Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Traffic and Terrorism, Apples and Oranges

Posted in U.S. Foreign and Defense Policy by Dan on June 29, 2010

When times are tough, families try to do anything they can to cut spending and save money.  The privileges and treasures that often give us all a much needed break from our hectic lives- like going out to restaurants on the weekends or embarking on a long vacation at a tropical resort- are usually the first things that are sacrificed from the family budget.  State governments too are forced to revamp and review their budgetary process when officials are strapped for cash.  Educational programs may be eliminated to make way for more spending on social services, or taxes may be added onto specific products (like soda and alcohol) in order to throw more money at a growing deficit problem.  Unfortunately, these same actions tend to marginalize and anger the same people that the state is supposed to serve, putting politicians in an uncomfortable and awkward position.

Given the horrible economic situation that the country is experiencing today, and the terrible unemployment rate that is hurting close to ten percent of American families, politics in the United States is all about saving money.  But with trillions of dollars in national debt, two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an inefficient health care system and a draining social security system, how can the government actually stop spending without harming the national interest or placing even more hardship on the average American?

I’m really not sure what the answer is, which is why I’m still in school rather than campaigning for a seat on the town board, or running for office in Washington.  Nevertheless, this doesn’t hamper my understanding on where we shouldn’t cut spending…our national security infrastructure.  And we especially shouldn’t do it when one of the mainstream arguments for cutting the U.S. national security budget is misleading…”you have a greater chance of being killed in a car accident or struck by lighting than being a victim of terrorism.”

To be fair, I have to concede that this critique is not necessarily inaccurate.  In fact, research and numbers support the claim.  According to Harvard Professor Stephen Walt, an average of 40,000 Americans die in car crashes per year, a number that is over ten times that of the most deadly terrorist attack in U.S. history.  This figure becomes even more astounding when officials go on the record and use it as a comparison to terrorism.

It’s called a diversionary tactic, and it’s a clever way of portraying an act of terrorism as so miniscule and rare that Americans would be foolish to worry about it.  The fact that the United States hasn’t suffered a major terrorist attack on its soil since September 11 only adds to the strength of this type of argument.

But how can you compare traffic deaths to terrorism when both are unique problems, with totally different motivations resulting in totally different situations?  One is the result of careless driving and/or bad weather (in addition to other factors), while the other is the result of a coordinated and premeditated act of violence aimed to intimidate and instill fear.  Using this comparison only focuses on the numbers while ignoring the circumstances and surroundings that make terrorism such a horrendous and psychologically devastating method.

More importantly, using the traffic-to-terrorism metaphor runs the risk of “dumbing down” the whole issue of terrorism and turning back the clock to a pre- 9/11 way of thinking; that somehow the United States is immune to the violence that has plagued so many other countries and killed so many of its citizens.

The United States has not suffered an act of foreign terrorism on its soil since September of 2001 (notice how I say foreign terrorism. Remember Maj. Nidal Hassan?).  This is obviously something that we should all be celebrating.  Part of this is due to luck, part of this is due to the tremendous talent of our national security officials and our military, and part of this is due to the way terrorists have chosen to operate in today’s global environment (a number of experts believe that Al’Qaeda, for instance, is focusing more of its energies on multiple, small-scale attacks against Americans than a single large and coordinated 9/11-style strike).  Whatever the cause of this nine-year terror free reign, our recent successes should not be used as a rationale for slashing our defense and security budget.  This is almost akin to shutting down the NYPD just because crime in New York City dropped.

Focusing on hard statistics is deceiving for another reason as well; depending on the specific organization and what they are trying to accomplish, the physical destruction of property and the killing of unarmed civilians could be secondary to the psychological impact of an attack. Look at what happened on Christmas Day when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to take down a passenger jet heading to Detroit.  On a technical level, he failed, but judging from Washington’s schizophrenic reaction, his operation could still be considered a success. AQAP (Al’Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) certainly thought it was, and so did Osama bin-Laden, who hailed the Nigerian terrorist “a hero” to his fellow Muslims.

Can you really compare car accidents to terrorist attacks? I guess you can, but it’s really apples to oranges isn’t it?  Of course, there is more behind the numbers when we talk about traffic accidents as well, like how a family’s life is affected when a relative’s life is lost.  But the same is true for terrorism, except terrorist attacks have a toll on the national psyche that traffic deaths do not.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Stephen Walt and Daniel Drezner at FP.com**

McChrystal Out, Petraeus In, Strategy Stays The Same

Boy was I wrong on my prediction.

In a publicized address to the nation Wednesday afternoon, President Barack Obama accepted General Stanley McChrystal’s resignation, citing the commander’s “poor judgment” over the Rolling Stone article. Sure, the General was let go because of a juvinile act of insubordination, but can you blame the president for making this decision? If I was in his shoes, I may have made the same exact judgment. The last thing the United States needs is a general who throws insults at the upper echelons of the White House national-security staff. Remarks like those tend to divide an administration, and a divided administration is not what you want when cooperation is a must in a conflict as complicated as Afghanistan.

But in a way, the McChrystal firing is only a sub-headline to a much larger story. Is this going to affect the way the U.S. Military fights the war? More importantly, will the McChrystal removal make the enemy more confident about its own operations in the war effort?

The answer to the latter is absolutely. Newsweek reports that Taliban commanders have been watching and listening with glee over the political firestorm that is occurring in Washington as a result of McChrystal’s comments. To them, a split in America’s leadership only brings positivity to their own ranks, reiterating the belief that the United States has no strategic direction inside Afghanistan. American infighting over the course of the war only adds skepticism among NATO allies as well, some of whom are withdrawing their entire troop contingent this summer (like the Netherlands and Canada). And sadly, Taliban commanders may be just in celebrating McChrystal’s removal…the American public is just about sick and tired of Afghanistan, and the White House is undergoing a tremendous amount of criticism about the lack of military and political success within the country as a whole.

The former question (is this going to affect the way the U.S. Military fights the war?) is a much more difficult one to answer. Tactics probably won’t change very much, because the man who reinvented counterinsurgency doctrine (General David Petraeus) has been tapped to takeover the U.S. Command. Both Petraeus and McChrystal are highly supportive of counterinsurgency, with Petraeus turning Iraq around with the same strategy a few years earlier and McChrystal following Petraeus’ lead in Afghanistan during his tenure. So “winning hearts and minds” (whatever that might entail at this point) is still the name of the game.

The problem is accessibility. McChrystal had a very close relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the only official who was quick to lend his personal support to the general after the Rolling Stone story was published online. The two men were more than respectful to one another, and Karzai has frequently hinted that McChrystal was the only American he could trust in the entire campaign. Petraeus now has the unfortunate task of rebuilding this trust, which is absolutely key if the U.S. wishes to establish a semi-functioning national government in Kabul (which might not be possible anyway, given Afghanistan’s history). But if his record is anything to go by, this probably won’t be much of an issue for Petraeus; many Middle Eastern leaders already view him for what he is, which is an honest and intelligent person.

What McChrystal will do next is anyone’s guess. He has a lot of empty time to fill, so maybe he’ll just retire into the sunset (although his roots in the special-forces might prompt him to stay). But the narrative just got a little more interesting.

One more question to consider: Did Holbrooke and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry have a say during this entire process? Considering that both men have had public disagreements with McChrystal in the past, I wouldn’t doubt it.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Stephen Walt, Peter Feaver, and Kori Schake**

Trouble In Paradise, If Afghanistan Was A Paradise

Most of the time, honesty is the best policy in life. If you lie to your parents and do something behind their back, chances are that you’ll escape a much harder punishment if you confront them and admit your mistakes. And in the court of law, if you are suspected, charged, and tried of murder, you will probably end up with a much better sentence if you simply admit the crime to the judge rather than wasting taxpayer money on a drawn out trial.

But wars are extenuating circumstances. Killing people in mass quantities can hardly be considered a normal part of everyday life. So perhaps this is why General Stanley McChrystal’s remarks yesterday about President Obama and his staff are so disturbing and dangerous; they reveal a thought process that not only hurts the war effort and divides the upper echelons of the U.S. command, but embarrass the entire civil-military establishment.

The story I’m obviously referring to is a new piece by Rolling Stone Magazine that will be hitting shelves this Friday, in which the top U.S/NATO Commander in Afghanistan directs some pointed insults to his superiors in the White House. Some of these comments could be contained if they focused on a single individual. But this article is going to pretty difficult to contain and sweep under the rug, especially when every major Obama official- including President Obama himself- involved in Afghan policy was mentioned in a negative light.

The article in Rolling Stone is pretty long, and I suspect that most people won’t have time to read the entire thing…although it is a page-turner. But here are the quotes that really distinguish the controversy from the jargon, and get the General in some real trouble (courtesy of Politico):


“The article, titled “The Runaway General,” appears in the magazine later this week. It contains a number of jabs by McChrystal and his staff aimed not only at the president but also at Vice President Joe Biden, special envoy Richard Holbrooke, Karl Eikenberry, the ambassador to Afghanistan, and others.

McChrystal described his first meeting with Obama as disappointing and said that Obama was unprepared for the meeting.

National Security Adviser Jim Jones is described by a McChrystal aide as a “clown” stuck in 1985.

Others aides joked about Biden’s last name as sounding like “Bite me” since Biden opposed the surge.”

And from FP.com: “Some of the harshest criticism was reserved for Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, whose leaked memos cast doubt on Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s trustworthiness as an ally. McChrystal said he felt “betrayed” by the ambassador, and that the leaked memos “covers his flank for the history books. Now if we fail, they can say ‘I told you so.”


Keep in mind that this isn’t the first time the top General has gotten himself in hot water with the White House. Last September, when President Obama was determining a new policy for the war, McChrystal publicly stated that he would not accept a plan to reduce U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan…a plan that VP Biden endorsed. During that time, the President recalled the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen to show his displeasure, and to basically tell him to keep a lid on McChrystal.

This time, however, the President has recalled McChrystal directly, ordering him to fly from Afghanistan to Washington for a meeting today. Is the U.S. about to see a change of command in Afghanistan? Tom Ricks seems to think so.

My bet is that McChyrstal will offer his resignation, but the President will refuse to take it…you know, for the sake of the mission.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of David Kenner, Blake HounshellPeter Feaver, and Kori Schake**

Getting Tough With Pakistan Will Help Salvage Afghanistan

I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog about Afghanistan and Pakistan…so much time, in fact, that I sometimes think I’ve exhausted everything I have to say about the subject.  But my focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan has always remained consistent over the past year, the main one being that both nations are crucial to America’s counterterrorism efforts.  And both countries, by the way, have taken on such an importance to U.S. foreign policy that the last two administrations have spent enormous amounts of presidential resources on Afghan and Pakistani relations.

But my lack of clarity and my writer’s block on “AfPak” quickly disappears when I hear the same old questions being asked in the press.  Why is the U.S. in Afghanistan?  Why is NATO struggling to defeat the Taliban?  Why is the insurgency spreading despite thousands of American troops on the ground?  And why is Osama bin-Laden still at large, sitting in a cave somewhere after close to a decade of being America’s number one enemy?

All the questions may be different in some capacity, and some are actually reminiscent of doubts Americans had before September 11.  But even with these supposed differences, the answer comes back to a single country that has yet to show its full capacity, but could improve the situation remarkably if they decided to cooperate in a wholehearted way.  That nation is Pakistan.

The United States and NATO will be hard-pressed to achieve anything in Afghanistan if Pakistan’s security services refuses to get on board with what Washington is trying to accomplish. In fact, Pakistan’s unhelpful behavior over the last nine years is the major reason why the U.S. and its allies are fairing badly in southern Afghanistan today. Of course, this is not the only reason; a faulty war plan and an artificial timetable for withdrawal also make the job of securing Afghanistan that much more difficult (the Taliban can basically pack it in and lay low until July of next year, when the coalition pulls out).

Yet even with these mistakes (which are of America’s doing), you have to wonder if the war would be going as badly today if the Pakistanis were embracing the same strategy as the Americans.

But the causes behind Pakistan’s floundering are well known.  Like the Taliban, the Pakistani Government is planning for an Afghanistan that is largely free of American (and western) influence, and the best way to do that is by solidifying a partnership with a group that has the strength and appeal to help them achieve their objectives. Islamabad is looking towards the future and trying to determine what the best course of action in order to suit their own security interests in a post-American Afghanistan. Virtually everyone in the region, from the mullahs of Tehran to the Chinese, is expecting the United States to leave the region next summer, consistent with Obama’s stated timeline.  So it shouldn’t come as a shock that Pakistan is trying to get a head start over other powers in South Asia, even if this means pursuing a policy that is contradictory to America’s current position.

Today, the Taliban Movement is Pakistan’s number-one partner in Afghanistan, and historically, it has been Pakistan’s most reliable partner for the last decade and a half. Speculation aside, chances are that the Taliban would have probably died out by now if it wasn’t for the billions of dollars in military assistance that Pakistan’s gave them over the last 15-odd years. Taliban fighters have always been perceived by the Pakistani Military as a proxy force against foreign entities inside Afghanistan, as well as a hedge against an expanding Indian presence.

The sad part is that everyone pretty much knows this already, yet are still scared to admit that the situation in Afghanistan will stay the same unless Pakistan’s grievances are met.

So what can the U.S. do to reverse the tide and possibly gain Pakistan’s valuable support?  Given Pakistan’s paranoia over anything Indian, the logical answer would be an American led initiative to roll back Indian influence inside Afghanistan. But it’s quite obvious that India wouldn’t accept such a proposal (would you!). Plus, India is one of America’s closest allies in South Asia, so the idea that the United States would jeopardize this relationship by asking the Indians to limit their freedom of movement is probably far-fetched anyway.

The only answer I see that could convince the Pakistanis to cooperate in Afghanistan (and against terrorism in general) is by threatening to sever (or actually severing) American military support to the regime.  Islamabad is dependent on Washington for billions in military and civilian aid, the latest being a $7.5 billion American-led initiative to strengthen Pakistan’s educational system and basic infrastructure. Some see this money as a waste, but it could be turned into an opportunity for the U.S. if utilized correctly.  Nothing exerts pressure over an ally than the diversion of money.  Maybe its time to give the Pakistanis an ultimatum; help us achieve a somewhat stable, Al’Qaeda-free buffer zone in Afghanistan or risk losing American protection.

Is this a politically viable proposal?  Considering the current atmosphere on Capital Hill, probably not.  I’m guessing that no representative or senator wants to endorse a major reversal in policy ahead of the midterm elections.  But what other solution is there?  I’m open for suggestions, and so is the White House.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Peter Feaver at FP.com**

American Journalism May Be In Trouble

Posted in United States by Dan on June 19, 2010

After a lengthy 50-year career that was composed of grilling presidents about war, the economy, and U.S. foreign policy, Washington press-corps member Helen Thomas has decided to call it quits and vacate her first-row seat in the White House briefing room.  But her retirement was not propelled by her old age (she is turning 90 years old this August) or sloppy reporting, as most journalists today use as reasons for resignations.  Nor was her retirement a product of her employer- Hearst Newspapers- whose management probably still viewed the veteran Thomas as a valuable asset in all things political.

Rather, her decision was rooted in some questionable comments that she made about Jews to a reporter during, ironically, a White House sponsored Jewish Heritage event.  When asked by a reporter what she thought about the state of Israel in today’s global environment, she responded by saying “tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.  Remember, these people are occupied, and it’s their land.  Go home…Poland, Germany, America, and everywhere else.” The comments were not only caught by the reporter’s camera, which was rolling during the entire interview, but were subsequently released to the world through YouTube, with tens of thousands of people responding to the video with a combination of anger and displeasure.

Unfortunately, her “go home” attitude towards the Jews is not exactly accurate, and it lacks a certain context that, if enacted, would quickly lay her argument to rest.  As Richard Cohen of the Washington Post cited in his editorial this past Tuesday, Jews could not necessarily go home after World War II without being the victims of widespread discrimination in European communities.  Even after the horror that was the Holocaust, Jews were still being killed when they attempted to venture home to reclaim their houses and small businesses.  The result most of the time was more violence towards the Jewish community by those in Poland who were accustomed to taking advantage of their absence.  According to Cohen, a total of 1,500 Jews were murdered in this fashion during 1945-1946.

So the Jews did try to “go home,” but were subsequently punished for doing so.  Therein lies the foundation of Israel, an entity that many Jews believed could serve as their own fresh start with the world and a place where Jews could live together in peace and prosperity.  One wonders if Helen Thomas was aware of this, in which case her comments would be even more detested than they already are.

But the real issue at hand here is how a quick 20 second interview could collapse a 50 year old career in political journalism, or how a few tasteless remarks can poison someone’s reputation as a tough and independent-minded interviewer of every president since John F. Kennedy.  Since when did Washington become so uptight and hypersensitive about views that contradicted official U.S. policy in the Middle East, which has largely been built upon America’s “special relationship” with the state of Israel?  The United States is supposed to be a country that cherishes ideas that seep outside the public mainstream, because these are the same ideas that produce more intense debate about topics that have been lingering in conventionality for far too long.

The real question here- and thus the real story- is who squeezed Thomas out of her job.  Was it the work of Israel’s right-wing lobbies, who are consistently adamant about unconditional U.S. support for Israel and who are all too quick to categorize opposing viewpoints as anti-Semitic?  Or was it the White House, who perhaps equated Thomas’ continuation as a press corps journalist with trouble from lobbies like AIPAC?  Or maybe it was a combination of the two, or an entirely different organization.  Or perhaps Helen Thomas truly felt bad about her remarks, and thought that maybe she needed to retire in her old age anyway.

We don’t know, and I’m not sure we ever will.  The answer is negligent to the broader picture; that of the state of journalism.  Because if this is how journalism in the United States is going to be conducted in the future, with pressure from outside sources on what can be said, then I’m afraid that innovation and independent analysis (however distasteful this analysis may be to some) is being destroyed and replaced with ad-hoc reporting.  This is not something we need at a time when age-old conflicts are still unresolved (like the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab peace process) and new ones continue to surface (Iran’s nuclear program, international and domestic terrorism, the war in Afghanistan, the war on drugs, etc).

One of the key aspects of problem-solving is public debate on controversial issues, even more so when issues are related to a nation’s public policy.  Helen Thomas’ remarks may have been offensive and disparaging, but an overreaction to these remarks may be just as bad in the long-run.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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Have The British Learned Nothing?

Posted in Afghanistan/Pakistan/Central Asia by Dan on June 17, 2010

The British are having a tough time in Afghanistan.

That’s the observation of Stephen Grey, a foreign correspondent for London’s Sunday Times, someone who has traveled to Afghanistan numerous times for the paper and a man who just recently put out a new book about the Afghan conflict last year.  In fact, Grey is so compassionate about his conclusion that he’s scheduled to give a talk (at the New America Foundation) today about the British experience in the Afghan theater; an experience, he says, that has been mired by miscalculation, a lack of resources, weak troop strength, and confusion in the British command.

Now keep in mind that this is not really a groundbreaking discovery.  Washington is facing many of the same challenges today, despite the fact that the U.S. Military has been fighting inside Afghanistan for close to a decade.  The latest blunder for the United States came last March and April, when the Taliban re-established a presence in Helmand after they were driven out by coalition forces a few weeks earlier.  The Taliban, by the way, is still very much alive in that area, made abundantly clear by the insurgency’s relentless intimidation campaign against the local population (targeted assassinations included).

So the charge that the British Government is having problems in southern Afghanistan is not a breaking-news story.  Rather, what could be considered highly consequential is the slow pace with which the British Army has adapted to the war’s changing environment.  And according to Grey, this conventional mindset is not going to go away anytime soon.

This quote really jumped out at me:

“The charge then against British commanders is that despite the sacrifice and heroism of their troops, they failed to alter their strategy and their people fast both from conventional war to counterinsurgency”.

Gee, doesn’t this sound a bit similar to the U.S. experience in Iraq from 2003-2006? Apparently, the British have learned nothing from Bush’s troubled campaign in Iraq seven years earlier.

So in order to prevent a terrible instance of déjà-vu, here are a few pointers for the British (or anyone else for that matter):

1)  Don’t “paint a rosy-picture” to your citizens when the war effort is going horribly. This is the equivalent of a police commissioner claiming that police brutality is nonexistent, despite the existence of video footage showing officers blatantly pummeling unarmed civilians (Rodney King reference).

2)  Don’t pretend that events on the ground will quickly evolve to your war plan. I’m afraid that this is exactly what happened to the Bush administration during Iraq’s bloodiest days, and apparently what is happening today to the British.  Bush & Company waited too long for a change in policy, instead sitting on their heels and hoping for the best (to their credit, they did eventually embrace counterinsurgency, thanks to General Petreaus).  The Brits still have time to avoid making a similar mistake, just in time for the upcoming offensive in Kandahar this summer.

3)  Be honest with yourself and admit when the war is going badly.  This is a hard step to take, because it may not be politically acceptable in the short-term.  Your party may lose a few seats during election time, and you may take a big hit credibility wise for a few weeks, which seems like an eternity in political life. But such a step could reap enormous benefits by jump-starting a process of getting the war plan right. The sooner you admit failure, the quicker you’ll be able to fix that failure.  It worked relatively well for the United States back in 2007, and it could be promising for the British as well.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Stephen Grey at the AfPak Channel**

Troubling Poll Comes Out Of Israel

Posted in Israel, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict by Dan on June 15, 2010

I have some bad news.  David Pollock (a senior pollster and researcher for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy) just wrapped up his latest polling project in the Middle East about what Israelis think of their prime minister, peace with the Palestinians, the Gaza blockade, and U.S. President Barack Obama.  And on all accounts, the numbers show a disheartening trend towards further conflict.

From the information that is frequently provided by the international community and Israel’s very own media, you wouldn’t think that a majority of Israeli Jews held hawkish positions on the Mideast peace process.  Similarly, you would also find it hard to believe that most Israeli voters were (and continue to be) supportive of Benjamin Netanyahu, the right leaning politician who has done more to alienate Israel in the court of world opinion than any other Israeli leader in recent memory.  But the new study by Pechter Polls confirm these trends: 53 percent hold favorable views of Netanyahu, 71 percent are unhappy about President Barack Obama’s handling of the conflict, and nearly 75 percent surveyed stated that Israel should do whatever it took to enforce the Gaza embargo (lingo for military force).

If there is anything that can be concluded from these figures, it is this: the Israeli public, for whatever reason, is deeply confused as to how to proceed with the Palestinians.

Generally speaking, Israelis understand what is required for a comprehensive peace agreement.  They recognize that Tel Aviv needs to make dramatic concessions if they want to end the conflict once and for all.  Close to two-thirds of Israelis are emphatic about the very idea of a two state solution, which has the potential of finally establishing a viable and independent Palestinian state peacefully living side by side with the state of Israel.

Yet on the other hand, this same majority is opposed to taking the step that would make the two state solution a sustainable strategy:  engaging Hamas in even the slightest form.  Unfortunately, it may be Israel’s disdain for Hamas (or vice-versa) that is quickly destroying the very prospect of the two state concept.

Over the last four years, Israel has used every tool at its disposal to weaken Hamas.  Successive Israeli Governments have enforced a blockade on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, prohibiting arms and certain humanitarian goods (like construction materials) from crossing into the coastal territory.  It has performed covert security missions inside the Gaza Strip against Hamas instillations, often stoking violence from Palestinian militants in the process.  And it launched a two-month air and ground assault against the movement in 2008-2009, hitting Hamas military facilities and diminishing its ability to carry out rocket attacks against Israeli civilians.

Yet even despite all of these operations, Israel is still hanging in a state of limbo.

As the last half-decade has demonstrated, Israel cannot- and will not- establish peace in the region by marginalizing Hamas in the hopes that it will simply go away.  In fact, this type of “divide and conquer” strategy only emboldens the Movement by giving it an excuse to operate.  Oh, and did I mention that it places an unwanted strain on the 1.5 million Palestinians living in Gaza?

Five years later, what has Israel’s Gaza policy accomplished?  Is the blockade driving a wedge between Hamas and its constituents?  Is it pressuring Hamas to change its ways towards Israel?  Is it even encouraging them to put aside their differences with Mahmoud Abbas for the sake of Palestinian unity?

The answers, respectively, are no, no and no.  Apart from the relative decrease in rocket fire in Israeli towns close to the Gaza border, marginalizing Hamas (and the broader Gazan population) has been a dismal failure.  Hamas is not receding, but becoming stronger in both image and morale.  Palestinians living in the strip are doing so in conditions that dogs in the United States would refuse to accept.  And from a P.R. perspective, states that were previously ambivalent to the entire situation in Gaza are now starting to take notice.

More importantly, Israel’s Gaza blockade is only reinforcing Hamas unhelpful behavior.

The status-quo is obviously not working, yet the polls that were conducted by Dr. Pollock still seem to support Israel’s status-quo mentality towards the conflict: open up to Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank and isolate Hamas in the Gaza Strip. This should be troubling to anyone who possesses the slightest desire to find a solution to this lingering stalemate.

More of the same is not what the region needs.  Yet more of the same is probably what we are going to get.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of David Pollock at FP.com**

Why Blogging and Tweeting Matters

Posted in Uncategorized, United States by Dan on June 13, 2010

I came across a pretty interesting article by Drew Conway, a PhD student at New York University, about the importance of blogs in today’s environment and how graduate students (or those in undergrad for that matter) can take advantage of the many tools that blogging has to offer.

The reason I’m commenting on this post is because blogs have taken on an inherent value in American society.  You can’t go far on the internet without stumbling upon a wide variety of blogs, most of which redirect you to other blogs that you had no idea existed.  Everything from sports to politics, security to celebratory gossip is discussed, and virtually no issue is left untouched by today’s blogosphere.

But besides the exponential rise of blogs on the internet today, online forums provide a much needed service in the field of amateur (and professional) journalism.  Online forums, whether it be a blog, a message board, a facebook account, or a twitter feed, are extremely beneficial to the average Joe (like myself) who has something worthwhile to say to the public.  In fact, before the adoption and growth of blogs on the internet, the ordinary citizen really didn’t have a proper venue to get certain things off his or her chest, besides the brief “letter to the editor” section in local newspapers.  But even the “letter to the editor” section had its limits; most concerned citizens get rejected due to space and content constraints, particularly in nationwide publications like the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the Wall Street Journal.

So it came as burst of fresh air that some aspiring students in academia are becoming accustomed to forming their own blogs.

Here’s the brief conversation I had with Drew yesterday:

Me: Drew, spot on.  This post had to be said, because from my own personal viewpoint, I see very few of my peers experimenting with the thousands of forums and message boards that contribute to the online discourse. Granted, I am still relatively young in my college career; I just recently graduated at the undergrad level and am heading to grad school in the fall. But even with this limited journey in academia so far, I’m consistently baffled by the fact that students in the human sciences neglect to take advantage of the internet.

There is a whole world out there besides the dusty coated books in the library and the up-to-the-date textbooks we are forced to buy on an annual basis. The world of print media is quickly being succumbed by websites and tweets, if it hasn’t been already. Academics like Steve Walt, Marc Lynch, Peter Bergen and the like have all expanded their knowledge base and following through the establishment of their blogs. And for the most part, all three of these individuals have increased their stature in the IR community like never before. In fact, I didn’t hear much about Walt before I ventured onto his blog at ForeignPolicy.com.

Naturally, you would think that M.A. and PhD students today would follow their example. I started blogging relatively early (my own blog is approaching its one-year anniversary this month), and some of my friends have indeed follow suit. It would just be refreshing to see more ideas out there (especially in the field of political science and IR), thus generating more debate and more networking.

Drew: I am very pleased to see that you have taken up blogging—particularly in your undergrad. Best of luck, and keep up the great work (just checked out The Docket)!

And of course, other people contributed to the conversation as well.


-Daniel R. DePetris

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U.N. Sanctions All Glory And No Guts; Iranians Should Be Breathing A Sigh Of Relief

Posted in Iran by Dan on June 10, 2010

Iranians all giddy about the U.N.'s new sanctions resolution

The work of the U.N. Security Council is finally over after a grueling 6 months of intense face-to-face negotiations.  Late yesterday evening, the Council finally voted- and passed- a new resolution to impose a 4th round of international sanctions against Iran for its refusal to abandon uranium enrichment and for its less-than-cooperative attitude towards international nuclear inspectors.

The final draft was about 10 pages long, most of which reaffirmed what was previously said about Iran’s nuclear program a few years ago under the Bush administration: Iran needs to start acting like an honest and transparent state about its nuclear ambitions, and if Tehran continues on its present course, than a whole host of financial restrictions awaits them.  The punishments that are mentioned in the resolution include a travel ban for Iran’s most powerful officials in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a ban on military trade with the Iranian regime, economic pressure directed towards companies associated with Iran’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs, and an ability to stop an incoming Iranian vessel if a country suspects that the ship contains military equipment.

But a far more important gesture than the list of punishments is the fact that Russia and China- two countries that have normally been Tehran’s defenders in the U.N. Security Council- went along with the American led sanctions push.  The final tally was 12-2, with one country abstaining from the vote entirely.

Sounds all well and good, correct?  Unfortunately, the financial and military restrictions could have stronger and a lot more effective.  The United States only secured Russia and China’s support after it dropped some of the more controversial aspects of the document, like an all-out ban on trade and commercial exchange with the Islamic Republic.  Overall, the sanctions are watered down to the point of meager symbolism.  Sure, all five major powers endorsed the resolution, but what’s the point of passing a resolution if the only way to gain endorsement is by weakening its measures?  This is exactly what occurred with yesterday’s U.N. vote; in exchange for its cooperation, Moscow and Beijing would still be allowed to do business as usual with the Iranians.  In fact, under the resolution’s current conditions, the Russians could sell state of the art missiles to the Iranian Government (the S-300 missile)…missiles that would make a future American or Israeli air raid on Iran’s nuclear facilities all the more difficult.

So what’s the final evaluation?  Well, overall, it’s a 50-50 split.  The United States got the support it needed to muster the vote through.  But it failed to garner a unanimous vote, with Brazil and Turkey casting “no” votes and Lebanon abstaining.  Additional pressures are intact, but they are still weak enough to let Iran squeak by without any substantial consequences.  It’s a long shot that Iran’s behavior will change.

In short, the entire process may have been a diplomatic show without any substance.  Iran will continue to enrich uranium, progress with its nuclear program, and there is nothing the U.S. can do to stop it, short of a disastrous military option.

Not much for six months worth of work.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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Can We Please Stop Talking About The “Freedom Flotilla?”

Posted in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict by Dan on June 7, 2010

If you rely on mainstream television and syndicated columnists for your daily news, I’m sure that you’re probably sick and tired of hearing about Israel’s botched assault on a humanitarian convoy that tried to doc in the Gaza Strip (the press has repeatedly invoked the phrase “freedom flotilla” to describe the convoy of ships).  I hate to put words in everyone’s mouths, but it seems that you can’t read a news article today without hearing another op-ed columnist give some mundane analysis on what went wrong and how the incident is going to affect the state of Israel in the eyes of the world.

Here’s the bottom line, and a point I’ve already made in a previous posting: we can all argue about whether Israel should have intercepted the boat or whether international law allowed the operation in the first place.  But all this does is set the clock back when the United States and its allies should be focusing all of their efforts on getting the Turkish-Israeli relationship back on track.

More important, dwelling on the past and continuing to concentrate on the flotilla incident diverts a tremendous amount of government attention that could be used on much bigger problems, like say preparing for a nuclear Iran (which is becoming more evident by the day) or containing a powerful Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

I understand that everyone likes a little drama in their lives now and again.  It can excite and propel us out of the boring aura that usually dominates our lives.  And don’t think for a second that this is limited to suburbanites like myself; governments like some excitement too.  Who in their right mind would want to sit down and crunch budget numbers all day when something as invigorating as an “international incident” pops up?  And nothing spells “international incident” as much as a controversial and deadly Israeli raid on a pro-Palestinian humanitarian mission.

But there comes a point in time when even the drama can get a bit too dramatic.  Unfortunately, the Israeli attack on the flotilla is starting to fit rather nicely into that category.

The bad news is that this is not helping the United States in any way, shape, or form.  Calls for Washington to denounce Israel over its conduct during the “freedom flotilla” operation is only distracting President Obama from a long laundry list of national priorities that are much more important…like the thousands of barrels of crude oil that are ruining the Gulf of Mexico or the thousands of U.S. troops that are expected to land in Afghanistan in the next month.

I’m sure other bloggers or readers will disagree with my assessment.  Some may claim that the President should condemn Israel, for this would save America’s reputation in the Arab world and help the United States gain some leverage over Jerusalem in the future.  I, however, see it a bit differently.  Such a compliant will only keep the issue alive at a time when the White House is knee-deep in other problems.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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