Archive for September, 2010

Democracy is not selective

[Originally published in the Barre Times-Argus and Rutland Herald.]

Americans can argue as much as they wish about the Mosque in lower Manhattan.  We are guaranteed that right under the First Amendment.  That said, the arguments on both sides of the issue are and will continue to be to be largely emotional.

It took Newt Gingrich to get the ball really rolling when he said, inter alia, that “there should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia”, and further that, “Those Islamists and their apologists who argue for ‘religious toleration’ are arrogantly dishonest.  They ignore the fact that more than 100 mosques already exist in New York City. Meanwhile, there are no churches or synagogues in all of Saudi Arabia. In fact no Christian or Jew can even enter Mecca. And they lecture us about tolerance.”

Gingrich finishes up by saying that “America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization. Sadly, too many of our elites are the willing apologists for those who would destroy them if they could. No mosque, No self-deception, No surrender. The time to take a stand is now – at this site – on this issue.”

This has led to a rash of emotional arguments, both pro and con.  Some, Gingrich’s “intellectual elites”, point out that the Imam in charge of the lower Manhattan project is a Sufi Muslim, a member of the most peaceful, conciliatory branch of Islam.  They continue by saying that the project is not a Mosque, but a cultural center for all religions, which simply contains an Islamic prayer room. It is further interesting to note that the Imam, Feisal Abdul al-Rauf was first tapped by the George W. Bush administration as a spokesman for the United States in Islam, a job he continues under president Obama today, apparently with great effect.

Some commentators have tied the lower Manhattan project to the self-promoting Florida preacher in a further attempt to affect the outcome.  The President, the Secretary of State and General Petraeus have said unequivocally that Muslim-baiting of this kind is inimical to our interests in the Middle East and will lead inexorably to loss of American life and fundraising and recruiting gains for Muslim fundamentalist terrorism.

All of the pros and cons of this issue are emotional and predictive and may or may not prove to be true.  These arguments are clearly extraordinarily important to those who make them, but they are light years less important than the real issue.

The real issue here is our Constitution and Bill of Rights.

In any objective examination of its governance and policies, Saudi Arabia, the country so often mentioned by Gingrich, would come out at or near the bottom of any reasonable person’s list of “democratic countries”.

So, the only valid question here is:  If the Gingrich statement is acceptable, does that mean that we are trying to compete with Saudi Arabia’s anti-democratic policies?  Do we have to sink to their level?

Gingrich’s notion that America will remain democratic only if Saudi Arabia becomes democratic is totally self-defeating.  That simply has to be one of the most absurdly illogical arguments ever offered for anything. Talk about cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face!  It defies any sort of logic and most important, any action against the Manhattan project violates our First Amendment free speech and religion rights, in both of which virtually all Americans claim to strongly believe.

Are we expected to give up our unreserved support of democracy by denying one specific group of Americans their First Amendment rights, based on the argument that the Saudis are not democratic?  What sort of message does that send to the world about our own observance of our own basic beliefs?

America seems to be at loss without real enemies and wars.  We can look back on the last hundred years of two World Wars, Korea, Viet Nam, the Cold War and the War on Terror.  As a matter of fact, the only time we have really looked aimless was during the 1990s when the fall of the USSR left us momentarily enemy-free.

If we get it right, we will not loose to terrorism.  What will we do then? On whom will we turn?  In our past, we have turned on the Irish, Italians, Jews, Germans, Japanese, Catholics and now Muslims.  Who will be next?  Will it be you?

Democracy that is discretionary or discriminatory will never work – for us or any other country.  Democracy is for everyone in America… or no one.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in East and West Europe and the Middle East and as chief of the counterterrorism staff.

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[Originally published in Nieman Watchdog.]

Seven years ago, it was neonconservatism that led to a major clash between the U.S. and Islam. Will the 24-hour news cycle cause the next one?

What has most set the United States apart from its fellow liberal democracies in Western Europe over the nine years since 9/11 has been our acceptance and integration of Muslims into American life.

That essentially benign and welcoming attitude, fortified by our history of encouraging immigration and our principled Constitution, has been the main reason we have not suffered the kinds of terrorist attacks that have plagued countries like Britain and Spain, where attitudes have been less than welcoming.

All that now seems to be changing. Virulently anti-Muslim groups are trading on the fears of the largely uninformed American population by aiding and abetting anyone who wants to join or ramp up the hue and cry against Islam. Recent national focus on the Islamic Center in lower Manhattan and new mosques in Tennessee and the Midwest, as well as attacks on mosques around the country, all seem to be stirring up the pot.

The situation has gotten so out of hand that we are now being warned by the president, the secretary of state and even our favorite General Petraeus that a continuation of this anti-Islamic rhetoric and activity will gravely damage the United States throughout the Islamic world, particularly in those regions where we have committed our military power – Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, etc.

Of course, these warnings of calamity to come are precisely the same warnings given to the Bush administration by the State Department, by our favorite general of that moment (Eric Shinsheki), by the CIA and by countless Middle East experts and observers during their ramp-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Despite those warnings, President Bush, inspired by an extremist neocon vision of democratization through unilateral preemptive war, invaded Iraq. The Muslim world was inflamed.

Just as those warnings seven years ago proved to be prophetic, today’s warnings are likely to come true as well. But the media doesn’t have to make things worse.

Last week’s threatened burning of Korans by an obscure group of 50-odd, fundamentalist Christian radicals in Florida would never have gotten any attention anywhere were it not for the eager complicity of today’s American media which, in its endless, ongoing quest to fill the news for 24 hours of every day, took an otherwise insignificant story and ballooned it into a crisis.

In this case the media’s drive to manufacture stories could have resulted in additional American deaths abroad or, if Muslim integration in this country suffers, even at home.

No one questions the media’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech, but that right brings with it some responsibilities, which were in no way met by the coverage of this woeful Florida preacher’s antics.

Could it be that the media’s need to manufacture conflict will be the source of America’s next great clash with the Muslim world – this time, perhaps, within our own borders?

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Politics ruining foreign policy

[Originally published in the Rutland Herald and Barre Times-Argus.]

Sen. Sam Brownback, a Republican from Kansas, has placed a hold on the confirmation of Frank Ricciardone, the Obama administration’s nominee to be U.S. ambassador to Turkey. On the face of it, this would simply be another internecine Senate squabble, but from the foreign policy point of view, it has far greater implications.

Ricciardone, a 34-year veteran of the Foreign Service, has extensive experience in the Middle East and is thought of as one of his service’s most distinguished officers. He has served in Turkey, Egypt, Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Ricciardone is the kind of senior career Foreign Service officer who is often picked by both Democratic and Republican administrations to undertake important and politically sensitive assignments around the world. That is because, generally speaking, such officers are practically and substantively better equipped than many, if not most, of the career political hacks who are rewarded for their support with ambassadorial assignments. Such is certainly the case with Ricciardone.

So, why is Ricciardone’s assignment being blocked? It is purely politics. These “politics” clearly result from a Washington reality which shows the difference between foreign policy based on objective realities as opposed to one built on internal U.S. politics.

It is an unfortunate fact that the more important any given foreign policy matter is to U.S. national interests, the less likely it is that our policy will be based on objective facts and the more likely it will be based on internal U.S. politics. This reality has become more sharply defined in a currently deeply divided, partisan Washington and is a reality that clearly defines our present Middle East policy.

Ricciardone has a wealth of practical, first-hand experience in the Middle East. Any intelligent and successful diplomat with that sort of background simply has to understand the realities of that region far better than any member of the U.S. Senate, irrespective of his senatorial assignments.

The issue for Brownback is said to be his assessment that Ricciardone has a history of getting too close to the governments of the Islamic countries to which he has been assigned and that he has not adequately advocated U.S. values such as democracy and human rights with those governments.

It is the purpose of any foreign policy and thus, any ambassador, to advance the national interests of the United States. Thus, the real interest here is precisely what our national interests are in Turkey and whether or not our policies support them.

Brownback’s position is said to be widely supported throughout the Republican senatorial caucus.

A senior Republican aide has been quoted as having said, “He’s just the wrong guy for this sensitive post at this time and the hope is that the administration will recognize that he won’t be confirmed this year and nominate someone better.”

The Republican view is that Ricciardone will get too close to the Turkish government and sell out our “real” interests of pushing for democracy and human rights above all else.

A very strong argument can be made that the Republican concerns about Ricciardone, as expressed above, are essentially meaningless when compared to America’s real national interests in the Middle East and Turkey.

Turkey has slowly drifted away from its former support of our foreign policy goals in the Middle East. Turkey has ruptured its previously close and friendly relationship with Israel. It is talking about its own need for nuclear weapons to counter Israeli nukes. In addition, with Brazil, it has engaged Iran on nuclear enrichment and no longer supports U.S. hopes for further U.N. sanctions on Iran.

Since the Israeli airborne assault on the Turkish ship “Mavi Marmara,” which was attempting to bring relief supplies to Gaza, Turkey has become an exceedingly important and delicate issue of the kind that cries out for calm and experienced diplomacy of the kind Ricciardone clearly could provide.

The Republicans say they will not budge on the ambassador’s nomination, leaving us with the inescapable conclusion that the Obama administration’s choice of the foreign policy professional who they believe can best forward our goals in an extraordinarily difficult environment, will not be permitted by the Republican Senate caucus to go there.

Given the increasingly obvious disaster of the recently concluded Bush foreign policy years, Obama deserves the opportunity to implement his own ideas. That should argue in favor of confirmation which should not be left to the questionable value of the Republican preoccupation with exporting democracy.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in East and West Europe, the Middle East and as chief of the Counterterrorism Staff.

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Preconditions for Success in Afghanistan

[Originally published on AmericanDiplomacy.Org.]

A retired intelligence professional gives his candid assessment of what would constitute “success” in Afghanistan and the chances for reaching this goal.-The Editor

Two successive U.S. administrations have said we must “win” in Afghanistan.   David Kilcullen, one of the world’s leading counterinsurgency experts and preeminent advisor to the US government, says that we must meet certain markers if we are to “succeed” in Afghanistan:  We must face the realities of historical and contemporary Afghanistan.  There must be agreement between Afghans and Americans on our goals.  We must eliminate the Taliban sanctuary in Pakistan.  There must be a solid, long-term US commitment including a flexible timeline.

Defining the issue

However, before those markers can even be discussed, the Obama administration must define the words “success” and “win.”  As the leading free enterprise democracy in the world, we habitually insist that any enterprise in which we are inclined to invest be prepared to show us that it is making progress that will profit us.  That is no less true for the Afghan war than it is for Microsoft, yet our goals have never been clearly defined by either the Bush or Obama administrations.

As a result, there is no way for anyone in this country to measure progress in this war.  Without that ability, we will predictably become more easily disenchanted with our Afghan war than we would if we knew fairly precisely what it was that America is fighting for.

Having once defined our goals or what constitutes success, Kilcullen’s four markers come into play before we can declare any progress, let alone success.  Our willingness and ability to deal with them will be crucial to the result.

Afghanistan’s historical and present realities

Afghanistan is a geographically inhospitable, tribal country whose people are corruptible, indomitable, bellicose and armed to the teeth.  The tribal Afghans have never had or wanted a strong central government.  They have often been invaded by foreign armies and as a result are strongly xenophobic.  Throughout the centuries they have successfully resisted all attempts at foreign invasion and occupation.

The governing ideals for the Pashtun people are embodied in their “Pashtunwali” or “Pashtun way” which sets forth a complete code for life.  It emphasizes self-respect, independence, justice, hospitality, love, forgiveness, revenge and tolerance toward all people. The main principles of Pashtunwali include freedom and independence, justice and forgiveness, honesty and keeping promises, ethnic unity and equality, support and trust within the Pashtun family and love for and defense of the Pashtun nation and culture.

In short, the “Pashtun way” is designed to motivate its followers to support their way of life and resist by force of arms all attempts by anyone, particularly foreigners, to change it either by force or subterfuge.  It is clearly the product of a people who have pretty much always been under the gun from foreign cultures and who have evolved their own very efficient way of dealing with such incursions.

The Pashtunwali is the guiding word, subscribed to wholeheartedly by Pashtuns around the world.  That should give us some notion of how welcome our armies are in Afghanistan, regardless of the purity of our motives.

That is Afghan history and if we are wise we will acknowledge it as such.

Trust in Afghanistan

We must get to the point where the American administration and people believe that the Afghan political establishment and people share with us a common definition of “success,” whatever that proves to be.  We are, after all, fighting this war for the people of Afghanistan, not for ourselves.

In the process of formulating our definition of “success”, we need to keep in mind that there is little in Afghanistan that argues in favor of any readiness on their part to accept democracy as we know it.

In order to proceed and persist, we have to be able to trust that we are on the same page as the Afghan population, accepting the fact, as Afghans do, that the election that put Karzai in power was massively fraudulent.  We must understand that that fact does not make Karzai or his government widely popular in Afghanistan.

In order to be “successful” in Afghanistan, we have to share a vision with the Afghan people.  Without that, it will never work.

The Taliban Sanctuary in Pakistan

As long as there is a sanctuary for the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan, we will never “win.”  The Pashtun people, who basically comprise the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, straddle the border between the two nations.  In that fact lies one of our most difficult problems.  If we are to “win” over the Taliban in Afghanistan, we will have to deny them sanctuary in Pakistan.

The Pakistan military establishment has long supported the Taliban, seeing it as a potential counterbalance or lever in its conflict with India, its only true enemy on the face of the earth.  They are reluctant to commit resources to the fight against the Taliban in Pakistan because of its perceived role in any future battle with India.  Further, the more we involve ourselves directly in the struggle within Pakistan with drones and special operations, the more support we loose within Pakistan.  It is a true Hobson’s Choice.

Commitment of American Resources

Our commitment to Afghanistan is very expensive in human life and resources, yet, since the surge of our troops in Afghanistan, we have clearly not realized any breakthroughs in reaching our “goals” there.

When we invaded Iraq in 2003, the Army Chief of Staff told us that we would need half a million troops to successfully occupy that country.  The post-invasion period in Iraq showed clearly that he had a point.  We are now dealing with our Afghan problems with just over 100,000 troops.  
A look at a topographical map of Afghanistan will tell even the dullest among us that Afghanistan is a far more geographically complicated and challenging country than Iraq and that if we are to “win” there, we will probably need more troops than we needed in Iraq.  In fact, Afghanistan, with its valleys, mountains and lack of infrastructure is a military nightmare.

America’s Timeline

Finally, if we decide to try to “win” in Afghanistan, we will have to back off the 2011 withdrawal deadline given by President Obama and be prepared to extend our involvement there, perhaps by additional decades.  The most optimistic estimates from General Petraeus now range around a military commitment of at least seven years.

America will have to back that commitment at the ballot box.  Given our inability as a nation to commit to anything much farther out than the next election, we will clearly have to be convinced that such a commitment is in our national interest.

That will not be an easy task to accomplish.


It is impossible to find real experts on counterinsurgency who believe we can “win” without meeting the above requirements.

Can we really expect Americans to get behind an effort that has so many internal contradictions?  Can we trust Karzai?  Would we settle for anything less than democracy in Afghanistan?  Would we accept stability, irrespective of the Afghan form of government?

Pro-war voices in our country are those profiting politically, emotionally, militarily or economically from our involvement in the Afghan counterinsurgency program.  It is hard to find academics and other experts and truly well informed people on Afghanistan realities who believe that we can meet all of the requirements for “victory” in Afghanistan.

Even the most optimistic supporters of the war acknowledge that the Afghan Army and Police, two elements absolutely critical to our “success,” are a major problem.  After eight years of prodding, support and training, they are still not fit to do the job for which they have been trained.  Returning troops from Afghanistan roll their eyes when asked about such Afghan readiness.

And can we expect the Afghan people to get behind an illegitimately elected Karzai government?  Will the Pashtun Taliban support a Pashtun President (Karzai) whose government is complicit in killing his own people (the Pashtun Taliban)?  How does that fit with Pashtunwali?

Do our military leaders, intelligent and schooled experts in the history and practice of warfare, really believe that they can somehow change historical and current Afghan realities and successfully invade that country and change its governance and culture?  That is repeating the same act, yet again, while hoping the outcome will change.   Isn’t that the clinical definition of insanity?

And then, Americans were sold both Iraq and the second invasion of Afghanistan as part of the “war on terror.”  Iraq had nothing to do with terrorism prior to our invasion.  Al Qaida exited Afghanistan during our first invasion and has not since returned in significant numbers.

Additionally, given our exceedingly difficult economic circumstances, is it objectively important to continue to pour our treasure into the Middle East when that treasure may well be the only practical answer to our problems at home?  Are our real problems ever going to come first?

That, in turn asks whether or not we are prepared to “stay the course” in Afghanistan, or for that matter, in Iraq which now appears to be in ethnic and sectarian gridlock.

The now-abandoned military draft ushered in our professional, all-volunteer military establishment, thereby removing from voters the most effective way they had to object to the conduct of specific wars.  We removed the check and balance of the vote as it was wielded during the Viet Nam War.  That makes it relatively simpler for any given administration to wage war unfettered, particularly if it is dealing with a supine Congress, as was the case of Iraq in 2003.

Finally, there is the question of US national interests.  Terrorism is a problem for us.  It is in our national interest to deal with it.  However, terrorism has nothing to do with Afghanistan.  There are few if any terrorists there.  If we want to go after terrorism right now, Yemen would offer far greater rewards.  Can we afford another such adventure?  Because if we undertake it, the people we seek to “beat” will simply move to another venue.  That is the nature of mobile, unfettered terrorism.  Such is not the case for the well equipped and armed military.

But do we want to try to “wipe out” terrorism with our military power?  Can we even hope for that to succeed?  Every time we have confronted Middle East terrorism with our military power, we have watched it morph into insurgency.  Insurgencies are far more difficult to defeat than terrorism.  It can be argued that for that reason, we need to carefully review our counterterrorism strategy, perhaps considering less reliance on our military resources.

Unfortunately, with the advent of the new, professional military, we have politicized that establishment as never before.  Whatever his reasons, if President Obama chooses to continue in Afghanistan, he can probably do so without fearing Congressional intervention.

What he cannot escape are Afghan historical, cultural, tribal and political realities.   Even though he and his advisors may be inclined to dismiss them, they are there to be dealt with. It seems highly unlikely that, given all our own economic and political realities, he will be able to continue our Afghan military involvement sufficiently long to achieve any sort of “successful” conclusion.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief. A graduate of Dartmouth, he served in the Army Security Agency, undertook Russian regional studies at London University, and then joined the CIA. He served in Prague, Berlin, Langley, Beirut, Tehran, and Washington. During those 25 years, he worked primarily in Soviet and East European operations. He was also chief of the counterterrorism staff and executive assistant to Deputy Director of Central Intelligence Frank Carlucci. Since his retirement in 1980, he has lived in Vermont.

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