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Archive for the ‘Afghanistan’ Category

Great expectations

In Afghanistan, Civil Society, Foreign Policy, Israel, The United States on October 12, 2009 at 7:36 am

I decided to wait to blog my personal thoughts regarding Obama being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009 until it became apparent the nature of the reaction. I had an idea and it seems that my own perception seemed to be correct.

Much of the rhetoric is that the committee that awarded the prize was rash and mistaken as, according to the critics, Obama has no real accomplishments in his first 9 months as President that warrant such a prestigious honor. Furthermore, they see him as turning into a puppet of the international community, or to put it bluntly, being in Europe’s pocket. Having foreseen this reaction, Obama himself was very cautious when delivering his speech about receiving the award. He stated that he was both surprised and humbled by receiving such an award and viewed the reward not as “a recognition of [his] own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations.”

Let’s be frank. Obama is not in the pocket of the Europeans, indeed it’s quite the opposite. Obama has large popularity outside of America’s borders, which strengthens his position on American foreign policy and does not by any means weaken it. Politicians abroad will feel more pressure to side with the U.S. on policies, even controversial ones such as the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, Iran, North Korea, and NATO engagement in Afghanistan. To state otherwise is prosperous as we’ve already seen the consequences of acting in the opposite way during George W. Bush’s presidency. Obama has been rebuilding America’s political soft power and him receiving the Nobel Prize will quicken this process.

That being said, it cannot be ignored that there are challenges that he will face, most notably from the radical opposition that has been very outspoken against his efforts to reform health care. There is a large anti-European element in the United States. This will never change. Fareed Zakaria stated it best, contributing to Anderson Cooper’s AC360 program on CNN, that it’s never a great thing for a President of the United States to be popular in France. Obama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize will without a doubt increase this perception of fear. That said, it’s obvious that the committee in Norway decided to make this years award a political one. It’s apparent that Obama does not have many accomplishments that would deserve him such a prize, rather the decision was a way to mitigate foreign opposition to Obama’s endeavor of working closer with the United Nations, fostering cooperation between countries, and to allow a resurgence of Wilsonism in the international arena.

The committee, however, may have misread the situation. Obama is in need of some good news, but not to the outside world, but to regular Americans themselves. Pushing through Congress one of the most controversial pieces of legislature since the days of Franklin Roosevelt has cost him large amounts of political capital from his own party, capital that he will need if he wants to tackle, as he termed it, the war of necessity that is Afghanistan. Another consequence of awarding such a prize at a premature date is the perception of the Nobel Prize itself to Americans as not being one that is awarded based on true merit, but rather as a political tool or an attempt from Europe to directly influence American foreign policy.

The White House is well aware of these issues, and the approach that has surfaced is one of cautiousness and constraint. Regardless of these hinderances and controversies, at the end of the day this will be a major boost to Obama’s attempt at transforming the international system and putting the United States on a firm foothold as a conduit for such change. The major challenge he will face is the added pressure that has been put on him out of the expectation that he is in the position to make drastic changes in the world, where if he fails, not only will his popularity further plummet within the United States but outside of it as well.

Fighting two wars

In Afghanistan, Environment, European Union, The United States on September 22, 2009 at 9:33 am

I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Hong Kong (no it’s not Starbucks) and reading the September 22, 2009 edition of the International Herald Tribune. Two articles caught my interest: The first, titled E.U. is increasingly skeptical of U.S. on climate and the second, titled Commander seeks more troops for Afghanistan, are both linked. How is that you may ask? Well allow me to illustrate.

The climate article depicts E.U. frustrations that the United States will not be able to deliver on climate change proposals that will be promised at the upcoming conference in Copenhagen. They fear that it will end up being another Kyoto, and though the Obama administration may sign a comprehensive agreement it will fail in the Senate. The main issue is tying the U.S. to any international regulatory bodies that will monitor and enforce any commitments the U.S. will make.

And they are right. The U.S. will never, at least in the near future, commit to anything that may directly affect American business practices within its borders, unless it’s a local policeman. Nor should it.

Regarding the second article, General Stanley A. McChrystal’s report of the military situation in Afghanistan has been the news of the week. And it’s only Tuesday. Simply put, he’s calling for more troops to be sent, or else the U.S. mission there will fail. Notice the lack of could or might, but will. It’s a jolt to the Obama administration as Obama has been dancing around the topic and openly displaying his hesitancy in sending any fresh troops, unless the situation, to paraphrase from an interview during this past Sunday’s Meet the Press, will directly and without a doubt threaten U.S. national security.

Oh how having a war and a conference on climate change have found themselves to be occurring during one of the worst possible times.

And this is how these two issues are linked. Both articles illustrate the position Obama is in right now. Sandwiched between two parties on two different issues, the Democrats want to push their version of Health Care reform through in direct opposition to the Republicans, while the GOP wants a bigger U.S. commitment for the war, and the Democrats are becoming very much opposed, as U.S. casualties are rising and the cost of the war is increasing. Obama has to work with each issue while appeasing one party and excluding the other. If you think you saw some interesting debates on Health Care reform, wait till Obama promises, if he does just that, something substantial regarding a U.S. commitment on climate change.

He will not get both, and it’s at the cost of finally insuring more than 94% of Americans.

And this is the pickle. Afghanistan is a problem that is here and now and will affect the U.S. more in a negative way and not to mention quicker. To be sure, we finally accepted that the Earth heating up will have devastating consequences, it’s nevertheless a long-run-issue and merely got in the way of one of the biggest domestic changes the U.S. is experiencing right now.

To be sure, if we want to win in Afghanistan we will need to send more money and troops. Fighting an insurgency has a high capital and human cost. Just look at Thomas Rick’s highly influential book, Fiasco, which outlined these observations and identified why the U.S. failed in Vietnam and was struggling and losing in Iraq shortly after the invasion. To win hearts and minds you need boots on the ground to do it.

But the E.U. criticism of the U.S. does have its advantages. If you want a larger U.S. commitment in fighting climate change, then the U.S. needs a larger commitment by its European friends in Afghanistan, mainly from Germany, Italy, and France. Unfortunately this won’t be the concession but will probably be the same one the Senate demanded with Kyoto, and that’s also a commitment in cutting carbon admissions by the rising economies of India and China. To be frank, the Europeans want a larger promise from the U.S. than what the U.S. is willing to give. The irony is that it will probably be very unlikely that the E.U. will even make its target, and let’s not forget that it didn’t even do what it said it would at Kyoto, it was far short of its stated goal.

But nevertheless, these two issues are very serious and require an international, if not a regional effort for Afghanistan. If the U.S. can link these two issues, conceding on one forum while pressing the Europeans to be more engaged in Afghanistan, then acceptable efforts will be put forth in tackling these issues. Unfortunately, domestic pressures in the U.S. will make this propsect very unlikely.

A multilateral nightmare

In Afghanistan, European Union, Foreign Policy, NATO, Russia, The United States on August 28, 2009 at 11:10 am

Reading Zbigniew Brzezinski’s new essay from the September/October publication of Foreign Affairs on the future of NATO, inspired me to write my own thoughts regarding this multilateral security organization.

Brzezinski essentially outlines, more or less, the same arguments regarding NATO’s role and future in the post-Cold War era as Henry Kissinger did in his extremely foretelling book, Does America Need a Foreign Policy? They both outline the extreme importance of the Trans-Atlantic relationship, and how global power is slowly shifting away from the Atlantic to the Pacific, which makes NATO extremely important as a security organization. Additionally Kissinger asserts that the great danger lies not in the emergence of a new European identity in the form of the European Union, but rather the cause of this identity acting as a counterweight to American cultural influence. In Uncouth Nation, Andrei Markowitz outlines this same problem, and views an emergence of anti-Americanism to be so prevalent in Europe that a new European identity is emerging to counteract the weight of the United States. He is even as provocative as stating that George W. Bush should take his place among Jean Monnet, Robert Schumann, and Jacques Delors, as nothing before the U.S. led invasion of Iraq has ever produced a unified European identity in direct opposition to the United States. For me, the fate and purpose NATO is based upon four fundamental questions.

1. Need for purpose

First, the question must be asked regarding what NATO is supposed to be in this post-Cold War period. During the Cold War NATO had a distinct purpose; to create an alliance in Europe that would dissuade any military action by the Soviet Union and to stop a third World War coming into being. However, no longer do we live in a balance of power mentality, where wars are fought for the geopolitical advantage of territory, rather conflicts are more complex and predominately internal. Some, such as Mary Kaldor, have termed these New Wars, while others have termed them simply asymmetrical conflicts, pointing towards the way they are fought. Regardless, these wars are not a question of State vs. State, but involve non-State actors, such as warlords, that have emerged and do not respect international institutions, the rule of law, or even international law such as the Geneva Conventions. This has created a complexity that NATO must deal with, but so far has not. Additionally Kissinger views this more as a problem of a mission statement, as well as the multilateral character that NATO has acquired, paving way for the need of a consensus and not leaving room for those States with true hegemonic power, such as the United States, to take a substantial lead.

2. Improvement of the EU/NATO relationship

This leads to the second question: How can NATO play nicely with the EU? Though official rhetoric has been that the EU does not intend to replace NATO nor see the organization’s importance decrease, the way the EU decision making process works as well as NATO’s role in the region, has proved otherwise. It has always been argued that the need for the EU to have a common foreign and security policy is essential, the path toward this goal however is hotly debated and left unanswered. The EU has established European Battlegroups that are meant for rapid deployment and deal mainly with peacekeeping and “humanitarian missions.” Unfortunately with the European countries not having homogeneous weapons systems, the contributions by different countries in terms of forces and weapons have proven to be a logistical nightmare (this has however been identified, and plans to make homogeneous types of weapons as well as the means to transport them are in development). Additionally, the confusing nature of the EU in terms of who has what jurisdiction over which pillar, makes NATO’s ability to combat terrorism, or root out the sources that are funding the Taliban in Afghanistan, that more difficult. Information regarding the movement of peoples, bribery, organized crime, weapon smuggling, fraud, etc, are no longer under the jurisdiction of NATO member countries, but under Brussels. This creates a scenario that slows down the decision making process when a NATO action may be needed. Instead of creating a homogeneous, information sharing network that is used toward the completion of a goal, infighting and sore spots emerge under allegations that a territory has been inappropriately crossed and toes have been stepped on. NATO is no longer able to respond together as one unit, but must now go through unnecessary bureaucratic red tape that make its actions ineffective and has proven to divide the alliance rather than strengthen it.

3. NATO’s role in Afghanistan

This leads to the third question of whether or not NATO’s role in Afghanistan is politically sustainable in European countries. Thus far, the ability to properly frame the war in Afghanistan by Europe’s politicians as a serious potential threat to Europe has failed. Many argue that Europe is at a dangerous period of insecurity as it fails to properly integrate its large immigration population. Many point to the fact that many of the terrorists responsible for hijacking the planes on 9/11 were schooled and resided in Europe. Others show the growing resentment of Muslim populations in France and the U.K., as a result of large disparities of income and restrictions to education that disallow social mobility that further endanger Europe’s national security. Regardless of the argument, Afghanistan is as much geopolitically important to Europe, if not more so, as it is to the United States. Thus far, the failure to convey this essential fact to the European public has been dismal. In Germany, where even a limited mandate in Afghanistan exists, the upcoming elections and German passivity to anything regarding the notion of war, are making people nervous and questioning whether or not the number one economic power in Europe will have a future presence in the country. Furthermore, the increasing casualties of British soldiers are making many in the United Kingdom vocally question Britain’s engagement in Afghanistan (a situation that is presently occurring in the United States as well), and could danger the future of the NATO alliance if the U.K. decides to withdrawal. Looking at the wording of news web-sites, such as the BBC, there exists a failure to control the flow of information while offering counterpoints and explaining that such sacrifices are needed. I even remember a lecture I attended at the Chatham House in London concerning just this topic, and it was surprising to me how many were in favor of Britain withdrawing.

4. The Russian question

Finally, the question of how NATO should negotiate and act toward Russia should finally be agreed upon. There is a split among European countries regarding this matter. Many, such as the former Eastern European countries, are just as concerned with an emerging, hostile Russia and its current stranglehold on Europe’s energy security as the United States. Others, such as Germany, view Russia to be a key component in its energy security, and sometimes view it politically acceptable to move closer to Russia and act as a counterweight to U.S. influence.

The future is unclear

NATO is in danger of collapsing. Will it collapse with Afghanistan? It is very unsure. What is certain however is that NATO must define its strategic goals more clearly, and the United States must delicately balance its stance toward an emerging European identity without splitting Europe further and pushing some states more to the East. Above all, it is finally time for Europe to take more of an active role in its own external security, which cannot be achieved without a secure, confident Europe that can act as one unit. There does exist presently a tragedy of the commons, especially regarding Afghanistan, where some countries are not sacrificing as much as others. This, unfortunately, is the cause of any form of collective good. It must be combated and NATO member states must be persuaded to engage conflict areas just like everyone else, if and when NATO decides to act. This is the main task of the United States. The U.S. must lead the call that if a country is a member of NATO it must put in as much effort as everyone else based on its military capabilities. One country cannot make the sacrifice of its citizens, while others are allowed to sit up north and enjoy the Afghan countryside drinking a cold beer. Europe must act as one, and it is up to the United States to allow Europe to make important vital decisions, and make more of an impact in the region. The United States must use its soft power through culture, economics and diplomacy, per Joseph Nye, to strengthen the Trans-Atlantic relationship, while developing a clear, concise foreign policy, per Henry Kissinger, that leaves room for no surprises and gives everyone a fair deal. This will result in the United States to further strengthen the NATO relationship, create a solid framework in dealing with Russia’s worry over NATO’s expansion eastward, and create an environment where NATO’s members can define the role of the most powerful security alliance this world has ever seen. This, naturally, is easier said (or written) than done.