Archive for October, 2011

Originally published in The Herald of Randolph

Our national leadership over the last decade, from Presidents Bush and Obama through the House and Senate leadership to General Petraeus and C/JCS Admiral Mullen, has collectively informed us that as long as the Taliban insurgency has a sanctuary in Pakistan, we will never defeat them in Afghanistan.

Despite that, Americans collectively refer to the Afghan adventure as part of the “War on Terror,” overlooking the fact that there are few to no terrorists there and that we are dealing with a pure insurgency in our struggle with the Taliban.

America is losing its marbles. Our policy in the region shows either an almost total lack of understanding, or a total disregard of historical realities. Our policy is based cynically and dangerously on internal domestic political pressures, not on facts on the ground. Unfortunately, people who know and understand history didn’t make our Afghan policy. Those who made that policy did not and do not understand or appreciate history.

Have we learned nothing from our past adventures? From Iraq, Vietnam, Korea? Have we learned nothing from others’ experiences in Afghanistan? From the British, the Soviets? The knowledge necessary for a cogent policy there has always existed here in America. It has simply not been used.

Current support of war will cost Republicans politically here where two-thirds of the population is against the Afghan war. It will also cost the Democrats where Obama, having spoken bravely during the 2008 campaign about leaving Afghanistan and Iraq, has adopted the Bush policy, lock, stock and barrel.

As difficult as the term is to define, “national interest” represents a country’s military, economic, and cultural goals and ambitions. The concept is important in foreign affairs, where pursuit of the national interest is critical to foreign policy formulation. National interests are occasionally, but never always, identical with those of other nations.

On October 1, 2011, NBC News questioned Pakistan’s commitment to fight terror. On that same day, Secretary of State Clinton said that the Pakistanis are “making a serious strategic error” in supporting the Taliban.

Senator Lindsey Graham, the Republican from South Carolina, couching his comments in terms of terrorism rather than insurgency, told Fox News that U.S. should consider military action against Pakistan because of Pakistani support of Taliban attacks on US troops and other personnel in Afghanistan.

No rational person could possibly suggest that course of action! Look at our troop numbers. We haven’t enough to deal with the insurgency in Afghanistan, let alone take on Pakistan. With an Afghan population of about 30 million, the accepted ratio of 20 counterinsurgent troops per 1,000 residents requires a commitment of 600,000 troops. By the same formula, Pakistan, with a population of just under 190 million would require an additional commitment of 3.8 million troops.

Where will those troops come from when, as of 2009, the United States had a grand total of just under 1.5 million troops in uniform to cover all its commitments at home and abroad?

We are considering this action because we are frustrated that the Pakistanis see it in their national interest to support the Taliban. They always have. U.S. policy makers have to learn that this will not change, no matter how much they hope or wish that it will. In terms of Pakistan national interests, support of the Taliban is an integral part of their India policy, and therefore critical for them to continue.

As to Pakistani commitment to “fighting terrorism,” the same is true. We want them to go after the Taliban, which is not an issue of terrorism, but of insurgency. They do not see it as being in their national interest.

The problem here is one of competing American and Pakistani national interests. The problem is not that Pakistan’s national interests are different from ours. The problem is that those who created our policy there have either shamefully not known the facts, or have willfully ignored them.

Either way, foreign policies rooted in American domestic politics that ignore or overlook facts and realities on the ground abroad are doomed to failure.

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

Existing U.S.-Iraq bilateral agreements stipulate that we will withdraw all our troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.

The Obama administration’s ongoing demand, originated by the Bush administration, that the Iraqi government permit thousands of American troops to remain in Iraq after the existing departure deadline of the end of this year appears to have run into serious trouble in the Iraqi approval process.

Apparently the Iraqis have not made a final decision, but the real issue here is the precise meaning of the American and Iraqi inability to come expeditiously to agreement on an item of considerable importance to both sides.

The sticking point appears to be that we have demanded that all our troops who remain in Iraq must have immunity from Iraqi courts. It is difficult to think that we would agree to a status of forces agreement with any country, including Iraq, that did not provide such immunity, which has existed in virtually all of such agreements we have concluded around the world since World War II.

The problem for Iraq lies in the inherent composition of the country and government. There is apparently a consensus within Iraqi leadership both that the American troops should stay and that they should be granted the requested immunity.

However, our State Department lawyers have determined that immunity from Iraqi courts, even if granted by the existing Iraqi government, would be guaranteed only if formally approved by the Iraqi Parliament.

Therein lies the rub. Even though the administration of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki seems willing to grant this immunity, the Parliament is not. The 2010 elections produced a government composed of nine different alliances and parties. It is fragmented and so weak that it cannot conceivably support the grant of immunity to American troops that is an absolutely inflexible condition of the Obama administration. Far too many Iraqis see this grant as a continuation of the “American occupation” and do not support it. Parenthetically, al-Maliki has said from the start that approval of the Iraqi Parliament would be impossible.

Of course, this impasse is a reflection on the entire American experience in Iraq. It says a great deal about any chances we might have thought we had for “success” in that country when we invaded in 2003. And it says a lot about our hopes for future influence there.

However, what it says a great deal more subtly is about Iraq itself. Imagine a country whose parliament is made up of nine groups and parties that received, in descending order, 24.7 percent, 24.2 percent, 18.1 percent, 14.5 percent, 4.1 percent, 2.6 percent, 2.5 percent, 2.1 percent and 1.3 percent of the popular national vote, which was made up of 62.4 percent of the total population.

Given our normal level of participation in American national elections, that is a most respectable and representative turnout.

However, what it should tell you is how incredibly fragmented Iraq really is. Iraq has three very different main population groups: the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds, and each of those is politically and at times tribally divided.

Sunnis make up only 15 percent to 20 percent of the Iraqi population, yet during the 20th century they absolutely dominated Iraq’s government and economy. It didn’t help that the last Sunni leader was Saddam Hussein and that he brutally repressed the Shiites (60 percent of the population) and the Kurds (18 percent of the population), making nothing but enemies among them.

Their control and repression were so complete that many Sunnis actually believed they represented a majority in the Iraq population.

And now we have the majority Shiites finally in control — but of what? They are in control of the Sunnis, who deeply resent their loss of control of the country, and the Kurds, who think of themselves primarily as Kurds, not Iraqis, and who are part of a total of about 50 million Kurds, the largest ethnic group in the world without a state of its own.

Both the Shiites and the Kurds suffered mightily under the Sunnis. Thousands of Kurds were indiscriminately murdered by Saddam’s Sunni regime. The Shiites have no love for the Sunnis who dominated them murderously for decades. The Sunnis are bewildered by their loss of power, wealth and influence.

The Kurds simply want a home of their own. They all want Iraqi oil.

Iraq is an unhappy country that is sharply divided among three groups with different goals and imperatives, with no one group particularly liking the other.

What form Iraq takes after years of war, insurrection and occupation is difficult if not impossible to predict. Logic, which rarely prevails, might have it that Iraq would split quietly into its three component parts — Shiite, Kurd and Sunni. However, it is unlikely that the transition, whatever it is to be, will be smooth.

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Fostering revolution

Originally published in the Rutland Herald and the Barre Times-Argus

By Haviland Smith

When 700 people called “Occupy Wall Street” were arrested last weekend on the Brooklyn Bridge, they were accused of not knowing what they were organizing for.

Some opined they were conducting a “haphazard petition for change,” or that they were focused on everything from ending capitalism, to racism, to global warming to unemployment. There is probably truth in all of that and, as this movement grows, it likely will attract anyone who has a gripe about our society.

Objectively, the demonstrators seem broadly preoccupied with their own powerlessness. They decry the inordinate amount of power and influence held by our very rich and our corporate enterprises and the power of lobbyists to further their goals in a Congress that is essentially for sale.

So far, in defiance of many detractors’ predictions, protests have been growing here and abroad. They have spread to Massachusetts, Washington, Pennsylvania, California, Illinois, South Carolina and many others, including our own Burlington, Vt.

During the Cold War, largely because of its preoccupation with Soviet-sponsored “revolution” around the world, the U.S. intelligence community put together a profile of a country likely to be vulnerable to revolution. The primary indicators were: a large gap between the wealthy and the less affluent, an absent or shrinking middle class and the disaffection of large portions of society with those who hold power and their use of it.

How does America stack up against those criteria? Are we reaching a critical, revolutionary mass? Not likely, but we are certainly heading in that direction.

The richest 1 percent of the American population owns over 40 percent of the country’s wealth. The top 1 percent earn 24 percent of total national income while those 15 percent (46.2 million people) who live below the poverty line earn 3.4 percent.

The net loser, apart from the poor, is a disappearing American middle class. During the decade between 2000-2010, Americans in the middle of the pay scale saw income go down 7 percent, while the richest 40 percent actually gained wealth. And finally, 14 million Americans are unemployed and 8.8 million are part-time employees.

In our system, wage earners are not generally responsible for providing capital for job creation. That is the province of those whose income far exceeds their need for wealth. It is critical that those wealthy individuals and corporations continue to supply capital for job formation.

Nevertheless, it is equally important that wealthy corporations and individuals understand that there is such a thing as being too wealthy, particularly when the policies for which they lobby result in the destruction of the middle class and the widening the gap between the wealthy and the less affluent.

Additionally, politicians of all political persuasions must understand that positions on tax policy and government spending that feature unbending advocacy of the needs of one American constituency over another will prove disastrous for our country.

Moderate politicians have typically represented our predominately moderate middle class, which has always been the traditional strength and stability of our country. That is no longer the case as the sharp divisions in our political structure force that middle either to the right or the left, further widening the national divide and leading to increasing gridlock.

If we continue on our present course of dealing with our deficit by cutting back on taxes for the wealthy, eliminating federal programs, encouraging self-interested lobbying and ignoring the reality of our unbalanced income structure, we are likely to provide further incentive to the growing list of disaffected people that we now see in its infancy in the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. If that continues, we will likely see today’s ranks of protesters swelled by joblessness, poverty and the perceived uneven application of power.

Somewhere between the legitimate needs and desires of the wealthy and those of the less affluent, there is a point where we should be able to find an uneasy but functioning balance between their legitimate competing priorities. We have, after all, been there before.

Without that sort of compromise and assuming the continuation of our present headlong congressional rush to kill taxation and federal regulation at the expense of programs that benefit all of our citizens, we are likely to see a continued move toward a revolutionary society.

America either will become more fair and even-handed, or we are likely to become much more revolutionary. That will benefit no one who believes in our system, least of all those wealthy individuals and corporations that have profited so much from it.

Moderation is in their vital self-interest.

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