedded in the Constitution.

 GONZALES: Well, sir, the fact that they may have talked about the constitutional right to habeas doesn’t mean that the decision dealt with that constitutional right to habeas.

 SPECTER: When did you last read the case?

 GONZALES: It has been a while, but I’ll be happy to — I will go back and look at it.

 SPECTER: I looked at it yesterday and this morning again.

 GONZALES: I will go back and look at it. The fact that the Constitution — again, there is no express grant of habeas in the Constitution. There is a prohibition against taking it away. But it’s never been the case, and I’m not a Supreme —

 SPECTER: Now, wait a minute. Wait a minute. The constitution says you can’t take it away, except in the case of rebellion or invasion. Doesn’t that mean you have the right of habeas corpus, unless there is an invasion or rebellion?

 GONZALES: I meant by that comment, the Constitution doesn’t say, “Every individual in the United States or every citizen is hereby granted or assured the right to habeas.” It doesn’t say that. It simply says the right of habeas corpus shall not be suspended except by —

 SPECTER: You may be treading on your interdiction and violating common sense, Mr. Attorney General.

 GONZALES: Um.

More on rising Sunni-Shiite tensions in the Middle East

The Times had a remarkable story the other day on rising Sunni-Shiite tensions throughout the Middle East.  Make sure you read all the way down to the part about a television show in Egypt, our "ally" in the Middle East, glorifying the heroic Sunni insurgency's killing of Americans in Iraq:

And while political analysts and government officials in the region say the spreading Sunni disillusionment with Shiites and their backers in Iran will benefit Sunni-led governments and the United States, they and others worry that the tensions could start to balkanize the region as they have in Iraq itself.

“The reality of the current situation is that we are approaching an open Sunni-Shiite conflict in the region,” said Emad Gad, a specialist in international relations at the government-financed Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “And Egypt will also be a part of it as a part of the Sunni axis. No one will be able to avoid or escape it.”

This changing dynamic in the region, described by many scholars, analysts and officials in recent days, is a result not only of the hangings, the Iraq war and the Lebanese political struggle. It has also been encouraged by Sunni-led governments like those in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and some Sunni religious leaders alarmed by the rising influence of Iran, the region’s biggest Shiite power..

and...

Sunnis make up a vast majority of the Islamic world. Shiites, who lead Iran and the Iraqi government, are the next largest sect. The two split over who would lead Islam after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.

While the two have theological differences — and similarities — the gathering conflict is being stoked by a determination by Sunni leaders to preserve, or reinvigorate, their waning influence in the region — while emboldened Shiites have pressed for more influence.

After the war between Hezbollah and Israel, Shiite leaders seemed to reach their zenith as an antidote to a Sunni Muslim leadership widely viewed as corrupt, impotent and stooges of the West, analysts said.

Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Sheik Nasrallah of Hezbollah, each won wide followings across the region for their willingness to defy the United States. Hezbollah and its allies pressed for more power in Lebanon and when rebuffed, began demonstrations intended to topple the government.

Now, fueled by state controlled media in many Sunni Muslim states, a divide, or at least an estrangement, is growing across the Middle East between Sunni Muslims and Shiites. Egyptians, for example, are inundated nearly daily with headlines, commentaries and television reports alleging Shiite transgressions.

An Egyptian-government controlled satellite service, called Nilesat, has been broadcasting across the Arab world Al Zawraa, a television station that shows what is billed as heroic footage of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, American soldiers being killed and wounded, and unflattering images of Shiite leaders.

“Raising the ugly face of Shiites, expanding Iranian influence in the region,” read a headline in a recent edition of Rose el-Youssef, a pro-government Egyptian newspaper.

In December, a top religious leader close to the Saudi royal family, Abdul Rahman al-Barak, said that Shiites, whom he called rejectionists, were worse than Jews or Christians.

“By and large, rejectionists are the most evil sect of the nation and they have all the ingredients of the infidels,” he wrote.

And yes it was the United States who put these rejectionists, worse than Christians or Jews, in charge of an Arab country for the first time in the 1300 year history of the Muslim Middle East.  As I've written before, it is hard for me to believe that in any war-gaming of the post Iraq Middle East that what is happening there today was not seen as the most likely outcome of our installing a Shiite-led, Iranian-friendly team in charge of Iraq. 

Once we accept that even our "allies" in the Middle East are promoting the killing of American troops in Iraq, it is unwise for the US to simplify this complex emerging regional politics into a demonization of Iran. The vengence and anger of those who killed Saddam that night was not funded or fueled by Iran.  It was fueled by over a 1000 years of Sunni oppression of Shiites and was a long, long time coming. 

Our actions in the Middle East have unleashed a new, powerful and unpredictable dynamic into the region, one that we need to better understand before taking swift and decisive action like attacking Iran.  For just a few months ago it seemed as if another band of Sunni insurgents, Al Qaeda, were our primary enemy.   

Novak: Iraq is dooming the GOP

Prominent conservative columnist has a remarkable column today, one that once again shows how out of step with even his own Party President Bush now is:

The sense of impending political doom that clutches Republican hearts one week after President Bush presented his new strategy on Iraq to the nation is stoked by the alarming intelligence brought back from Baghdad by Republican Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota and passed around Capitol Hill.

In a pre-Christmas visit to Iraq, Coleman and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida met with Mowaffak al-Rubaie, the Iraqi government's national security adviser. Coleman described their astounding encounter in a Dec. 19 blog entry: Dr. Rubaie "maintains that the major challenge facing Iraq is not a sectarian conflict, but rather al-Qaeda and disgruntled Baathists seeking to regain power. Both Senator Nelson and I react with incredulity to that assessment. Rubaie cautions against more troops in Baghdad."

Rubaie denied the overriding reality of sectarian violence in Baghdad because his government is tied to the Shiite belligerents in that conflict. While Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pays lip service to Bush's demand that he crack down on Mahdi Army commander Moqtada al-Sadr, U.S. officials recognize that Maliki's political support depends on the Shiite militia leader. Thus, Maliki's government is in denial about sectarian conflict. Maliki did not show up for a news conference in which he was scheduled to comment on Bush's new strategy, and he personally remains silent about the plan at this writing.

This hastens the desire of Republicans, who once cheered the Bush Doctrine in the Middle East, to remove U.S. forces from a politically deteriorating condition as soon as possible. "Iraq is a black hole for the Republican Party," a prominent party strategist told me this week. What makes his comments so important is that he is not a maverick Republican in Congress but one of Bush's principal political advisers.

As they adjust to the 2006 election returns, Republicans recognize that this was no isolated bump in the road. The loss of about 320 state legislative seats across the country to the Democrats classifies last year's election as a midrange electoral disaster.

The internal Republican debate concerns how much Iraq contributed to this outcome. The White House and Republican members of Congress who voted for intervention in Iraq contend that many issues led to their defeat: incompetent management of the Hurricane Katrina crisis, widespread cases of corruption and abandonment of spending restraint. But Republicans at the grass roots tell me that Iraq was the central problem and must be erased as an issue.....

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