Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Will Israel Be Brought To Book?

The evidence of war crimes in Gaza is a challenge to universal justice: will western-backed perpetrators ever stand trial?
By Seumas Milne
Monday 23 March 2009 17.15 GMT
Courtesy Of The Guardian

Evidence of the scale of Israel's war crimes in its January onslaught on Gaza is becoming unanswerable. Clancy Chassay's three films investigating allegations against Israeli forces in the Gaza strip, released by the Guardian today, include important new accounts of the flagrant breaches of the laws of war that marked the three-week campaign – now estimated to have left at least 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and 13 Israelis dead.

The films provide compelling testimony of Israel's use of Palestinian teenagers as human shields; the targeting of hospitals, clinics and medical workers, including with phosphorus bombs; and attacks on civilians, including women and children – sometimes waving white flags – from hunter-killer drones whose targeting systems are so powerful they can identify the colour of a person's clothes.

Naturally, the Israeli occupation forces' spokesperson insists to Chassay that they make every effort to avoid killing civilians and denies using human shields or targeting medical workers – while at the same time explaining that medics in war zones "take the risk upon themselves". By banning journalists from entering Gaza during its punitive devastation of the strip, the Israeli government avoided independent investigations of the stream of war crimes accusations while the attack was going on.

But now journalists and human rights organisations are back inside, doing the painstaking work, the question is whether Israel's government and military commanders will be held to account for what they unleashed on the Palestinians of Gaza – or whether, like their US and British sponsors in Iraq and Afghanistan, they can carry out war crimes with impunity.

It's not as if Clancy's reports are unique or uncorroborated by other evidence. Last week, the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz reported that a group of Israelis soldiers had admitted intentionally shooting dead an unarmed Palestinian mother and her two children, as well as an elderly Palestinian woman, in Gaza in January. As one explained: "The lives of Palestinians, let's say, is something very, very less important than the lives of our soldiers. So as far as they are concerned they can justify it that way".

They also tally with testimony of other Israeli soldiers from the Givati Shaked battalion, which operated in the Gaza city suburb of Zeitoun, that they were told to "fire on anything that moves". The result was that one family, the Samunis, reported losing 29 members after soldiers forced them into a building that subsequently came under fire – seven bleeding to death while denied medical care for nearly three days. The Helw and Abu Zohar families said they saw members shot while emerging from their homes carrying white flags. "There was definitely a message being sent", one soldier who took part in the destruction of Zeitoun told the Times.

Or take the case of Majdi Abed Rabbo – a Palestinian linked to Fatah and no friend of Hamas – who described to the Independent how he was repeatedly used as a human shield by Israeli soldiers confronting armed Hamas fighters in a burned-out building in Jabalya in the Gaza strip. The fact of Israeli forces' use of human shields is hard to gainsay, not least since there are unambiguous photographs of several cases from the West Bank in 2007, as shown in Chassay's film.

Last week Human Rights Watch wrote to European Union foreign ministers calling for an international inquiry into war crimes in Gaza. In the case of Israel, the organisation cited the siege of Gaza as a form of collective punishment; the use of artillery and white phosphorus in densely populated civilian areas, including schools; the shooting of civilians holding white flags; attacks on civilian targets; and "wanton destruction of civilian property".

Israel and others also accuse Hamas of war crimes. But while both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have echoed that charge, particularly in relation to the indiscriminate rocketing of towns such as Sderot, an exhaustive investigation by Human Rights Watch has found no evidence, for example, of Hamas using human shields in the clearly defined legal sense of coercion to protect fighters in combat. And as Richard Falk, the UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian Human Rights, argued recently, any attempt to view the two sides as "equally responsible" is an absurdity: one is a lightly-armed militia, effectively operating underground in occupied territory – the other the most powerful army in the region, able to pinpoint and pulverise targets with some of the most sophisticated weaponry in the world.

There is of course no chance that the UN security council will authorise the kind of International Criminal Court war crimes indictment now faced by Sudan's leaders over Darfur. Any such move would certainly be vetoed by the US and its allies. And Israel's own courts have had no trouble in the past batting away serious legal challenges to its army's atrocities in the occupied territories. But the use of universal jurisdiction in countries such as Spain or even Britain is making Israeli commanders increasingly jumpy about travelling abroad.

With such powerful evidence of violations of the rules of war now emerging from the rubble of Gaza, the test must be this: is the developing system of international accountability for war crimes only going to apply to the west's enemies – or can the western powers and their closest allies also be brought to book?

US Repeating Vietnam War Mistakes In Afghanistan

A former North Vietnamese Army officer explains how the US is making the same mistake in Afghanistan that it made in Vietnam.
By Matt Steinglass - GlobalPost
Published: March 26, 2009 17:06 ET
Updated: March 28, 2009 16:12 ET
Courtesy Of The Global Post

HO CHI MINH CITY — The U.S. Army would very much liked to have killed Nguyen Huu Nguyen in 1968.

In the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, Nguyen was an officer in a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) unit stationed in the Mekong Delta town of My Tho. At the time, U.S. and South Vietnamese troops were sweeping through the countryside trying to recover from the devastating surprise offensive, and they were employing counterinsurgency tactics much like those NATO is using today in Afghanistan. (Click here to read the second part of this series, about the pitfalls of pacification.)

It should not have been hard to find Nguyen’s unit, which was stationed on a riverbank right next to a South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) camp. But the ARVN and NVA units — which were on opposite sides of the war — had a tacit agreement not to attack each other's home bases.

Both would venture out on operations against other units, then return to their camps and leave each other alone.

“One night some of our soldiers caught a lot of fish,” recalled Nguyen, who is now a retired army colonel and a respected military historian. “We started singing, and got a little noisy. So the Saigon soldiers tossed a grenade at a safe distance, at the edge of our camp, to remind us to keep it down.”

If senior commanders were made too aware of the NVA presence, and it worked up the chain to U.S. commanders, Nguyen explains, the ARVN troops would be obliged to attack them.

The story encapsulates the fluid loyalties and territorial ambiguity that plagued U.S. attempts to control South Vietnam. It also reveals the contours of a counterinsurgency terrain that bears some similarities to the struggles the U.S. now faces as it prepares to increase troop levels in Afghanistan.

In Vietnam, American officers trained to fight conventional armies could not adjust to a war where villages welcomed government troops by day and Viet Cong guerrillas by night, where the ARVN troops they fought alongside were not necessarily loyal to their own government, and where the real battlefield lay in the hearts and minds of the people they were supposedly there to defend.

Five years after the Tet Offensive, the last U.S. forces left Vietnam, and two years after that, Nguyen Huu Nguyen swept into Saigon with the victorious North Vietnamese Army.

Today Nguyen, who retired from the army in 1979, has an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of American and South Vietnamese counterinsurgency strategies during the Vietnam War. And he has a very clear point of view on the lessons the American military should take from Vietnam as it embarks on a new strategy in Afghanistan: The U.S. will fail in Afghanistan for many of the reasons it failed here.

With a “surge” of 17,000 additional U.S. troops underway in Afghanistan, the Pentagon is making hard choices about how to go about building an Afghan government that has popular legitimacy and can defend itself against Taliban guerrillas.

Numerous analysts have referred to the resemblances between the conflict in Afghanistan and the Vietnam War. Nguyen Huu Nguyen’s take on Afghanistan is in many ways similar to those of westerners skeptical of further U.S. investments in counterinsurgency campaigns. But he is one of the few looking at U.S. efforts in Afghanistan who has, himself, helped defeat earlier American counterinsurgency efforts.

“Just adding another 17,000 troops in Afghanistan will not accomplish anything,” Nguyen said, sitting at a cafe on the Saigon River, not far from the bridge where ARVN forces made a doomed last stand against the NVA in 1975.

The success of counterinsurgency, Nguyen explained, rests on separating the guerrillas from the population they depend on. He rattled off a list of the many tactics the U.S. employed in Vietnam to accomplish that goal: the Diem regime’s savage anti-communist purges in 1959 and 1960, the “strategic hamlets” approach of 1962 and 1963, the CORDS and CAP programs of the mid- and late 1960s. All of them were ultimately unsuccessful.

In Afghanistan — with its vast expanses of land, its 40,000 villages and vicious terrain — the task will be harder than it was in Vietnam. At the same time — just as the U.S. could not crush the Viet Cong and NVA sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos — it is unable to eliminate Taliban sanctuaries in northern Pakistan.

“If the U.S. builds up its forces in Afghanistan,” Nguyen said, “it will probably sink deeper into a quagmire.”

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the chief of Central Command for the U.S. military and the architect of what is widely viewed as the successful counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq, disagrees with Nguyen.

And Petraeus speaks from his own knowledge of history. He did his doctoral thesis on the lessons learned in Vietnam and he co-authored the U.S. military’s recent counterinsurgency manual which provided a detailed history of counterinsurgency from ancient Rome to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

While Nguyen and Petraeus derive very different lessons from some of this history, there is also a great deal on which they do agree.

Petraeus’ 1987 Ph.D. thesis, “The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam,” argued that the U.S. military’s fear of getting trapped in another counterinsurgency war left it reluctant to intervene abroad except to accomplish narrow goals and with overwhelmingly superior forces. Indeed, Petraeus wrote in his thesis that the military’s anxieties about Vietnam-style wars were being reinforced by another contemporary conflict: the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan.

“The Soviet inability to achieve a decisive result in Afghanistan has reminded some military observers of the problems of counter-guerrilla warfare in rugged terrain where the enemy enjoys sanctuaries,” Petraeus wrote, reinforcing the military’s desire to avoid “lengthy, inconclusive commitments of U.S. troops.”

Petraeus brought this understanding to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which forced the military into exactly the sort of counterinsurgency warfare it had long tried to avoid. He was one of a cadre of warrior scholars who pushed the U.S. Army to relearn how to fight such wars. The new counterinsurgency thinkers included promising younger officers such as Col. H.R. McMaster and Col. John Nagl (now retired). For inspiration, they turned to lessons from Vietnam.

These counterinsurgency reformers adopted a rough storyline to explain the U.S. failure in Vietnam. In Vietnam, they argued, the U.S. relied for too long on a “search and destroy” strategy, trying to seek out the main forces of the NVA and destroy them in battle. It ignored the problems of security and prosperity in the countryside, allowing the Viet Cong to increase its political and military hold on the villages of South Vietnam.

It was only in 1967, and increasingly after the Tet Offensive in 1968, that the U.S. turned to a strategy of pacification and counterinsurgency, known as “clear and hold.” When it did, it was successful, according to these counterinsurgency reformers. By 1971, the Viet Cong had almost entirely lost its hold on South Vietnam’s countryside. But the U.S. then retreated from Vietnam, and the ARVN was finally outmatched in a main-force struggle against the invading NVA in 1975.

Applying history in Iraq and Afghanistan

Drawing on the Vietnam-era strategic vision of “clear and hold,” Petraeus in 2007 introduced his surge strategy in Iraq, with its underlying approach of “clear, hold and build.” Petraeus’ approach of flooding Baghdad with troops, pacifying neighborhoods and combining political and military efforts has by all accounts been successful. It has contributed to a dramatic increase in physical security and political stability in Iraq.

The question now is how to apply these types of counterinsurgency insights to Afghanistan. The first problem is that virtually all analysts, including Petraeus and Nguyen, agree that Afghanistan is too large, too fractious, and too mountainous for a “surge” to work.

The second problem is that, in Nguyen’s view, the American counterinsurgency reformers’ view of pacification in Vietnam is wrong. It is not that the U.S. failed to try pacification until it was too late, he said. It is that the U.S. tried pacification throughout the war, and it didn’t work.

“The U.S. never stopped trying to carry out pacification in Vietnam,” Nguyen said. “It only changed the methods it used to pursue pacification.” Some of those methods, Nguyen agrees, were correct: The U.S. really did have to cut the Viet Cong off from the villages and from its secure sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos in order to win the war.

But it couldn’t. The South Vietnamese government it backed was anemic. Its ARVN allies were too ambivalent to attack the NVA even when they were right next door. The peasantry was resentful of corrupt government officers. The “enemy” — the Viet Cong — was determined and united.

And counterinsurgency warfare is simply a viciously demanding task for any army — the Vietnamese one included.

“Let me tell you a story,” Nguyen said. “About 10 years ago a German researcher came to Vietnam and asked me, ‘Mr. Nguyen, the Vietnamese were so good at guerrilla warfare. So why couldn’t you resolve your war in Cambodia?’”

After invading Cambodia in 1979, the Vietnamese spent a decade battling Khmer Rouge insurgents who took refuge in bases along the Thai border — just as the Viet Cong had once hidden in bases in Cambodia. Vietnam could only withdraw once it had established a powerful and reliable proxy, the quasi-communist government of Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party.

When it comes to Afghanistan, President Barack Obama and U.S. special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke have already indicated that one of the chief aims of the new strategy will be to create a self-sufficient Afghan army and police force. The problem remains that the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai is by all accounts as corrupt as the Saigon regime was in Vietnam. How can the U.S. make a client regime less corrupt?

“That’s a problem for Karzai, not for the U.S.,” Nguyen said. “The only way for the U.S. in Afghanistan is to build up Karzai, and leave.”

Read more GlobalPost dispatches about military strategy:

Kosovo, 10 years later

Exclusive: In the wrong hands

Thailand: The war you've never heard of

The PitFalls Of Pacification

As Obama unveils new efforts in Afghanistan, it is worth a look at what happened in Vietnam. Part two in a series.
By Matt Steinglass - GlobalPost
Published: March 27, 2009 10:15 ET
Updated: March 28, 2009 16:12 ET
Courtesy Of The Global Post

LONG AN PROVINCE, Vietnam — My Hanh, 20 miles west of Ho Chi Minh City, is a prosperous town of brick and concrete farmhouses interspersed with huge Japanese-owned electronics factories.

When Cai Van Minh, 56, was growing up during the Vietnam War, My Hanh was a tiny village surrounded by an unbroken expanse of rice paddies and thatched-roof bamboo huts. In March 1963, the South Vietnamese government ordered Minh and his family to leave My Hanh, relocating them into a brand-new “strategic hamlet” half a mile away called Tram Lac.

The Saigon government was building the hamlets as part of an all-out push to defeat the increasingly aggressive communist Viet Cong insurgency, which already effectively governed much of the territory of South Vietnam.

The “strategic hamlets” campaign was one of the first major U.S.-backed counterinsurgency efforts in the Vietnam War, which lasted from 1960 to 1975 and killed at least 3 million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans. (Click here to read the first part of this series: Lessons of Vietnam.)

The same year that Minh’s family was relocated, a 22-year-old American foreign service officer was posted to a province in Vietnam's Mekong Delta, where he found himself running the province's "strategic hamlets" program.

It was the officer's first experience with insurgent warfare in a career that would involve many. The officer was Richard Holbrooke, who is now U.S. President Barack Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, charged with the diplomatic side of American efforts to defeat the Taliban insurgency. And while the details differ, many of the problems the U.S. faces today in Afghanistan are the same as those Holbrooke faced at the beginning of his career in Vietnam.

The idea of the strategic hamlet was first put forward by the British officer Robert Thompson and the visionary CIA officer William Colby. It was modeled on a program that helped the British defeat a communist insurgency in Malaya in the early 1950s.

The aim of the program was to separate the Viet Cong from the population they depended on. Chinese communist ruler Mao Zedong had said a guerrilla army moves among the people like a fish in water. Now South Vietnam’s authoritarian anti-communist president, Ngo Dinh Diem, vowed he would “drain the pond to catch the fish.”

Minh remembers the anger of peasants taken away from their ancestral lands — home of the graves of their ancestors — and dumped in shoddy concrete houses surrounded by barbed-wire fences, forced to present identification cards to soldiers at the hamlet gate. He recalls the terror of random shelling by South Vietnamese artillery every night, which was an ineffectual attempt to harass Viet Cong troops. The shelling only added to the population’s antagonism. Although the strategic hamlets were supposed to protect the peasants from the Viet Cong, they were actually driving even more of them to support the communists.

“At that point, the number of people in the strategic hamlet who supported the Viet Cong was about two-thirds,” Minh says.

For Minh, the shift in allegiance was permanent. After South Vietnam fell to the North in 1975, Minh pursued a career in the communist town administration. He retired last year as vice chairman of My Hanh's People's Committee.

The fact that the strategic hamlets program failed does not mean it was poor counterinsurgency theory.

According to military historian Nguyen Huu Nguyen, a colonel in the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) who fought in the South from 1965 to 1975, the strategic hamlets program was a good idea. In fact, the goal it sought to achieve was crucial: “population control,” as it is called in the new 2007 U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual, co-authored by Gen. David Petraeus. It is the same goal that Petraeus pursued in Baghdad by walling off ethnically homogenous neighborhoods and instituting curfews and checkpoints.

But in Vietnam, it didn’t work. Corrupt government administrators stole funds meant for construction and social programs. To generate positive statistics, the government expanded the program too fast — when Holbrooke arrived in the Mekong Delta, he found many of the hamlets in his province existed only on paper. The government lacked troops to defend them.

In mid-1963, the Viet Cong launched a campaign to overwhelm the hamlets. They assassinated village government officials, including administrators and teachers, and encouraged villagers to tear down the fences. The campaign gathered steam when president Diem was killed by his own generals in a coup in November. By early 1964, most of the strategic hamlets had been destroyed, their populations returning to their former villages or streaming into the cities as refugees.

“In Vietnam the U.S. built strategic hamlets and still lost,” Nguyen said. “In Afghanistan, where they cannot even build strategic hamlets, there is no way for the U.S. to win.”

One reason the strategic hamlets program failed is that it was too inflexible an application of a technique from Malaya.

Many analysts have criticized the U.S. for misapplying old solutions, fighting in Vietnam as if it were Korea, Malaya or the Philippines rather than adapting to local realities. The new counterinsurgency manual tries to avoid such mistakes. Planners in Afghanistan will not simply replicate techniques from Vietnam or Iraq. They will recognize that the goals, actors, resources and constraints in Afghanistan are different. And they will employ an “iterative” process, testing out new techniques, discarding failures and adopting successes.

But counterinsurgency strategy in Vietnam was iterative too. The strategic hamlets program was an early example of a long series of increasingly sophisticated attempts to pacify South Vietnam’s countryside between 1954 and 1975.

Popular mythology holds that the U.S. never attempted to address the social roots of Vietnam’s civil war. But in fact, numerous American analysts devoted immense resources to studying and addressing the sociopolitical side of the war.

Col. John Paul Vann and then-National Security Adviser Robert Komer saw that social change was a prerequisite for political success, and created the “Revolutionary Development Cadres” — teams of South Vietnamese social workers who were paired with USAID workers to bring social and economic improvements to the countryside. This evolved into the CORDS program, which has influenced the Provincial Reconstruction Teams that operate today in Afghanistan.

CIA officer William Colby recognized that security required local defense forces, and he backed the “Combined Action Platoons,” which paired a squad of U.S. Marines with local soldiers living in a single village.

The RAND Corporation’s social science researchers realized that pacification required a metric for assessing success, and devised the “Hamlet Evaluation Surveys,” which tried to produce reliable data that could generate a measurement of how much of the countryside was really under government control.

The CIA, meanwhile, understood that a sophisticated social and political view of the conflict required an attempt to dismantle the Viet Cong’s shadow government, and set up the “Phoenix” program to gather intelligence and promote defections, arrests and assassinations of Viet Cong officials. Experts at USAID, RAND, the State Department and elsewhere saw the need for land reform to draw impoverished poor peasants away from the communists, and finally convinced the Vietnamese government to adopt a law that redistributed land from wealthy landowners to poor farmers. And this is just a partial list of efforts to combat the war's social underpinnings.

The U.S. war in Vietnam, particularly from 1966 on, was never purely military in nature.

Indeed, American civilian aid efforts in South Vietnam dwarf the American efforts in Afghanistan today. In 1967, USAID’s budget in Vietnam was $550 million — $3.5 billion in today’s dollars, compared with a U.S. aid budget in Afghanistan of $1 billion a year. Meanwhile, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan are almost entirely military, with just 50 civilian staff.

The U.S. has announced it will send up to 300 more State Department civilians to Afghanistan. But that number pales in comparison to the more than 2,000 civilian personnel USAID had in South Vietnam in 1967. And South Vietnam was smaller, both in physical size and population, than Afghanistan.

The U.S. new strategy review for Afghanistan, scheduled to be unveiled March 27, reportedly focuses on integrating the sociopolitical and military elements of counterinsurgency. But in introducing the Afghanistan strategy to NATO officials earlier this week, Holbrooke said that simply spending a lot of money on aid does not guarantee results.

Holbrooke called the U.S. program to eradicate opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan — which has thus far cost $800 million — “the most wasteful and ineffective program I have seen in 40 years."

The last time Holbrooke saw such a wasteful and ineffective program, then, was in the late 1960s, when he was one of America's senior pacification officials for Vietnam.

Part one: Lessons of Vietnam

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Obama's Domino Theory

The president sounds like he's channeling Cheney or McCain -- or a Cold War hawk afraid of international communism -- when he talks about the war in Afghanistan.
By Juan Cole
Monday, March 30, 2009
Courtesy Of The Salon Media Group

March 30, 2009 | President Barack Obama may or may not be doing the right thing in Afghanistan, but the rationale he gave for it on Friday is almost certainly wrong. Obama has presented us with a 21st century version of the domino theory. The U.S. is not, contrary to what the president said, mainly fighting "al-Qaida" in Afghanistan. In blaming everything on al-Qaida, Obama broke with his pledge of straight talk to the public and fell back on Bush-style boogeymen and implausible conspiracy theories.

Obama realizes that after seven years, Afghanistan war fatigue has begun to set in with the American people. Some 51 percent of Americans now oppose the Afghanistan war, and 64 percent of Democrats do. The president is therefore escalating in the teeth of substantial domestic opposition, especially from his own party, as voters worry about spending billions more dollars abroad while the U.S. economy is in serious trouble.

He acknowledged that we deserve a "straightforward answer" as to why the U.S. and NATO are still fighting there. "So let me be clear," he said, "Al-Qaida and its allies -- the terrorists who planned and supported the 9/11 attacks -- are in Pakistan and Afghanistan." But his characterization of what is going on now in Afghanistan, almost eight years after 9/11, was simply not true, and was, indeed, positively misleading. "And if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban," he said, "or allows al-Qaida to go unchallenged -- that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can."

Obama described the same sort of domino effect that Washington elites used to ascribe to international communism. In the updated, al-Qaida version, the Taliban might take Kunar Province, and then all of Afghanistan, and might again host al-Qaida, and might then threaten the shores of the United States. He even managed to add an analog to Cambodia to the scenario, saying, "The future of Afghanistan is inextricably linked to the future of its neighbor, Pakistan," and warned, "Make no mistake: Al-Qaida and its extremist allies are a cancer that risks killing Pakistan from within."

This latter-day domino theory of al-Qaida takeovers in South Asia is just as implausible as its earlier iteration in Southeast Asia (ask Thailand or the Philippines). Most of the allegations are not true or are vastly exaggerated. There are very few al-Qaida fighters based in Afghanistan proper. What is being called the "Taliban" is mostly not Taliban at all (in the sense of seminary graduates loyal to Mullah Omar). The groups being branded "Taliban" only have substantial influence in 8 to 10 percent of Afghanistan, and only 4 percent of Afghans say they support them. Some 58 percent of Afghans say that a return of the Taliban is the biggest threat to their country, but almost no one expects it to happen. Moreover, with regard to Pakistan, there is no danger of militants based in the remote Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) taking over that country or "killing" it.

The Kabul government is not on the verge of falling to the Taliban. The Afghan government has 80,000 troops, who benefit from close U.S. air support, and the total number of Taliban fighters in the Pashtun provinces is estimated at 10,000 to 15,000. Kabul is in danger of losing control of some villages in the provinces to dissident Pashtun warlords styled "Taliban," though it is not clear why the new Afghan army could not expel them if they did so. A smaller, poorly equipped Northern Alliance army defeated 60,000 Taliban with U.S. air support in 2001. And there is no prospect of "al-Qaida" reestablishing bases in Afghanistan from which it could attack the United States. If al-Qaida did come back to Afghanistan, it could simply be bombed and would be attacked by the new Afghan army.

While the emergence of "Pakistani Taliban" in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas is a blow to Pakistan's security, they have just been defeated in one of the seven major tribal agencies, Bajaur, by a concerted and months-long campaign of the highly professional and well-equipped Pakistani army. United States Secretary of Defense Robert Gates replied last summer to the idea that al-Qaida is regrouping in Pakistan and forms a new and vital threat to the West: "Actually, I don't agree with that assessment, because when al-Qaida was in Afghanistan, they had the partnership of a government. They had ready access to international communications, ready access to travel, and so on. Their circumstances in the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) and on the Pakistani side of the border are much more primitive. And it's much more difficult for them to move around, much more difficult for them to communicate."

As for a threat to Pakistan, the FATA areas are smaller than Connecticut, with a total population of a little over 3 million, while Pakistan itself is bigger than Texas, with a population more than half that of the entire United States. A few thousand Pashtun tribesmen cannot take over Pakistan, nor can they "kill" it. The Pakistani public just forced a military dictator out of office and forced the reinstatement of the Supreme Court, which oversees secular law. Over three-quarters of Pakistanis said in a poll last summer that they had an unfavorable view of the Taliban, and a recent poll found that 90 percent of them worried about terrorism. To be sure, Pakistanis are on the whole highly opposed to the U.S. military presence in the region, and most outside the tribal areas object to U.S. Predator drone strikes on Pakistani territory. The danger is that the U.S. strikes may make the radicals seem victims of Western imperialism and so sympathetic to the Pakistani public.

Obama's dark vision of the overthrow of the Afghanistan government by al-Qaida-linked Taliban or the "killing" of Pakistan by small tribal groups differs little from the equally apocalyptic and implausible warnings issued by John McCain and Dick Cheney about an "al-Qaida" victory in Iraq. Ominously, the president's views are contradicted by those of his own secretary of defense. Pashtun tribes in northwestern Pakistan and southern Afghanistan have a long history of dissidence, feuding and rebellion, which is now being branded Talibanism and configured as a dire menace to the Western way of life. Obama has added yet another domino theory to the history of Washington's justifications for massive military interventions in Asia. When a policymaker gets the rationale for action wrong, he is at particular risk of falling into mission creep and stubborn commitment to a doomed and unnecessary enterprise.

Vast Spy System Loots Computers in 103 Countries

Published: March 28, 2009
Courtesy Of The New York Times

TORONTO — A vast electronic spying operation has infiltrated computers and has stolen documents from hundreds of government and private offices around the world, including those of the Dalai Lama, Canadian researchers have concluded.

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Tim Leyes for The New York Times

The Toronto academic researchers who are reporting on the spying operation dubbed GhostNet include, from left, Ronald J. Deibert, Greg Walton, Nart Villeneuve and Rafal A. Rohozinski.

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In a report to be issued this weekend, the researchers said that the system was being controlled from computers based almost exclusively in China, but that they could not say conclusively that the Chinese government was involved.

The researchers, who are based at the Munk Center for International Studies at the University of Toronto, had been asked by the office of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader whom China regularly denounces, to examine its computers for signs of malicious software, or malware.

Their sleuthing opened a window into a broader operation that, in less than two years, has infiltrated at least 1,295 computers in 103 countries, including many belonging to embassies, foreign ministries and other government offices, as well as the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan exile centers in India, Brussels, London and New York.

The researchers, who have a record of detecting computer espionage, said they believed that in addition to the spying on the Dalai Lama, the system, which they called GhostNet, was focused on the governments of South Asian and Southeast Asian countries.

Intelligence analysts say many governments, including those of China, Russia and the United States, and other parties use sophisticated computer programs to covertly gather information.

The newly reported spying operation is by far the largest to come to light in terms of countries affected.

This is also believed to be the first time researchers have been able to expose the workings of a computer system used in an intrusion of this magnitude.

Still going strong, the operation continues to invade and monitor more than a dozen new computers a week, the researchers said in their report, “Tracking ‘GhostNet’: Investigating a Cyber Espionage Network.” They said they had found no evidence that United States government offices had been infiltrated, although a NATO computer was monitored by the spies for half a day and computers of the Indian Embassy in Washington were infiltrated.

The malware is remarkable both for its sweep — in computer jargon, it has not been merely “phishing” for random consumers’ information, but “whaling” for particular important targets — and for its Big Brother-style capacities. It can, for example, turn on the camera and audio-recording functions of an infected computer, enabling monitors to see and hear what goes on in a room. The investigators say they do not know if this facet has been employed.

The researchers were able to monitor the commands given to infected computers and to see the names of documents retrieved by the spies, but in most cases the contents of the stolen files have not been determined. Working with the Tibetans, however, the researchers found that specific correspondence had been stolen and that the intruders had gained control of the electronic mail server computers of the Dalai Lama’s organization.

The electronic spy game has had at least some real-world impact, they said. For example, they said, after an e-mail invitation was sent by the Dalai Lama’s office to a foreign diplomat, the Chinese government made a call to the diplomat discouraging a visit. And a woman working for a group making Internet contacts between Tibetan exiles and Chinese citizens was stopped by Chinese intelligence officers on her way back to Tibet, shown transcripts of her online conversations and warned to stop her political activities.

The Toronto researchers said they had notified international law enforcement agencies of the spying operation, which in their view exposed basic shortcomings in the legal structure of cyberspace. The F.B.I. declined to comment on the operation.

Although the Canadian researchers said that most of the computers behind the spying were in China, they cautioned against concluding that China’s government was involved. The spying could be a nonstate, for-profit operation, for example, or one run by private citizens in China known as “patriotic hackers.”

“We’re a bit more careful about it, knowing the nuance of what happens in the subterranean realms,” said Ronald J. Deibert, a member of the research group and an associate professor of political science at Munk. “This could well be the C.I.A. or the Russians. It’s a murky realm that we’re lifting the lid on.”

A spokesman for the Chinese Consulate in New York dismissed the idea that China was involved. “These are old stories and they are nonsense,” the spokesman, Wenqi Gao, said. “The Chinese government is opposed to and strictly forbids any cybercrime.”

The Toronto researchers, who allowed a reporter for The New York Times to review the spies’ digital tracks, are publishing their findings in Information Warfare Monitor, an online publication associated with the Munk Center.

At the same time, two computer researchers at Cambridge University in Britain who worked on the part of the investigation related to the Tibetans, are releasing an independent report. They do fault China, and they warned that other hackers could adopt the tactics used in the malware operation.

“What Chinese spooks did in 2008, Russian crooks will do in 2010 and even low-budget criminals from less developed countries will follow in due course,” the Cambridge researchers, Shishir Nagaraja and Ross Anderson, wrote in their report, “The Snooping Dragon: Social Malware Surveillance of the Tibetan Movement.”

In any case, it was suspicions of Chinese interference that led to the discovery of the spy operation. Last summer, the office of the Dalai Lama invited two specialists to India to audit computers used by the Dalai Lama’s organization. The specialists, Greg Walton, the editor of Information Warfare Monitor, and Mr. Nagaraja, a network security expert, found that the computers had indeed been infected and that intruders had stolen files from personal computers serving several Tibetan exile groups.

Back in Toronto, Mr. Walton shared data with colleagues at the Munk Center’s computer lab.

One of them was Nart Villeneuve, 34, a graduate student and self-taught “white hat” hacker with dazzling technical skills. Last year, Mr. Villeneuve linked the Chinese version of the Skype communications service to a Chinese government operation that was systematically eavesdropping on users’ instant-messaging sessions.

Early this month, Mr. Villeneuve noticed an odd string of 22 characters embedded in files created by the malicious software and searched for it with Google. It led him to a group of computers on Hainan Island, off China, and to a Web site that would prove to be critically important.

In a puzzling security lapse, the Web page that Mr. Villeneuve found was not protected by a password, while much of the rest of the system uses encryption.

Mr. Villeneuve and his colleagues figured out how the operation worked by commanding it to infect a system in their computer lab in Toronto. On March 12, the spies took their own bait. Mr. Villeneuve watched a brief series of commands flicker on his computer screen as someone — presumably in China — rummaged through the files. Finding nothing of interest, the intruder soon disappeared.

Through trial and error, the researchers learned to use the system’s Chinese-language “dashboard” — a control panel reachable with a standard Web browser — by which one could manipulate the more than 1,200 computers worldwide that had by then been infected.

Infection happens two ways. In one method, a user’s clicking on a document attached to an e-mail message lets the system covertly install software deep in the target operating system. Alternatively, a user clicks on a Web link in an e-mail message and is taken directly to a “poisoned” Web site.

The researchers said they avoided breaking any laws during three weeks of monitoring and extensively experimenting with the system’s unprotected software control panel. They provided, among other information, a log of compromised computers dating to May 22, 2007.

They found that three of the four control servers were in different provinces in China — Hainan, Guangdong and Sichuan — while the fourth was discovered to be at a Web-hosting company based in Southern California.

Beyond that, said Rafal A. Rohozinski, one of the investigators, “attribution is difficult because there is no agreed upon international legal framework for being able to pursue investigations down to their logical conclusion, which is highly local.”

Chinese Hackers Using Ghost Network

Chinese Hackers ‘Using Ghost Network To Control Embassy Computers’

By Mike Harvey, Technology Correspondent
March 30, 2009
Courtesy Of The Times Online

A spy network believed to have been controlled from China has hacked into classified documents on government and private computers in 103 countries, according to internet researchers. The spy system, dubbed GhostNet, is alleged to have compromised 1,295 machines at Nato and foreign ministries, embassies, banks and news organisations across the world, as well as computers used by the Dalai Lama and Tibetan exiles.

The work of Information Warfare Monitor (IWM) investigators focused initially on allegations of Chinese cyber-espionage against the Tibetan exile community, but led to a much wider network of compromised machines. IWM said that, while China appeared to be the main source of the network, it had not been able conclusively to identify the hackers. The IWM is composed of researchers from an Ottawa-based think-tank, SecDev Group, and the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto.

They found that the foreign ministries of Iran, Bangladesh, Latvia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei, Barbados and Bhutan had been spied on remotely, and the embassies of India, South Korea, Indonesia, Romania, Cyprus, Malta, Thailand, Taiwan, Portugal, Germany and Pakistan hacked.

The operation is thought to be the most extensive yet uncovered in the political world and is estimated to be invading more than a dozen new computers a week. Other infected computers were found at the accountancy firm Deloitte & Touche in New York.

The IWM report said: “GhostNet represents a network of compromised computers in high-value political, economic and media locations in numerous countries worldwide. These organisations are almost certainly oblivious to the compromised situation in which they find themselves. The computers of diplomats, military attachés, private assistants, secretaries to prime ministers, journalists and others are under the concealed control of unknown assailant(s).

“In Dharamsala [the headquarters of the Tibetan government in exile] and elsewhere, we have witnessed machines being profiled and sensitive documents being removed. Almost certainly, documents are being removed without the targets’ knowledge, key-strokes logged, web cameras are being silently triggered and audio inputs surreptitiously activated.”

Chinese hackers are thought to have targeted Western networks repeatedly. Computers at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and other Whitehall departments were attacked from China in 2007. In the same year, Jonathan Evans, the MI5 Director-General, alerted 300 British businesses that they were under Chinese cyber-attack.

British intelligence chiefs have warned recently that China may have gained the capability effectively to shut down Britain by crippling its telecoms and utilities. Equipment installed by Huawei, the Chinese telecoms giant, in BT’s new communications network could be used to halt critical services such as power, food and water supplies, they said.

The Chinese Embassy in London said that there was no evidence to back up the claim that the Chinese Government was behind GhostNet and alleged that the report had been “commissioned by the Tibetan government in exile”.

Liu Weimin, a spokesman, said: “I will not be surprised if this report is just another case of their recent media and propaganda campaign. In China, it is against the law to hack into the computers of others, and we are victims of such cyber-attack. It is a global challenge that requires global cooperation. China is an active participant in such cooperation in the world.”

Once the hackers had infiltrated the systems, they gained control using malware – software installed on the compromised computers – and sent and received data from them, the researchers said. “The GhostNet system directs infected computers to download a Trojan known as Ghost Rat that allows attackers to gain complete, real-time control,” IWM said. “These instances of Ghost Rat are consistently controlled from commercial internet access accounts located on the island of Hainan, in the People’s Republic of China.”

Hainan is home to the Lingshui signals intelligence facility and the Third Technical Department of the People’s Liberation Army, IWM said.

Greg Walton, editor of IWM, said: “Regardless of who or what is ultimately in control of GhostNet, it is the capabilities of exploitation, and the strategic intelligence that can be harvested from it, which matters most. Indeed, although the Achilles’ heel of the GhostNet system allowed us to monitor and document its far-reaching network of infiltration, we can safely hypothesise that it is neither the first nor the only one of its kind.”

Monday, March 30, 2009

Syria Calling

The Obama Administration’s Chance To Engage In A Middle East Peace.

By Seymour M. Hersh
April 6, 2009
Courtesy Of The New Yorker

When the Israelis’ controversial twenty-two-day military campaign in Gaza ended, on January 18th, it also seemed to end the promising peace talks between Israel and Syria. The two countries had been engaged for almost a year in negotiations through intermediaries in Istanbul. Many complicated technical matters had been resolved, and there were agreements in principle on the normalization of diplomatic relations. The consensus, as an ambassador now serving in Tel Aviv put it, was that the two sides had been “a lot closer than you might think.”

At an Arab summit in Qatar in mid-January, however, Bashar Assad, the President of Syria, angrily declared that Israel’s bombing of Gaza and the resulting civilian deaths showed that the Israelis spoke only “the language of blood.” He called on the Arab world to boycott Israel, close any Israeli embassies in the region, and sever all “direct or indirect ties with Israel.” Syria, Assad said, had ended its talks over the Golan Heights.

Nonetheless, a few days after the Israeli ceasefire in Gaza, Assad said in an e-mail to me that although Israel was “doing everything possible to undermine the prospects for peace,” he was still very interested in closing the deal. “We have to wait a little while to see how things will evolve and how the situation will change,” Assad said. “We still believe that we need to conclude a serious dialogue to lead us to peace.”

American and foreign government officials, intelligence officers, diplomats, and politicians said in interviews that renewed Israeli-Syrian negotiations over the Golan Heights are now highly likely, despite Gaza and the elections in Israel in February, which left the Likud Party leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, at the head of a coalition that includes both the far right and Labor. Those talks would depend largely on America’s willingness to act as the mediator, a role that could offer Barack Obama his first—and perhaps best—chance for engagement in the Middle East peace process.

A senior Syrian official explained that Israel’s failure to unseat Hamas from power in Gaza, despite the scale of the war, gave Assad enough political room to continue the negotiations without losing credibility in the Arab world. Assad also has the support of Arab leaders who are invested in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Sheikh Hamid bin Khalifa al-Thani, the ruler of Qatar, said last month when I saw him in Doha that Assad must take any reasonable steps he can to keep the talks going. “Syria is eager to engage with the West,” he said, “an eagerness that was never perceived by the Bush White House. Anything is possible, as long as peace is being pursued.”

A major change in American policy toward Syria is clearly under way. “The return of the Golan Heights is part of a broader strategy for peace in the Middle East that includes countering Iran’s influence,” Martin Indyk, a former American Ambassador to Israel, who is now the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, at the Brookings Institution, said. “Syria is a strategic linchpin for dealing with Iran and the Palestinian issue. Don’t forget, everything in the Middle East is connected, as Obama once said.”

A former American diplomat who has been involved in the Middle East peace process said, “There are a lot of people going back and forth to Damascus from Washington saying there is low-hanging fruit waiting for someone to harvest.” A treaty between Syria and Israel “would be the start of a wide-reaching peace-implementation process that will unfold over time.” He added, “The Syrians have been ready since the 1993 Oslo Accords to do a separate deal.” The new Administration now has to conduct “due diligence”: “Get an ambassador there, or a Presidential envoy. Talk to Bashar, and speak in specifics so you’ll know whether or not you’ve actually got what you’ve asked for. If you’re vague, don’t be surprised if it comes back to bite you.”

Many Israelis and Americans involved in the process believe that a deal on the Golan Heights could be a way to isolate Iran, one of Syria’s closest allies, and to moderate Syria’s support for Hamas and for Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group. Both Hamas and Hezbollah are listed as terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department. There is a competing view: that Assad’s ultimate goal is not to marginalize Iran but to bring it, too, into regional talks that involve America—and perhaps Israel. In either scenario, Iran is a crucial factor motivating each side.

These diplomatic possibilities were suggested by Senator John Kerry, of Massachusetts, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who met with Assad in Damascus in February—his third visit since Assad took office, in 2000. “He wants to engage with the West,” Kerry said in an interview in his Senate office. “Our latest conversation gave me a much greater sense that Assad is willing to do the things that he needs to do in order to change his relationship with the United States. He told me he’s willing to engage positively with Iraq, and have direct discussions with Israel over the Golan Heights—with Americans at the table. I will encourage the Administration to take him up on it.

“Of course, Syria will not suddenly move against Iran,” Kerry said. “But the Syrians will act in their best interest, as they did in their indirect negotiations with Israel with Turkey’s assistance—and over the objections of Iran.”

President Assad was full of confidence and was impatiently anticipating the new Administration in Washington when I spoke to him late last year in Damascus. Trained as an ophthalmologist, partly in London, he took over the Presidency in 2000, after the death of his father, Hafez Assad, who amassed enormous personal power in thirty years of brutal rule. Bashar had not expected a life as the Syrian leader—his older brother, Basil, who was killed in an accident in 1994, had been groomed to replace their father. Bashar, thirty-four when he became President, was said to be a lesser figure than either of them. He has since consolidated his position—both by modernizing the economy and by suppressing domestic opposition—and, when we spoke, it was clear that he had come to relish the exercise of power.

Assad said that if America’s leaders “are seeking peace they have to deal with Syria and they have to deal with our rights, which is the Golan Heights.” In the Six-Day War, in 1967, Israel seized the Golan Heights, about four hundred and fifty square miles of territory that is rich in Biblical history and, crucially, in water. It includes part of the Jordan River Valley and a plateau overlooking the river which extends to Mt. Hermon, in the north. Syria was left with no access to the Sea of Galilee and the upper Jordan River. Roughly twenty thousand Israeli settlers live there, and they have built towns, vineyards, and boutique hotels in its valleys and strategic heights.

Assad said, “The land is not negotiable, and the Israelis know that we are not going to negotiate the line of 1967.” But he suggested that compromises were possible. “We only demarcate the line,” he said. “We negotiate the relations, the water, and everything else.” Many who are close to the process assume that an Israeli-Syrian settlement would include reparations for the Israelis in the Golan Heights, and, for a time, the right of access to the land. Assad said, “You discuss everything after the peace and getting your land. Not before.”

If Israel wants a settlement that goes beyond the Golan Heights, Assad said, it will have to “deal with the core issue”—the situation in the West Bank and Gaza—“and not waste time talking about who is going to send arms to Hezbollah or Hamas. Wherever you have resistance in the region, they will have armaments somehow. It is very simple.” He added, “Hezbollah is in Lebanon and Hamas is in Palestine. . . . If they want to solve the problem of Hezbollah, they have to deal with Lebanon. For Hamas, they have to deal with Gaza. For Iran, it is not part of the peace process anyway.” Assad went on, “This peace is about peace between Syria and Israel.”

In his e-mail after the Gaza war, Assad emphasized that it was more than ever “essential that the United States play a prominent and active role in the peace process.” What he needed, Assad said, was direct contact with Obama. A conference would not be enough: “It is most natural to want a meeting with President Obama.”

If the Netanyahu government is to trade land for peace, it needs to be assured of domestic political support—and help from Washington. In September, 2007, Israel destroyed what it claimed was a potential Syrian nuclear-weapons reactor during a cross-border raid, an action that won the approval of the Israeli public. (Syria insisted there was no reactor on the site.) At the time, the two countries were already laying the groundwork for the indirect negotiations. In December, 2008, Ehud Olmert, who was then Prime Minister, flew to Ankara, Turkey, and conducted more than five hours of intense talks on the return of the Golan Heights, with the mediation of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was often in direct telephone contact with Bashar Assad. But Olmert’s standing was tarnished, both inside Israel, by a series of criminal investigations that led to his resignation (he has denied any wrongdoing), and outside Israel, by the Gaza war, which began days after he left Ankara.

Netanyahu’s coalition government will include, as Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, the head of the Israel Beytenu Party, who has argued for a measure, aimed at Israeli-Arabs, requiring citizens to take loyalty oaths or forfeit many of their rights, and has rejected any land-for-peace agreement with Syria (though he is open to trading other territories); and, as Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, the Labor Party leader, who has consistently supported talks with Syria. Current opinion polls indicate that the majority of Israelis do not support a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Netanyahu himself—in what was widely seen as a plea for votes—declared two days before the elections that he would not return the Golan Heights.

Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, who served on Israeli peace delegations in 1995 and 2001 and also as an adviser to Prime Minister Barak, said that Netanyahu “may have huge coalition problems, not least within his own Likud Party,” and that he “may have to publicly disavow any land-for-peace agreement, given his political position. Can the Syrians swallow that? If they can’t, it means that the only option left will be secret talks.” Levy added, “Barak’s appointment does not change the fundamental dynamics of the coalition, but it means that Bibi [Netanyahu] has a Defense Minister who will be on board for dealing with Syria, who wants to deal with Syria—and who also will be on board for doing it in secret.”

Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli Ambassador to Washington, who was Israel’s chief negotiator with Syria under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and informally advises his government on Syrian issues, argued that the war in Gaza had not changed Israel’s essential interest in a Golan Heights settlement: “Gaza is Gaza, and I say that Bashar Assad definitely wants to go ahead with the talks. And he may find a partner in Bibi Netanyahu. Bibi would prefer to make a deal with Syria rather than with the Palestinians.”

But if the talks are to proceed, Rabinovich said, “they will have to be transformed to direct negotiations.” This would require the support and involvement of the Obama Administration. Rabinovich said that he thought Obama, like Netanyahu, “after weighing the pros and cons, will see a Golan Heights settlement as being more feasible” than a deal with the Palestinians. “The talks are serious, and there is a partner.”

The former American diplomat, who is an expert on the Golan Heights, said that it would take between three and five years to evacuate Israelis living there. “During that time, if there is a party moderating the agreement—the U.S., perhaps—it would be necessary for that party to stay engaged, to make sure that the process stays on course,” he said. This factor may explain why Assad wants the U.S. involved. “The key point is that the signing of an agreement is just the beginning—and third parties are needed to reinforce the agreement.”

Obama’s Middle East strategy is still under review in the State Department and the National Security Council. The Administration has been distracted by the economic crisis, and impeded by the large number of key foreign- and domestic-policy positions yet to be filled. Obama’s appointment of former Senator George Mitchell as his special envoy for Middle East diplomacy, on January 22nd, won widespread praise, but Mitchell has yet to visit Syria. Diplomatic contacts with Damascus were expanded in late February, and informal exchanges with Syria have already taken place. According to involved diplomats, the Administration’s tone was one of dialogue and respect—and not a series of demands. For negotiations to begin, the Syrians understood that Washington would no longer insist that Syria shut down the Hamas liaison office in Damascus and oust its political leader, Khaled Meshal. Syria, instead, will be asked to play a moderating role with the Hamas leadership, and urge a peaceful resolution of Hamas’s ongoing disputes with Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The Syrians were also told that the Obama Administration was reëvaluating the extent of Syria’s control over Hezbollah. (The White House did not respond to requests for comment.)

The United States has been involved in negotiations over the Golan Heights before, notably those brokered by Bill Clinton in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, in 2000. Those talks, despite their last-minute collapse over border disputes, among other issues, provided the backbone for the recent indirect negotiations. Martin Indyk, who advised Clinton at Shepherdstown, said that those talks were about “territory for peace.” Now, he said, “it’s about territory for peace and strategic realignment.”

During the long campaign for the White House, Obama often criticized Syria for its links to terrorism, its “pursuit of weapons of mass destruction,” and its interference in Lebanon, where Syria had troops until 2005 and still plays a political role. (Assad dismissed the criticisms in his talk with me: “We do not bet on speeches during the campaign.”) But Obama said that he would be willing to sit down with Assad in the first year of his Presidency without preconditions. He also endorsed the Syrian peace talks with Israel. “We must never force Israel to the negotiating table, but neither should we ever block negotiations when Israel’s leaders decide that they may serve Israeli interests,” he said at the annual conference, last June, of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). “As President, I will do whatever I can to help Israel succeed in these negotiations.”

The differences between Obama’s Syria policies and those of the Administration of George W. Bush have attracted relatively little attention. In December, 2006, the Iraq Study Group called for direct talks with Syria. In a speech soon afterward, Bush explained why he disagreed. “I think it would be counterproductive at this point to sit down with the Syrians, because Syria knows exactly what it takes to get better relations,” he said. The President then provided a list: stop its support for Hamas and Hezbollah; stop meddling in Lebanon; coöperate in the investigation of the murder, in 2005, of Rafik Hariri, Lebanon’s former Prime Minister; and stop serving as “a transit way for suicide bombers heading into Iraq.” (The Bush Administration accused Syria of failing to monitor its long border with Iraq, and, last October, staged a raid into Syria, killing eight people, one of whom was said to be a senior Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia operative. A huge number of Iraqi refugees have also fled to Syria, straining the economy.) Bush added dismissively, “When people go sit down with Bashar Assad, the President of Syria, he walks out and holds a press conference, and says, ‘Look how important I am. People are coming to see me; people think I’m vital.’ ”

An official who served with the Bush Administration said that late last year the Administration thought it was unrealistic to engage Syria on the Golan Heights. “The Bush view was, if we support the talks, with no preconditions, what are we going to say to our supporters in Lebanon who are standing up to Hezbollah? ‘You stood up to Hezbollah’—and where are we?”

Assad noted late last year that the Bush White House did not “have to trust me, because they are not involved in peace anyway. . . .They created a lot of problems around the world and they exacerbated the situation in every hot spot [and] made the world more vulnerable to terrorism. This is the most important thing,” he said. “Nobody can say the opposite.”

As the Bush era wound down, U.S. allies were making their own openings to Syria. In mid-November, David Miliband, the British Foreign Secretary, distressed the White House by flying to Damascus for a meeting with Assad. They agreed that Britain and Syria would establish a high-level exchange of intelligence. Vice-President Dick Cheney viewed the move by Britain—“perfidious Albion,” as he put it—as “a stab in the back,” according to a former senior intelligence official.

In his e-mail, Assad praised the diplomatic efforts of former President Jimmy Carter. “Carter is most knowledgeable about the Middle East and he does not try to dictate or give sermons,” Assad said. “He sincerely is trying to think creatively and find solutions that are outside the box.” Carter’s calls for engagement with Hamas have angered many in Israel and America. In “We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land,” published in January, Carter described Syria as “a key factor in any overall regional peace.” Last December, Carter visited Syria, and met not only with President Assad but with Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader.

A senior White House official confirmed that the Obama transition team had been informed in advance of Carter’s trip to Syria, and that Carter met with Obama shortly before the Inauguration. The two men—Obama was accompanied only by David Axelrod, the President’s senior adviser, who helped arrange the meeting; and Carter by his wife, Rosalynn—discussed the Middle East for an hour. Carter declined to discuss his meeting with Obama, but he did write in an e-mail that he hoped the new President “would pursue a wide-ranging dialogue as soon as possible with the Assad government.” An understanding between Washington and Damascus, he said, “could set the stage for successful Israeli-Syrian talks.”

The Obama transition team also helped persuade Israel to end the bombing of Gaza and to withdraw its ground troops before the Inauguration. According to the former senior intelligence official, who has access to sensitive information, “Cheney began getting messages from the Israelis about pressure from Obama” when he was President-elect. Cheney, who worked closely with the Israeli leadership in the lead-up to the Gaza war, portrayed Obama to the Israelis as a “pro-Palestinian,” who would not support their efforts (and, in private, disparaged Obama, referring to him at one point as someone who would “never make it in the major leagues”). But the Obama team let it be known that it would not object to the planned resupply of “smart bombs” and other high-tech ordnance that was already flowing to Israel. “It was Jones”—retired Marine General James Jones, at the time designated to be the President’s national-security adviser—“who came up with the solution and told Obama, ‘You just can’t tell the Israelis to get out.’ ” (General Jones said that he could not verify this account; Cheney’s office declined to comment.)

Syria’s relationship with Iran will emerge as the crucial issue in the diplomatic reviews now under way in Washington. A settlement, the Israelis believe, would reduce Iran’s regional standing and influence. “I’d love to be a fly on the wall when Bashar goes to Tehran and explains to the Supreme Leader that he wants to mediate a bilateral relationship with the United States,” the former American diplomat said, referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

An Israeli official acknowledged that his government had learned of “tensions between Syria and Iran in recent months.” Before Gaza, he said, there had been a noticeable change in the Syrian tone during informal contacts—“an element of openness, candor, and civility.” He cautioned, however, “You can move diplomatically with the Syrians, but you cannot ignore Syria’s major role in arming Hamas and Hezbollah, or the fact that it has intimate relations with Iran, whose nuclear program is still going forward.” He added, with a smile, “No one in Israel is running out to buy a new suit for the peace ceremony on the White House lawn.”

Martin Indyk said, “If the White House engages with Syria, it immediately puts pressure on Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah.” He said that he had repeatedly sought, without success, to convince the Bush Administration that it was possible to draw Syria away from Iran. In his recent memoir, “Innocent Abroad,” Indyk wrote, “There is a deep divergence between Iran and Syria, captured in the fact that at the same time as Iran’s president threatens to wipe Israel off the map, his Syrian ally is attempting to make peace with Israel. . . . Should negotiations yield a peace agreement, it would likely cause the breakup of the Iranian-Syrian axis.” When we spoke, he added, referring to Assad, “It will not be easy for him to break with Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran, but he cannot get a peace deal unless he does. But, if he feels that things are moving in the Middle East, he will not want to be left behind.”

Thomas Dine, who served as the executive director of AIPAC in Washington for thirteen years, said, “You don’t have to be Kissingerian to realize that this is the way to peel the onion from Iran.” Dine went on, “Get what you can get and take one step at a time. The agenda is to get Syria to begin thinking about its relationships with Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah.” A Pentagon consultant said, “If we ever really took yes for an answer from Syria, the Iranians would go nuts.”

The official Syrian position toward Iran, which Assad repeated to me, is that Iran did not object to the Golan Heights talks, on the principle that any return of sovereign land was to be applauded: “They announced this publicly . . . and I went to Iran and I heard the same.” But there is some evidence that the Syrians may be, in Dine’s terms, reassessing the relationship. The senior Syrian official said that an opening to the West would bring the country increased tourism, trade, and investment, and a higher standard of living—progress that would eventually make it less reliant on Iran. If Israel then attacked Iran, he asked, “what will Syria do?” His answer was that Syria wouldn’t do more than condemn the attack. “What else could we do?”

In an interview in Berlin, Joschka Fischer, the former German Foreign Minister, who has continued to closely monitor Middle Eastern affairs, argued that the Iranians would “have to make a public move” after a settlement. “Yes, they will react to an Israeli-Syria deal, because they do not want to be isolated, and do not want to lose their last ally to the West.” In other words, serious regional diplomacy could be possible.

However, Alastair Crooke, a former British intelligence officer who operated in the Middle East and later served as an adviser to the European Union and a staff member for a fact-finding committee on the Middle East headed by Mitchell, said that the new Administration should not assume that Bashar Assad could be separated easily from Iran, or persuaded to give up support for Hamas and Hezbollah. “Bashar now has enormous standing in the Arab world, and it comes from these pillars—he was among the first to oppose the American war in Iraq and his continued support for Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas,” Crooke said. “He cannot trade the Golan Heights for peace with Israel, and cut off his allies. What Syria can do is offer its good standing and credentials to lead a comprehensive regional settlement.” But, he said, “the Obama Administration is going to make it really painful for Syria. There will be no bouquets for Syria.”

He went on, “The real goal of Assad is not necessarily an agreement on the Golan but to begin to engage America and slice away the American demonization of his state.” The changed political landscape in Israel would complicate this process for the Syrians. He said, “They’re starting all these processes to break their isolation and change their strategy. It’s going to be bloody difficult for them to manage this.”

Robert Pastor, a former National Security Council official who has visited Damascus with former President Carter, similarly said that he believed the Syrians had no intention of ending their relationship with Iran. “The Syrians want bilateral talks with Washington and they also want America to be involved in their talks with Israel on the Golan Heights,” Pastor said. “They also believe their relationship with Iran could be of help to the Obama Administration. They believe they could be a bridge between Washington and Tehran.”

Khaled Meshal, the leader of Hamas, works in an office in a well-protected, tranquil residential area of Damascus. In recent years, he has met privately with Jewish leaders and Americans. Meshal is seen by Israel as a sponsor of suicide bombers and other terrorist activity. In 1997, he survived a botched assassination-by-poisoning attempt by Israeli intelligence which Netanyahu, then the Prime Minister, had ordered. Under pressure from Jordan and the U.S., the Israelis handed over the poison’s antidote, saving Meshal’s life.

Speaking through a translator, Meshal said that he believed that the Iranians would not interfere with negotiations between Israel and Syria, although they were not enthusiastic about them. Meshal also said he doubted that Israel intended to return the Golan Heights to Syrian control. But, he said, “If we suppose that Israel is serious, we support the right of Syria to negotiate with Israel to attain its legitimate rights.”

Hamas’s presence in Damascus had, he knew, been a contentious issue in Syria’s relations with both the United States and Israel. “Bashar would never ask us to leave,” he said. “There are some who believe that Hamas would react defensively to an agreement, because of our presence in Syria. But it does not make a difference where our offices are. We are a street movement and our real power is inside Palestine, and nothing can affect that. We are confident about Bashar Assad, and we would never risk being a burden to him. . . . We can move at any time, and move lightly. The Hamas movement will not work against the interests of any other country, and any agreement can be concluded, whether we like it or not. But, also, we don’t want anyone to interfere in our affairs.”

Farouk al-Shara, the Vice-President of Syria, was, as Foreign Minister, his nation’s chief negotiator at Shepherdstown. When he was asked whether Syria’s relationship with Iran would change if the Golan Heights issue was resolved, he said, “Do you think a man only goes to bed with a woman he deeply loves?” Shara laughed, and added, “That’s my answer to your question about Iran.”

There are other impediments to a new relationship between the United States and Syria, including the still unresolved question of who killed Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese Prime Minister, who was assassinated in February, 2005. Years of investigation have produced no criminal charges. The Bush Administration suggested that the Syrians were at least indirectly responsible for Hariri’s death—he had been a sharp critic of Syria’s involvement in Lebanon—and it wasn’t alone; Hariri’s murder exacerbated tensions between Syria and France and Saudi Arabia. But the case is clearly less important to French President Nicolas Sarkozy than it was to his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, who was close to Hariri. (“This was personal for Chirac, and not political,” Joschka Fischer said.) An adviser to the Saudi government said that King Abdullah did not accept Assad’s assurances that he had nothing to do with the murder. But there has recently been a flurry of renewed diplomatic contacts between Damascus and Riyadh.

One issue that may be a casualty of an Obama rapprochement with Syria is human rights. Syrians are still being jailed for speaking out against the policies of their government. Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director for Human Rights Watch, said that Assad “has been offering fig leafs to the Americans for a long time and thinks if he makes nice in Lebanon and with Hamas and Hezbollah he will no longer be an outcast. We believe that no amount of diplomatic success will solve his internal problems.” The authorities, Whitson said, are “going after ordinary Syrians—like people chatting in cafés. Everyone is looking over their shoulder.”

Assad, in his interview with me, acknowledged, “We do not say that we are a democratic country. We do not say that we are perfect, but we are moving forward.” And he focussed on what he had to offer. He said that he had a message for Obama: Syria, as a secular state, and the United States faced a common enemy in Al Qaeda and Islamic extremism. The Bush White House, he said, had viewed the fundamentalists as groups “that you should go and chase, and then you will accomplish your mission, as Bush says. It is not that simple. How do you deal with a state of mind? You can deal with it in many different ways—except for the army.” Speaking of Obama, he said in his e-mail, “We are happy that he has said that diplomacy—and not war—is the means of conducting international policy.”

Assad’s goal in seeking to engage with America and Israel is clearly more far-reaching than merely to regain the Golan Heights. His ultimate aim appears to be to persuade Obama to abandon the Bush Administration’s strategy of aligning America with the so-called “moderate” Arab Sunni states—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan—in a coördinated front against Shiite Iran, Shiite Hezbollah, and Hamas.

“Of course, the Iranians are nervous about the talks, because they don’t fully trust the Syrians,” Itamar Rabinovich said. “But the Assad family does not believe in taking chances—they’re very hard bargainers. They will try to get what they want without breaking fully from Iran, and they will tell us and Washington, ‘It’s to your advantage not to isolate Iran.’ ” Rabinovich added, “Both Israel and the United States will insist on a change in Syria’s relationship with Iran. This can only be worked out—or not—in head-to-head talks.”

The White House has tough diplomatic choices to make in the next few months. Assad has told the Obama Administration that his nation can ease the American withdrawal in Iraq. Syria also can help the U.S. engage with Iran, and the Iranians, in turn, could become an ally in neighboring Afghanistan, as the Obama Administration struggles to deal with the Taliban threat and its deepening involvement in that country—and to maintain its long-standing commitment to the well-being of Israel. Each of these scenarios has potential downsides. Resolving all of them will be formidable, and will involve sophisticated and intelligent diplomacy—the kind of diplomacy that disappeared during the past eight years, and that the Obama team has to prove it possesses. ♦

Where Is Israel Headed?

Please Tell Me?

By John J. Mearsheimer
Thu, 03/26/2009 - 4:06pm
Courtesy Of The New Foreign Policy

Benjamin Netanyahu is in the final stages of putting together Israel's next government, which will be opposed to a two-state solution. Most importantly, the new prime minister and his Likud Party are firmly against a Palestinian state. The Labor Party, which will be part of the governing coalition and which has been identified with the two-state solution for the past two decades, did not insist that Likud support that policy as a condition for joining the government. Its leader, Ehud Barak, merely asked for and got a vague statement saying that Israel was committed to promoting regional peace. Avigdor Lieberman, who heads Yisrael Beiteinu, the other major party in the ruling coalition, is not likely to push to give the Palestinians a viable state of their own. His main concern is "transferring" the Palestinians out of Israel so that it can be an almost purely Jewish state.

So Israel will continue expanding its settlements in the West Bank. In fact, the Israeli press is reporting that Netanyahu and Lieberman agreed in their negotiations to form a government that Israel would build 3,000 housing units in an area between Jerusalem and Maale Adumim (a huge settlement bloc) known as E-1. Once that is accomplished, Israel will have effectively cut the West Bank in half, making it almost impossible to create a viable Palestinian state. This deal was supposed to be secret, because the United States is opposed to Israel building in the E-1 area.

The Palestinians, of course, will remain locked up in Gaza and a handful of enclaves on the West Bank. In essence, Netanyahu and his two key ministers -- Ehud Barak (Defense) and Avigdor Lieberman (Foreign Affairs) -- are committed to creating a Greater Israel, which will cover all of the territory that was once Mandate Palestine.

The Obama administration will surely try to push Netanyahu to change his thinking about a two-state solution and work to give the Palestinians a real state of their own. The Israel lobby, however, will adamantly defend Israel's right to do whatever it wants in the Occupied Territories and make it impossible for the president to put significant pressure on Israel. Netanyahu, like all Israeli leaders, understands this basic fact of life. He knows that he will just have to say a few nice words about the "peace process" and blame the whole thing on the Palestinians, who he believes are a bunch of terrorists anyway, and he will be pretty much free to do whatever he wants in Gaza and the West Bank.

It seems clear to me and to many smart people I know that this story does not have a happy ending. Indeed, it looks like a disastrous ending. Greater Israel cannot be a democratic state, because there will soon be -- if there aren't already -- more Palestinians between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea than there are Israeli Jews. So, if you give each person one vote, Israel becomes Palestine. That is not going to happen anytime soon, if ever, which leaves two possible outcomes: apartheid and expelling the Palestinians -- and there are more than 5 million of them -- from Greater Israel. Talk about repulsive options. It is worth remembering that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said that if there is no two-state solution, Israel will end up in a South Africa-like situation and that will mean the end of the Jewish state. In effect, he is saying that Israel is turning itself into an apartheid state.

My bottom line is that Israel, with the backing of the lobby, is pursuing a remarkably foolish -- Ehud Olmert would say suicidal -- policy towards the Palestinians.

I would appreciate it greatly if Israel's American backers would explain what I am missing here. They must think that there is a happy ending to this story that Olmert and I simply fail to see. Otherwise they would not be backing the Greater Israel enterprise. There is no need for Christian Zionists to respond, because I know what their happy ending is: the Battle of Armageddon and then the Second Coming of Christ. Israel's Jewish backers do not buy this story, which, in fact, many consider anti-Semitic. But they must have an alternative explanation for how Greater Israel is good for the Jews. What is it?

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

The Great Afghan Bailout

By Tom Engelhardt
Source: TomDispatch
March 30, 2009
Courtesy Of Anti-War

Let's start by stopping.

It's time, as a start, to stop calling our expanding war in Central and South Asia "the Afghan War" or "the Afghanistan War." If Obama's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke doesn't want to, why should we? Recently, in a BBC interview, he insisted that "the 'number one problem' in stabilizing Afghanistan was Taliban sanctuaries in western Pakistan, including tribal areas along the Afghan border and cities like Quetta" in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan.

And isn't he right? After all, the U.S. seems to be in the process of trading in a limited war in a mountainous, poverty-stricken country of 27 million people for one in an advanced nation of 167 million, with a crumbling economy, rising extremism, advancing corruption, and a large military armed with nuclear weapons. Worse yet, the war in Pakistan seems to be expanding inexorably (and in tandem with American war planning) from the tribal borderlands ever closer to the heart of the country.

These days, Washington has even come up with a neologism for the change: "Af-Pak," as in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater of operations. So, in the name of realism and accuracy, shouldn't we retire "the Afghan War" and begin talking about the far more disturbing "Af-Pak War"?

And while we're at it, maybe we should retire the word "surge" as well. Right now, as the Obama plan for that Af-Pak War is being "rolled out," newspaper headlines have been surging when it comes to accepting the surge paradigm. Long before the administration's "strategic review" of the war had even been completed, President Obama was reportedly persuaded by former Iraq surge commander, now CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus to "surge" another 17,000 troops into Afghanistan, starting this May.

For the last two weeks, news has been filtering out of Washington of an accompanying civilian "surge" into Afghanistan ("Obama's Afghanistan 'surge': diplomats, civilian specialists"). Oh, and then there's to be that opium-eradication surge and a range of other so-called surges. As the headlines have had it: "1,400 Isle Marines to join Afghanistan surge," "U.S. troop surge to aid Afghan police trainers," "Seabees build to house surge," "Afghan Plan Detailed As Iraq Surge 'Lite,'" and so on.

It seems to matter little that even Gen. Petraeus wonders whether the word should be applied. ("The commander of the U.S. Central Command said Friday that an Iraq-style surge cannot be a solution to the problems in Afghanistan.") There are, however, other analogies that might better capture the scope and nature of the new strategic plan for the Af-Pak War. Think bailout. Think A.I.G.

The Costs Of An Expanding War

In truth, what we're about to watch should be considered nothing less than the Great Afghan (or Af-Pak) bailout.

On Friday morning, the president officially rolled out his long-awaited "comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan," a plan without a name. If there was little news in it, that was only because of the furious leaking of prospective parts of it over the previous weeks. So many trial balloons, so little time.

In a recent 60 Minutes interview (though not in his Friday announcement), the president also emphasized the need for an "exit strategy" from the war. Similarly, American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, has been speaking of a possible "tipping point," three to five years away, that might lead to "eventual departure." Nonetheless, almost every element of the new plan – both those the president mentioned Friday and the no-less-crucial ones that didn't receive a nod – seem to involve the word "more"; that is, more U.S. troops, more U.S. diplomats, more civilian advisers, more American and NATO military advisers to train more Afghan troops and police, more base- and outpost-building, more opium-eradication operations, more aid, more money to the Pakistani military – and strikingly large-scale as that may be, all of that doesn't even include the "covert war," fought mainly via unmanned aerial vehicles, along the Pakistani tribal borderlands, which is clearly going to intensify.

In the coming year, that CIA-run drone war, according to leaked reports, may be expanded from the tribal areas into Pakistan's more heavily populated Baluchistan province where some of the Taliban leadership is supposedly holed up. In addition, so reports in British papers claim, the U.S. is seriously considering a soft coup-in-place against Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Disillusioned with the widespread corruption in, and inefficiency of, his government, the U.S. would create a new "chief executive" or prime ministerial post not in the Afghan constitution – and then install some reputedly less corrupt (and perhaps more malleable) figure. Karzai would supposedly be turned into a figurehead "father of the nation." Envoy Holbrooke has officially denied that Washington is planning any such thing, while a spokesman for Karzai denounced the idea (both, of course, just feeding the flames of the Afghan rumor mill).

What this all adds up to is an ambitious doubling down on just about every bet already made by Washington in these last years – from the counterinsurgency war against the Taliban and the counter-terrorism war against al-Qaeda to the financial love/hate relationship with the Pakistani military and its intelligence services underway since at least the Nixon years of the early 1970s. (Many of the flattering things now being said by U.S. officials about Pakistani Chief of the Army Staff General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, for instance, were also said about the now fallen autocrat Pervez Musharraf when he held the same position.)

Despite that mention of the need for an exit strategy and a presidential assurance that both the Afghan and Pakistani governments will be held to Iraqi-style "benchmarks" of accountability in the period to come, Obama's is clearly a jump-in-with-both-feet strategy and, not surprisingly, is sure to involve a massive infusion of new funds. Unlike with A.I.G., where the financial inputs of the U.S. government are at least announced, we don't even have a ballpark figure for how much is actually involved right now, but it's bound to be staggering. Just supporting those 17,000 new American troops already ordered into Afghanistan, many destined to be dispatched to still-to-be-built bases and outposts in the embattled southern and eastern parts of the country for which all materials must be trucked in, will certainly cost billions.

Recently, the Washington Post's Walter Pincus dug up some of the construction and transportation costs associated with the war in Afghanistan and found that, as an employer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers comes in second only to the Afghan government in that job-desperate country. The Corps is spending about $4 billion this year alone on road-building activities and has slated up to $6 billion for more of the same in 2010; it has, according to Pincus, already spent $2 billion constructing facilities for the expanding Afghan army and police forces and has another $1.2 billion set aside for more such facilities this year. It is also likely to spend between $400 million and $1.4 billion on as many as six new bases, assorted outposts, and associated air fields American troops will be sent to in the south.

Throw in hardship pay, supplies, housing, and whatever else for the hundreds of diplomats and advisers in that promised "civilian surge"; add in the $1.5 billion a year the president promised in economic aid to Pakistan over the next five years, a tripling of such aid (as urged by Vice President Biden when he was still a senator); add in unknown amounts of aid to the Pakistani and Afghan militaries. Tote it up, and you've just scratched the surface of Washington's coming investment in the Af-Pak War. (And lest you imagine that these costs might, at least, be offset by savings from Obama's plan to draw down American forces in Iraq, think again. A recent study by the Government Accountability Office suggests that "Iraq-related expenditures" will actually increase "during the withdrawal and for several years after its completion.")

Put all this together and you can see why the tactical word "surge" hardly covers what's about to happen. The administration's "new" strategy and its "new" thinking – including its urge to peel off less committed Taliban supporters and reach out for help to regional powers – should really be re-imagined as but another massive attempted bailout, this time of an Afghan project, now almost 40 years old, that in foreign policy terms is indeed our A.I.G.

Graveyard Thinking

As Obama's economic team overseeing the various financial bailouts is made up of figures long cozy with Wall Street, so his foreign policy team is made up of figures deeply entrenched in Washington's national security state – former Clintonistas (including the penultimate Clinton herself), military figures like National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones, and that refugee from the H.W. Bush era, Defense Secretary Robert Gates. They are classic custodians of empire. Like the economic team, they represent the ancien régime.

They've now done their "stress tests," which, in the world of foreign policy, are called "strategic reviews." They recognize that unexpected forces are pressing in on them. They grasp that the American global system, as it existed since the truncated American century began, is in danger. They're ready to bite the bullet and bail it out. Their goal is to save what they care about in ways that they know.

Unfortunately, the end result is likely to be that, as with A.I.G., we, the American people, could end up "owning" 80 percent of the Af-Pak project without ever "nationalizing" it – without ever, that is, being in actual control. In fact, if things go as badly as they could in the Af-Pak War, A.I.G. might end up looking like a good deal by comparison.

The foreign policy team is no more likely to exhibit genuinely outside-the-box thinking than the team of Tim Geithner and Larry Summers has been. Their clear and desperate urge is to operate in the known zone, the one in which the U.S. is always imagined to be part of the solution to any problem on the planet, never part of the problem itself.

In foreign policy (as in economic policy), it took the Bush team less than eight years to steer the ship of state into the shallows where it ran disastrously aground. And yet, in response, after months of "strategic review," this team of inside-the-Beltway realists has come up with a combination of Af-Pak War moves that are almost blindingly expectable.

In the end, this sort of thinking is likely to leave the Obama administration hostage to its own projects as well as unprepared for the onrush of the unexpected and unknown, whose arrival may be the only thing that can be predicted with assurance right now. Whether as custodians of the imperial economy or the imperial frontier, Obama's people are lashed to the past, to Wall Street and the national security state. They are ill-prepared to take the necessary full measure of our world.

If you really want a "benchmark" for measuring how our world has been shifting on its axis, consider that we have all lived to see a Chinese premier appear at what was, in essence, an international news conference and seriously upbraid Washington for its handling of the global economy. That might have been surprising in itself. Far more startling was the response of Washington. A year ago, the place would have been up in arms. This time around, from White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs ("There's no safer investment in the world than in the United States") to the president himself ("Not just the Chinese government, but every investor can have absolute confidence in the soundness of investments in the United States"), Washington's response was to mollify and reassure.

Face it, we've entered a new universe. The "homeland" is in turmoil, the planetary frontiers are aboil. Change – even change we don't want to believe in – is in the air.

In the end, as with the Obama economic team, so the foreign policy team may be pushed in new directions sooner than anyone imagines and, willy-nilly, into some genuinely new thinking about a collapsing world. But not now. Not yet. Like our present financial bailouts, like that extra $30 billion that went into A.I.G. recently, the new Obama plan is superannuated on arrival. It represents graveyard thinking.


Af-Pak War…


Copyright 2009 Tom Engelhardt