• Archive of "Embassy/State" Category

    Somebody is in Trouble Over Afghanistan

    January 3, 2024 // 8 Comments »

    Boy oh boy, if anyone looks seriously into the end game in Afghanistan is somebody gonna be in trouble. See, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) the collapse of the Afghan army and government was mostly our own fault. No dessert for you!

    You remember the war in Afghanistan, don’t you? Anyone? Bueller? See it was America’s longest war, stretching from 2001 until 2021, long enough that soldiers who deployed near the end had not even been born when it all started. Now that’s a war! The thing is, the war accomplished nothing in its 20 years. The situation on the ground — Taliban in charge, open territory for any terrorist needing an AirBnB — is pretty much status quo September 2001 except it is now 2024.

    And now it turns out that’s mostly our fault. SIGAR released its reportCollapse of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces: An Assessment of the Factors That Led to Its Demise. It posits two major factors that lead to the demise: unclear U.S. war aims, and corruption and mismanagement on the part of the Afghan government created, advised, and funded by the U.S. (so that’s sorta on us, too.) General James Mattis, who served as Mad Dog,  head of Central Command from 2010 to 2013, and as Secretary of Defense from 2017 to 2018, told SIGAR, “The lack of political clarity on ends, ways, and means meant we were always wondering if we were still going to be here next year. Were we going to be funded next year? We weren’t sure whether to attack, retreat or go sideways.”

    SIGAR found that the single most important factor in the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces’ (ANDSF) collapse in August 2021 was the decision by two U.S. presidents to withdraw U.S. military and contractors from Afghanistan, while Afghan forces remained unable to sustain themselves. One former U.S. commander in Afghanistan told SIGAR, “We built that army to run on contractor support. Without it, it can’t function. When the contractors pulled out, it was like we pulled all the sticks out of the jenga pile and expected it to stay up.” The sad-great thing about those quotes is that they could have been applied at most any point in the 20 year war. Lack of political clarity? It was a couple of years into the war itself before anyone knew the reason for the war (it turned out to be “terrorism.”) An unstainable Afghan military? Maybe someone could point out where in say year 16 the army was sustainable. Boy, heads are gonna roll over that one! All we need to do is find out who was responsible for creating a sustainable army and political clarity and roast ’em.

    The other factor which contributed to the demise of the Afghan army was the last-minute wholesale restructuring of Afghanistan’s security institutions. In 2021, amid rapidly deteriorating security, President Ghani reshuffled most of his security officials, often replacing them with fellow ethnic Pashtuns. These leadership changes were part of a broader pattern of politicization and ethnicization (in favor of Pashtuns) of the security sector in the final years of the Ghani administration.

    One analyst told SIGAR, “Districts collapsed not because of the army, but because of that restructuring that happened and the fact that none of [the replacement police chiefs] had connections” at the district level. He claimed it was the police that did most of the fighting in the final 18 months, not the army. By undermining the morale and political legitimacy of the police, this restructuring directly contributed to the collapse in August 2021. Ethnic competition between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns was likely the single biggest source of dysfunction within the ANDSF. But some former Afghan officials described other types of friction. One former MOD official described competition between the younger and older generation of officers, between the jihadis and the professional officers, and between ethnicities. All these issues distracted from the fight, he said. Now, see, someone on the American side should have been watching for that!

    This strategic level mismanagement had a direct effect in the field. “Overnight, 98 percent of U.S. air strikes had ceased… the Doha agreement’s psychological implication was so great that the average Afghan soldier felt this idea of abandonment… U.S. soldiers were confused about what to engage and what to not. On an hourly basis, the U.S. military had to coordinate with the Doha office of Ambassador Khalilzad and others from the State Department to get clarification on what they could do,” said one former Afghan Army corps commander. “They [U.S. partners] said it was not right, but they have to follow orders. They would see the Taliban attacking our checkpoints. They would have videos of the Taliban doing it. But they would say we are not able to engage, because we have limitations. There was also so much concern about civilians, which gave the Taliban an advantage,” explained a former Afghan Army General.

    According to an senior Afghan official, it was not until President Biden’s April 2021, announcement of the final troop and contractor withdrawal date that Afghan President Ghani’s inner circle said they realized that the ANDSF had no supply and logistics capability. Although the Afghan government had operated in this way for nearly 20 years, their realization came only four months before its collapse.

    Then there was the lack of coordination between the U.S. and the Afghan governments as the Americans negotiating in Doha cut their own deals with the Taliban to enable a quick exit. One former Afghan government official told SIGAR that following the U.S.-Taliban agreement, President Ghani began to suspect that the United States wanted to remove him from power.  That official and a former Afghan general believed Ghani feared a military coup.  According to the general, Ghani became a “paranoid president… afraid of his own countrymen” and of U.S.-trained Afghan officers. According to a former Afghan general, in the week before Kabul fell, President Ghani replaced the new generation of young U.S.-trained Afghan officers with an old guard of Communist generals in almost all of the army corps. Ghani, that general said, was “changing commanders constantly [to] bring back some of the old-school Communist generals who [he] saw as loyal to him, instead of these American-trained young officers who he [mostly] feared.”

    Afghan officials, largely removed from the negotiations, struggled most of all to understand what the United States had agreed to with the Taliban. According to Afghan government officials, the U.S. military never clearly communicated the specifics of its policy changes to the Ghani administration. According to a former Afghan general, in a broad sense, the U.S. military took on the role of a referee and watched the Afghan government and Taliban fight, something the general referred to as “a sick game.” According to that general, Afghan troops had not only lost U.S. support for offensive operations, they no longer knew if or when U.S. forces would come to their defense. U.S. inaction fueled mistrust among the ANDSF toward the United States and their own government. The Taliban’s operations and tactics, however, suggested that they may have had a better understanding of new levels of support the United States was willing to provide to the ANDSF following the signing of the U.S.-Taliban agreement. For example, under the U.S.-Taliban agreement’s rules, U.S. aircraft could not target the Taliban groups that were waiting more than 500 meters away—the groups “beyond the contact” that would engage in the second, third, or fourth wave to defeat the last ANDSF units. A senior Afghan official said this was a loophole that the Taliban used in their targeting to their advantage.

    SIGAR’s sad conclusion to the report could have been written at any point, including in 1968. “The U.S. approach to reconstructing the ANDSF lacked the political will to dedicate the time and resources necessary to reconstruct an entire security sector in a war-torn and impoverished country. As a result, the U.S. created an ANDSF that could not operate independently, milestones for ANDSF capability development were unrealistic, and the eventual collapse of the ANDSF was predictable. After 20 years of training and development, the ANDSF never became a cohesive, substantive force capable of operating on its own. The U.S. and Afghan governments share in the blame. Neither side appeared to have the political commitment to doing what it would take to address the challenges, including devoting the time and resources necessary to develop a professional ANDSF, a multi-generational process. In essence, U.S. and Afghan efforts to cultivate an effective and sustainable security assistance sector were likely to fail from the beginning.”

    “Likely to fail from the beginning” is a helluva epitaph for U.S. policy in Afghanistan. If only SIGAR could find the guys responsible, we might avoid another round in Ukraine, where our policy depends on another U.S. patsy leader whose army is now totally dependent on U.S. funding, supplies, and advisement in a war that cannot be won, only sustained at great expense.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Ukraine War is Just About Over

    November 22, 2023 // 5 Comments »

    The handwriting was on the wall. An Op-Ed in the New York Times entitled “I’m a Ukrainian, and I Refuse to Compete for Your Attention” summed things up nicely: a media junket the author’s friend had been organizing to Ukraine was canceled. The TV crew instead left for the Middle East.

    The United States controls how the war in the Ukraine proceeds and always has. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said it was the American side which scuttled any chance of peace in Ukraine as early as March 2022, soon after the war began. “The only people who could resolve the war over Ukraine are the Americans. During the peace talks in March 2022 in Istanbul, Ukrainians did not agree to peace because they were not allowed to. They had to coordinate everything they talked about with the Americans first. However, nothing eventually happened. My impression is that nothing could happen because everything was decided in Washington.”

    Fast-forward to 2023 and the story is different. Earlier this month NBC News quietly released a report which said U.S. and European officials broached the topic of peace negotiations with Ukraine, including “very broad outlines of what Ukraine might need to give up to reach a deal with Russia.” NBC said “the discussions are an acknowledgment of the dynamics militarily on the ground in Ukraine and politically in the U.S. and Europe.” They began amid concerns the war has reached a stalemate and about the ability to continue providing open-ended aid to Ukraine. Biden administration officials are also worried Ukraine is running out of men in this war of attrition, while Russia has a seemingly endless supply. Ukraine is also struggling with recruiting and recently saw public protests (not shown on American TV) about President Volodymyr Zelensky’s open-ended conscription requirements. Kiev is today sending 40 and 50-year-olds to the front.

    This comes as Time reported Zelensky’s top advisers admitted the war is currently unwinnable for Ukraine. Things look a bit better from the point of view of Ukraine commander-in-chief General Valery Zaluzhny, who believes the war is only at a stalemate. “It’s now a battle of inches,” say American sources quietly.

    Americans will be forgiven if they never hear this bad news, never mind be surprised by it if they did. The narrative which drove sports teams to wear blue and yellow patches and E Street Band member Steve Van Zandt to paint his guitar the Ukrainian colors was simple. Amid a flood of propaganda, the story was always the same: Ukraine was pushing back the Russians with weapons provided by a broad range of agreeable NATO benefactors. Between Ukrainian jet fighter aces with improbable kill ratios to patriotic female sniper teams with improbable hair and makeup, Russia was losing. It would be a difficult but noble slog for “as long as it takes” to drive the Russians out. Any talk about peace was insulting to Kiev, fighting for its survival and all. Meanwhile mediagenic President Zelensky at first flew around the world like the anti-Christ Bono, procuring weapons while showing off his man-to-man relationships with celebrities. Now desperate, Zelensky is inflight claiming Russia, Iran, and North Korea sponsored Hamas’ attack on Israel, trying to rattle up some support.

    It was as compelling as it was untrue. Any thoughtful analysis of the war showed it to be, from early days, a war of attrition at best for the Ukrainian side and while the U.S. could supply nearly bottomless cargo planes full of weapons and munitions, right up to the promised F-16 fighter-bombers and M1A tanks due on line soon, it could not fill the manpower gap. Any appetite for American troop involvement was hushed up early in the fight. Russia could do what she had always done at war, hunker down in the field and reach deep into its vast territory to find ever more conscripts to wait out the enemy. It didn’t hurt that Russia’s capability versus NATO equipment was surprisingly good, or perhaps the Ukrainians’ handling of sophisticated Western arms was surprisingly bad.

    But the most predictable factor leading to quiet U.S. moves toward some sort of “solution” in Ukraine is as predictable as the battlefield results. There is unease in the U.S. government over how much less public attention (despite the propaganda) the war in Ukraine has garnered since the Israeli-Hamas conflict began more than a month ago. Combined with what looks like a feisty new Speaker of the House seeking to decouple aid to Israel from aid to Ukraine, officials fear that shift could make securing additional funds for Kiev difficult.

    Americans, the people and their government, assisted by their media wielding the greatest propaganda tools ever imagined, seem capable of focusing on only one bright shiny object at a time. Over 41 percent of Americans now say the U.S. is doing too much to help Kiev. That’s a significant change from just three months ago when only 24 percent of Americans said they felt that way. In the case of wars, a new bright shiny object must include two clear sides, one good and one pure evil, with one preferably an underdog, daily combat footage which can be obtained without too much danger, and a football game-like progression across a map that is easy to follow. It should not be boring. Ukraine was such a conflict and enjoyed almost a full two-year run. But the fickle attention of America shifted to the Middle East just as things started to look more and more like static WWI trench warfare in Ukraine. It was a hard act to follow but something always follows nonetheless (the same calculus works for natural disasters and mass shootings, which are only as mediagenic-good as the next one coming.)

    Ukraine, like Israel, owes most of its continued existence to American weaponry. However, despite the blue and yellow splattered on social media at present, Ukraine does not have anywhere near the base of support Israel does among the American public and especially within the American Congress. The terms for resolving the war will be dictated to Kiev as much by Washington as they will be by Moscow, as with Crimea a few years ago. The end will be quite sad; Russia will very likely solidify its hold on Donbas and the Crimea, and achieve new territory to the west approaching Kiev, roughly 20 percent of Ukraine. Ukraine will be forced to set aside its goal of joining NATO even as the U.S. takes a new stand on its western border with Poland.

    It is all something of a set piece. America’s habit of wandering into a conflict and then losing interest is long (Iraq) enough to count as an addition to history (Afghanistan.) “We have your back” and “we will not abandon you” join “the check’s in the mail” and “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” among  joking faux reassurances. Our proxies seem to end up abandoned and hung out to die. As in Iraq and Afghanistan, never mind Vietnam before that, what was realized at the end could have most likely been achievable at pretty much anytime after the initial hurrahs passed away. It is sad that so many had to die to likely see it happen in 2023.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Talk to the American People about Ukraine, Joe

    October 20, 2023 // 18 Comments »

    America needs to hear from its own president, not Volodymyr Zelensky, about what is going on in Ukraine.

    America just can’t get enough of Endless War it seems; otherwise why would it keep getting into one of them? Leaving aside ancient historical examples like Korea (still ongoing) and Vietnam (result was a complete defeat of the U.S. after decades of conflict preceeded by years of U.S. nearly completely funding the failed French war effort there) we have the more modern examples of Iraq and Afghanistan. The former sputtered to defeat for the U.S. after decades of war (counting Gulf War I and the bombing campaigns which accomplished little permanently and Gulf War II which led to empowering Iran in Iraq via Gulf War 2.5) and the latter concluding decisively on the TV August 2021 with the symbolically cluster-futzed final evacuation (memories of Saigon.) Each war started with no real practical goal in mind (remember nation building? The War on Terror, i.e., a war against a tactic?)

    With that kind of track record you’d think America would take a breather from Endless War, you know, take a few years off to get its head together, maybe work the fentanyl problem, get the economy together so people other than Democratic commentators can see it growing. But no. Just a scant six months after hosing the last Afghan dust off our boots the U.S. finds itself mired in Ukraine. No clear, realistic goal? Check. Open-ended commitment of U.S. resources? Check. Potential to suck U.S. forces directly into the conflict? Check. Dubious one man celebrity leader? Check. Unclear as hell how Ukraine fits into our national interest, how much more time and money will be expected to achieve whatever our objectives are, and how much Europe plans to contribute to the war taking place in its backyard? Check.

    It is time for President Biden to explain some things to the American people.

    1) What is the endgame, Joe? Is it democracy in Ukraine? If so, you’re off to a rough start. Zelensky over the past two years conscripted his own citizens, kept young males from the freedom to travel, done away with opposition parties, canceled all future elections indefinitely, consolidated all TV platforms in Ukraine into one state broadcast, dealt harshly with dissidents, and assumed practically one-man rule over the nation, certainly its war. Plus there’s all that about units of the Ukrainian military being actual Nazis. So Joe, what is the plan to bring democracy to Ukraine? It seems only that things have gotten worse since the U.S. intervened to prevent the Russians from doing many of the things Zelensky has already done to his own country. FYI Joe, you’ll recall military imposition of democratic values historically has failed.

    2) Or Joe, is the point of the war to force Russia out of what Ukraine claims as its territory? Does that include the territory the U.S. gifted a few years ago to the Russians in the Crimea when under another president all this seemed much less dire? Or just to retake the land back which Russia gained after February 2022? That was the point of the Great 2023 Spring Counter-Offensive, right? Be up front with the propaganda-weary American people about how things are going; the Ukrainians in their offensive using most of the conventional ground-force arms in America’s arsenal, gained back only 143 square miles. The Russians, supposedly on the defensive, gained 331 square miles of land. With the Counter-Offensive now clearly a failure, what is the next step? Is there a plan? How do we define win? “As long as it takes” is not a viable option, it’s just a recipe for another Vietnam, another Afghanistan.

    3) What role if any will diplomacy with Russia play in achieving this end game, whatever it is? Have the Russians sought to meet and discuss the war? Has the U.S. offered to meet? If not, why not? Diplomacy can end wars. We know your secretary of state can pick a fight but can he stop one, the real test for his profession? Because it is complicated, we’ll give you a pass on how our own government helped create this situation in the first place, something the American people need to know more about at some point.

    4) Speaking of things the American public needs to know about, who blew up the Nordstrom pipeline between Russia and Germany? Is this the kind of war America is in that we would blow up the pipeline to press Germany to further join the fight? Or is it the kind of war where Ukraine would somehow muster the technical know-how to blow up the pipeline to force Germany to further join the fight? Why would the Russians blow up a pipeline that supplies their gas to Germany, a significant source of revenue? Is this war that dirty?

    5) The U.S. has appropriated $113 billion dollars to Ukraine, paying for everything from tanks to ambulance drivers’ regular salaries. And what else Joe? What systems are in place for accountability for this money? Could it be that more money simply deepens the quagmire and pushes us closer to direct conflict with Russia? You’ve spoken in the past how accountability lies with the Inspectors General at the Department of Defense, State, and USAID. They point to “a decade of shared experience gained from joint oversight of eight different overseas contingency operations, forgetting the spectacular failure of oversight of these overseas contingency operations,” and how the same agencies covered up waste, fraud, and mismanagement and deliberately mislead the American public on the progress made in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    Joe, you need to address opposition to the more formal structure of establishing a Special Inspector General for Ukraine (SIGUR), such as SIGIR in Iraq and SIGAR in Afghanistan. “As much as it takes” is a blank check the American taxpayer needs to know more about. Senator Rand Paul in the spring placed a temporary hold on a $40 billion aid package to Ukraine, demanding unsuccessfully Congress insert a provision into the aid package creating an inspector general to oversee the distribution of the aid. As SIGAR noted, “While Afghanistan and Ukraine are very different countries with a history of facing very different threats, many of the challenges U.S. agencies faced in Afghanistan—coordinating efforts, dealing with corruption, and effectively monitoring and evaluating projects and programs—will be the same as the ones they will face in Ukraine.” And speaking of corruption, your own State Department has singled out Ukraine for its corrupt practices, which as you know from Iraq and Afghanistan will seriously dilute any aid. Why resist additional oversight?

    6) We know there are American Special Forces on the ground in Ukraine, and America forces in command and control roles in the ongoing fight. Are there redlines, either promised to Zelensky or just for yourself, Joe, to trigger a larger U.S. direct role in Ukraine? What would it take to have more “advisers” on the ground, or American air power, or American leadership embedded with Ukrainian troops in the field? At what point in escalation would you agree Congress needs to formally weigh in? And no fair making it all OK by calling the deployments “NATO” instead of American. A Russia-NATO scuffle is a Russia-U.S. scuffle.

    No more malarkey, Joe. Time to talk to the American people about Ukraine.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Embassy Evacuation: Sudan

    May 3, 2023 // 1 Comment »

    The American Embassy in Sudan is closed. Fierce fighting between two warring generals has led to the swift deterioration of conditions in the capital  and the U.S. appears to be preparing to evacuate American staff, possibly some private American citizens. What happens when an embassy is evacuated? What happens to private Americans in-country?

    The decision to close an embassy rises to the Secretary of State for approval. An embassy evacuation really is a virtual chess match that some State Department critics say is as much about political signals as it is about the safety of America’s diplomats. In cases where the United States decides to support the host government or in the case of Sudan, one faction, an embassy closure cuts off most interaction and will eliminate on-the-ground reporting. An evacuation can trigger the fall of the host government based on the perceived loss of American confidence, or may encourage rebels to attack private American citizens seen as less-protected. In that one point of having an embassy at all is symbolism, closure is without a doubt a political act. Reopening the embassy brings up all those factors in reverse.

    The mechanics of closing an embassy follow an established process, with only the time line varying.

    All embassies have standing evacuation procedures, called the Emergency Action Plan, that are updated regularly. A key component is the highly-classified “trip wires,” designated decision points. If the rebels advance past the river, take steps A-C. If the host government military is deserting, implement steps D and E, and so forth.

    Early actions include moving embassy dependents out of the country via commercial flights. The embassy in Sudan is designated a partially accompanied post. This means that while some family members may be permitted to accompany U.S. government employees to the post, there are restrictions on who can accompany them and for how long.  In addition, incoming staff can be held in Washington and existing tours cut short. Non-essential official personnel (for example, the trade attaché, who won’t be doing much business in the midst of coup) are flown out. A “Do Not Travel” public advisory  (note item 8, “prepare a will”) must be issued by the State Department to private American citizens under the “No Double Standard” rule. This grew out of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing of a Pan Am flight, where inside threat info was made available to embassy families but kept from the general public.

    These embassy draw-down steps are seen as low-cost moves, both because they use commercial transportation, and because they usually attract minimal public attention both inside and outside the host country.

    The next steps typically involve the destruction of classified materials. The flood of sensitive documents stolen from the American embassy in Tehran in 1979 remains a sore point inside State even today. Classified materials include mountains of paper that need to be shredded, pulped or burnt, as well as electronics, weapons, encryption gear, and hard drives that must be physically destroyed. Embassies estimate how many linear feet of classified paper they have on hand and the destruction process begins in time (one hopes) to destroy it all.

    Somewhere in the midst of all this, the Marines come into the picture. Embassies are guarded only by a small, lightly armed detachment of Marines. As part of their standard Special Operation Capable (SOC) designation, larger Marine units train with their SEAL components for the reinforcement and evacuation of embassies. They maintain libraries of overhead imagery and blueprints of diplomatic facilities to aid in planning. Fully combat-equipped Marines can be brought into the embassy, either stealthily to avoid inflaming a tense situation, or very overtly to send a message to troublemakers to back off. Long experience keeps Marine assets handy to the Middle East and Africa. Any evacuation out of Sudan will flow from the large U.S. military facility nearby in Djibouti, and so the Pentagon is moving more troops to the African nation to prepare for a possible evacuation of staff in Sudan. The U.S. will often coordinate its evacuation with other nations’, with friendlies such as Canada, and in places where another nation’s influence is strong, such as in Francophone Africa.

    What is done to support private American citizens varies considerably (there are some 19,000 in Sudan.) The rule of thumb is if a commercial means of departure exists, private citizens must utilize it, sometimes with the assistance of the embassy. Loans for tickets can be made, convoys organized, and so forth. In cases where the major airlines refuse to fly but the airport is still usable, the State Department can arrange charters. Right now the international airport in Khartoum is the target of heavy shelling, with destroyed planes on the tarmac. Sudan’s air space is also closed.

    In extreme cases only (Sudan may become such a case) the Marines conduct a Noncombatant Evacuation Order (NEO) to pull citizens out of the country using military assets. At times Americans are simply told to “shelter in place” and ride out a crisis. State will ask a neutral embassy in-country, such as the Swiss, to look after them to the extent possible if our own embassy closes.

    The current guidance issued to private Americans in Sudan is dire: “U.S. citizens are strongly advised to remain indoors, shelter in place until further notice, and avoid travel to the U.S. embassy. There continues to be ongoing fighting, gunfire, and security forces activity. There have also been reports of assaults, home invasions, and looting. The U.S. embassy remains under a shelter in place order and cannot provide emergency consular services. Due to the uncertain security situation in Khartoum and closure of the airport, it is not currently safe to undertake a U.S. government-coordinated evacuation of private U.S. citizens.”

    Almost always left out of the mix are the embassy local staff, the cooks, drivers, and translators. Rarely are they evacuated, and are usually left to make their own way in what can be a very dangerous environment for someone seen as an American collaborator. Some have compared this to the poor treatment military translators from Iraq and Afghanistan received trying to secure visas to the United States.

    Images of an empty embassy are not what the American government looks forward to seeing spreading across social media. The pieces are in place in Sudan, waiting for the situation on the ground to dictate what happens next.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Iraq War Anniversary

    March 25, 2023 // 3 Comments »

    This week marks the 20th anniversary of Iraq War 2.0. The date is worthy of some reflection.

    I was part of the war, heading two embedded civilian provincial reconstruction teams (ePRTs) 2009-2010 and wrote a book critical of the program, We Meant Well, for which was I was punished into involuntary retirement by my employer the U.S. State Department. The working title for the book was originally “Lessons for Afghanistan from the Failed Reconstruction of Iraq” and was meant to explain how our nation building efforts failed to accomplish anything except setting afire rampant corruption, and how repeating them nearly dollar-for-dollar in the Afghan theatre was just going to yield the same results. After all, isn’t one definition of madness doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results?

    Between 2003 and 2014, more than $220 billion was wasted on the effort to rebuild Iraq. In the end, the sum was we accomplished worse than nothing. Iraq before our invasion(s) was a more or less stable place, good enough that Saddam was even an ally of sorts during the Iraq-Iran War. By the time we were finished Iraq was a corrupt client state of Iran. Where once most literate Americans knew the name of the Iraqi Prime Minister, a regular White House guest, unless he’s changed his name to Zelensky nobody cares anymore.

    But today I reflect on another war anniversary, its sixth, which I spent in Iraq. There were no parties, nothing official to mark the day as any different from any other day, hot and dusty with a slight chance of being killed.

    We had not always gotten along, the four of us, arguing over what the right thing to do was, how best to get through our year. We moved gracelessly to a small patio near our office, outlined by a CONEX shipping container on one side, a sloppy brick wall standing because it was too lazy to fall on a second, and the remnants of another building on the third. Usually when we came back with our secreted beer from the Embassy (as State Department employees, we did not fall under the military’s General Order No. 1 forbidding alcohol) we parceled the cans out in ones and twos, trying to make the stash last longer, like teens in our parents’ basement. A can tonight, maybe two on Friday, and a couple of cases could pass the time for weeks.

    But tonight, maybe in honor of the anniversary, something unspoken made us greedy. We chugged cans, we popped the tops of the ever-warmer brew (room temperature was 104 degrees) and slurped the foam like Vikings on a New World bender. One of the benefits of not drinking often was that your body dried out, and so even a little alcohol thrown down that dry hole kicked your butt. A lot of alcohol drunk purposely under these conditions sent four adults into drunkenness, marvelously rich and fine. It tasted of a high school summer.

    With a lot of dust in the air and only a toenail clipping shaped moon out, the darkness was complete as we sat drinking the last. A light would have embarrassed us. Seen in a photo, we could have been anywhere, there were no clues for an outsider to decode. We four felt closer to this place, and to one another, than we had ever had.

    The long days at the Embassy for meetings where we had been laughed at as Country Cousin Muggles, unworthy, the warm beer, and the blanket of the dark, led to stories. With the exception of a long, wandering tale that had something to do with a tree, the Germans, and a lawsuit, we had all heard the drunken stories before. The two divorces, a daughter who did not write, the woman whose name had been forgotten even as the teller spent ten minutes describing how her shoes looked next to his bed—the stories all poured out in equal measure to what we poured down our throats. Some were bitter (the sum of our ages totaled over 200; nation-building was not a young man’s game), most more matter of fact. A lifetime of experiences, a thousand autumns, all tied up in those voices.

    We realized, maybe for the first time, that we had more in common than we had differences. Like every dog year equaling seven human ones, time spent together in Iraq fast-forwarded how you felt about the people sharing it with you. Nobody cursed Iraq or the anniversary—on the contrary, though none of us could walk a straight line to save his life, we were sharply aware that it was only because we were in Iraq that we could share what we were sharing. There was little talk of the routines of home that used to govern our lives, mortgages, Saturday morning chores and errands. That happened only at the beginning of your time, when you could still smell home on your shirt, or at the end of a tour when you had to will yourself to remember so you could try to fit back in.

    The talk instead was about people, friends, lovers, girlfriends, wives, Dads; what we did not have here and for whom we all accepted one another as surrogates. Maybe because we were drunk, we recognized we cared about each other, our differences not resolved but perhaps more vital, dispelled temporarily.

    The next morning I awoke with a vicious headache and the realization that someday I would come to miss being with those men as much as I now missed the smell of pillows on my bed at home, or kissing my wife when we both tasted of coffee. It was already over 100 degrees, a Thursday, if I remember it right.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Iran’s Foreign Policy: A Complex Landscape

    February 23, 2023 // 5 Comments »

    The Nation asked of President Joe Biden “Is America back?” If it is, what is its signature accomplishment, the marker that Pax Americana or something similar worthy of Latin, is back?

    Certainly nothing here at home. Gas flutters at record levels, as much as $5 a gallon in places with all the side effects of higher grocery prices and supply chain missteps. Employment-wise, jobs of some sort are there but lack in quality and salary such that many people find unemployment a better deal than underemployment.

    Abroad Biden stretched NATO to its threads by threatening Ukrainian membership in the alliance, and ignoring objections to the alliance’s expansion across Russia’s political spectrum, contributing to an invasion few thought would happen and no one in the West outside of Washington wanted. The result is increasingly divided “allies” and massive expenses in arms and lives without much of a defined endgame. This foreign policy disaster-in-progress stands next to Biden’s other signature foreign policy action, withdrawal from Afghanistan in a haphazard way such that it displayed America’s confusion and fugue state more than its power. The world outside the Beltway seems well aware the outcome of more than 20 years of war and occupation is to return the country to its pre-September 11 state of medieval feudalism even if we chose not to talk much about it here at home.

    That’s not much to run on for the second term Biden all but announced his candidacy for in his State of the Union address. Hopes to make better progress here at home are dependent mostly on factors outside America’s control, to include the price of oil (thanks to a Saudi Arabia who brushed back Biden) and any return of Covid. Biden needs and might just be able to find a way to make peace with Iran, however, and score a major foreign policy victory, the kind of typical second term action he could pack into the end of his first term. The world might just forgive some sins (the return of U.S.. forces to Somalia and the endless war in Yemen the U.S. supports, for example) if it sees somnolent American diplomacy dragged out of the closet after six years and put back to use. America’d be back.

    The obstacles to some sort of agreement with Iran are formidable. Iran’s own foreign policy goals are nearly as mixed up as America’s, with the country’s leaders pursuing a complex and often contradictory set of objectives. From supporting armed groups in the Middle East to engaging in negotiations with the West, Iran’s approach to foreign affairs has been shaped by a variety of factors, including its history, ideology, and geopolitical interests. To achieve any sort of agreement, Biden would have to navigate all of the above.

    One of the most notable aspects of Iran’s foreign policy is its support for armed groups in the region. Iran has long been accused of backing militant organizations, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories, as part of its efforts to project power and influence beyond its borders. This has led to increased tensions with Iran’s neighbors, particularly Israel, and has fueled concerns about the country’s intentions in the region. Iran controls Iraq (another American foreign policy blunder, about half of which was under Biden’s vice-watch) and complicates Syria and Yemen. But the complexity of the problem just adds to the value to a solution if it can be found.

    Another key aspect of Iran’s foreign policy is its relationship with the West, a fork in the road Biden has the most influence on. The country has been under international sanctions for decades, with the United States and its allies seeking to pressure Iran to limit its nuclear program and curb its support for armed groups (how’s that sanctions regime been working out?) After negotiations with the West during the end state Obama administration, including the 2015 nuclear deal, lifted some of the sanctions in exchange for restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, the deal went south, the United States reimposed most sanctions, and Iran has responded by resuming some of its nuclear activities, leading to fears of a wider conflict.

    Iran’s foreign policy is shaped by its self-understanding it is a major player in the Middle East, something the U.S. has been very slow to acknowledge. The country has long sought to be a regional power, and has used its military, economic, and political leverage to advance its interests in the region, most notably securing a client state in Iraq. This has led to increased tensions with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, which view Iran as a major threat to their security. But wouldn’t it be a nice gesture to the Saudi’s, who raised oil prices and refuse to crank up production to match that lost in the Ukraine war, to see the U.S. sit down with one of its adversaries?

    So what would it take for Biden to make some sort of deal with Iran?

    Sanctions relief: Iran would likely seek relief from the economic sanctions that have been imposed on the country, while the U.S. would want to ensure that any sanctions relief is conditional and proportional to Iran’s compliance with the terms of the deal. This is tricky business, but was more or less done in 2015 and is the actual stuff of diplomacy. The economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and other countries have had a significant impact on Iran’s economy, reducing its ability to access the global financial system, sell oil, and purchase from other countries. This has led to a shortage of foreign currency, inflation, and a decline in living standards for many Iranians. Biden would have to make clear Iran can choose to be a threshold nuclear power and suffer indefinitely for it, or rejoin the global system and profit from it.

    Nuclear restrictions: Both sides would need to agree on the extent to which Iran’s nuclear program should be restricted and monitored, including limitations on uranium enrichment and the size of its nuclear stockpile. Again, mostly taken care of in 2015. Biden would need to fend off Israel entreaties to destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities rather than trust Tehran to disarm them. Iran at the negotiation table would likely demand some sort of pullback of Israeli nukes from the Gulf.

    Timelines: A clear timeline for lifting sanctions and implementing restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program is important to avoid stalling the agreement.

    Verification mechanisms: Both sides would need to agree on the mechanisms for verifying compliance with the terms of the deal, including regular inspections and monitoring.

    Regional involvement: As the situation in the Middle East is complex, regional actors, such as the Gulf countries, would need to be involved in the negotiations and have their concerns addressed. This is likely the most difficult part of the deal, bringing the regional actors into line, something a weakened America may not have the diplomatic cojones to make happen. Yemen however is a possible bargaining chip in several directions, and lessening the nuclear threat overall in the Gulf remains a goal worth pursuing.

    The outcome of any potential negotiations will depend on a number of factors, including Iran’s willingness to engage in constructive talks, the level of sanctions relief and other incentives the U.S. is willing to provide, and the international community’s support (particularly a reluctant Saudi Arabia and an even more reluctant Israel) for the negotiations.

    The U.S. and Iran have had a complicated relationship and there have been significant obstacles to reaching a nuclear agreement in the past. However, Biden has expressed a willingness to re-engage with Iran and revive the 2015 nuclear deal. He has also indicated that his administration is open to diplomatic efforts to address concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and other issues a la carte. For a president looking to take big issue success into the next election, it just might be worth a chance.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Apocalypses Now, Afghan Redux Edition

    February 17, 2023 // 4 Comments »

    It is altogether fitting and proper the final images for most Americans of their war in Afghanistan were chaotic airport scenes, all too familiar to many (Vietnam!) and all too alien to others (We lost? Nobody told me.) It is important two decades of smoldering ruin of American foreign policy — four presidents, six administrations, untold Afghan dead, 2,456 American dead, 20,752 American wounded, and some trillions of dollars spent, the money as uncountable as the Afghan dead and just as meaningless except as an aggregate. There will be deniers emerge in the decades to come, so a final set of pedestrian images of failure are necessary to rebuke them in advance. History has no intent on being being kind here, nor should it considering the scale and cope of the folly.

    The final judgement on paper at least rests with the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the body set up by Congress to monitor the progress over twenty-some years of the national building project America set out to do in 2001. SIGAR just wrote a report entitled Why the Afghan Government Collapsed summing up its work. Here’s the bottom line up front, as the military likes to say: the SIGAR report mentioned Iraq, where a similar nation building effort failing for similar reasons, only three times in 60 pages, one a footnote. Nobody learned any lessons there and it is doubtful as the Blob salivates over rebuilding Ukraine even as this is written that any lessons will be carried forward from Afghanistan. Vietnam begat Iraq which begat Afghanistan which will all be forgotten for the next one. Vietnam was mentioned in the report once only, “U.S. efforts to build and sustain Afghanistan’s governing institutions were a total, epic, predestined failure on par with the same efforts and outcome in the Vietnam war, and for the same reasons.” You’d think a statement like that might be worth a bit of expansion.

    SIGAR tells us the U.S. failed in Afghanistan in large part because “The Afghan government failed to recognize that the United States would actually leave.” There was thus never a push to solve problems or drive peace talks, simply a well-founded belief the American money which fueled abject corruption would continue indefinitely. Standing in the Tim Horton’s/Burger King at Bagram Air Base, thinking through lunch options before a trip to the air conditioned gym with its 75 treadmills in 2009, it all seemed a reasonable assumption. Left unspoken by SIGAR was that the Taliban saw just the opposite, that eventually, someday, maybe in a long time but not indefinitely, the Americans would have to leave. Same as the Alexander the Great, same as the British, same as the Soviets. That is one of the wonderful things about the SIGAR report, its historical portability. Change the dates and some adjacent facts and it reads well to describe the British ouster, or the Russian. The failure to win hearts and minds, the great costs to create the appearance of conquering great swathes of territory, the ability of the Afghan plains to absorb the blood of the conquerors, the endemic corruption of the puppet governments, it was all similar enough.

    SIGAR ignores much of what was happening in the field to focus on intra-USG/Afghan government problems, as one might comment effusively on a particularly pretty hat and fail to notice the woman wearing it was naked. Before the collapse of the Afghan government in August 2021, the primary U.S. goal in Afghanistan we’re told was “to achieve a sustainable political settlement that would bring lasting peace and stability.” But the Taliban’s refusal to talk to the Afghan government without first negotiating with the United States was an obstacle to that goal. A similar occurrence happened in 2018, when the United States began direct talks with the Taliban. The U.S. direct negotiations with the Taliban excluded the Afghan government, weakening the negotiating position of the Ghani government and strengthening the Taliban. As Hugo Llorens, former U.S. special chargé d’affaires for Afghanistan, summarized, “Just talking to the Taliban alone and excluding our allies proved the Taliban’s point: The Afghan government were our puppets, you didn’t need to talk to them. You only need to talk to the Americans.”

    SIGAR then notes with the obviousness of a car wreck “The U.S.-Taliban agreement appeared to have emboldened the Taliban. All the Taliban really did was agree not to attack U.S. forces on their way out.” As a result, the agreement likely led Taliban leaders to seek a resolution to its conflict with the Afghan government on the battlefield rather than through peace talks. If this wasn’t a family report, you’d expect a “no sh*t” to follow. All sides were befuddled.  Former Ambassador Michael McKinley told SIGAR that the Afghan president consistently suggested development goals that were “completely off the charts,” and that his apparent “separation from Afghan reality” was concerning. He was “living in fantasyland.”

    The key elements of the fantasy was the reconstruction effort, the idea that rebuilding Afghanistan via $141 billion in roads and schools and bridges and hardware stores would gut the Taliban’s own more brutal hearts and minds efforts. That was the same plan as in Iraq only minutes earlier, where between 2003 and 2014, more than $220 billion was spent on rebuilding the country (full disclosure: I was part of the Iraqi effort and wrote a book critical of the program, We Meant Well, for which was I was punished into involuntary retirement by the U.S. State Department.) Nonetheless, the Iraqi failure on full display, the United States believed that economic and social development programming would increase support for the Afghan government and reduce support for the Taliban insurgency (the log line for the war script.)

    However, SIGAR writes, “the theory that economic and social development programing could produce such outcomes had weak empirical foundations.” Former Ambassador McKinley noted, “It wasn’t that everyone, including conservative rural populations, didn’t appreciate services… But that didn’t seem to change their views.” As the Army War College told us, “This idea that if you build a road or a hospital or a school, people will then come on board and support the government — there’s no evidence of that occurring anywhere since 1945, in any internal conflict. It doesn’t work.” As Scott Guggenheim, former senior advisor to President Ghani, told SIGAR, “Building latrines does not make you love Ashraf Ghani.” But that was indeed the plan and it failed spectacularly, slow over twenty years then all at once.

    There is not justification to blame SIGAR for anything, though the temptation to mock their prose is great given the importance of the mess they sought to document. But no fair. The blame lies with six administrations’ worth of president’s and the men and women who created the Afghan policy. The great news is now, having laid this all out in black and white, we can set the SIGAR report on the shelf alongside a similar one for Iraq (where the watchdog was creatively called SIGIR, Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction) knowing it will never, ever ever happen this way again, promise.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Brittney Griner Smokes Dope for Freedom

    December 17, 2022 // 5 Comments »

    Was WNBA star Brittney Griner the subject of so much White House attention because she was an important showpiece demographic?

    Nobody can claim they are unhappy Griner is home safely in the U.S., free again to use marijuana and remain seated during the national anthem ahead of her WNBA games. No one can sit here and say she should have better been left to suffer in Russia. But at the same time Griner through all fault of her own ended up in the middle of a foreign policy struggle. In the case of Russia, the U.S. specifically warns people like Griner “do not travel to Russia due to the unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine by Russian military forces, the potential for harassment against U.S. citizens by Russian government security officials, the singling out of U.S. citizens in Russia by Russian government security officials including for detention, the arbitrary enforcement of local law, limited flights into and out of Russia, and the Embassy’s limited ability to assist U.S. citizens in Russia.”

    What did we learn from all this? It’s doubtful Griner herself learned much.

    Firstly, Americans should not be as stupid as Griner and try to smuggle drugs into foreign countries with stricter laws than here at home, whether we’re at war or not. Griner’s action was a near-Hollywood trope, all the way back to Midnight Express, the “good” kid trapped in a horrible nightmare of foreign detention. Luckily we didn’t have to watch the, um, “romantic scene” pressed against the glass in Griner’s case the way it was highlighted in Express.

    We also learned, in WNBA terms, the Biden administration has no game. They signaled their urgent desire to get Griner home so clearly the Russians knew the negotiations were going to be one-sided even before they started. If the Russians would have held out a little longer they might have gotten Alaska back in trade for Brittney. It was another reminder how bad Biden is at foreign affairs, and how transparent he is about domestic political gains however small.

    The U.S. State Department estimates Griner was just one of more than 3,000 Americans imprisoned abroad, on grounds ranging from small amounts of dope up to murder. For all but a handful, the U.S. government explicitly states they cannot get them out of jail, tell a foreign court or government they are innocent, provide legal advice or represent them in court. The president certainly is not in the habit of making calls to say the Thai government telling them to please let your boyfriend Corn Pop go, honest, he didn’t mean to have that baggie of Ecstasy stuffed in his underwear at Customs.

    Other than to be a “Brittney Griner” type, the key to getting the full force of the U.S. government on your side working for your release is to be “wrongfully detained,” a qualification which applies to fewer than 40 out of those 3,000 some Americans locked up.

    There is a formal list of qualifications to turn an arrest into a wrongly detention, but the real answer is politics. Congress passed the “Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act,” named after the American missing in Iran for over 15 years. The 2020 law establishes 11 criteria for a wrongful detention designation, any one of which can be a sufficient basis to secure the detainee’s release, including “credible information indicating innocence of the detained individual,” “credible reports the detention is a pretext for an illegitimate purpose,” “the individual is being detained solely or substantially to influence United States Government policy or to secure economic or political concessions from the United States Government,” or a conclusion that U.S. “diplomatic engagement is likely necessary.” Secretary of State Blinken must personally approve such a designation, and upgrade the case from the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs (disclosure: where I worked for 22 years) to the Office of the Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs.

    Take a look at two cases where the U.S. government did not step in to help Griner-style, to better illustrate the demographic politics involved.

    Marc Fogel is “the other American” imprisoned in Russia on minor drug charges. He previously taught history at the international Anglo-American School in Moscow, and was well-known and well-thought-of by diplomats not only from the U.S. but also from Great Britain, Canada, and elsewhere (Fogel is a better comparator case to Griner than Paul Whelan, whose espionage case is complicated and shares few details with Griner’s and Fogel’s dope runs.  Whelan was also passed over largely unnoticed by the media just this April in the exchange of Trevor Reed, another former Marine who had been held for more than two years over a bar fight, for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving a 20-year federal prison sentence for drug smuggling.)

    For the past 11 months, Fogel has been held in Russian detention centers for trying to enter the country with about half an ounce of medical marijuana he’d been prescribed in the United States for chronic pain after numerous injuries. He is facing down a 14-year sentence. His trial included politicized accusations of close connections to the American embassy, was confused by a visa issue and his personal friendship with the ambassador, and false claims he aimed to sell marijuana to his students. All this led to a tougher than usual sentence. But the State Department has denied Fogel “wrongfully detained” status. Why not help Marc Fogel, President Biden?

    Or consider the case in Japan of Navy lieutenant and former Mormon missionary Lieutenant Ridge Alkonis, currently locked up on a three-year sentence after two people were killed in a traffic accident doctors said may have been caused by a medical episode. Alkonis and his family hiked Mount Fuji when on the way home Alkonis blacked out at the wheel of his car and crashed, with his own family inside, in a restaurant parking lot, killing two Japanese citizens. Neurologists diagnosed Alkonis with Acute Mountain Sickness, which can cause sudden fainting up to 24 hours after rapid altitude change.

    Alkonis’s family offered $1.65 million in compensation to the Japanese family for the loss of their relatives, along with an apology. The Japanese family, however, uncharacteristically refused the settlement and instead demanded jail time for Alkonis. Senator Mike Lee of Utah claims Alkonis is being targeted as a proxy for American forces stationed in Japan, who remain unpopular among many Japanese. On the face, the case certainly looks unfair and politicized in many ways. Why not help Lieutenant Alkonis, President Biden?

    If neither of these cases catch your interest, as with Joe Biden, the State Department has thousands more to choose from. The point is not to have seen Brittney Griner suffer more; it’s to ask what makes her case special enough to warrant the designation “wrongfully detained” and the offer of a lopsided prison swap. If your answer is something other than her being a demographic showpiece, try again.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Much Ado About Nancy Pelosi and China

    August 12, 2022 // 5 Comments »

    China policy seems to be made by, and written about by, adults who were often beaten up on the school playground. They retain the language of bullying, and weaknesses, and standing up, and the fantasy that something would sweep in and save them from losing another days’ lunch money (maybe an aircraft carrier group?) That these people are now in control of the media, if not the House, does nothing good for anyone, especially anyone located on either side of the Taiwan Strait. American seems dumb enough to play at this game; is Beijing also?

    By now we all know Nancy Pelosi, likely with only a couple of months left as Speaker of the House, decided to spend her summer vacation stirring up the entire Pacific theater for what appears to be largely her own ego. Just days after RIMPAC 2022 concluded (China sure knew the U.S. just wrapped up the largest live fire exercise of the year in the Pacific, involved a dozen nations and hundreds of ships and planes all aimed at the “Blue” team defeating the “Red” team across thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean. While the NYT editorial team was putting ice on their fat lips over in the Ron Burgundy Lounge, Beijing sure saw RIMPAC and Pelosi as part of the same) bully Pelosi shoved Joe Biden into a mud puddle and said she was going to Taipei. For those worried about “showing weakness,” mark this: Biden was too weak to tell a member of his own party to stay out of trouble when he was sick with Covid, sick with inflation, and digging an ever deeper hole in Ukraine, another war with no endgame but wait for the other side to win.

    There was no great need for anyone to visit Taiwan this week. There was no crisis brewing, no event requiring anyone to stand with Taipei, support its democracy, or start wearing colored masks, not that the arrival of a lame duck Speaker would accomplish that or anything else in an quick show and tell. Nope, this mess was created by a Nancy Pelosi who wanted to show off, made worse by Joe Biden being too weak to stop her, and then exacerbated all to heck by China infusing much meaning into something that could have been shrugged off as having very little to say for itself.

    Remember the advice your mom gave you on bullies? Ignore them and they’d go away? Imagine China listening to their mom on this one and announcing “We heard Nancy was going to Taipei. Neither Nancy nor Taipei are particularly important to the soon-to-be greatest economy in the world, so we’ll ignore them both.” If pressed for comment Beijing could add “But we hope Nancy chokes on her dinner” and leave it at that.

    But while Nancy the Bully imagined she was standing up to Beijing the Bully, pretty soon everyone had to stand with, show up, not back down. So you have the New York Times, no stranger to losing its lunch money while being pantsed on the playground, saying “Bullies often seek tests of strengths to probe for signs of weakness. And they always read efforts at conciliation as evidence of capitulation.” The Times even quotes Sun Tzu (note to China watchers: if a pundit who does not read Chinese quotes Sun Tzu, duck, some b.s. is coming your way.) “If Beijing,” the Times continued, “had gotten its way over something as seemingly minor as Pelosi’s visit, it would not have been merely a symbolic victory in a diplomatic sideshow. It would have changed the rules of the game. Rather than avert a diplomatic crisis, it would have hastened a strategic disaster: the further isolation of a democratic U.S. ally and key economic partner as a prelude to surrender, war or both.”

    So there you have it. We just barely avoided a strategic disaster, a game changer, a mere preclude to surrender or war… or both! Good golly, lucky for us Nancy landed the plane safely in Taipei.

    It is time for some seriousness. China is not going to war with Taiwan. After all the smoke clears and overflights are tallied, China did only one substantive thing to punish Taiwan: China halted Taiwanese snack imports (including biscuits and pastries ahead of moon cake season) just before Pelosi’s arrival. That seems, Sun Tzu’s admonishment to try small steps before large ones aside, not something akin to war or surrender, and something unlikely to lead to violence. It actually really does not matter. Like Nancy.

    Need we walk through the other 99 percent of what is going on between Taiwan and China? Between 1991 and March 2020 Taiwan’s investment in China totaled $188.5 billion, more than China’s investment in the United States. In 2019, the value of cross-strait trade was $149.2 billion. China applied in September to join the new Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. A week later, with no opposition voiced by Beijing, Taiwan applied to join as well. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. “One country, two systems” has not only kept the peace for decades, it has proven darn profitable for both sides. As Deng Xiao Ping said of this type of modus vivendi, “who cares what color a cat is as long as it catches mice.” China might one day seek to buy Taiwan, but until then what incentive would it have to drop bombs on one of its best customers? Heck, they even invited Taiwan to the Beijing Olympics Nancy Pelosi protested.

    An attack on Taiwan would likely see a frightened Japan and South Korea step over the nuclear threshold and China would thus face more powerful enemies. In addition, a serious attack on Taiwan would severely damage the economy there Xi would no doubt see as part of the prize. Lastly, an attack on Taiwan would see Chinese killing Chinese, people who speak the same language and share several thousand years of culture. Pre-Covid, travelers from China made 2.68 million visits a year to Taiwan, many of which were to visit relatives. Student exchanges between Taiwan and China began in 2011, with some 25,000 Mainland kids studying on Taiwan pre-Covid. Even a “successful” attack would be near-political suicide for Xi. An invasion of Taiwan would leave the China politically isolated, economically damaged, and reputationally crippled. A failed attack could lead to a Taiwanese declaration of independence China would be incapable of stopping.

    Caution is not appeasement. Every diplomatic move is not a full-spectrum weighing out of strength. Tiananmen was 33 years and a major change or two of governments ago (you still talking about that Kent State thing, bro?) Hong Kong was taken from China and colonized and exploited by the British before being returned to much the same status under Beijing. Same for Macao and the Portuguese. The U.S. fought China directly in Vietnam and Korea and that did not bleed over into Taiwan. China went nuclear and did not invade Taiwan.

    Strength and weakness do not rest on a single visit by someone as close to the end of her tenure as Nancy Pelosi. Bullies are gonna bully but China and Taiwan are not in that sort of relationship; they exist in a complex diplomatic dance overshadowed by massive amounts of cross-straits commerce, investment, and travel. In every sphere outside the political and martial they grow closer together, not further apart, and much of the differences are promoted by the U.S. and an industry of “China experts” who thrive like dung beetles off the potential for conflict.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Is Stephanie Griner “Wrongfully Detained” in Russia?

    July 17, 2022 // 2 Comments »

    The U.S. State Department estimates more than 3,000 Americans are imprisoned abroad, on grounds ranging from small amounts of marijuana up to murder. For all but a handful, the U.S. government explicitly states they cannot get you out of jail, tell a foreign court or government you are innocent, provide legal advice or represent you in court. The president certainly is not in the habit of making calls to the Thai government telling them to please let you go, you didn’t mean to have that baggie of Ecstasy in your underwear at Customs.

    The key to getting the full force of the U.S. government on your side working for your release is to be “wrongfully detained,” a qualification which applies to fewer than 40 out of those 3,000 some Americans locked up. The U.S. recently declared Stephanie Griner wrongly detained. What does all that mean?

    Near the start of the Ukraine war American WNBA star Stephanie Griner was arrested trying to enter Russia carrying vape oil which contained some sort of cannabis product illegal in Russia, entangling the U.S. citizen’s fate in the confrontation between Russia and the West. The Russian Federal Customs Service said its officials detained the player after finding vape cartridges in her luggage at Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow, and it released a video of a Griner going through airport security.

    Normally Griner would be largely on her own. While the U.S. State Department visits Americans incarcerated abroad when that is possible (good luck to you if you’re popped in a country without U.S. diplomatic presence like Iran or North Korea, though the Swiss often will help out) to see to their welfare and try and maintain communications with home, the U.S. government will generally not get involved with your innocence or guilt, and will not make representations to the host government to free you. Most of us have seen Midnight Express and The Hangover. In the case of Russia, the U.S. specifically warns people like Stephanie Griner “do not travel to Russia due to the unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine by Russian military forces, the potential for harassment against U.S. citizens by Russian government security officials, the singling out of U.S. citizens in Russia by Russian government security officials including for detention, the arbitrary enforcement of local law, limited flights into and out of Russia, and the Embassy’s limited ability to assist U.S. citizens in Russia.”

    Worse yet, it looks like Griner did really have that illegal substance in her possession. She just pleaded guilty in front of a Russian court. In almost every such instance she’d be on her own, but for one exception: the recent declaration by the United States that Griner is somehow “wrongly detained.”

    The wrongfully detained category grew out of a realization that a small percentage of Americans arrested abroad were indeed political prisoners, arrested abroad under a country’s (unjust) laws, or were being held beyond the normal sentence or conditions for political reasons. In other words, hostages. If a person is declared “wrongfully detained” by the U.S., the rules do a 180 and the full powers of the U.S. government are used to free you.

    Congress passed the “Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act,” named after the American missing in Iran for over 15 years. The 2020 law establishes 11 criteria for a wrongful detention designation, any one of which can be a sufficient basis to secure the detainee’s release, including “credible information indicating innocence of the detained individual,” “credible reports the detention is a pretext for an illegitimate purpose,” “the individual is being detained solely or substantially to influence United States Government policy or to secure economic or political concessions from the United States Government,” or a conclusion that U.S. “diplomatic engagement is likely necessary.” Secretary of State Blinken must personally approve such a designation, and transfer responsibility for the case from the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs (disclosure: where I worked for 22 years) to the Office of the Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs.

    What is next for Griner now that she has been declared wrongfully detained? Depending on the political goals of the Russians, her guilty plea may suffice. A Russian court will impose a fine or jail sentence to be waived, and Griner can be on her way home. This is most common when the American has harmed a host country national and some public “justice” needs to be seen being done. A similar outcome often arises out of humanitarian needs, where Griner is declared in need of medical care not available in Russia and the country sends her home as an act of good will.

    But given the politics of Griner’s arrest, a very likely outcome will be a prisoner exchange. The Russians are interested in the release of Viktor Bout, sentenced to 25 years in an American prison for trying to sell heavy weapons to Colombian terrorists. This would track with diplomacy just this April that lead to the exchange of Trevor Reed, a former Marine who had been held for more than two years over a bar fight, and Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving a 20-year federal prison sentence for drug smuggling. Reed’s health was cited as the motivator for the swap. One problem stands in the way of Griner’s release: it would be domestically politically difficult for the U.S. to again leave behind Paul Whelan, another former Marine, arrested in 2018 on espionage charges and sentenced to 16 years in prison, for Griner.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Diplomatic Diversity Fails (Again and Again) at State Department

    May 8, 2022 // 5 Comments »

    America’s diplomat corps is the latest victim of diversity uber alles. Choosing diplomats for the 21st century is now about the same process as choosing which gummy bear to eat next. But fear not, because the State Department assures us America will have “an inclusive workforce that… represents America’s rich diversity.” At issue is the rigorous entrance exam, which once established a color-blind base line of knowledge among all applicants and was originally instituted to create a merit-based entrance system.

    Until now, becoming an American diplomat started with passing a written test of geography, history, basic economics, and political science, the idea being it was probably good our diplomats knew something of all that. The problem was that racially things never quite added up; no matter what changes were made to the test or even if it was administered after an applicant had served two internships with State (below), blacks and other colors of persons could not pass in the right magic numbers. The answer? State has now simply done away with passing the test in favor of a “whole person” evaluation, similar to how many universities and the dead SAT gateway currently work.

    The irony is the test was instituted to avoid backroom decisions on color (and religion, education, and peerage.) When America first found itself in need of a real diplomatic corps in the 19th century, there were three qualifications: male, pale, and Yale. The Rogers Act of 1924 was the first attempt to even out the playing field, instituting a difficult written examination everyone had to pass. The Rogers Act also created the Board of the Foreign Service and the Board of Examiners to choose candidates in lieu of smoky back room conferences.

    But since the 1924 system never quite broke the hold of the Ivy League, a new law in 1946 Act closed down the Board of the Foreign Service Personnel and created the position of Director General to oversee a more fair system for recruitment and personnel. Yeah, you guessed it, that did not broaden diversity much either, so the present system of testing was rolled into place to fix everything via the Foreign Service Act of 1980. A tough written exam was to be followed by a tougher oral exam, all done blind — no one would know the background of the candidates or their race until the final steps. It did not work, at least in the sense people of color still seemed to lag statistically behind. So more interim steps were added, to include a series of personal essays (the “QEP”) to allow candidates to gain “life points” in addition to their performance on the tests. The written test was still retained as a threshold step. One had to pass it to move on to compete further for a coveted foreign service job.

    More help was on the way. Study guides were created, and flash cards sold online. Test prep courses were started. Outside psychologists were brought in, and test administration was turned over to a private company, all in the name of eliminating biases. None of it worked. Blacks sued the State Department. Women sued the State Department. Hispanics argued they were not treated fairly.  State created a Chief Diversity and Inclusion position. But still in 2013 the Senior Foreign Service, the top jobs at State, was 85 percent white. In 2021 it was 86 percent white. The broader diplomatic corps remained 80 percent white.  State stayed stubbornly undiverse.

    Where nothing else succeeded, State created two fellowships that have been used as vehicles to recruit people of “diverse backgrounds,” who worked out to be overwhelming black. In place are the Thomas Pickering Fellowship (run by HBCU Howard University) and the Charles B. Rangel Fellowship. Both claim entrants take the same entrance exams as anyone else, but omit that they do so after two summer internships with the State Department, plus assigned mentors. Fellows are also identified as such to those administering the oral exam required of all prospective diplomats. Having administered the oral exam myself, I knew I would have to justify to my boss’ boss any move to fail a Fellow before being overruled by her anyway. The programs increased the number of unwhite diplomats, as they were intended to do as a separate but equal pathway.

    The problems came down the road, when black diplomats encountered the same promotion and evaluation system their white, green, and blue colleagues did. Diversity in the senior ranks of the State Department actually regressed over time. In 2008, black diplomats made up about 8.6 percent of the top ranks of the diplomatic corps. By 2020 only 2.8 percent of the same top ranks are black. The answer? It must be more racism (characterized diplomatically as “institutional barriers.”) Suggestions focused on offering blacks more fellowships to create a bigger pool, and creating special opportunities for blacks to snag better assignments (described as “promote diverse officers’ career development.”) That of course simply repeats the original sin of pushing less-prepared people upward to their point of failure. FYI: the State Department classifies most of its gender and race promotion results and does not generally release them to the public. However, data leaked to the NYT shows that only 80 black diplomats and specialists were promoted in the 2019 fiscal year, about one percent.

    So under Joe Biden, the next step seemed obvious: do away with the threshold examination. Under new rules, everyone who takes the test goes on to the next stage, no matter if they do well, or poorly (formerly known as “failing.”) State has taken its hiring process full-circle, when again behind closed doors someone decides who moves forward based on race. State will thus absolutely ensure the right blend of flavors get through. So not the best of the best, but the best in each racial bucket, will pass. While a university has four years to try and educate or drop an unqualified candidate wrongly admitted, State will live with the mistakes these unqualified applicants make globally. As will America. Good luck everybody!

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Deterrence, China, and the U.S.

    April 10, 2022 // 3 Comments »

    The U.S. should not use its military power to deter China from invading Taiwan. It is unnecessary, and anything more than what is already being done is more likely to help provoke a war than stop one. It might even be better to turn down U.S. enthusiasm a notch or two.

    The current status of strategic ambiguity serves two important American goals – it keeps the peace and allows for a productive trilateral++ relationship among China, Taiwan, U.S. and the rest of Asia. Those two goals work in lockstep, not in conflict of one another, a key point. Peace serves all masters here. What we have is useful stasis, not some sort of historical fantasy of unfulfilled frustration. And we’ll still keep the focus on U.S. strategic interests, not those of Taiwan or other allies. You can’t expect more than that.

    Unnecessary

    During the entire 73 year existence of Taiwan, the Mainland has not invaded. Despite changes in leadership as dramatic as Mao to Deng to Xi the Mainland has not invaded. Despite Taiwan changing from a military dictatorship to a democracy, the Mainland has not invaded. Despite global changes including the Korean and Vietnam wars, development of nuclear weapons by China, the fall of the Soviet Union (and Donald Trump) the Mainland has not invaded. US posture has varied from garrisoning the island to strategic ambiguity and the Mainland has not invaded.

    The Chinese military has gone from peasants with rifles to a blue water navy backed by ICBMs and the Mainland has not invaded. China has gone from the agrarian isolation of the Cultural Revolution to a fully-integrated if not essential part of the industrialized global economy, and the Mainland has not invaded. Putin got away with Ukraine and the Mainland has not invaded. That is not going to change in our lifetimes, so there is not much more to say. The ball keeps bouncing, history remains. I’ll be at the bar. Thank you.

    OK, OK, a little more detail. Taiwan has not invaded China, either. You laugh but that was indeed Chiang Kai Skek’s plan, with U.S. help of course, in the early years. Though we don’t think of it much, the current policy of strategic ambiguity keeps Taiwan in line as well. Nobody expects the ambiguity to stretch as far as Taiwan launching military force. Or proclaiming independence. You would hate to have some sort of strategic clarity embolden independence “trouble makers” on Taiwan, one of those unintended consequences.

    A couple of points to establish. I threw away my Mao (and Che) T-shirt sophomore year. I don’t have a grey pony tail. I know Beijing is not a democratic regime, much like America’s allies across the Middle East and Africa are not. I’ve worked in Taiwan when it was under military rule, and China under autocratic rule. The food was great, but I do not want to live that way. So none of this is about defending that.

    Focus is important; this is about preventing war. It is not about China being mean to democracy in Hong Kong; why act surprised, the government does not like democracy in Shanghai, never mind in Riyadh or other allied places. And often left out of the discussion is the United States worked closely with the Nationalists on Taiwan to make it a very undemocratic place until about 1989.

    For the lawyers here tonight, everything I say represents merely my own views and not those of my past or present employers. Nothing in my talk tonight is even remotely classified. If that disappoints, you might still be able to get your money back. A version of my talk is already posted on my website at wemeantwell.com with all the links to data cited, so you can fact check me in real time, or for those with babysitters on the clock at home, read ahead.

    Provocation: Deterrence is Dangerous

    Deterrence is a funny word. What looks like deterrence from one side — forward deploying an aircraft carrier — might look like provocation from the other. What looks like deterrence against American hegemony in Asia — overflights — might look like provocation from the other. The concept of deterrence itself is not without its uses, and in the end likely kept the Cold War a lot cooler, but military deterrence as argued for here holds the risk of accidents and misinterpretations.

    More importantly, there is little need for the military deterrence many advocate for, such as Professor Galston this evening. The Chinese on both sides of the strait understand well there is much to be gained from economic ties amid political ambiguity and much greater risk in anything like an invasion that would accomplish little besides tidying up the leftovers from the creation of the PRC in 1949.

    About that deterrence versus provocation thing. China has four overseas military bases, to include a small logistics operation in Djibouti, a listening post on Great Coco Island (not near the Bahamas, it’s off Myanmar), navy outpost in Gwadar (it’s in Pakistan) and of course a military post in Gorno-Badakhshan, Tajikistan. I’m going to guess a lot of people who consider themselves informed on this topic could not have named more than one of those.

    In contrast, the U.S. maintains 750 bases across the globe, a few less now that the Afghan adventure is over. That includes formal facilities in eight Asian nations, with some 53,000 troops in Japan and 24,000 in South Korea alone. The U.S. maintained troops on Taiwan until 1979 and recently began sending Special Forces there again on training missions. That many of those American bases predate the founding of the People’s Republic, and all have survived the fall of the Soviet adversary they were built to, um, deter, tells the real story.

    Let’s look at the boilerplate articles about Chinese “incursions” into Taiwan’s air space. Chinese aircraft are not overflying Taiwan. They are flying within Taiwan’s self-declared Air Defense Identification Zone. Look at a map of that zone, and other zones declared by Japan and China. Taiwan’s zone, the one Beijing is flying in, actually is large enough to cover thousands of miles of the Chinese mainland itself; PLA planes are in violation when sitting on their own runways.

    Taiwan’s zone also overlaps Beijing’s Air Defense Zone which overlaps Japan’s and Korea’s. Japan’s Air Defense zone also overlap’s Taiwan’s to take in a small island which is disputed between Tokyo and Taipei, a diplomatic fist fight the U.S. ignores. Criss-crossing everyone’s zones are American aircraft conducting “freedom of navigation” exercises (known in Beijing as “incursions.”) Chinese air flights are provocative only to the uninformed, or those who want them to be seen as provocative. Left unsaid: as China was supposedly provoking a fight in the air this October, the U.S. was simultaneously conducting some of the largest multi-national naval exercises in the Pacific since WWII.

    At various points in history some American bases stored nuclear weapons, and may do so today. Forward-deployed U.S. warships are believed to also contain nuclear weapons; the Ohio-class submarines off China’s coasts, each with 20 Trident ballistic missiles, certainly do. No matter; nuclear-armed aircraft are available direct from the U.S. mainland within hours. Pretend you’re from Mars and just visiting earth and tell me who seems to be provoking. Deterrence as practiced by the U.S. is a dangerous thing.

    For deterrent threats to be credible, they ‘do not need to depend on a willingness to commit anything like suicide in the face of a challenge’ but rather must carry the risk that the deterrer ‘is likely to do something that is fraught with the danger of war’

    The key element of the strategic ambiguity of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act over Professor Galston’s “strategic clarity” is a conditional response, call if flexibility if you like. The more specific your response is ahead of time – say in writing like Article 5 – the more your hands are tied. Remember deterrence worked in Ukraine, for Russia; it stopped the U.S. from more actively intervening.

     

    MORE REASONS IT’LL NEVER HAPPEN

    What Do They Want?

    When I was a diplomat we were taught that trust was always a nice thing, but what was better was to understand the other side’s goals and intentions. If you knew those, or could make a decent guess, you could predict their actions and poke effectively at their asks a lot better than hoping they would just do what they promised. The number of affairs inside marriages where monogamy was the opening promise supports my argument.

    So what do China and Taiwan want? There may be someone who is listening into bedrooms, boardrooms, and tea shops and hearing the answer from the principle players, but absent that simply looking at the last 70 some years of history is pretty good.

    China and Taiwan do not want war. Absent some scraps back in the 1950s, nobody has invaded or attacked anyone. The US and China only sent shots at each other when the US approached China’s border through its ally North Korea in that war, and on a lesser scale when the US approached China’s border through its ally North Vietnam in that war. There’s kind of a pattern. Both of these events are celebrated in the People’s Army Museum in Beijing as examples of defending the homeland’s borders. The Museum, in addition, features an American U-2 spyplane shot down over the mainland. The Museum also has exhibits showing the U.S. purposely bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, killing three and destroying the diplomatic sanctuary. How many American embassies has China bombed?

    The fact that through all of the massive changes of the last 70 years — the end of Mao, those two wars with the US, the handover of Hong Kong, the entire Cold War itself, and the list is long, there has been no invasion. Scientists call that a steady state, and something bigger than Mao, the Cold War, etc. would have to appear and change it. I’m not sure what that could be. Does anyone seriously believe some rogue statement in the Taiwan legislature would qualify, or some five-way disputed rock outcropping in the South China Sea? And by the way, speaking of the historical record, there’s the same track record for Macau and Hong Kong, where China did not invade or attack over 200 some years of very non-democratic colonial rule even after they had the military means to make it a cakewalk.

    My own first brush with a “why now” event was in the 1980s, when I went to Taiwan as an American diplomat. Taiwan was crawling out from under four decades of authoritarian rule, and taking its first difficult democratic steps. After decades of speech suppression, a lot of people were testing their legs, saying all sorts of crazy stuff about independence. Among ourselves we called it “the D word,” as independence in Mandarin is romanized duli. One emerging political party was even called the Taiwan Independence party, and was likely to grab a few seats in the legislature. The U.S. mission was fearful this could serve as a trigger to Beijing. “Big China” had made clear a declaration of independence was a red line.

    Beijing’s reaction was soon apparent: Taiwan’s stores started to feature mainland goods; the end of the hated Kuomintang opened up a new market. Even before this thaw you could sort of fly from Taipei to China, something that many people on both sides of the strait were desperate to do to visit relatives. The catch was the flight had to touch down in then-British Hong Kong. In 2008 these flights were made direct, with no need for the Hong Kong stopover. Today six China-based airlines and five from Taiwan operate direct flights. The line of progress has been in one direction, far at odds with war.

     

    Follow the Money

    China and Taiwan do want economic benefits. Between 1991 and March 2020 Taiwan’s investment in China totaled $188.5 billion, more than China’s investment in the United States. In 2019, the value of cross-strait trade was $149.2 billion. China applied in September to join the new Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. A week later, with no opposition voiced by Beijing, Taiwan applied to join as well. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. “One country, two systems” has not only kept the peace for decades, it has proven darn profitable for both sides. As Deng Xiao Ping said of this type of modus vivendi, “who cares what color a cat is as long as it catches mice.” China might one day seek to buy Taiwan, but until then what incentive would it have to drop bombs on one of its best customers? Heck, they even invited Taiwan to the Beijing Olympics.

    There’s also the U.S. to consider, as any cross-strait violence would affect US-China relations. Not counting Hunter Biden (I kid) the total Chinese investment in the U.S. economy is over $145 billion. U.S. investment in China passed $1 trillion. When Covid shut down world logistics, everyone learned the American economy is voluntarily dependent on Chinese manufacturing and vice-versa. China is the second largest foreign holder of U.S. government debt. If something interfered with all that commerce, China would have to find a way to use unfinished iPhones as a food source. The Chinese are literally betting the house on America’s success and continued economic engagement.

     

    Ignore (Most of) the Rhetoric

    Oh, the rhetoric, all that stuff about reunification that tumbles out of Beijing. History is again our guide, as Chinese President Xi’s rhetoric about reunification is essentially the same as Mao’s. But if you want to cite Chinese propaganda as evidence of actual intent, it is best to pay attention to the details.

    It was the United States itself that most clearly asserted the shared tripartite goal was reunification, declaring as part of the diplomatic break with Taiwan “there is only one China and Taiwan is a part of it.” Chinese President Xi regularly reiterates reunification as a goal, but always stresses the process is historical (as in, it is inevitable and we just need to be patient, don’t wait up for it to happen) and must be peaceful. Sorry, if you’re going to quote Chinese propaganda statements as proof of intent, you can’t cherry pick out only the scary parts. It makes no sense to trust Xi on the plan but claim he’s lying about the (peaceful) execution in the same breath.

    Not by coincidence most of these reunification proclamations occur around important political holidays. One of Xi’s most recent invocations was in a speech marking the 110th anniversary of the Xinhai 1911 Revolution, aimed at the foreign Manchu Qing dynasty. The chosen occasion is important, because Xinhai, ideologically midwifed by Dr. Sun Yat Sen, is acknowledged by both the most hardcore Communists and the most fervent Nationalists as the common origin point for modern China. This is drilled into every schoolkid on both sides of the Strait and forms a common vocabulary among their diplomats. The point is to understand Xi’s remarks in the same context as the Chinese, not John Wayne, likely do.

    In Sun’s spirit Xi reiterated a vow to peaceful reunification with Taiwan. He urged the Chinese people “stand on the right side of history and join hands to achieve China’s complete reunification,” invoking the way the people who would form the Communist and Nationalist parties worked together against a common enemies — the Manchus, then warlordism and feudalism, then the Japanese, and perhaps someday the Americans. Xi, talking to his own people and those on Taiwan, sketched a shared vision a long way from the PLA amphibious assault the West fears.

    Taiwan is a “wanderer” that will eventually come home and not a chess piece to be played with, the Chinese government’s top diplomat said recently.

    Philosophically Chinese leaders have for thousands of years believed in historical cycles. They waited close to 300 years to end the foreign Qing dynasty. They waited out Britain for hundreds of years for the peaceful return of Hong Kong. Such things come up in conversation with Chinese diplomats as casually as talk about the weather. Chinese diplomacy is patient, not short-term optimistic or spasmodically reactive. There is no fierce urgency to reunification. Sun Tzu: One waits to win.

    China matched this with a policy of “strategic patience” (antagonists argue China will not wait forever, but also understands the time between now and forever is long.)

     

    Some Housekeeping

    As for the funny arguments in favor of deterrence, one of the most hilarious is that the U.S. has to maintain its posture over Taiwan as a signal to the rest of the world about commitment or we’ll lose our global credibility. Of course the neo-neocons are saying the same thing about Crimea, um, sorry, Ukraine. I’m still waiting for those who make that argument to explain away our abandoning Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Arab Spring.

    And yes, China is building its military. They now have one real aircraft carrier (same number as India; China also sort of float an old Soviet model) and three high-end Type 075 amphibious landing ships with Type 071s coming soon online. In comparison, the U.S. has 11 carriers and eight high-end amphibious landing ships. There’s a long way to go before we talk invasion or steeled threat, never mind parity.

    As for the idea China is building out its fleet and therefore must somehow ignore all the other points I made here tonight and thus must attack someone, I can only point to the Cold War where the Russians despite in about 1972 having at least parity with NATO and with the US tied down in Vietnam never attacked in Europe. Now if you wanna simply credit deterrence go ahead, but there’s also the idea that other things I’ve tried to touch on tonight plays a role in all of this. We act sometimes like our adversaries are all suicidal hegemonic Bond villains instead of calculating nation-states with complex goals. Any connections to Putin-mania and the Ukraine are purely coincidental.

    But don’t believe me, believe the Pentagon’s annual China Military Power report. It stated “China’s significant investment in its amphibious fleet does not necessarily portend an invasion of Taiwan. An attempt to invade Taiwan would likely strain China’s armed forces and invite international intervention. These stresses, combined with China’s combat force attrition and the complexity of urban warfare and counterinsurgency, even assuming a successful landing and breakout, make an amphibious invasion of Taiwan a significant political and military risk.”

    Never spoken of is what would happen to President Xi and the Chinese system if his invasion failed, with or without US involvement. Where are the Marines tonight? I know Professor Galston was in the Corps, thank you for your service. Aren’t massive amphibious landings considered the hardest of military moves to execute, especially for the untested PLA? And this isn’t Normandy, Chinese ships would be under Taiwan’s indigenous missile defenses almost as they left their harbors (known as area denial.) If Xi fails, he is done for and perhaps with him the current political system. Needless to say a Chinese military which felt it had been misused and blooded unnecessarily would not be a healthy thing for the Beijing government to have around. I think the word for coup in Mandarin is Jūnshì zhèngbiàn.

    Win or lose, an attack on Taiwan would likely see a frightened Japan and South Korea step over the nuclear threshold and China would thus face more powerful enemies. In addition, an attack on Taiwan would severely damage the economy there Xi would no doubt see as part of the prize. Lastly, an attack on Taiwan would see Chinese killing Chinese, people who speak the same language and share several thousand years of culture. Pre-Covid, travelers from China made 2.68 million visits a year to Taiwan, many of which were to visit relatives. Student exchanges between Taiwan and China began in 2011, with some 25,000 Mainland kids studying on Taiwan pre-Covid. Even a “successful” attack would be near-political suicide for Xi.

     

    Conclusion

    An invasion of Taiwan would leave the China politically isolated, economically damaged, and reputationally crippled. And ironically, a failed attack could lead to a Taiwanese declaration of independence China would be incapable of stopping.

    There is no rational, risk vs. gain, reason for hostilities and thus no need for deterrence. My fear is the United States has already decided a bench clearing, superpower showdown is needed, eagle vs. dragon, for control of the Pacific, or at least a new and profitable arms race. You can lie about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction long enough to get a war started, but an actual Chinese invasion is a bridge too far for straight-up fabrication. I worry deeply we are looking for a reason, given that China is unlikely to be a sport and invade Taiwan for us, using the cloak of deterrence to prepare for war. America’s current China policy is unnecessarily adversarial. It is impractical and dangerous.

    America is still a big, mean dog, but our ability to influence events around the world is limited to barking and biting and only works when barking and biting is the solution. When anything beyond threats is needed, say when dealing with near-peers like China, we have few if any tools but to reimagine legitimate competitors into enemies. It plays out as if U.S. foreign policy is run by WWII reenactors.

    And with that settled, the Professor will now go on to resolve the situation in Ukraine and fix the NY subway system. What, no more time? Sorry friends, next time.

     

    Bīng dòng sān chǐ, fēi yīrì zhī hán — It takes more than one cold day for a river to freeze a meter deep.

    Nándé hútu — Ignorance is bliss.

     

    BONUS I: Taiwan is not Ukraine

    I have a medal for winning the Cold War. It was for any member of the military, or federal civilian employee, who served during the Cold War. That included me, at the tail end, with the State Department. Ironically my so-called Cold War service was on Taiwan. I probably should return the thing; the Cold War is far from over.

    Part of the Cold War’s real conclusion is playing out in Ukraine in real time. Is Taiwan, another hanging chad from the Cold War, next? Is President Xi watching a weakened America giving in to the Russians and seeing his chance to seize Taiwan?

    Nope. Taiwan is not Ukraine is not Taiwan. The two places only exist next to each other in articles like this because both are the results of American policy. Each exists alongside its nemesis only because the rules the U.S. created (the “liberal world order” as long as the U.S. is in first place) are not subscribed to anymore by most of the world, if they ever really were. But that does not mean Taiwan is in imminent danger.

    While Putin‘s invasion timing may or may not have had something to do with Joe Biden (if Trump were really his puppet that would have seemed an easier time to do this) the reality is what is unfolding in the Ukraine reaches back much further than Biden or Trump, to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    It was then the policy of the United States to empower the former Soviet satellite states and grow American influence by expanding NATO eastward (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, and Romania formally joined the alliance, East Germany as well by default) and to do this while taking the nuclear weapons away from those states so that none of them would become a threat or rival in Europe.

    We took their people, too. As a young State Department officer in London in the early 1990s I was told to issue visa after visa to former nuclear scientists from the Ukraine, as well as all sorts of rogues headed to the United States to get them out of the ‘Stans. We created a brain drain to ensure none of the newly independent states could rise above the nuclear threshold the United States established unilaterally for them. It was American policy to have weak but not too weak states between Russia and the “good” part of Europe, dependent on America for defense.

    Understanding why an adversary does something is not the same as supporting him. As the Soviet Union collapsed, borders were redrawn with more attention to the West’s needs than any natural flow of those borders (the same mistake was made earlier by the British post-WWI in the Middle East.) The reality of 2022 is Putin is seeking to redraw borders, something now doable because Russia has been allowed to re-grow its fangs. Ukraine as a possible NATO member is a threat to Putin and he is now taking care of that. Americans live in a country that has no border threats and fail to understand the mindset time after time. We believe instead when we invade countries (Vietnam, Cambodia, Grenada, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan) it’s part of international law.

    Geo-politically, it was easy. A pro-Russian faction exists inside Ukraine, and Ukraine exists outside the NATO umbrella. Putin’s 2014 proof-of-concept in Crimea assured him NATO would not intervene. About the only real obstacle was the likely pleas of President Xi to hold off and not spoil the Olympics.

    Taiwan is another Cold War relic. While the U.S. propped up Taiwan’s very undemocratic military government for decades as an ironic bulkhead against communism, the island grew into an economic powerhouse. In that lies the fundamental difference between the relationships of Russia and Ukraine, and China and Taiwan.

    China and Taiwan are economic partners. Between 1991 and March 2020 Taiwan’s investment in China totaled $188.5 billion, more than China’s investment in the United States. In 2019, the value of cross-strait trade was $149.2 billion. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. China and Taiwan are ethnically the same people, enjoying an enormous bounty of cross strait commerce, culture, student exchanges, and other ties signifying a growing relationship not an adversarial one. What incentive would China have to drop bombs on one of its best customers?

    Any cross-strait violence would affect US-China relations; Ukraine has little effect on the already poor state of US-Russia relations. Chinese investment in the U.S. economy is over $145 billion. U.S. investment in China passed $1 trillion. China is the second largest foreign holder of U.S. government debt. If something interfered with all that commerce, China would have to find a way to use unfinished iPhones as food.

    One of the problems with the sanctions Biden is claiming he’s going to use to punish Russia is how unintegrated Russia is into the world economy after so many years of sanctions. What’s left that will sting? Biden promises “economic consequences like none [Putin]’s ever seen.” But the Panama Papers show much of the so-called oligarch money, including Putin’s, is not in the U.S. or its allies’ banking systems anyway. The oft-discussed SWIFT international banking system is run as a neutral entity out of Belgium, and Russia cannot be blocked from it by any U.S. “sanction.”

    Germany is temporarily halting certification of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, but no one is talking about tearing it down. And if U.S. sanctions drive up gas prices without affecting the situation on the ground in Ukraine, who is sanctioning whom?

    China on the other hand is deeply vulnerable to sanctions and disruptions of commerce following an attack on Taiwan. The risk in calculable dollars is beyond any gain owning Taiwan would bring; imagine the impact of closing U.S. ports to Chinese cargo vessels.

    On the military side, Russia was able to literally drive into Ukraine, something the mighty Red Army has been perfecting since 1945. Taiwan famously is an island, and a Chinese amphibious invasion would scale beyond the Normandy landings. Taiwan fields Harpoon missiles with the range to put Chinese forces under fire almost as they leave port. Tactically there is no comparison between the flat plains of the Ukraine and the rocky coast of Taiwan. Nobody undertakes an invasion they are likely to lose.

    An invasion of Taiwan would leave China isolated and economically crippled. Not so for Russia and Ukraine where the benefits to Russia clearly outweighed the risk. Taiwan is not Ukraine is not Taiwan.

     

    BONUS II: Deterrence in Ukraine and Taiwan

    The answer is one failed in Ukraine, one has kept the peace. The question is, going forward, is the model the strategic clarity of NATO’s Article 5 or the strategic ambiguity of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.

    The principle of collective defense is at the very heart of NATO, created by a 1949 Treaty. Its history is embedded in WWII, when the Nazis gained a massive advantage in the earliest days of the war by playing the various European nations against each other, picking off territory while London and Paris bickered over what to do. NATO was be the solution. Article 5 of the NATO treaty says “An armed attack against one or more of the [signers] shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them… will assist the Party or Parties so attacked.” The critical points are that the treaty is inclusionary — all NATO members, large or small — and exclusionary in that it only applies to NATO members. An attack on NATO member Poland triggers Article 5. An attack on Ukraine or Taiwan, not NATO members, does not.

    The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA; also the U.S.-PRC Joint Communique) grew out of Mainland China dictator Mao’s threat to “liberate” Taiwan and Nationalist dictator Chiang Kai-shek’s demand for U.S. support to reclaim the Mainland. With the Korean War sopping up American blood, Washington had no desire to join what would have been a land war to rival WWII. Instead, it established diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and signed a mutual defense treaty in 1954. That lasted until 1979, when the U.S. switched its diplomatic recognition from the people of Taiwan to the people of the Mainland (China; but note the diplomatic wording) and Congress enacted the Taiwan Relations Act. The TRA listed two obligations to Taiwan: to sell it arms and to maintain the U.S.’ capacity “to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion” against Taiwan.

    The actual wording in the TRA is instructive: “Peace and stability in the area are matters of international concern… any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes is considered a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” This represents diplomatic brilliance, and came to be known as “strategic ambiguity,” a policy understood to mean the U.S. doesn’t have to defend Taiwan, but it can. The circumstances and means of defense are left unspoken. China matched this with a policy of “strategic patience” (antagonists argue China will not wait forever, but China also understands the time between now and forever is long.)
    The most important thing about the TRA is it works. The Mainland has not invaded Taiwan. Despite changes in leadership as dramatic as Mao (albeit in 1976) to Deng to Xi the Mainland has not invaded. Despite Taiwan changing from military dictatorship to democracy, the Mainland has not invaded. Despite global changes including the Korean and Vietnam wars where China and the U.S. fought each other directly, development of nuclear weapons by China, fall of the Soviet Union, the Mainland has not invaded. The Chinese military has gone from peasants with rifles to a blue water navy and the Mainland has not invaded. China has gone from agrarian isolation to an essential part of the industrialized global economy, and the Mainland has not invaded. Ukraine happened, and the Mainland has not invaded.

    The irony is deterrence worked in Ukraine, at least from Putin’s point of view. It prevented the U.S. from getting involved in the shooting war between Russia and Ukraine. The NATO treaty was written to compel its signatories to act once someone moved against them (the treaty was obviously written with the Soviet Union in mind though Article 5 has only been invoked once, following 9/11, and then mostly for show.) As Putin readied to invade Ukraine, Biden threw away any trace elements of strategic ambiguity by declaring early and often NATO would not intervene and the U.S. would not unilaterally enter the fighting. It was as green a light as could be for Putin. ‘Round the other side of the world, Sino-Asia sleeps at peace knowing everything is on the table should the Mainland invade but nothing is at risk should it not. What better example of deterrence working?

    The concern now is moves in both hemispheres to formalize redlines. Much talk will be devoted post-invasion as to whether Ukraine should join NATO, feign at joining NATO, or promise never to join NATO. Joining or something akin will be the wrong answer. It was in fact the rigidity of NATO’s promise that saw it fail, again, in Ukraine as in Crimea. Putin understands this and uses it — judo master that he is — against his adversary. NATO prescribes war whether the broader circumstances (of say energy dependence on Russian gas) make that seem wise. It is an exploitable flaw. The good news is Europe is again at a stasis point for the time being, Ukraine seemingly headed toward a resolution that provides Russia its buffer zone no matter what it is all spun as in the western media.

    The risk lies in Asia, where bullish elements are tempted to disturb an equally functional power status quo, and jeez, it’s Joe “Regime Change” Biden and his gaffes again. At a CNN town hall in October 2021, the host asked Biden if the U.S. would defend Taiwan. He said “Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” another gaffe-erino which the White House quickly walked back into the realm of strategic ambiguity. But post-Ukraine, some hawks want that clarity and are pushing for a formal, Article 5-like declaration. In their perfect world, that Asian Article 5 would include not only Taiwan and the U.S., but also Japan, Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and maybe others (the U.S. has various types of self-defense treaties already with many Asian nations.)

    The justifications for such moves often make no sense in the face of the current TRA strategy’s multi-decade success. Some say because Beijing ramped up its rhetoric and shipbuilding (a test of resolve!) we need to do something to match that. But wouldn’t a guarantee to go to war for Taiwan make those on Taiwan who want to declare independence that much more reckless? There are those in Congress who want a more formal agreement (if you think the Israel lobby is powerful, check how Taiwan’s punches above its weight.) The ever-pugilistic Council on Foreign Relations wants strategic unambiguity as a show of force.

    Joe Biden will come under some pressure to “do something” (the scariest words in Washington) following the clusterflutz in Ukraine. This would be a very, very risky move. Remember, for deterrence to be credible, it does not need to depend on a willingness to commit anything like suicide in the face of a challenge, but rather must carry the risk that the deterrer is likely to do something that is “fraught with the danger of war.” Strategic ambiguity is enough. Article 5 and anything like it to come in the Pacific purposefully ties its signatories’ hands. The Taiwan Relations Act purposefully leaves all options open to deal with the complex realities of the Sino-Pacific. History shows which one works and which one does not. A more aggressive posture does not resolve the root issues across the Taiwan Strait, it only risks exacerbating them.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Deterrence Works, Propaganda Fails in Ukraine (So Far)

    March 18, 2022 // 7 Comments »

    Deterrence works. Russia’s nukes are the only thing keeping the US from full-out war in Ukraine only six months after retreating from Afghanistan. So far, the unprecedented propaganda effort by the Ukraine and its helpers in the American mass media to drag the US and NATO directly into the fight has failed. But this struggle — for your mind space — is not over.
    To understand what follows, you have to wipe away a lot of bullshit being slung your way. Putin is not insane, not a madman. He is carrying out a rational political-military strategy in Ukraine, seizing Russian-speaking territory such as Donbas, demilitarizing by force the eastern Ukraine, and most of all creating a physical buffer zone between himself and NATO. That zone may end at the Dnieper River with a loop around Odessa, or it may end at the Polish border, depending on how smoothly things go on the ground and on what level of “stay away” message Putin wishes to send to NATO. Putin is not making the first moves toward some greater conquest. All the bad takes saying “if we don’t stop Putin now, he’ll invade Moldova/Estonia/Poland/all Europe just like Hitler” ignores the part about the German military in WWII having some 18 million men under arms. The Russian army today has 1.3 million, the best of which are going to be in Ukraine for awhile.
    Every war has its “is the juice worth the squeeze” question. In other words, is what you can realistically hope to achieve worth the cost of getting it? For Putin, that means solving his border problem at the cost of maybe a few thousand men killed and wounded and another dollop of weak sanctions. He understood the needs of Europe meant sanctions would never harm sales of the fossil fuels which make up most Russian exports. But no Paypal for you, comrade! Putin could also look to history and see how decades of sanctions have not changed much in Cuba, Venezuela, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.
    Putin most importantly also knew US/NATO would not fight him on the ground for fear of starting a nuclear war. That is exactly what nukes are for, and is the history of the Cold War in a sentence. I have nukes and that allows me to do certain things any way I want because they stay below the threshold of risking atomic war. This is why the US could destroy Quaddafi and Saddam (no nukes to deter) and why the US will never attack North Korea (nukes.) Being a nuclear superpower makes things easier; the US can fight all over Central America and the Middle East, and Russia in the ‘Stans, and none of that is important enough to consider using nukes to stop.
    Putin knows that. Biden knows that, as does NATO. Ukraine, however, is still thinking it can change the game.
    Ukraine knew on Day One no one was coming to its rescue, and its leaders know they don’t have enough men or weapons to defeat the Russians on their own. Their only hope to remain a unified nation (it is easy to imagine a divided Ukraine, Western Zone and Eastern (Russian) Zone as the end game) is outside help. A no-fly zone, some air strikes to blunt Russian advances. Something, anything.
    That’s why every knucklehead in America right now is being blitzed with Ukrainian propaganda, and your brother-in-law is ready to head to Europe with his never-cleaned hunting rifle. The goal is to change public opinion such that a weak guy like Joe Biden starts to doubt himself. Ukrainian lobbyists from K Street take influential Senators to lunch, knowing they’ll return to their offices to find thousands of constituent emails demanding the US “do something.” The goal of Ukrainian propaganda is get Biden to take that Pentagon meeting laying out options for some limited bombing, or to listen to those analysts saying the US could set up a small no-fly zone on Ukraine’s western edge to show the Russians we mean business. Drop in some Special Forces. Something, anything. The goal of the propaganda is to get Biden to sign off on something (hopefully) small enough that it falls below the threshold of provoking a nuclear response. Is it necessary to say that is a very risky and delicate tasking?
    The bad news is Ukrainian propaganda is working. A non-partisan 74 percent of Americans say NATO should impose a no-fly zone in Ukraine. And we are just getting started. We’ve had the hero phase with the non-existent Ghost of Kiev and the not surrendering but they surrendered brave Ukrainians, alongside the grandmas and supermodels with guns. We’ve had the Russians are going to kill us all phase, with the faux threat of invasion to the west and the faux scare the Russians were going to create a Chernobyl-like nuclear accident by shelling a power plant. We are currently moving into the not verifiable atrocities phase, where “reports” will claim the Russians are killing children, or using rape as a weapon, or targeting hospitals. Alongside it all is beef cake talk about Zelensky, the likes we haven’t seen since before the cancelations of Andrew Cuomo and Michael Avenatti. The fact-checking mania of Covid is history as America media removes all the filters on pro-Ukrainian content.
    The quality of the propaganda is not important (any pile of scrap metal on snowy ground is breaking news of another Russian helo shot down, even if the metal has “Acme Junk Pile” written on it.) The quantity is important, the attempt to overwhelm American mindspace to the point where logic is shoved into the back corner. There is a growing cottage industry of “experts” explaining how to can go to war without going to THAT kind of war. Dissenting voices are few, and are often labeled as “Putin lovers,” with progressives and Late Night hurling homophobic slurs at them like high school kids.
    It is not like America does not know how to step away from a fight which isn’t ours when we want to. Crimea, Chechnya, Rwanda, Hungary ’56, Czechoslovakia ’68, Afghanistan ’79, even to a certain extent in Syria 2016.
    There are two battles now playing out over Ukraine. The one on the ground, and the one on your social media seeking to drag America into the mud. Only six months after the sad ending in Afghanistan, it is stunning to watch America again contemplate going to war for some abstract purpose far removed from our own core interests. And this time, with the risk of a nuclear exchange to remind us of our mistake, not just an inglorious departure from Kabul.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Three Questions to Ask About America Not Fighting a War with China

    December 1, 2021 // 5 Comments »

    Before you read another story claiming war among China, Taiwan and the U.S. is getting closer, or relations are entering dangerous territory, or long-standing issues may soon be settled by any means necessary, ask yourself these three questions.

     

    Why Would China Attack Taiwan?

    Over the last decade Taiwan invested $188.5 billion in China, more than China’s investment in the United States. In 2019, the value of cross-strait trade was $149.2 billion. Pre-Covid, travelers from China made 2.68 million visits to Taiwan. China applied in September to join the new Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. A week later, with no opposition voiced by Beijing, Taiwan applied to join as well. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. “One country, two systems” has not only kept the peace for decades, it has proven damn profitable. Why bomb one of your best customers?

    Apart from the potential the nuclear destruction of the Chinese state (the U.S. has 10 nukes for every Chinese one) why would China consider a war that would provoke the U.S.? Total Chinese investment in the U.S. is $145 billion. U.S. investment in China passed $1 trillion. The Chinese are literally betting the house on America’s success.

    A failed invasion of Taiwan would topple Xi if not the whole power structure. An invasion is impractical. Chinese amphibious forces would be under fire from Taiwan’s F-16s armed with Harpoon anti-ship missiles practically as they left harbor. Taiwan will soon field a land-based anti-ship missile with 200 mile range. Estimates are China would need to land a million soldiers on day one (on D-Day the Allies put ashore 156,000) against Taiwan’s fortified rocky west coast, navigating among tiny islets themselves laden with anti-ship weapons. China’s primary amphibious assault ship, the Type 075, carries about only 1,000 men, and China currently has only three such ships. Its conscript troops are unblooded in combat. Meanwhile American and British forces patrol the waters. Aircraft from Guam, Okinawa, and Korea could shut down the skies, and decimate Chinese aircraft on the ground. This is not Normandy. It is also not another of the counterinsurgency struggles which defeated America. It is the Big Power conflict played out in the Strait instead of the Fulda Gap, the war U.S. has been preparing to fight against someone since the 1960s.

    No risk vs. gain calculation would end up concluding the best option was war. And discard the irrational actor scenario; Chinese leaders have always believed in historical cycles. They waited close to 300 years to end the foreign Qing dynasty. They waited out Britain for hundreds of years for the peaceful return of Hong Kong, same with Portugal and Macau. Chinese diplomacy is patient, not reactive. There is no fierce urgency to reunification. One waits to win.

     

    Why now?

    In fiction one of the important tools is the Change Event, the thing that answers the question of why now? Why did the mild-mannered accountant suddenly become a vigilante? Oh, his daughter was kidnapped. So where is the “why now” part of China-Taiwan?

    One of the most compelling arguments China plans no war is they haven’t yet fought any wars. No shots have been fired over the disputed islands, which have disputed for decades. Taiwan broke away in 1949 and the last shot fired was in the 1950s. Chinese troops entered Vietnam only after the U.S. began its own campaign of regime change there, and briefly in 1979 during a border scuffle. China joined the Korean War only after the U.S. threatened to cross into Chinese territory. Xi’s reunification rhetoric is essentially the same as Mao’s.

    China is an autocracy (unchanged since 1949), and has not promoted things like free speech in Hong Kong or Tibet, never mind in Beijing or Shanghai. We don’t have to like that, but it is nothing new and has nothing to do with invading Taiwan. China did little when some of the leaders of the Tienanmen protests turned up in Taiwan, another worried over “why now” event.

    My own first brush with a “why now” event was in the 1980s, when I went to Taiwan as an American diplomat. Taiwan was crawling out from under four decades of authoritarian rule, and taking its first difficult democratic steps. After decades of speech suppression, a lot of people were testing their legs, saying all sorts of crazy stuff about independence. Among ourselves we called it “the D word,” as independence in Mandarin is romanized duli. One emerging political party was even called the Taiwan Independence party, and was likely to grab a few seats in the legislature. The U.S. mission was fearful this could serve as a trigger to Beijing. “Big China” had made clear a declaration of independence was a red line.

    Beijing’s reaction was soon apparent: Taiwan’s stores started to feature mainland goods; the end of the hated Kuomintang opened up a new market. Even before this thaw you could sort of fly from Taipei to China, something that many people on both sides of the strait were desperate to do to visit relatives. The catch was the flight had to touch down in then-British Hong Kong. In 2008 these flights were made direct, with no need for the Hong Kong stopover. Today six China-based airlines and five from Taiwan operate direct flights. The line of progress has been in one direction, far at odds with war.

     

    Why Would Anyone Think the U.S. Would Not Defend Taiwan?

    Post-Afghanistan, some speculate the U.S. would not defend Taiwan. It makes no sense; if the U.S. stood on the sidelines as China attacked, that would end the post-WWII U.S. alliance system in Asia, and would temp war on the Korean peninsula. It would likely spur Japan and Korea to go nuclear. The global economy would fall into chaos and the dollar would collapse. Who knows what would happen to global supply lines.

    The Taiwan Relations Act (Biden as a young senator voted for it) says Washington will “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States” and the U.S. will “maintain the capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.” The language was purposefully written by the parties concerned in 1979 to incorporate flexibility without being provocative, and cannot be read today as a signal of weakness. Diplomats on all three sides understand this.

    I have been in rooms with both Chinese and Taiwan representatives, and PLA and U.S. military personnel. Though sabers get rattled, particularly in front of the cameras, every action by every player assumes the U.S. will defend Taiwan. There is simply no ambiguity. When Joe Biden broke code and blurted out the U.S. will indeed defend Taiwan it was one of the few honest statements by any politician in Washington.

    The U.S. has troops on Taiwan. The U.S. sells Taiwan some of our most modern weapons. Even as Xi spoke of reunification during the October political holidays the HMS Queen Elizabeth, USS Carl Vinson, USS Ronald Reagan, and Japan’s Ise conducted joint operations in the China Sea. The U.S. is selling nuclear submarines to Australia to boast patrols in the South China Sea. The U.S. frequently conducts “freedom of navigation” exercises in the area. The U.S. recently brought India into the Quad Pact against China, and convinced Japan to abandon its neutral stance on Taiwan. Congress will take up the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act, which would authorize Biden to initiate war on China.

    China has no reason to and many reasons not to attack Taiwan. For 70 some years their relationship has become more open and more interactive. Strategic ambiguity — some call it deterrence — has worked. Nothing about any of that has changed.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    What’s the Point of Cancellation (Halloween Edition)?

    November 12, 2021 // 1 Comment »


    I’m holding an old Polaroid, taken at a Halloween party at one of my early State Department assignments in the 1980s. One of my diplomatic colleagues is in blackface, done up to look like the minstrel player who was on the “Darkie” toothpaste boxes then for sale in every drugstore in Asia. You can see a photo of the packaging; the white teeth against the minstrel player’s face were supposed to show how good the toothpaste was. My other colleague is dressed as the Frito Bandito, a caricature of Mexicans used to sell corn chips. The costume theme for the night was advertising icons. In the 1980s these were acceptable ways to advertise and acceptable costumes for Halloween.

    But looking at the photo now I realize it is a weapon. Both my State Department colleagues pictured managed their careers much better than me and are in senior positions. There is no doubt in 2021 the photo would at least make it to Buzzfeed, maybe make a bigger splash, you know “Blinken Denies Racist Diplomats in Charge” and all that. It’s a familiar playbook today, an old photo pulled out of time and litigated in the media under the harsh light of 2021. The outcome is predictable — America has no tolerance. There’s a new rule that says people who used the wrong word or gesture, no matter how long ago or in what context or with what intent or no matter what else they did in the intervening years of their life, should not be allowed to work. Anyone in a public position, or who can be dragged into public, is especially vulnerable.

    The thing is neither colleague was or is racist. They were mocking goofy advertising characters of the day. One went on not long after that photo was taken to protect the human rights of a group being treated unfairly by the U.S. government. He risked his career to speak out, and made actual change happen in an organization resistant to it. The other colleague has done the right thing in a lot of difficult situations. The State Department is a better place for them working in it. I doubt either remember the Halloween photo, or realize how thin the ice is underneath them in 2021.

    But splashing the photo on some front page would accomplish nothing that matters, certainly nothing the self-righteous babble that would have to accompany it would claim. You know it by heart. Secretary of State Blinken would ritually say “We have reassigned diplomats X and Y pending their voluntary retirements. We have zero tolerance for racism no matter when or where it takes place. This is not who we are. Their actions fly in the face of the Department’s public denouncements of racism and sexism and its promises to be more inclusive amid criticism for its past treatment of black and Hispanic employees.”

    To be fair, the words I just put into Blinken’s mouth are not fully original. I stole them from statements the NFL made recently around the firing of Raider’s coach Jon Gruden. Emails recently surfaced, some 10 years old, where Gruden used language likely heard in any NFL locker room today. In fact, language used most places, albeit not by a white man. So in stories about Gruden we see p*ssy while on another page we read about a Pink Pussy Hat march. Never mind the so-called n-word which means burn the street down if a white person says it but is a term of endearment in a hip hop song. I guess Gruden was supposed to have thought about all this years ago when he wrote his emails. Same as my diplomatic colleagues should have thought twice three decades ago when they chose their Halloween outfits. In today’s logic, that “mistake” means Gruden is unfit to coach and my colleague is unfit to sit in an ambassador’s chair. The thing is no one accused Gruden of being a racist, or favoring players of one race over another. And I can comfortably swear in court I never knew either of my colleagues to make a racially-oriented decision.

    The people who believe they are fighting racism in this way spend their days digging through old yearbooks, watching hours of video, trolling emails and social media, and receiving hacked fodder from someone’s political enemy. The result is teachers, sportscasters, cops, and whoever else being run out of their career not for being a racist but for just using words some don’t like. These are not crimes of action. They are thought crimes, tied to a specific political theology.

    One of the latest thought criminals is Dave Chappelle. Chappelle, a black comedian, is under attack for jokes in a Netflix special “the community” considers transphobic. Netflix black and trans employees have expressed their concerns to upper management. Employees took to Twitter. People called for a boycott if Chappelle wasn’t punished somehow someway.

    I watched his show, The Closer. Yep, he sure said some things about trans people. Maybe the things were funny, maybe not. Maybe they would sound hurtful to some people, maybe not. But left unsaid in the trans-fuss was almost all of Chappelle’s show was about his dislike of white people. He actually explained that most of his jokes about trans people are actually jokes about how he hates white people. One story was about how he almost got into a fight with a transman and how the transman called 911. Chappelle as a punchline said something like “Dude was trans only until you need to be white to call the cops on a [n-word]” He went on to explain how he finds white fans who recognize him in public a bother while welcoming black interactions, made remarks like it was 1950 about “white bitches,” and so forth.

    We’re all well past noting the hypocrisy that racism in 2021 can only occur from a white person to a POC and never the other way. This Halloween, I bet anyone can go to a party dressed as A White Couple, with whiteface makeup, Bermuda shorts, a pink polo shirt or whatever racist clichés carry the message (someone actually sells such costumes as a joke/not joke) and no one would raise an eyebrow. But if you do dress that way, be careful. Someone may take a photo that could sink your career 20 years from now.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    America Won’t Be Fighting a War with China over Taiwan (So Why the Fuss?)

    October 30, 2021 // 16 Comments »


    The United States and China will not go to war in our time over Taiwan. China is not engaging in provocative actions leading toward an invasion. So why the fuss?

    I’d prefer to let the argument speak for itself, but my background is relevant. I threw away my Mao (and Che) T-shirt sophomore year. I don’t have a grey pony tail. I know Beijing is not a democratic regime, much like America’s allies across the Middle East and Africa are not. I’ve been in Taiwan when it was under military rule, and China under autocratic rule. The food was great, but I do not want to live that way. So none of this is about defending that. As a U.S. diplomat, I served in Taiwan, Beijing, and Hong Kong, as well as Korea and Japan, and speak a bit of all their languages. Many of my former colleagues, who managed their careers better, now hold senior positions in State’s China and East Asian bureaucracies. I certainly don’t speak for them, but I speak to them.

    Focus is also important; this is about war. It is not about China being unfriendly to democracy in Hong Kong; why act surprised, the government does not like democracy in Shanghai or Guangzhou either. But when we talk about democracy in the area, let’s not forget Hong Kong was taken from Imperial China by force by the British, who exploited it as a colony for most of its history. It was peacefully returned to China in 1997, not taken by China militarily any time along the way. Taiwan was an unimportant and undemocratic place inhabited mostly by indigenous people until 1949, when the Nationalists displaced the locals to create the enclave of the Republic of China. It existed under strict military rule, with U.S. support for the thugs in power, until around 1988. So democracy in China writ large is a fairly new thing. Many might wish to see America as concerned about democracy in Saudi Arabia as it is in Hong Kong.

    China has always been America’s as-needed partner, friend today, adversary tomorrow. An ally during WWII, the U.S. backed away in 1949 after Mao took power, considering China one more link in world Communism’s march to global supremacy. Then in the midst of the Cold War Nixon “opened” China and the place was remade into a friendly bulwark against the Soviets. In 1979 the U.S. diplomatically recognized Beijing and unrecognized Taipei. The U.S. and China then grew into significant trading partners until sometime during the Obama years when China, without a clear precipitating event, morphed again into an adversary (the U.S. called it a pivot toward Asia.) Trump, and now Biden, have since upgraded China into a direct threat. In one of his few unambiguous foreign policy speeches, Biden said “On my watch China will not achieve its goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world.” Biden went on to claim we were at an inflection point to determine “whether or not democracy can function in the 21st century.” Along the way China has always stayed pretty much the same. It’s our fear of the same China which changes.

    Those U.S. fears are mostly bunk. Take for example the boilerplate articles about Chinese “incursions” into Taiwan’s air space. Chinese aircraft are not overflying Taiwan. They are flying within Taiwan’s self-declared Air Defense Identification Zone. Look at a map of that zone, and other zones declared by Japan and China. Taiwan’s zone, the one Beijing is flying in, actually is large enough to cover thousands of miles of the Chinese mainland itself; PLA planes are in violation when sitting on their own runways. Taiwan’s zone also overlaps Beijing’s Air Defense Zone which overlaps Japan’s and Korea’s. Japan’s Air Defense zone also overlap’s Taiwan’s to take in a small island which is disputed between Tokyo and Taipei, a diplomatic fist fight the U.S. ignores. Criss-crossing everyone’s zones are American aircraft conducting “freedom of navigation” exercises (known in Beijing as “incursions.”) Chinese air flights are provocative only to the uninformed, or those who want them to be seen as provocative. Left unsaid: as China was supposedly provoking a fight in the air this October, the U.S. was simultaneously conducting some of the largest multi-national naval exercises in the Pacific since WWII.

    As for that invasion of Taiwan Beijing is accused of planning, no one has ever explained why they would undertake such a enormous risk in the face of little gain. Instead, the articles claiming Beijing is readying for war are like those science fiction movies which begin with the premise most people have disappeared from earth, or some apocalyptical event took place, and then the story of the survivors begins. All the complicated stuff is left unexplained.

    No one seems to examine the reasons China has no reason to invade Taiwan. China and Taiwan do loft rhetorical bombs at each other, particularly around CCP events and political holidays, while maintaining a robust economic relationship. Between 1991 and March 2020 Taiwan’s investment in China totaled $188.5 billion, more than China’s investment in the United States. In 2019, the value of cross-strait trade was $149.2 billion. Pre-Covid, travelers from China made 2.68 million visits to Taiwan. China applied in September to join the new Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. A week later, with no opposition voiced by Beijing, Taiwan applied to join as well. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. “One country, two systems” has not only kept the peace for decades, it has proven darn profitable for both sides. As Deng Xiao Ping said of this type of modus vivendi, “who cares what color a cat is as long as it catches mice.” China might one day seek to buy Taiwan, but until then what incentive would it have to drop bombs on one of its best customers?

    A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would also require China to fight the United States. The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which established the framework behind the U.S. relationships with Beijing and Taipei makes clear Washington will “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States” and that the U.S. will “maintain the capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.” The language, unchanged since the roller disco era, is purposefully one of strategic ambiguity. It was crafted by the parties concerned specifically to incorporate flexibility, not signal weakness. Diplomats on all three sides understand this. Anyone saying the U.S. needs to rattle sabers at China to demonstrate commitment to Taiwan would better spend his time trying to explain away our abandoning Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Arab Spring.

    Apart from the potential the nuclear destruction of the Chinese state (the U.S. has 10 nukes for every one China does) why would China even considering risking war with the U.S.? Total Chinese investment in the U.S. economy is over $145 billion. U.S. investment in China passed $1 trillion. When Covid shut down world logistics, everyone learned the American economy is voluntarily dependent on Chinese manufacturing and vice-versa. The Chinese are literally betting the house on America’s success.

    Because there is no plausible scenario in which China would want to invade Taiwan, we need not dwell on the military impracticality of the thing. A failed invasion of Taiwan would topple Xi. Chinese amphibious forces would be under fire from Taiwan’s F-16s armed with Harpoon anti-ship missiles practically as they left harbor and tried to cross the Taiwan Strait (Harpoons have a range of 67 miles; at its narrowest the Strait is only 80 miles wide. Taiwan will soon field a land-based anti-ship missile with a range of over 200 miles.) How many could even reach the beaches? Estimates are China would need to land one to two million soldiers on day one (on D-Day the Allies put ashore 156,000) against Taiwan’s fortified rocky west coast, navigating among tiny islets themselves laden with anti-ship weapons. China’s primary amphibious assault ship, the Type 075, carries about 1,000 men, meaning something like a 1000-2000 sorties. China currently has only three such ships. Its troops are unblooded in combat. Meanwhile American and British carriers and submarines patrol the waters. American aircraft from Guam, Okinawa, and Korea would shut down the skies, and decimate Chinese aircraft on the ground via stealth, drones, and stand-off missiles. This is not Normandy. It is also not the counterinsurgency struggles which defeated America. It is the Big Power conflict played out in the Strait instead of the Fulda Gap, the war U.S. has been preparing to fight against someone since the 1960s.

    But one of the most compelling arguments China plans no war is they haven’t yet fought any wars. No shots have been fired over the disputed islands, which have rabidly disputed for decades. Taiwan broke away in 1949 and after a handful of artillery exchanges in the 1950s, no shots have been fired. China never moved militarily against British Hong Kong from 1841 forward, or Portuguese Macau from 1557. Chinese President Xi’s rhetoric about reunification is essentially the same as Mao’s. Nothing really seems to have changed to the point where a stable situation has suddenly become unstable enough to lead to war, yet the Financial Times warns “The moment of truth over Taiwan is getting closer” and the NYT headlines “U.S. and China Enter Dangerous Territory Over Taiwan.” The WSJ decided on its own China is ready to “reunify their country through any means necessary.”

    The war fever splash in U.S. media comes with curious timing. The U.S. is provoking a new Cold War to ensure an enemy to struggle against, guarantee robust defense spending for decades, and to make sure there is no repeat of the “peace dividend” that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. It’s the same playbook run from 1945 to 1989 against the USSR. Expensive arms development needs a target: the Soviet Union served well in that role until around 1989, when in the midst of declaring themselves the world’s last superpower, Americans also demanded less spending on the military. A new enemy was quickly found in various flavors in the Middle East, first in Saddam Hussein and then, after 9/11, in basically most Arabs. The terrorist boogeyman was shushed off stage this summer as America retreated from Afghanistan. We’re unlikely to return to the Middle East in force, especially with oil no longer the principle driver of American foreign policy.

    And so to China. Chinese plans to invade Taiwan may be the new WMDs, a justification much talked about but never to materialize. Chinese weapons advances are the new missile gap, and Asia the new frontier in the faux struggle between the forces of good and another damn group of foreigners bent on world domination. Indeed, if anyone seriously believed war was likely, even imminent, where are the calls for diplomacy, a regional summit, some kind of UN help, to resolve tensions? The U.S. doesn’t even have an ambassador in Beijing nine months into the Biden administration.

     

     

    However impractical an invasion might be, how unnecessary, or how risky, hasn’t China declared repeatedly it will reunite with Taiwan? Yes. But if you want to cite Chinese propaganda as evidence of actual intent, it is best to pay attention to the details.

    It was the United States itself that most clearly asserted the shared tripartite goal was reunification, declaring as part of the diplomatic break with Taiwan “there is only one China and Taiwan is a part of it.” Chinese President Xi regularly reiterates reunification as a goal, but always stresses the process is historical (as in, it is inevitable and we just need to be patient, don’t wait up for it to happen) and must be peaceful. Sorry, if you’re going to quote Chinese propaganda statements as proof of intent, you can’t cherry pick out only the scary parts. It makes no sense to trust Xi on the plan but claim he’s lying about the (peaceful) execution in the same breath.

    Not by coincidence most of these reunification proclamations occur around important political holidays. One of Xi’s most recent invocations was in a speech marking the 110th anniversary of the Xinhai 1911 Revolution, aimed at the foreign Manchu Qing dynasty. The chosen occasion is important, because Xinhai, ideologically midwifed by Dr. Sun Yat Sen, is acknowledged by both the most hardcore Communists and the most fervent Nationalists as the common origin point for modern China. This is drilled into every schoolkid on both sides of the Strait and forms a common vocabulary among their diplomats. The point is to understand Xi’s remarks in the same context as the Chinese, not John Wayne, likely do.

    In Sun’s spirit Xi reiterated a vow to peaceful reunification with Taiwan. He urged the Chinese people “stand on the right side of history and join hands to achieve China’s complete reunification,” invoking the way the people who would form the Communist and Nationalist parties worked together against a common enemies — the Manchus, then warlordism and feudalism, then the Japanese, and perhaps someday the Americans. Xi, talking to his own people and those on Taiwan, sketched a shared vision a long way from the PLA amphibious assault the West fears. Xi was also aware that the day before his speech HMS Queen Elizabeth, USS Carl Vinson, USS Ronald Reagan, and Japan’s Ise conducted joint carrier operations in the China Sea featuring the soon-to-be-nuclear-capable F-35 aircraft.

    Far from anything new or provocative, Xi’s rhetoric was consistent with 70 some years of speeches maintaining Beijing has no quarrel with the people on Taiwan, who are today mostly Mandarin-speaking ethnically Han Chinese same as in Beijing. Instead, the theme has always been a few bad apples in Taiwan’s government are preventing all Chinese from seeing they need to work together. To invade Taiwan, China would commit itself to killing Chinese, something that would cause Xi to lose legitimacy in the eyes of his own people; the Mandate of Heaven still applies. Meanwhile, on Taiwan, the current president more or less acknowledges the official line of a reunited China someday but quickly says there are more important things on her mind, like making money. Many in the West failed to notice it was Dr. Sun’s portrait which hung behind both leaders as they spoke. The idea that all these factors boil down to “China is gonna invade Taiwan” is beyond silly. America’s obsession with Taiwan independence is more Washington’s problem than Taipei’s.

    Philosophically Chinese leaders have for thousands of years believed in historical cycles. They waited close to 300 years to end the foreign Qing dynasty. They waited out Britain for hundreds of years for the peaceful return of Hong Kong. Such things come up in conversation with Chinese diplomats as casually as talk about the weather. Chinese diplomacy is patient, not short-term optimistic or spasmatically reactive. There is no fierce urgency to reunification. Sun Tzu: One waits to win.

     

    In contrast stands America’s foreign policy. A comparison of countries where the U.S., and China have military intervened post-WWII is telling. Chinese troops entered Vietnam only after the U.S. began its own campaign of regime change there. China entered the Korean War only after the U.S. Army threatened to cross into Chinese territory. Both of these events are celebrated in the People’s Army Museum in Beijing as examples of defending the homeland’s borders. The Museum, in addition, features an American U-2 spyplane shot down over the mainland. The Museum also has exhibits showing the U.S. purposely bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, killing three and destroying the diplomatic sanctuary. The U.S. claimed it was an accident, but history makes clear it was retaliation against an undefended target accused of spying in former Yugoslavia. How many American embassies has China bombed?

    China got its first blue water aircraft carrier last year; the U.S. has maintained multiple carrier groups in the Pacific since WWII, recently facilitated the permanent deployment of two British carrier groups in the area (their first big show of naval force in the area since losing Singapore to the Japanese) and will sell nuclear submarines to Australia with the understanding they will patrol the South China Sea. The U.S. recently brought India into the Quad Pact agreement against China, and convinced Japan to abandon its official neutral stance on Taiwan to support the U.S. Japan has quickly grown into a multiple carrier blue water naval force under American encouragement and with American technology; an unprecedented pledge by Japan’s ruling party seeks to double defense spending and underscores the nation’s haste to acquire missiles, stealth fighters, drones and other weapons that can target China.

    For the first time in decades U.S. forces are officially stationed on Taiwan. The White House recently announced the existing U.S.-Japan security treaty now extends to some additional disputed islands, and the Philippine security treaty covers Manila’s claims to Chinese-occupied islets. The U.S. maintains military bases in a ring around China’s eastern coast. Economically, Barack Obama via the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) tried to isolate China from the Asian trade sphere. Trump imposed and Biden maintains punitive tariffs on goods out of China. This autumn Congress will take up the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act, which would authorize Biden to initiate (nuclear) war on China without any input from America’s elected representatives.

    So who in fact is acting provocatively in the Pacific? Which side is saber rattling, and which simply responding the way a dog barks to warn off an aggressor?

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Biden’s China Policy is Dangerous

    October 16, 2021 // 8 Comments »

    Joe Biden’s China policy is unnecessarily adversarial. It is impractical and dangerous. It plays out as if U.S. foreign policy is run by WWII reenactors.

    China was artificially reimagined as an enemy-in-a-box as the wars of terror sputtered out and America needed a new Bond villian. Biden envisions China as an autocratic foe for democracy to wage a global struggle against. “On my watch,” Joe said, “China will not achieve its goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world.” Biden went on to claim the world was at an inflection point to determine “whether or not democracy can function in the 21st century.” In Biden’s neo-Churchillian view, the U.S. and what the hell, the whole free world he believes he is president of, are in a death match with China for global hearts and minds.

    One problem in this world view is the unbelievable hypocrisy underlying America’s claimed role. Biden seems oblivious the U.S. mows down Muslims by drone and cluster bomb even while it self-righteously tsk tsks China for bullying its Uighur minority. After our two decade hissy fit of invasions and nation building brought kleptocracies and terrorists to lead countries, we dare bark that China is not democratic. We seem not to notice our lack of clothing when we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with petty tyrants and dictators strewn around Africa and the Middle East. We see no issues demanding democracy in Hong Kong while ignoring its weakening across the United States (never mind not having had much to say about democracy in Hong Kong when it was a British colony stolen by war from Chinese sovereignty.) A pretty weak resume when you’re aiming at Leader of the Free World.

    Apart from sheer hypocrisy, there are other reasons to wonder how China ended up America’s sworn enemy for Cold War 2.0. The relationship otherwise does not look much like that of our old nemesis, the Soviet Union. The Russkies had a nasty habit of rolling tanks across borders, as of course does the U.S. Sometimes it was even the same country — how’d that Afghanistan thing work out? In contrast is the utter lack of countries China has invaded since WWII. Unlike the wheezing old Soviet economy, China is the world’s second largest economy, and one deeply tied, integrated, and in a symbiotic relationship with the U.S. China is the second largest foreign holder of U.S. government debt just behind Japan, with massive investments across the board inside the United States.

    Not counting Hunter Biden (we kid) the total Chinese investment in the U.S. economy is over $145 billion. The Cold War joke, countries with a McDonald’s never made war on each other, seems under revision. The Chinese are literally betting the house on America succeeding. Meanwhile, U.S. investment in China has passed $1 trillion. As we learned when Covid briefly shut down world logistics, the American economy is voluntarily dependent on Chinese manufacturing and vice-versa.

    With all this co-dependent commerce it is also increasingly unclear what we have to fight about, and what we have to gain in picking a fight. About the best the war influencers can come up with are lurid predictions that Chinese investments are a secret tool to control the U.S. (as opposed to any other investors [Jeff Bezos, cough cough] domestic or foreign, yeah right.) They claim “someday” China will “weaponize” its investments and harm the U.S. Left unexplained is how China would need to take a $1.1 trillion bath on its Treasuries alone, never mind slamming closed its largest export market and having to find a way to use unfinished iPhones as a food source.

    So why the lust for a new Cold War? The problem Biden faces on China, and everywhere else really, is the biggest player in today’s foreign affairs is the military. In many parts of the world (particularly Asia and Africa) the combatant commanders are putative epicenters for security, diplomatic, humanitarian, and commercial affairs. One reason is range: unlike ambassadors, whose budget and influence are confined to single countries, combatant commanders’ reach is continental. Unlike the White House, whose focus is ever-shifting, the military has the interest and manpower to stick around everywhere. Colonels grow up to be generals. Generals outlast administrations.

    The military has written America’s adversarial China policy. Following the old Cold War playbook, the goal seems to crank up tensions and exaggerate threats until confrontation looks inevitable but never really happens. Here’s how that plan recently exposed itself with China.

    Australia just ditched a $66 billion contract for French diesel-electric submarines to instead buy U.S. nuclear-powered submarines. This is alongside a new alliance which will also see Australia, the U.S., and the United Kingdom share advanced technologies. The genesis was the U.S. military’s muscular diplomacy, ramping up for a war with China they hope will power their budgets for decades. A side deal with Britain to station its newest aircraft carriers in Asia was certainly part of the package. This brings both the British and the Australians, nuclearized, into the South China Sea in force. An arms salesman just wrote Biden’s China policy.

    For what? China fusses with its neighbors over ownership of a handful of islands in the neighborhood, hardly worth risking total nuclear war over. See, it’s the nukes that rule out another Falklands. Even so, the U.S. can’t help but contribute to the saber rattling. The White House recently announced the existing U.S.-Japan security treaty now extends to the disputed Senkaku islands and the Philippines security treaty covers Manila’s claims to Chinese-occupied islets in the South China Sea. Flashback: once upon a time it was the Soviets who were supposed to invade disputed islands held by Japan. Never did.

    China and Taiwan make sport out of lofting rhetoric at each other, all the while maintaining a robust economic relationship that defines modus vivendi. Between 1991 and March 2020, Taiwan’s investment in China totaled $188.5 billion, more than China’s investment in the United States. In 2019, the value of cross-strait trade was $149.2 billion. Pre-Covid travelers from China made 2.68 million visits to Taiwan. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. What incentive would China have to drop bombs on one of its best customers? Um, how about… none?

    As they say, follow the money. The money leads toward rapprochement, right under America’s nose. Barack Obama sought the economic isolation of China. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was a 2016 proposed trade agreement among most everyone in Asia except China. Trump withdrew the U.S. from TPP in 2017. In 2018 the remaining countries negotiated a new consolation prize-like agreement called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership which meant little without the participation of economic superpowers U.S. and China. Yet while Biden has made no moves to bring the U.S. back into the play, and has kept Trump’s tariffs in place against China, Chinese diplomats have been busy beavers.

    In an end run timed to mock the American submarine deal with Australia, China applied in September to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. A week later, with no opposition voiced by Beijing, Taiwan applied to join as well. Radio silence on both applications from Washington, who, as a non-participant in the group, doesn’t even have a vote on the matter. And Biden has made clear he has no plans to join in the future. Ironically, the genesis of all this, the Obama TPP, was designed to force China at dollar-point to reform itself and be More Like Us. Who is it now that seems to be setting the rules of today’s international system in both trade and diplomacy? China is offering favorable access to its lucrative market to diplomatically influence the alliance on its own terms. All the U.S. has to offer its allies is a subordinate and expensive role in a new Cold War.

    Where is the State Department? Nine months into his administration Biden still does not have an ambassador in Beijing, leaving China policy in caretaker hands. His nominee for ambassador, Nick Burns, is an old State Department hack, having made a career by bending over backwards in both directions as administrations changed. Coming out of a spokesmodel-type retirement university job, Burns will be read by Beijing, if he ever gets there, as a placeholder, a political crony handed a sweet, mostly ceremonial, final job.

    Elsewhere, Beijing seeks to make friends with its “belt and road” trade and investment initiative in Asia. If the America’s Afghan War had any winners, it’s probably the Chinese, who found some common ground with the Taliban (look it up, it’s called diplomacy, often done even with your enemies) and thus potential access to their vast mineral resources. American businesses meanwhile demand from Biden’s deaf ears he clarify the economic relationship with China.

    While Biden passively allows the military to prepare for war under the sea, China is winning in the competition over our heads in a game Biden does not seem to even know exists. American foreign policy credibility and its confrontational strategy has been shown to be a farce. America is still a big, mean dog, but our ability to influence events around the world is limited to barking and biting and only works when barking and biting is the solution. When anything beyond threats is needed, say when dealing with near-peers like China, we have few if any tools but to reimagine legitimate competitors into enemies. Our policy toward China, like our president, is a failed artifact from another era.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Requiem: Is This the Last 9/11 Article?

    October 2, 2021 // 15 Comments »

    Wait, stop. I know it’s almost October, but I’m not done with 9/11. I know we just had the 20th anniversary, promised for a day to never forget whatever, and then an old-looking Bruce Springsteen rose to sing about everyone dying around him (read the room, Bruce.) Missing was a hard look at what happened over the last 20 years. Before we move on, can we address that? Because after the symbolic Big 2-0, and with Afghanistan sputtering out of our consciousness, this might be the last 9/11 article.
    Part of the reason for the lack of introspection is the MSM went back to the same people who screwed everything up for “takes” two decades later. It’s kind of like inviting students to grade themselves. It was familiar, like the parade of generals following the Vietnam war who blamed the politicians and vice-versa. I’d like a browser widget that blocks 9/11 commentary from any of the people who were wrong about WMDs, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and the like. The last thing anyone’s life needs right now is to hear David Petraeus’ or Condi Rice’s take on anything.
    Yet as if to create the anti-widget of my dreams, the Washington Post created a review of the sprawling literature to emerge from 9/11 over the past two decades — what they generously called works of investigation, memoir, and narrative by journalists and former officials. The books included were written by people taking post-mortem credit for issuing warnings they themselves never acted on, agencies blaming other agencies as if all that happened was the FBI lost a pickup softball game to the CIA, and of course journalists who helped sell the whole WMD line profiting off their mini-embeds to write a new “classic” war book about What It’s Really Like Out There, Man.
    WaPo left my Iraq book off the list, an accidental omission I’m sure. I joke but I don’t. I wrote ten years ago, as it was happening, how nation building was going to fail in Iraq. It would have made good reading a decade ago for anyone headed into the same situation in Afghanistan. So while WaPo’s article does a good job with the “celebrity” books of the era, it ignores the people who saw through it all at nearly every step. I guess many of them did not write books, or at least not “Washington Post” books. So the list includes Petraeus’ U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, the Bible behind the Surge which outlined how nation building was gonna work (update: he was wrong.) But nothing from the weapons inspectors who told the world quite clearly Saddam had no WMDs and the whole premise of the Iraq War was a lie. Nothing explaining how the Afghan War was reinvented to cover-up not finding bin Laden. Nothing about drone killing American citizens, bombing wedding parties, torture, collateral damage, or any of the things that actually caused us to lose multiple wars of terror. Ironically, the last official drone strike of the war killed innocent civilians the Pentagon pretended were terrorists.
    I’ve read almost all the books on WaPo’s list. They would make for a decent but obviously incomplete undergrad survey class syllabus, something like “Opportunities and Losses: America in the Middle East post-9/11,” lots of facts amassed without the necessary critical thinking applied. So here’s what’s missing, the conclusions we do not want to see in black and white 20 years later. Think of what follows as a B+ final exam submission for that imaginary survey class.
    — Nobody trusts the government about anything. Partisans support their guy but with a wry “Hey, they all lie.” Any rebuilding of trust post-Watergate died with the WMDs, etc. and is unlikely to be restored in our age of social media/manipulation.
    — They didn’t make mistakes. They lied. They lied about how 9/11 happened, they lied about WMDs, they lied about intentions, they lied about goals, they lied about Pakistan’s role, they lied about the strength of the puppet governments in Baghdad and Kabul, they lied about the vitality of ISIS, al Qaeda, and the Taliban, they lied about our progress, they lied about it all. They lied to make Pat Tilman’s death seem like Captain Miller’s. No one was ever punished.
    — On a simple material level, my God what did we waste in lives and money in all the wars, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and the havoc of refugees let loose? And yet we demand the point of 9/11 be our victimization alone. We even appropriated the term Ground Zero, which once referred universally to Hiroshima.
    — American foreign policy credibility and our post-WWII imperialist strategy has finally been shown to be a farce. A lesson that should have been clear post-Vietnam needed to be relearned. That means we the public are stupid and gullible. We the nation are still a big, mean dog, but our ability to influence events around the world is limited to barking and biting and only works when barking and biting is the solution. When anything beyond threats is needed, say when dealing with peers, near-peers or non-allied countries with shared interests, we have few if any tools. That’s why we have no idea whatsoever how to work with Iran or China, and why our strategy with North Korea is hope fat boy slim dies before he (likely accidentally, think Chernobyl) blows up half of Asia.
    — They don’t hate our freedoms. They don’t want to be like us. We based policy on finding a handful of Afghan women who wanted to wear mini-skirts when the bulk of them simply wanted to be left alone. The lesson was always obvious; they didn’t want to be British, either.
    — Americans pretend our little journey to the dark side of torture was over years ago, our bad! but lots of others remember and Gitmo is still open. We will never unstain our reputation globally. Like that one-time little sexy business trip affair, it just becomes a thing polite people don’t talk about.
    — We emerged from 9/11 a “paranoid, xenophobic and martial society.” We’ve let the easy certainty of “you’re either with us or against us” morph into students being taught not to think but “being trained to mimic the moral certainty of ideologues.”
    — America became a massive surveillance state. The government (and many large corporations) monitor your communications and interactions. You cannot opt out. We willingly purchase electronics to aid the government in monitoring us. Here’s one in pink!
    — We willingly gave up our privacy out of fear. That fear now exists in the body politic to be summoned like a demon and manipulated by whomever wishes it for whatever purpose, say to imagine Trump is a Russian spy, or your neighbors as Nazis because they oppose what you support, or Covid survival demands further loss of freedom.
    — The media, which served in times past as a counterpoint, instead fully adopted the role of promoting Bush’s wars and WMDs, Trump the spy, etc. They allowed Obama to wave away questions about torture, drone assassinations, and new wars because he was their chosen one. No one sees the media as anything but partisans now, albeit our partisans and their partisans depending on which channel is on. The result is we are ever more uninformed and simultaneously more opinionated. What part of a doctor’s day is spent dealing with knuckleheads who value their degree from the University of Google more than what he has learned in a lifetime of practice?
    There, that’s it. I predict the 9/11 commemorations will become lower and lower key in the years to come, much like America lost interest in the space program in the later years and rocket launches were no longer even televised. But each year the anniversary rolls around and we’re admonished to never forget, remember how much we already seem to have very purposely forgotten.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    In Search of Biden’s Foreign Policy

    September 29, 2021 // 4 Comments »


     

    Since Biden was elected in part as the answer to Trump’s perceived foreign policy blunders, it seems reasonable nine months in to go searching for the Biden Doctrine, to assess his initial foreign policy moves, to see what paths he has sketched out for the next three years.

    (Sound of tumbleweeds.)

    So what of the Biden foreign policy? Biden took office with no immediate crisis at hand. Yet all he has done is blunder poorly through a handful of incidents.

    Afghanistan of course has been Biden’s only significant foreign policy action. Ending the Afghan War almost happened under Trump, the last steps derailed by false reporting the Russians were paying bounties to the Taliban for dead Americans (which made no sense; why would the Taliban do anything that might slow the inevitable American withdrawal? They had already won) and a ridiculous media tsunami claiming Trump disrespected the troops. Biden won the election in November and took office in January. There was ample time for replanning and renegotiating anything left behind by Trump, especially since most of the Biden team had muddled in Afghanistan for years previously during the Obama era and knew well the mess they’d help create. The rush for the last plane out of Kabul was a fully expected unexpected event. The Biden administration did not quietly start the evacuation in February, nor did it negotiate ahead of time the third country landing rights it knew would be needed. The lessons learned in Iraq and Vietnam evacuating locals who worked with us were clear, though Biden did not kick start processing of the SIV visas until literally the last flights were scheduled out of Afghanistan.

    Biden instead chose to place his first foreign policy act’s fate in the hands of negotiations with the Taliban, depending on them to uphold agreements, provide security, vet Americans enroute to the airport, and generally play nice with whatever America needed to do to save face as the door hit us in the ass on the way out. The National Security Council spokeswoman even called the Taliban “businesslike and professional.” If this was naïve, then a new word meaning “more than naïve” needs to be created. Even assuming good intentions (!) the Taliban are loosely organized, with plenty of local warlords, ISIS spinoffs, and rogue elements to ensure things would go wrong, for example, the terror bombing which killed 13 Americans and basically ended the evacuation. Biden’s follow-up? Lie about the success of a revenge drone strike to make sure America’s final official act in the war was to kill civilians. This all added up to the most amateurish foreign policy execution seen in a long time. Mistakes? How  about assuming your enemies share your goals, negotiating after you have lost and hold no cards, failing to plan for anticipatable events, and fibbing about it all and blaming your predecessor. For a foreign diplomat sitting in London, Tokyo, Beijing, or Paris, the question had to have been “who if anyone is in charge in Washington?”

     

    Biden’s other foreign policy gesture, the nuclear submarine agreement with Australia which alienated the French, again begs the question of who is in charge.

    Perhaps the most significant foreign policy problem America faces is no one is in charge . If one understands diplomacy as “America’s interactions with foreigners” then the extended answer is more like there are too many people in charge of parts of the whole. You get celebrity policy, like Trump with Kim, John Kerry jetting around the world solving climate change, or the endless strings of special envoys (Biden has 14, which overlay the existing diplomatic structure with a new layer of bureaucracy. Tillerson had done away with 35 special envoys, Pompeo added back 5.) It seems if the issue is important enough, it is too important for regular diplomats. Next level down are the host of other organizations playing at policy. For the large and growing swatch of the world controlled by warlords, militias, and criminals organizations, policy is made by the intelligence agencies, for example. They have people on ground too muddy for diplomats and too complicated for the White House to focus on. They make policy with payoffs and bribes, if not with targeted kills.

    But the biggest player in today’s foreign affairs is the military. Biden just learned how that works. In many parts of the world (particularly Asia and Africa) the combatant commanders are putative epicenters for security, diplomatic, humanitarian, and commercial affairs. One reason is range: unlike ambassadors, whose responsibilities, budget, and influence are confined to single countries, combatant commanders’ reach is continental. Unlike the White House, whose focus is ever-shifting, the military has the interest and manpower to stick around everywhere. Generals outlast administrations. When America’s primary policy tool is so obviously the military, there is less need, use, and value to diplomats or even presidents. As a foreign leader, who would you turn to if you wanted Washington’s ear—or to pry open its purse?

    Any criticism of the deal with Australia begins with the question of what idiot could so completely screw up a deal involving a NATO-ally and a partner like Australia? On the face that’s the kind of lunk-headed stuff Trump was often accused of. You’ve left with the bad jokes about not being able to find a girlfriend in a bawdy house.

    What actually happened was Australia ditched a $66 billion contract for French diesel-electric submarines to instead buy U.S. nuclear-powered submarines under a new alliance which will also see Australia, the U.S., and the United Kingdom share advanced technologies with one another. The genesis of all this of course is the U.S. military’s muscular diplomacy, ramping up for a war with China they hope will power their budgets for decades. A side deal with Britain to station its newest aircraft carriers in Asia was certainly part of the package. This brings now both the British and the Australians into the South China Sea in force, with an arms salesman in the Pentagon finding a way to sideline the French at the same time. Calling America’s (by default, Biden’s) actions Trumpian, France withdrew its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra. France had never before withdrawn its ambassador to the U.S., dating back to the initial alliance in 1778, two years after the U.S. Declaration of Independence. France assumes the EU presidency next year and promises revenge, never mind the likelihood that Biden will never recruit them into any coalition against Chinese power. So much for Candidate Biden’s promises to repair the U.S.’s alliances post-Trump. He has of course been radio silent on the Aussie deal, and likely learned about it mostly from the media. Arms sales, titularly approved by State, are one of the military’s primary foreign policy carrots.

     

    Joe Biden certainly has his hands full of domestic problems — Covid the virus which has killed thousands of Americans, Covid the public policy disaster which is killing the rest of us, unemployment, inflation, immigration, abortion rights — it’s a long list. So it’s easy to forget Biden was elected in part for his foreign policy expertise. During the campaign Trump was presented as a foreign policy disaster, skirting just short of tragedy thanks to pseudo-coups by patriots like Alexander Vindman and Mark Milley. There were his homoerotic ties to Putin, fights with the French and British, near sell out to North Korea, the brink of war with Iran, and his failure to blunt the rise of China. At least that’s what we were told, because of course none of those things actually happened.

    But first the strawmen. Every president except George Washington inherited his predecessor’s wins and losses and works in progress, and has had at some point needed to take ownership. “But Trump!” worked as a campaign strategy well enough for Biden, but nine months is long enough to have worn it out as a foreign policy (and of course as a domestic excuse.) Trump did not decimate the State Department. Over the decades the most damage done to State has been by various Congresses slashing the budget for diplomacy. The answer to that is for the new president to get some more money into the game, and no signs Biden is working on that.

    One final point about all that rhetoric about Trump gutting the State Department. Decades before Trump, the State Department slide into being an agency without primary agency. Under Cold War administrations it focused on arms control. During the Bush and early Obama years, it was sent off to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan. Hillary Clinton switched the organization to “soft power” programs. John Kerry started on Syria as a signature aim but ended up focused singularly on the Iran nuclear deal. Tillerson never articulated any goals at all beyond some verbiage about structural reform that never saw daylight. State played a concierge role while Trump tried personal diplomacy with North Korea. Pompeo had little to say other than to support his boss ending the Obama nuclear deal with Iran. And of course no one complained much when State was hiring below attrition during the Obama years. As Trump took office, two thirds of new hires at State came from “fellowship” programs created not to bolster core diplomatic skills sets but in response to various diversity lawsuits. Or take a longer view. In 1950, State had 7,710 diplomats. The pre-Trump total was just 8,052, as State has failed to grow alongside the modern world. So enough with the excuses.

     

    Nine months in Biden has shown no grace or skill at foreign policy. He has handed execution over to naïve and incompetent people, and watched his military sketch out America’s broader strategy toward China. Biden has otherwise done little of what he promised; there are no signs of him paying any attention to nuclear threats Iran and North Korea. No options have come forth for follow-on in Afghanistan. No significant engagement with NATO or Russia. None at all with China (Trump’s tariffs remain in place.) Not a peep on policy toward Africa or South America. Biden can’t even claim he’s providing stability by staying the course because that means overtly supporting Trump’s policies. Foreign Policy, a reliable Democratic acolyte, struggles to define Biden as a foreign policy success, resorting to listing his accomplishment as “rejoining multilateral organizations, reinvigorating alliances [and] donating vaccines.” Obama got a Noble Peace Prize for doing even less of course, but that must be little solace for poor Joe.

      

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    The Last Question About 9/11

    September 18, 2021 // 5 Comments »

     

    History rarely falls between neat bookends. The Sixties didn’t end until 1975 with the fall of Saigon, for example. The New Millenium really started on September 11, 2001 and now, two decades later, is wrapping up with the 20th anniversary of the attacks on the New York awkwardly bumping into the endgame in Afghanistan.

    I was working for the U.S. State Department on 9/11/01 at our embassy in Tokyo. My job was to look after the interests of private American citizens (ACS work to the informed) and the summer had been abuzz with warnings and threats of some sort of terror attack. Everyone was certain it would be aimed at us overseas, the way the 1998 Nairobi and Dar es Salaam attacks had been.

    Because of the “No Double Standards” rule, despite being a fairly low-level staffer in the embassy, I was better informed than many of my colleagues. The “No Double Standards” rule grew out of the 1988 terror bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie. Because some members of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow had been tipped off to possible danger to that flight, and chose to change their plans and live, and because the public was left in the dark and were destroyed in mid-air, the rules were changed.

    The new rule said if the government shares information with the official U.S. community that could also affect the safety of non-official Americans, the info has to be shared with the public. This lead to many complicated situations that summer; if the embassy wanted to tell its staff to stay off flights into the Philippines, it had to also tell the public, with all the resulting panic and media guff. A lot of the warnings and threats were therefore found not to be credible and thus not released individually even as the growing storm was hard to miss. I was a silent partner, seated in the classified space with the big boys as CYA insurance that they had considered the needs of the American public in their decisions.

    Late afternoon on September 10, 2001 Tokyo time I was called to review a highly classified document detailing an imminent attack at a specific location in Japan. The acting chief of mission had already decided to release the information to employees and thus I was required to release it to the public. The warning was sent out publicly via our-then very limited FAX system. By 2021 an archived copy has been removed from the embassy website and even the Wayback Machine-Internet archive can only find a place holder. Believe whatever you like to believe but within eight hours the first plane struck the World Trade Center in New York. The summer was over.

     

    Sometime that autumn we learned some of the widows of those among the 25 Japanese men killed at the World Trade Center were having a difficult time obtaining death certificates from New York and making insurance claims. The bureaucracy was finally catching up on the events of that terrible September Tuesday and despite all the talk about “anything we can do to help” the issue of working with the widows became a third rail inside the embassy; nobody wanted to touch it. It ended up in my office, specifically in the hands of my local Japanese staff. It was treated as a paperwork problem, same as when more mundane widows needed some help filing for their American spouse’s Social Security benefits. We were told to help where we could, be a point of contact, an office others could refer pesky phone calls to.

    I initially stayed away from it all, not as much because I had other things to do but because I had no idea what I would do. I would see them come in to our conference room, the widows, many with small kids. Then one of my local employees would disappear inside, too. Afterwards there would be a near-empty tissue box on the table, maybe some papers for me to perfunctorily sign, and a very quiet office for the rest of the day.

    One afternoon I just walked in and sat down. Then again, then again on another day. It had been by this time a couple of months since the attacks, and that awful feeling all this was normal now had set in. Not all of the eligible widows came into the embassy. Some made the journey to New York, some hired lawyers, some received more help from the husband’s employer than others. They did not need to see me, they had to choose. I could pretend to be busy at my desk with paperwork. I, too, had to choose.

    I listened to my local employee ask the questions, and then the routine answers while the elephant in the room whispered “We’re talking about a man burned into nothing, aren’t we?” Sometimes the widows would ask me why I was there. They meant I guess what was my job, me being an American and all, but I could not escape the broader question. So we talked. Many had never been to New York, they had in the Japanese way stayed home in Tokyo with the kids. So they asked about Brooklyn, where their husband had lived. Had I ever been to the World Trade Center? Yes, I have a favorite photo of some old school friends and me taken on the outdoor observation deck. Was that on the North Tower where my husband was killed? Yes.

    Only one widow grew angry. I was the first and likely only U.S. government official she had spoken to. That line in the State Department job description about representing America abroad bit hard that day. She, demurely and ever-so-politely, hated me. She hated my country. She forced herself to repeat how much she hated everything about me in limited English, then repeated it in Japanese and demanded it be translated even as I understood every word. You, knowing none of the Japanese language, would have understood every word. After that I had to somehow finish the work day and go home to hear my own kids tell me about how hard multiplication was and appear like I was still part of the human race.

     

    A problem developed in New York. Never before had the city had to issue thousands of death certificates so quickly without any remains, any actual proof that the person was indeed dead and not just missing. That bit of official paper was the key, however, to all sorts of insurance claims and death benefits and condolence money and the like, never mind being the one document which would explain bureaucratically how Mrs. Tanaka had become a widow and her children now fatherless. It seemed every bank, elementary school, and employer in Japan needed a copy to update their records.

    The NYC Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) had begun the very long process by classifying all 9/11 deaths as homicides. No death certificates would be issued for the terrorists and they would never be included in any count of the dead. DNA and other technologies were not as advanced as today so out of close to 3,000 certificates issued, DNA at the time accounted for only 645 identifications, dental records 188, fingerprints 71, and found personal effects 19. We had been asked at one point to collect dental records and then DNA samples from the widows on behalf of their husbands but this proved of little value; some sort of human remain had to have been found at the Trade Center site to make a comparison match and some 40 percent of the victims left nothing of themselves behind. They just disappeared. The initial explosions, massive compression as the Towers imploded, and the fires destroyed most completely. Those death certificates simply stated “physical injuries (body not found.)”

    I have no memory of whose form it was, but one of the widows presented it to me. I was supposed to place her under oath and ask her why she believed her husband had died on September 11 given the absence of evidence — neither his body nor any evidence of it had ever been found. I had come to know this woman and her young children a bit; her claims somehow all were complicated and we had developed an odd workaday relationship. Easier to just get things done at this point I guess. So I asked her the question. How does she know her husband is dead?

    She said he was only to be in New York for a few months, and she and the kids stayed behind. But he missed his children and maybe her, a brave joke for her to make to me under the circumstances, and vowed to call every evening Tokyo-time to say goodnight. Tokyo-time night was New York-time in the morning, and so he’d make the calls from his office in the South Tower after he arrived at work. He called every morning/night, sometimes chatting, sometimes in a hurry. He called early the morning of September 11 (the plane hit at 9:03 am) and said goodnight. Now my phone never rings anymore, she said, so I know he is dead. But I still do not know why.

     

    I don’t think I saw the widow more than once or twice after that and I don’t know what happened to her. Her husband’s name is the one I visit when I am in New York at the Memorial. This year, 20 others having past, watching the results of our generational revenge war on Afghanistan and having experienced a year in the Iraqi desert myself for an equally pointless war, I still cannot answer her question. I still don’t know why and I’ve been thinking about it for almost 20 years.

     

     

     

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Who’s to Blame for Losing Afghanistan?

    August 28, 2021 // 14 Comments »


     

    Who should we blame for losing Afghanistan? Why blame anyone?

    Did anyone expect the U.S. war in Afghanistan to end cleanly? If so, you bought the lies all along and the cold water now is hitting sharp. While the actual ending is particularly harsh and clearly spliced together from old clips of Saigon 1975, those are simply details.

    Why blame Biden? He played his part as a Senator and VP keeping the war going, but his role today is just being the last guy in a long line of people to blame, a pawn in the game. That Biden is willing to be the “president who lost Afghanistan” is all the proof you need he does not intend to run again for anything. Kind of an ironic version of a young John Kerry’s take on Vietnam “how do you ask the last man to die for a mistake?” Turns out, it’s easy: call Joe.

    Blame Trump for the deal? One of the saddest things about the brutal ending of the U.S.-Afghan war is we would have gotten the same deal — just leave it to the Taliban and go home — at basically any point during the last 20 years. That makes every death and every dollar a waste. Afghanistan is simply reverting, quickly, to more or less status quo 9/10/01 and everything between then and now, including lost opportunities, will have been wasted.

    Blame the NeoCons? No one in Washington who supported this war was ever called out, with the possible exception of Donald Rumsfeld who, if there is a hell, now cleans truck stop toilets there. Dick Cheney walks free. The generals and diplomats who ran the war have nice think tank or university jobs, if they are not still in government making equally bad decisions. No one has been legally, financially, or professionally disadvantaged by the blood on their hands. Some of the era’s senior leaders — Blinken, Rice, Power, Nuland — are now working in better jobs for Biden. I’d like to hope they have trouble sleeping at night, but I doubt it.

    George Bush is a cuddly grandpa today, not the man who drove the United States into building a global prison archipelago to torture people. Barack Obama, who kept much of that system in place and added the drone killing of American citizens to his resume, remains a Democratic rock god. Neither man nor any of his significant underlings has expressed any regret or remorse.

    For example, I just listened to Ryan Crocker, our former ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, on CNN. Making myself listen to him was about as fun as sticking my tongue in a wood chipper. Same for former general David Petraeus and the usual gang of idiots. None of them, the ones who made the decisions, accept any blame. Instead. they seem settled on blaming Trump because, well, everything bad is Trump’s fault even if he came into all this in the middle of the movie.

    In the end the only people punished were the whistleblowers.

    No one in the who is to blame community seems willing to take the story back to its beginning, at least the beginning for America’s latest round in the Graveyard of Empires (talk about missing an early clue.) This is what makes Blame Trump and Blame Biden so absurd. America’s modern involvement in this war began in 1979 when Jimmy Carter, overreacting to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to prop up what was already a pro-Soviet puppet government, began arming and organizing Islamic warriors we now collectively know as “The Taliban.”

    People who want to only see trees they can chop down and purposely want to miss the vastness of the forest ahead at this point try to sideline things by claiming there never was a single entity called “The Taliban” and the young Saudis who flocked to jihad to kill Russians technically weren’t funded by the U.S. (it was indirectly through Pakistan) or that the turning point was the 1991 Gulf War, etc. Quibbles and distractions.

    If Carter’s baby steps to pay for Islamic warriors to fight the Red Army was playing with matches, Ronald Reagan poured gas, then jet fuel, on the fire. Under the Reagan administration the U.S. funded the warriors (called mujaheddin if not freedom fighters back then), armed them, invited their ilk to the White House, helped lead them, worked with the Saudis to send in even more money, and fanned the flames of jihad to ensure a steady stream of new recruits.

    When we “won” it was hailed as the beginning of the real end of the Evil Empire. The U.S. defeated the mighty Red Army by sending over some covert operators to fight alongside stooge Islam warriors for whom a washing machine was high technology. Pundits saw it as a new low-cost model for executing American imperial will.

    We paid little attention to events as we broke up the band and cut off the warriors post-Soviet withdrawal (soon enough some bozo at the State Department declared “the end of history.” He teaches at Stanford now) until the blowback from this all nipped us in the largely unsuccessful World Trade Center bombing of 1993, followed by the very successful World Trade Center bombing on September 11, 2001. Seems like there was still some history left to go.

    How did U.S. intelligence know who the 9/11 culprits were so quickly? Several of them had been on our payroll, or received financing via proxies in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, or were inspired by what had happened in Afghanistan, the defeat of the infidels (again; check Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the Mughal Empire, various Persian Empires, the Sikhs, the British, et al.)

    If post-9/11 the U.S. had limited itself to a vengeful hissy fit in Afghanistan, ending with Bush’s 2003 declaration of “Mission Accomplished,” things would have been different. If the U.S. had used the assassination of Osama bin Laden, living “undiscovered” in the shadow of Pakistan’s military academy, as an excuse of sorts to call it a day in Afghanistan, things would have been different.

    Instead Afghanistan became a petri dish to try out the worst NeoCon wet dream, nation-building across the Middle East. Our best and brightest would not just bomb Afghanistan into the stone age, they would then phoenix-it from the rubble as a functioning democracy. There was something for everyone: a military task to displace post-Cold War budget cuts, a pork-laden reconstruction program for contractors and diplomats, even a plan to empower Afghan women to placate the left.

    Though many claim Bush pulling resources away from Afghanistan for Iraq doomed the big plans, it was never just a matter of not enough resources. Afghanistan was never a country in any modern sense to begin with, just an association of tribal entities who hated each other almost as much as they hated the west. The underpinnings of the society were a virulent strain of Islam, about as far away from any western political and social ideas as possible. Absent a few turbaned Uncle Toms, nobody in Afghanistan was asking to be freed by the United States anyway.

    Pakistan, America’s “ally” in all this, was a principal funder and friend of the Taliban, always more focused on the perceived threat from India, seeing a failed state in Afghanistan as a buffer zone. Afghanistan was a narco-state with its only real export heroin. Not only did this mean the U.S. wanted to build a modern economy on a base of crime, the U.S. in different periods actually encouraged/ignored the drug trade into American cities in favor of the cash flow.

    The Afghan puppet government and military the U.S. formed were uniformly corrupt, and encouraged by the endless inflow of American money to get more corrupt all the time. They had no support from the people and could care less. The Afghans in general and the Afghan military in particular did not fail to hold up their end of the fighting; they never signed up for the fight in the first place. No Afghan wanted to be the last man to die in service to American foreign policy.

    There was no way to win. The “turning point” was starting the war at all. Afghanistan had to fail. There was no other path for it, other than being propped up at ever-higher costs. That was American policy for two decades: prop up things and hope something might change. It was like sending more money to a Nigerian cyber-scammer hoping to recoup your original loss.

    Everything significant our government, the military, and the MSM told us about Afghanistan was a lie. They filled and refilled the bag with bullhockey and Americans bought it every time expecting candy canes. Keep that in mind when you decide who to listen to next time, because of course there will be a next time. Who has not by now realized that? We just passively watched 20 years of Vietnam all over again, including the sad ending. So really, who’s to blame?

     

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Afghanistan Mon Amour

    May 1, 2021 // Comments Off on Afghanistan Mon Amour

    President Biden announced he will withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by September 11. That will end 20 years of a war which killed some 2,300 Americans, an unknown number of Afghans, and cost trillions of dollars to accomplish nothing.

    Biden speaks more plainly about failure than any previous president. “We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result. I am now the fourth American president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth.” We’ll take Biden at his word for now. Best to focus on the good.

    So leave aside how Biden piggy-backed off Trump’s decision, roundly criticized, to negotiate with the Taliban, and how Trump’s own plans to withdraw troops were sabotaged by the Deep State, including the false claims Russians were paying bounties for dead Americans. This could have been over two years ago, same as it could have been over 10 years ago. But neither Bush nor Obama had the courage to do it, Hillary certainly would not have, Trump was stopped, and so the dirty work fell to Joe.

    Let’s also leave aside the inevitable as America runs for the exit (and this alone suggests Biden plans on being a one-term president, setting himself like this.) The puppet regime in Kabul will dissolve like paper in the rain. The only question is how ugly the Taliban takeover will be; will they just close schools or will they behead teachers on TV?

    We should leave aside the Bush decision to invade Afghanistan at all. Sure the 9/11 hijackers were mostly Saudi, but Afghanistan was such an easy target and Al Qaeda did have some training camps there. Of course the 9/11 hijackers trained in American flight schools but even Dick Cheney wouldn’t bomb those (Biden’s choice of 9/11/2021 as the withdrawal date is meant to support that original sin of a lie.) Revenge morphed into nation building, “democracy in a box” it was called, and so by late 2001 the framework of the 20 year war was set. At the next off ramp, Obama let David Petraeus, then waiting for someone to cast Tom Hanks in his biopic, talk him into a surge of 30,000 troops soon after he took home his Nobel Peace Prize, the most ironic reward since Henry Kissinger got his. The rest is history.

     

    The modern American way of war is well-defined. Go in without an endgame, quit when the political cost hits critical, and leave the people supposedly democratized or otherwise liberated to their fate (Newspeak: “author of their own future”) while we honor our wounded troops with a free breakfast at Denny’s. Biden’s good friend, John Kerry, is an easy target because of his famous statement in 1971 about Vietnam: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Turns out it’s pretty easy.

    (The last American solider to die in Afghanistan, as of today, is Javier Gutierrez. He was shot to death by an Afghan soldier after a disagreement.)

    Next unleash the pundits to write about lessons learned. Their usual pattern is we had good intentions but the Iraqis, Afghans, Vietnamese, Pakistanis, et al, just didn’t do their share and we should never repeat this kind of thing. Nobody talks much about inertia, bureaucratic cowardliness, endless war as a questionable prophylaxis against terrorism, the ugliness of staying in because you don’t know why you started and are afraid of what happens if you end it. The only people now whining about unfinished business are feminists who seem to believe Marines should die so girls don’t have to wear burkas.

     

    The key theme in all these lessons learned is how could we have ever known it would turn out this way?

    Even before it started the war had to fail. Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires, had beaten Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the Mughal Empire, various Persian Empires, the Sikhs, the British, and the mighty Red Army. What betting man would think the U.S. would end up any different? 

    Many knew the war would fail when it was back-burnered for an equally doomed jihad in Iraq in 2003. Or maybe it was when Bin Laden escaped Afghanistan, and again when he was killed 10 years after the initial U.S. invasion and yet the troops stayed on. Perhaps it was when SNL 20 years back did a skit about a suburban cocktail party that comes to a halt to celebrate the U.S. capture of Kandahar though no one knows exactly why it mattered, just that we won!

    Others foresaw the eventual failure upon the death of Pat Tilman, the NFL star who joined the Army post-9/11 only to die in a volley of friendly fire and Pentagon lies. Maybe it was after a Taliban IED tore apart State Department officer Anne Smedinghoff (say her name) while on a propaganda mission. Maybe it was in 2009 when former Marine Matthew Hoh resigned in protest from his post in Afghanistan with the State Department over the war’s escalation. It could have been all those “feel good” media pieces about sons deploying to the same Afghan battlefields their fathers had served on.

    Or maybe when The Washington Post, long an advocate for all the wars everywhere, took a bruised penance publishing the Afghanistan Papers showing the government lied at every step. “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” wrote Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations. “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.” It’s a sordid trip down a street without joy, with little grace and less honor, last chapter just as bad as the first. FYI, America will mark the 50th anniversary of the Pentagon Papers this year.

    The final knowing point for me personally was in 2012. That was when, after having written a whistleblowing book on the failure of Iraq reconstruction and nation building, focusing on the carpetbaggers the U.S. hired to do most of the ground work, I began receiving requests for recommendations. The U.S. was hiring the same monkeys to work on the Afghan program.

    I responded to each inquiry with a short note and a draft copy of my book, only to find later in every case the person who had helped sink the U.S. effort in Iraq was rehired in Afghanistan. Ironically, the initial title for my book wasn’t the unwieldy We Meant Well: How I Lost the War for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People but Lessons for Afghanistan from the Reconstruction of Iraq. The publisher changed it, thinking the war in Afghanistan might be over before we hit the shelves almost a decade ago.

    Those with any sense of history saw Afghanistan (and Iraq for that matter) and heard echoes of Vietnam-Vietnam-Vietnam. Others looked back to a war where far more Americans were killed, some 35,000, where we stayed for 70 years without a peace treaty, with the North Korea we “beat” now a nuclear power. Yet politicians dared stand up in 2001 to say “we’ll get it right this time, trust us.” Who could have imagined nearly all Americans did answer “OK.” And then said OK again and again for 20 years even as their own sons and daughters came home dead, maimed or psychologically destroyed.

    Lessons learned? None at all. We’ll do it again just as Vietnam followed Korea, and Afghanistan followed Vietnam. Fathers whose hands shake with PTSD sent their sons off to the same fate. If that, that, can’t stop these pointless wars, nothing ever will. So, nothing ever will.

     

    We will do this again because failure has no such consequences for the decision makers. Bush is reborn as a cuddly old goof, Obama remembered as the bestest president ever. Trump is criticized both as a war monger and for talking about pulling back U.S. troops in the Middle East. The era’s senior leaders — Blinken, Rice, Power, Nuland — are now working in better jobs for Biden. I’d like to hope they have trouble sleeping at night, but I doubt it.

    In the classic 1959 film Hiroshima Mon Amour a Japanese man says to his French lover “You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing.” His frustration is in the two being bystanders on opposite sides of a war where all sides were inherently evil. There is always in the background talk about justice. What justice will be available to the Americans who went to their God like soldiers in Afghanistan, the uncountable Afghans who died at our hands, the promises to the living of a better future all now reviled lies?

    There are still those nights it takes a fair amount of whisky to abort thoughts about why no one gets impeached for wasting lives. But for tonight at least I’ll fill a glass half empty so I can raise it to Joe, for finally, imperfectly, awfully, clumsily ending this mess, better late than forever.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Diversity Fail at State Department

    March 26, 2021 // 2 Comments »


    Politico just revealed a dirty little secret: the U.S. State Department was a more diverse workplace in 1986 than it is today. Despite efforts to recruit a more diverse pool of diplomats, the Department has failed miserably to promote them, and ultimately to retain them, even under Bill Clinton and Obama/Hillary.

    The Politico article does a comprehensive job of describing how the agency that represents America does not look like America. Minority staff made up 12.5 percent of employees at the end of the 1980s. Today black women make up nine percent, and just three percent of the Senior Foreign Service (the military equivalent of general) is black. And don’t fooled by statistics; we’re talking here about the Foreign Service, the elites, the diplomats. State will often intermix racial data from the Washington DC-based civil service, which is mostly minority people, to confuse outsiders.

    The Politico article, however, does a poor job of answering the question of why this is. It shows its 2021 bias with one solution “for more white men to miss out on recruitment or promotion.”

    State does have a diversity problem. It just is diversity of socio-economic class, not race or gender. State rarely imposes a quality standard on its work, meaning everyone’s job description is the same: just make your boss happy. That preserves the class system, and empowers those who would harass and discriminate.

     

    As a white man I was sort of part of a diversity program when I joined the State Department in 1988 for what turned out to be a 24 year career as a diplomat. State, from Thomas Jefferson’s tenure forward, followed a simple recruitment formula of “male, pale, and Yale.” In the late 1980s they decided male and pale (white) were good, but limiting recruitment to the Ivy League schools and their equivalents like Stanford and Georgetown was the problem. Someone found me and others like me at state schools and woosh, we were diversity-forward diplomats.

    But from Day One, with little change through today, it was clear not all pigs were equal. State divides its diplomatic work force into five specialities, known as cones. Only one matters in terms of a realistic shot at senior policy making roles, the Political cone. These people do what passes as traditional diplomacy. They and their work dominate the news and thus the Secretary of State’s world. The other cones fill in gaps and get hand-me-down senior promotions which are adequate in the Economic cone, down to nearly non-existent for the proletarian Consular cone that issues visas.

    Like at Hogwarts, new diplomats are sorted on entry to a cone which is very, very hard to change (seriously, the process is called a Snape-like “conal rectification.”) Ivy Leaguers can expect Political, kids from schools with good football teams Administration or Consular. All of this excludes political appointees, friends or large donors of the president who get appointed to the highest jobs without spending any time in the diplomatic corps.

    The Political cone, a club within the club, has proved porous enough for properly educated women. The key criteria is and has always been socio-economic background anyway, usually demonstrated by an Ivy diploma, not race or gender. The little climbing room for outsiders is provided by State-sponsored mid-career education, when a chosen few are sent off to Georgetown or the Kennedy School as midwestern losers to return two years later an honorary blue blood.

    The Government Accounting Office found among junior diplomats Ivy League grads had a 23 percent higher chance of promotion than colleagues with only a standard undergrad degree. And it is not just entry level diplomats and ambassadorships. Key internal positions like political and policy Assistant Secretaries are similar. Of course good old racism is still in the game when 87 percent of senior State Department personnel are white, compared with only three percent black. And of course the restrictive policies based on race, etc., at Ivy League schools means fewer “qualified” black people are produced for State to choose from, so the classic racism argument does apply indirectly. Just ask the Jews forbidden to attend Harvard who could not get into the State Department back in the day.

    What the successful diplomats in the Political cone seem to already know from Yale is what creates the full-spectrum lack of diversity. People call it The Code. Life is not fair, so best to have an advantage. Career success depends on the people above you and your relationship to them, and “trouble maker” is a bad one. Pleasing your betters is more effective then being right at a cost. There are rules, and if you do not know them you cannot follow them. And most of all, 99 percent of what matters is never written down. You are either trusted and welcomed into the circle or you are not.

    Advantages are everywhere, but usually start with who your parents are and which brand name professors you connected with in your brand-name college. The celebrity professor at Georgetown has close friends and former students for you to meet at State. The history teacher at Montana State, no. State has an up-or-out system, meaning almost all diplomatic new hires enter at the same bottom rung, and slowly advance over their careers upward. Somebody above you when you join is thus likely to stay above you for decades. There will not be any new blood flowing in. Make someone angry in 1990 in Taiwan and they’ll still be there waiting for you in 2010 in London. The people above you will write your performance reviews, sit on your promotion panels, and decide your assignments, all in private with little accountability, and all of which determine who sinks and swims. If you’re looking for the smoking gun on State’s diversity failure, for most of the past three decades most of that power was concentrated in one man, Ambassador Pat Kennedy (white, male, Georgetown) now retired.

    Those same people learned State is a change-adverse bureaucracy that likes things that way. Change at State is externally driven and internally resisted. The attitude at the top (except for public relations appearances, like making sure a few black folks are in public-facing positions) thinks the system has no need to change, it got it mostly right the first time. The proof is they themselve were promoted, and they saw their competitors stumble. People who want to do things different, make changes, etc., are generally shunned as troublemakers. The lack of interest in change is enhanced by the fact that State does little that can be objectively measured to allow someone to jump ahead. No sales figures, items sold, or stock prices to count toward promotion. Just exist for the most part, the details matter little except what your boss thinks.

     

    Here’s how that works in practice. No one does anything substantive alone at State. Most everything is a collaborative effort controlled by the clearance process. Say you write a report on metallurgy in India. You, the lowest on the rung, are directed to do this and you do all the heavy lifting gathering info and writing. Dozens of people above you, and depending on the subject that list can include people all the way up to the Secretary of State’s staff, then have to sign off, agree with you, “clear” your work. If one guy objects and won’t clear, your work cannot pass go to the next person until he is happy.

    If your report says basically the same thing as last year’s, that is safe and people clear it (one exception is if someone in the chain wants to make a political move and then directs you to come to a different conclusion, say to justify a budget increase as “matters have gotten worse.” You’re still just doing what you are told.) If you try and write something different from what you are told to write (often told implicitly, it is a skill to figure out what’s wanted because no one will jot down “Cook the data to match last year. Hope some reporter doesn’t see this. LOL.) your boss can’t clear it. If she is also a troublemaker and does clear, your work will likely just get stopped at a higher level, and that means a more important person will think you’re a troublemaker. Good bosses will thus try and protect their underlings by not clearing, keeping your problem inside the office.

    Absent any real measure of your work, your professional success is thus controlled by what State calls unofficially “corridor reputation,” basically what the people above you think of you. Imagine high school at the DMV. Careers are made or lost by a senior diplomat telling a peer “He’s OK, I’d bring him along” or “I heard he’s a problem, didn’t work out somehow in Beijing.” The official version of this is known as “lack of suitability,” a generic term which means you do not deserve a security clearance, or just can’t be trusted with the sensitive stuff.

    People in the right socio-economic groups seem to understand this stuff intuitively and, helped by others who think the same, get promoted. People from the wrong side of the tracks no matter their color do not understand the code so readily, and often are full of ambition to “make a mark.” They self-label themselves as not being part of the club and whether they know it or not, self-select out.

    So State can recruit all the people of color they can only to watch them slowly slide down the ladder along with lots of clueless whites who no one really cares about statistically. That is why many of both groups quit, or suffer in bureaucratic place to wait out pensions, and why State recruits minorities but cannot retain them. The result is a lack of diversity that has plagued the State Department for decades, both in race, and thinking.

     

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    China Policy: Trump vs. Biden

    October 18, 2020 // 1 Comment »

    Despite the campaign’s focus on domestic issues, there is still a world out there the next president will have to deal with. And there’s a very significant policy difference between Trump and Biden to be explored: China.

    First, a quick look back at 2016. What to do about Syria was a major point of contention between candidates Trump and Clinton. Remember how “boots on the ground” was a popular catch phrase and ISIS our bad guys? Clinton was going to war in Syria. Trump wanted no part of it, and proposed a broader change in U.S. foreign policy to not look for buckets of gasoline abroad to throw matches into. Four years later no politician is talking about terrorism and the wars which dominated the past two decades are background noise for most voters.

    (Knock knock. Who’s there? 9/11. 9/11 who? Aw, you said you’d never forget.)

    Did we win? Well anyway, terrorism seems to be gone. The thing is America does always need a foreign enemy, enough but not too much, to fuel defense spending, to justify a global imperial stance, to blame for our economic woes, and to serve as a rallying point for American jingoism as needed for domestic political purposes. The Russians did well in the role for many years but are hard to see as a rising global threat. “The Terrorists” had a good run until disappearing in a fast fade.

    The problem of having a standing enemy found its solution in China. The sword rattling had already begun in Late Obama. As president, Donald Trump built on those brewing animosities to break long-standing U.S. policy toward China. Since 1979 the country was characterized as a rising autocracy with at times aggressive but containable behaviors, a competitor but not an enemy. Trade-offs were necessary in such a relationship, especially if the U.S. was going to continue to push China on human rights issues. Not Trump: he saw the U.S. and China as enemies across a multiverse of economic, intellectual, technologic, and military issues.

    Inflamed by the COVID crisis, Trump continued what in a second term may develop into a policy of real Cold War. Trump imposed trade sanctions. Trump cut back on student visas, academic exchanges, and turned up the heat on Chinese espionage inside the U.S. Trump is selling F-35s to Japan and South Korea as part of a broad military check on Chinese ambitions. Administration officials portray China as an existential threat to the United States. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mocked “the old paradigm” and accused President Xi of seeking “global hegemony of Chinese communism.” Given the chance in November, Trump will likely continue to accelerate the process of “decoupling.”

    What about President Joe Biden? Biden has learned beating up on China is a cost-free way to prove his toughness, and has oddly even called out Trump for being too weak. It seems very likely Biden, if elected, will continue near but not in Trump’s footsteps with Target China. The difference will very likely be found in Biden himself, who with decades of experience on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will pay attention to the actual state of affairs between the U.S. and China versus Trump the ideologue and populist. So more challenges and possibilities, fewer problems and threats.

    The economic relationship alone is staggering. China purchased $165 billion in goods and services from the United States in 2015, such that China is the third-largest destination for American exports. China holds the most U.S. government debt of any foreign country. Much was made when one McDonald’s opened in Red Square during the Cold War. Yet the numbers for China represent a whole lot more reality for two supposed “enemies.”

    China’s military ambitions are both overstated and misunderstood. Beijing has made strides toward a real blue water navy but is it not there yet. Claims China might best the U.S. in the Pacific are mostly excuses to increase short-term defense spending. The PLAN is just the latest boogeyman for the military industrial complex.

    China does not yet have one modern carrier. The U.S. has 11 nuclear carrier groups, plus nine amphibious assault ships which can launch the F-35 as a strike aircraft. Japan, Korea, and Australia have similar amphibious ships to add to the fight. That of course is all just in the first responder category; land based American aircraft from Japan, Korea, Guam, and the U.S. mainland would assure air dominance. More importantly, America’s military is fully blooded and experienced, a sad legacy of the last 19 years of war. The modern PLAN has yet to fire a shot in anger, and learning under fire is expensive.

    Even more important is understanding China holds few territorial ambitions in the traditional sense of competing with the U.S. for control of land masses and populations. Nearly any place the U.S. might call a target — Japan and Taiwan stand out — is instead a major trading destination for China. Attacking a partner? War is bad for business. The Chinese do have a nationalist fixation on security and for a global order safe for their autocracy, but embarking on ideological or imperial crusades to remake other countries in its image is reserved for the United States.

    It’s not hard to see the difference in action. As head of a State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team in Iraq, I was tasked with improving water supply in our sector for the Iraqis. Fruitlessly driving through small towns looking for some place to create a water project, we spied a large stack of crated water pipes and pumps. Upon inspection, all had come from China. The locals told us Chinese salespeople had sold them the stuff and left months ago. The U.S. sent the 10th Mountain Division, the Chinese sent a sales team.

    Some saber rattling and fusses over tiny islands, of course, but always within boundaries. This is how it has worked regionally for decades. For example, Japan has challenged Russia for control of some northern islands for 75 years without violence (or progress.) Much the same for Taiwan and the Spratlys, claimed by multiple nations. The last real shooting between Taiwan and the Mainland was in the 1950s.

    President Biden will need to cooperate with China as he returns to America’s traditional international agenda. Transnational issues like climate change demand active engagement between the world’s two biggest economies. China is a major buyer of Iranian oil and key to any effective sanctions. A sleeper transnational issue is North Korea. Any serious change in the North requires Chinese cooperation. Or imagine the need to work together following a massive earthquake or Chernobyl-level nuclear accident in the North, as China struggles with a refugee crisis on its border under a drifting cloud of radiation.

    That doesn’t mean Biden can’t have a little of everything. Talk tough at home, do little abroad is something the Chinese have come to understand and expect from the U.S., a kind of necessary tax on the more important parts of the relationship.

    So during the primaries Biden called President Xi a thug for having “a million Uyghurs in reconstruction camps meaning concentration camps.” After Beijing imposed the new national security law in Hong Kong Biden vowed to “prohibit U.S. companies from abetting repression and supporting the Chinese Communist Party’s surveillance state.” At the same time Biden is respectful of how the great game is played. So expect fewer tariffs via Tweet, less nasty jabs against things like student visas and cell phone apps. There are well-known soft spots the U.S. must be cautious of, and Biden has long been a champion of strategic ambiguity on Taiwan. Biden’s will be a pragmatic China policy. Trump’s an emotive, populist one.

    A significant danger will come from Obama alums like Susan Rice and Samantha Power, perhaps even Bloody Hillary as some sort of elder statesman/special envoy, who will try to press Biden into the kind of open conflict they bluntly championed across the Middle East. Biden will have to resist them, as well as the defense intellectuals who see war between the Dragon and the Eagle as inevitable. The NYT, out front as always, reviewed scary Chinese military propaganda videos on YouTube as a way of warning us, not even getting the irony that one video is pieced together from borrowed Hollywood blockbuster footage.

    But if Biden holds steady, it won’t be cold war; let’s call it lukewarm at worst. The ties that bind the two nations are important enough that Biden and the Chinese will always be careful to color inside the lines. It is likely Biden will sound like a version of Trump but act much like Obama’s predecessors. China understands this game; the rules were established long ago over things like the multi-administration tsk tsk response to Tienanmen and the One Child Policy. Look for semi-tough words even as the cargo ships crowd each other out crossing the Pacific.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Did You Notice the Trump Doctrine?

    August 15, 2020 // 3 Comments »


     
    The Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democratic staff recently issued a report titled “Diplomacy in Crisis: The Trump Administration’s Decimation of the State Department.” Oh, it’s horrid! Under Trump 11 Assistant Secretary or Under Secretary posts are vacant or filled by acting officials. And career public servants, many of whom were actively involved in trying to impeach and “resist” the president, report “leadership exhibits a sense of disrespect and disdain for their work.”
     
    Leaving aside the question of what an “Under Secretary” does and why previous administrations needed so dang many of them, one is tempted to say if this is what the real-world effect of American diplomacy in crisis is, please don’t fix anything: for the first time in almost two decades America has not started a new war. Cut back on some existing ones, too.

    U.S. military fatalities during the Obama term were 1,912. Trump’s body count to date is only 123. Damn uncomfortable truth. You can make yourself feel better by giving Trump (and State) no credit. You can calm yourself by believing there’s no Trump Doctrine of winding back the dumbness of constant war, no thought out process that maybe America’s power is enhanced by not throwing a match into every bucket of gasoline in the Middle East, just Trump bumbling in the foreign policy darkness randomly added up to something. He’s the diplomatic equivalent of all those monkeys pecking away at a million typewriters and accidentally reproducing Hamlet. Whatever helps you sleep at night. But the tally, in trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of human lives saved, is unambiguous and good.

     

    With Elderly Caucasian Joe Biden heading up the alumni association seeking the White House like the last founding member of Blue Oyster Cult taking the “band” out on the road one more time, it might be fun to indulge in some Obama-Biden foreign policy nostalgia as a vision of things to come.

    It’s easy to forget in the foreign policy debate between Trump and Hillary way back in 2016 one of the catch phrases was “boots on the ground” in reference to how (not if) Clinton was going to flat-out war in Syria. Trump wanted no part of it, but Obama-Biden had already intervened in Syria in multiple ways, teeing it up for the next POTUS.

    Clinton was being egged on to expand the war in Syria by the State Department. In June 2016 an internal State Department “dissent” memo leaked to major news outlets sharply criticizing the Obama-Biden policy of relative restraint, and demanding military strikes. The memo, signed by 51 diplomats whose identities somehow were not leaked, was almost certainly shepherded by former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. Ford had earlier helped promote the destruction of Iraq as Obama’s Deputy Chief of Mission in Baghdad, and went on to want open war in Syria. He was pulled out of the job in Syria for his own safety after undiplomatically promoting the overthrow of the government there.

    Obama’s expansion in Syria was minor compared to Iraq. After withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 in time to get re-elected the next year, in 2014 Obama partnered with Iran to let start putting boots back on that same old ground. It didn’t take long for the United States to morph that conflict from a rescue mission (Save the Yazidis!) to a training mission to bombing to special forces and then regular forces in ongoing contact with the enemy for what became Iraq War 3.0. American ground forces grew to some 6,000 on regular deployment, with an additional, unknown, number of Marines on “temporary duty” and not counted against the total.

    Obama surged into Afghanistan, the same year he received the Nobel Peace Prize, sending 17,000  troops to raise the total in-country by 50 percent. Obama also had U.S. forces at war in Yemen, Pakistan, Mali, and Somalia. Goaded by Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice he attacked Libya, turning the country into a failed state and promoting one of the most tragic outflows of refugees into Europe in modern times, forever changing the demographics of the continent (Germany did not say thank you.) There was Benghazi. Luckily, time ran out before Obama-Biden could militarily intervene in Ukraine. The State Department’s Victoria Nuland, in a tapped call discussing manipulating political succession in Ukraine, said “F*ck the EU” showing how the administration valued its allies.

    And of course the Putin love shown by Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry. Kerry who invited Russia back into Syria. Kerry who floundered as Russia made its incursions into Ukraine and Crimea. Kerry who sang Happy Birthday to Putin at an APEC conference.

     

    But in weighing Obama the Committed Warlord against Trump the Accidental Peacemaker, one cannot focus on policy alone. One needs to know the man.

    Obama killed four American citizens by drone. Trump zero. After Obama ordered the killing of American Anwar al-Awlaki and later his teenage American son, Obama’s White House press secretary Robert Gibbs commented the kill shot on the kid was justified as he “should have had a more responsible father.” Obama personally lead the Tuesday Oval Office reviews to choose who would die the coming week, telling senior aides in 2011: “Turns out I’m really good at killing people. Didn’t know that was gonna be a strong suit of mine.” Under Obama America wasn’t the world’s policeman. We were the world’s George Zimmerman.

    At a time when militarization and Trump’s use of Federal force in America cities is being questioned, remember Obama set the bar. Following the drone killings of Americans abroad Senator Rand Paul asked whether the president could authorize lethal force against an American citizen in the U.S. Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder answered yes. Holder said he could imagine “an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws of the United States for the president to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States.” Note to DJT: the legal justification is still on the books if you need it in Portland.

     

    That was the world in 2016. Donald Trump as president has started no new wars. Troop levels in Syria are down. Same for Iraq. Afghanistan remains about the same, with no surges. In 2017, the Department of Defense stopped providing specific military deployment figures for those areas. However, DOD’s annual budget requests fill in some of the blanks. The budget request from March 2019 showed the number of troops in Afghanistan at 12,000, with Iraq and Syria together at 5,800. In a recent move, Trump announced 12,000 American troops will be leaving Germany.

    The Global War on Terror, Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and regime change in Syria played important roles in the 2016 election. They’re no longer in the lexicon, artifacts now of another era. What happened? Did we win? Are they postponed because of COVID? Or was it mostly a pile of bullsh*t from the beginning and Trump called the bluff?

    It is a good thing a lot of nothing happened. John Bolton was the Bad Boy who was supposed to start wars with Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, maybe even China. He didn’t. The ending of the Iran nuclear agreement and the U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem caused not much to happen. In the end Bolton had no home in an administration which didn’t want to go to war. Mad Dog Jim Mattis as defense secretary, along with State Department special envoy to the coalition fighting ISIS Brett McGurk, resigned over Trump’s decision to draw down in Syria and Afghanistan. Mattis and McGurk too had no place in an administration which didn’t want more war.

    Whereas Obama had given up on diplomacy with North Korea in 2012, content to see them grow their nuclear arsenal, Trump understood you make peace by talking to your worst adversaries. His efforts were mocked, with the MSM declaring anything short of improbable full denuclearization meant Trump failed. But the door was left open, tensions cooled on the Korean Peninsula, and both sides got a peek at how they can move forward in the future. It’s easy to forget that before Trump’s diplomacy with Kim Jong Un, the Council on Foreign Relations assessed the chances of nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula at 50 percent.

     

    Of course Biden isn’t Obama. But neither is Trump, who spent the last four years disengaging from the policies Biden helped champion for eight. Biden’s foreign policy will be shaped by Obama alums. Only Satan knows the details of Susan Rice’s and Samantha Power’s pact with him, but they will both certainly have a role in a Biden administration promoting war as they did under Barack. We might even see the return of Hillary in some sort of elder statesman/special envoy role.

    There are many domestic Trump policies people don’t like, and this article isn’t meant to defend them. But it is worth noting how central warmaking has been to mucking up America, whether it is savaging our economy with debt, diverting funds from some social program to war, fueling terrorism either directly through CIA funding, or indirectly by blowing up wedding parties and creating new enemies. America’s warmaking has turned allies against us, burned too many times by American adventurism. And for those concerned about America’s image abroad, the most offensive Trump tweets have little to compare to the serial “accidental” bombings of schools and hospitals. So while the easy out is to rebut this with “But Trump…,” that ignores the centrality of war to American foreign policy and benefits in walking that back.

     

    Democrats and the MSM have spent four years declaring Trump is about to start some war or another, when in fact he has done quite the opposite. Meanwhile their candidate carries forward a bloody history of intervention and self-proclaimed Just War killing millions. While the Left will insist it won’t believe it’s eyes, it is possible the people know. Trump’s 2016 win was influenced by his outspoken denouncement of the waste of America’s wars. Evidence suggests pro-Trump sentiment in rural areas especially was driven in part by people who agreed with his anti-war critique, voters who’d either served in Obama’s wars or whose sons/daughters had served. We’ll see who notices in November.

     

     

    BONUS Content: Ah, Susan Rice. Only Satan knows the details of her pact with him, but she would certainly have a role in the Biden administration. Rice who supported bloodshed in Africa, created the policy of overlooking genocide in Rwanda, persuaded President Clinton against killing bin Laden, supported the invasion of Iraq as did Biden, who lied about what happened in Benghazi, and who wanted war in Libya. Rice combines the steamy crap foreign policy failures of Bill and Hillary with Obama to ensure it’ll all work out about the same for Biden. She is also all appetite, having spent a career promoting Susan Rice, so also expect her to go after the Oval Office if she can.

      

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Requiem for the U.S. Department of State, Part II of II

    May 26, 2020 // 10 Comments »

    The Department of State has been adrift for the past handful of administrations, an agency without agency, personnel, or budget, in search of a mission. It is the essential agency which does nothing that matters anymore. As seen in Part I of this article, a number of secretaries of state, from the politically royal to the politically disabled, have failed to impact diplomacy. How did this all happen?

    Traditional diplomacy began as a necessary expedient. Nations had business with one another, but messages could take weeks to travel from one capital to another. Instead, ambassadors were sent out, empowered in the case of the U.S. as the President’s personal representative to speak in his name with the full force of the United States. Heady stuff. Messages back to Washington would report final results, such Ben Franklin letting the boys at home know he’d knocked out a treaty with France against Great Britain so we might win the Revolution after all. Hundreds of year later communications improved to the point where world leaders can now text each other, but those ambassadors and embassies remain as if Ben was still out there.

    Leaders came and went. For every Abraham Lincoln there were a lot of Millard Fillmore’s and Taylor’s (John and Zach) who mattered little. With exceptions along the way (FDR stand outs), presidents did not conduct first-name diplomacy or tie themselves up with the details of foreign affairs. They had secretaries of state for that. Everything shifted under Richard Nixon, whose interest in first-person diplomacy with China and reluctant ownership of the Vietnam War sent the State Department into a supporting role.

    The change began under Nixon. Events both internal and external to the U.S., its State Department, and the world, did the rest.

     

    A Rubik’s Cube, Not a Chessboard

    The world has changed even as the State Department is still largely configured for the early 20th century. State’s primary organizational unit is the nation-state, and so it divides itself into the “China Desk” or the “Argentina Desk.” Inside that unit, it is assumed the host country has a government that works more or less like ours, with a Foreign Ministry, some rational system of sending policies up to the leader, in most cases some sort of press, that kind of thing. So inside the country desk State organizes fiefdoms along subunits of Political, Economic, Press, and Trade. New diplomats arrive in foreign capitals to go off in search of their one-to-one counterparts. Everyone at Foggy Bottom assumes the basic framework applies from Albania to Zimbabwe. Over the years State has created regional divisions (East Asia) and topical divisions (Science and Tech) but overlaid these across the geographic divisions so that ideas skitter sideways and up and down simultaneously. The result is usually paralysis when it is not confusion. The problem is not determining who is in charge per se, but that 10-12 people all think they are in charge.

    The days of seeing the world as a chessboard are over. It’s now closer to a Rubik’s Cube that Washington can’t figure out how to manipulate. In many cases no one in State can get to the policy task itself, busy as they are arguing over who has the lead on some issue. In most cases senior decision makers elsewhere in Washington leave State to its internal fussing and seek guidance elsewhere — CIA, NSC, the Pentagon.

    No one outside of official Washington can appreciate how much 9/11 altered the way the U.S. Government thinks about itself. The shock changed the posture of the government from one of at times satisfied with passivity in its more distant foreign affairs to one demanding constant action. Presidents from that day forward would probably have preferred each Federal worker go out and strangle a terrorist personally, but if that was not possible everyone was to find a way to go to war. State never really has.

    Things change slowly if at all. State has no tanks or battleships, just people as its primary way of getting things done. In 1950 State had 7,710 foreign service officers. Pre-9/11 they had 7,158. Today it’s still only about 8,000.

     

    Growing Sophistication of Foreign Actors

    The traditional image of the older gentleman from the embassy meeting with the local king is for the movies. Foreign actors have gotten much more sophisticated in their ability to demand VIPs to fly in to finalize deals, and in playing local staff off against the real decision makers scattered throughout Washington. Those foreign actors understand today State is less than a one-stop portal into the USG and more of just one player to manipulate alongside others.

    In almost every nation, smaller bureaucracies allow easier bundling/unbundling of issues, something which befuddles State — Country X says if you want that naval base you have to cut American tariffs on cinnamon imports. State throws up its hands, paralyzed, knowing their real diplomacy will involve the Pentagon and whoever the hell does spice tariffs in what, Treasury? Commerce? Senator Johnson’s office, whose district controls most cinnamon packaging? The other side is scheming clever demands while State organizes Zoom calls. The joke inside the Department is deals abroad fail on diplomatic efforts inside the Beltway.

    Similarly, in most places abroad the U.S. has three centers of representation who vie for the authority of the United States, and are played off one another by smart foreigners. The Department of Defense maintains relationships with foreign militaries. The intelligence community does the same with host country spies and cops. State tries with everyone left over. Depending on the country, the civilians State interfaces with may matter little in a power structure dominated by say the army, or the local version of the CIA. That renders the American ambassador second place on his own team, never mind in the eyes of the locals. That ambassador may not even know what his own country’s military or spies are up to, leading to naughty surprises and the loss of credibility as a hollow figurehead.

     

    Militarization

    Negotiating in Iraq with a minor tribal leader for safe passage, he asked me as the State Department representative how many goats I was offering. About five seconds into my response on the need for lasting friendships, an U.S. Army major cut me off saying “I can get goats” and I no longer mattered to the negotiation, the war, maybe the 21st century itself.

    It is all about resources. The military has more people, more hardware, and more cash. From Great Britain to some valley in Garbagestan the military can offer new friends shiny tools (Section 1206 funding: for the first time since President Kennedy signed the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, President George W. Bush allowed that the U.S. military would fund many weapons transfers directly from its own accounts, bypassing the State Department. Conspicuously absent from the debate over Section 1206 was Condoleezza Rice, America’s then Secretary of State.) State meanwhile needs a couple of days to arrange transportation to the meeting.

    Stephen Glain’s State vs. Defense: The Battle to Define America’s Empire is a sober biography of the Department since World War II. The choice of word — biography — is significant, in that traces the decline in old age of State as America’s foreign policy is increasingly made and carried out by the Pentagon. In particular Glain understands the military is organized for the new world order.

    “The yawning asymmetry is fueled by more than budgets and resources (though the Pentagon-State spending ration is 12:1), however. Unlike ambassadors, whose responsibility is confined to a single country or city-state, the writ of a combatant commander is hemispheric in scope. His authority covers some of the world’s most strategic resources and waterways and he has some of the most talented people in the federal government working for him. While his civilian counterpart is mired in such parochial concerns as bilateral trade disputes and visa matters, a combatant commander’s horizon is unlimited. ‘When we spoke, we had more clout,’ according to Anthony Zinni. ‘There’s a mismatch in our stature. Ambassadors don’t have regional perspectives. You see the interdependence and interaction in the region when you have regional responsibility. If you’re in a given country, you don’t see beyond its borders because that is not your mission.’”

    Adding to the problem is about a third of State’s ambassadors are political appointees, amateurs selected mostly because they raised big campaign bucks for the president. The United States is the only first world nation that allots ambassador jobs as political patronage.

     

    Self-Destruction

    State’s once-valued competitive advantage was its from-the-ground reporting. Even there the intelligence community has eaten State’s sandwiches with the crusts cut off — why hear what some FSO thinks the Prime Minister will do when the NSA can provide the White House with real time audio of him explaining it in bed to his mistress? The uber revelation from the 2010 Wikileaks dump of documents was most of State’s reporting is of little practical value. State struggled through the Manning trial to show actual harm was done by the disclosures. Some 10 years later there hasn’t even been a good book written from them.

    Under the Trump administration the State Department has seemingly sought out opportunities to sideline itself, now and in the future. Even before the 2016 election results were in, diplomats leaked a dissent memo calling for more U.S. intervention in Syria, a move opposed by Trump. Soon after Rex Tillerson took office, his diplomats leaked another memo very close to insubordination opposing the State Department’s role in Trump’s immigration plans. In yet another dissent memo, Foggy Bottom’s denizens claimed their boss violated a child soldier law. FYI: Nothing substantive came of any of those leaks/memos.

    Everyone in the current White House knows how many scandals of the last few years have criss-crossed the State Department: slow-walking the release of Hillary Clinton’s emails (after helping hide the existence of her private server for years), turning a blind eye to Clinton’s nepotism hiring her campaign aides as State employees (remember Huma?), the Foundation shenanigans, the crazy sorrow of Benghazi remembered, the Steele Dossier and many things Russiagate and Ukraine. Most of the impeachment witnesses were from the State Department, including one who claimed to surreptitiously listen in on phone calls with his political appointee ambassador to tell all later to Congress. That’s an awful lot of partisanship woven into an organization which is supposed to be about being non-partisan.

    Nobody trusts a snitch, Democrat or Republican. What White House staffer of any party will interact openly with his tattletale diplomats, knowing they are saving his texts and listening in on his calls, waiting? Hey, in your high school, did anyone want to have the kids who lived to be hall monitors and teacher’s pet as their lunch buddies?

     

    America’s Concierge Abroad

    What’s left is what we have, the State Department transitioned to America’s concierge abroad. It’s relevancy to top-tier foreign policy is questionable, and its work now mostly logistical. Embassies are great bases for intel work, military offices, the occasional evacuation, to grind out some visas, and for ceremonial events. Someone has to be out there to arrange VIP visits and tidy up local issues. For me, while stationed in the UK, I escorted so many Mrs. Important Somebody’s on semi-official shopping trips I was snarkily labeled “Ambassador to Harrod’s Department Store” by my colleagues. In Japan I found out my duties included re-authorizing radio certificates for American seamen under an early 20th century treaty.

    One of The Blob’s greatest accomplishments has been to convince a large number of Americans everything pre-Trump was normal and everything since is extraordinary. That sets up the idea that extraordinary means are needed to deal with unique threats, and that sets up throwing away the rules because ends justify the means. Meh. The work known as diplomacy otherwise continues in some sort, albeit done by people outside the Department of State. Future presidents will need to change that, or, if history serves, live comfortably with it.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Requiem for the U.S. Department of State, Part I of II

    May 20, 2020 // 1 Comment »


     
    Saying “Mike Pompeo” out loud feels odd, like mouthing the name of an old girlfriend, or shouting out your GMail password. It just feels wrong in your mouth, because what’s Mike or the State Department done lately? As the Trump administration wraps up its first term focused on domestic issues, it occurs the United States has passed almost four years without a foreign policy, and without the need for a Secretary of State or a department of diplomats behind him.
     
    On his first anniversary in the job Pompeo told assembled diplomats “We needed everyone in their place, working on the mission, if we were going to achieve this mission on behalf of the president” but never actually said what that mission was. A Google query shows “Searches related to Mike Pompeo Achievements” include “mike pompeo weight – mike pompeo net worth.” One can easily imagine Pompeo, even pre-COVID, slipping out the side door at Foggy Bottom shouting “I’ll be working from home, check with my deputy if anything comes up” while his wife is waiting in the car for him, Ferris Bueller-style.

    We had high hopes for Mike. He and John Bolton (as National Security Advisor) were the Bad Boys who were supposed to start wars with Iran and North Korea, outdo Cheney and even challenge the legend himself, Henry “Bloody Hands” Kissinger. Pompeo watched as not much happened between the U.S. and North Korea. He watched as the ending of the Iran nuclear treaty caused not much to happen. John Bolton, who liberals expected to see on a throne in Tehran rolling a mullah’s bloody head around his lap, instead sits by the phone hoping a think tank will offer him an intern to listen to his stories, or maybe Dancing with the Stars will ring needing a last-minute. That show on Fox?

    Prior to Pompeo, the Secretary of State was Rex Tillerson. Tillerson couldn’t even come up with an elevator speech of his accomplishments when asked, listing as he left office North Korean sanctions which achieved nothing, alongside his own mea culpas for failing to make progress in Afghanistan and Syria and Iraq, where with a straight face he noted there was “more to be done.” A bit hard to blame him, as Trump chose a policy of stasis, not wanting to withdraw the last trooper and forever be the man who lost Afghanistan. Imagine if the U.S. had followed similar political caution and still garrisoned Vietnam?

    Commentators wrote Tillerson would be remembered as the worst secretary of state in history. Wrong. He made no significant blunders, gave away nothing. He just didn’t do much at all. His actual only real accomplishment was a humiliating apology tour of Africa meeting with leaders on the periphery of U.S. foreign affairs grouchy over the president calling their nations sh*tholes.

     

    It would be easy to blame Trump, his open mic night style of making decisions, his decrees by Twitter, sucking all of the diplomatic air out of the room and suffocating up-and-coming diplomats like Mike and Rex before they even had a chance to try on their plumed hats. Unlike his predecessors, Trump never took advantage of his get-one-free foreign incursion along the lines of invading Grenada, occupying Lebanon, or an adventure in Somalia, never mind the big ticket items like Iraq Wars I-III. Sure, Trump did bomb Syria (who hasn’t?) and nipped at Iran, but the tumescence was over before the media could even declare the end of the world again.

    One can imagine meetings with friendly foreign nations in the Age of Trump: “Anything new from your side? No, you? Nah, something on Twitter from POTUS about armageddon, misspelled. Say, Crimea still giving you trouble? A little, whatever, you watching Tiger King? Pretty funny. Quite.”

     

    So turn the page backwards to John Kerry, Obama’s second term Secretary of State. Kerry imagined himself a Kennedy-esque man of action, Flashman at the ready, and had the State Department keep an online tally of how many miles he had traveled doing diplomatic stuff. The Nation called him “One of the Most Significant Secretaries of State in the Last 50 Years,” heady company when you realize the list includes Acheson, Dulles, Rusk, and Kissinger.

    OK, but… Kerry’s signature accomplishment, the Iran Nuclear Agreement, faded quickly. As negotiated the thing was only for ten years anyway, and would be about half over even if Trump had not walked away. And that’s giving Kerry full marks for getting an agreement where the National Security Council did much of the heavy lifting, and one which the Iranians wanted badly enough to help their economy they were willing to trade away a lot of Wonka tickets. Kerry’s work with the TPP and Paris Agreement also showed good effort. We’ll put them up on the fridge next to the one song Ringo got onto each Beatles album. Kerry’s muscular efforts came to little substance (albeit through little fault of his own) but the legacy business is harsh.

    After that, you have John Kerry helping muck up Syria. Kerry floundering in the Ukraine and Crimea. Kerry failing to move the ball forward in Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, Palestine, or blunting China as it assumed a pivotal role in Asia in every way except militarily (they’re working on it.)

    That Nation article praising Kerry also cites as achievements “the military retaking of Mosul, the sponsorship of an Oceans Conference, the strengthening of the Gulf Cooperation Council…” all of which mean what in 2020? Kerry did sing Happy Birthday to Vladimir Putin at the APEC conference in the midst of a U.S. government shutdown. Kerry’s most significant achievement was leaving many Democratic voters secretly wondering whether the country dodged a bullet in 2004 when George W. Bush beat Kerry to take on a dismal second term.

     

    But Hillary! Never mind “one of,” Google chair Eric Schmidt called her “the most significant Secretary of State since Dean Acheson” (suck it, Kerry.) Secretary of State was only the first half of the prize Hillary got for clearing the way for Obama in 2008 (Barack shooing Joe Biden aside for her in 2016 was the second) and Clinton made the most of it. For herself. Ignoring America’s real foreign policy needs (or was she being ignored?) she turned the State Department into an arm of her Foundation, projecting “soft power” on things like women’s issues and AIDS to match her eventual platform, all the while generating B-roll for the campaign like a chunky Angelina Jolie. She also had the Department obsessively document her constant travels, with formal photos of Secretary Clinton alongside world leaders as well as selfies of Hil letting her hair down among her own diplomats. “Texts from Hillary” predated Instagram. Not a pair of dry panties to be found over at the Council on Foreign Relations.

    But in the tally of history, Hillary Clinton accomplished… not much. Time Magazine listed her key accomplishments as “the liberation of Libya, establishment of diplomatic ties with Burma and the assembly of a coalition against Iran.” In a summary piece, USA Today singled out “Clinton convinced Chinese leaders to free blind dissident Chen Guang Cheng,” who returned the favor by joining an American think tank opposing abortion and gay marriage.

    From the horse’s mouth, quoting Hillary Herself, key accomplishments were “hosting town halls with global youth, raising awareness for religious minorities, protecting Internet freedom and advancing rights for women and the LGBT community around the world.” Not resume items as momentous as forever changing the Cold War balance of power by opening China like Henry Kissinger or assembling the first Gulf War coalition like James Baker. Meanwhile, the world owes Hillary for her significant contributions to the failed state of Libya and the subsequent refugee flow, the human misery of Syria, the missed chances of the Arab Spring, and failing to end other wars she helped start or voted for.

    A generation before Hillary we have Colin Powell and Condi Rice, whose only accomplishments as Secretary were to march America into the desert and abandon her there (Colin) and march the State Department into the desert with the guaranteed-to-fail mission to create democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan and abandon her there (Condi.)

     

    The good news is the U.S. is experiencing a peace of a sorts not by sweating out the sins of diplomacy, but just by not going around the world throwing matches into buckets of gasoline. Trump has made little use of his Secretaries of State and their Department. No recent president made much use of those diplomats either, so they are unlikely to be missed.

    The next Secretary, whether working for Trump or Biden, will find themself in charge of a Cabinet agency is search of a mission. They may very well end up somewhere between the traditional ceremonial role of the Vice President, attending conferences and funerals, or perhaps simply overseeing a network of embassies to serve as America’s concierge abroad, arranging official visits for fact-finding Members of Congress, and hosting senior Washington policy makers in town to do the heavy lifting of international relations.

    If the U.S. government had to downsize into a smaller capital, the State Department would likely end up on the curb, alongside those boxes of the kids’ elementary school drawings. Cute, sentimental, good times, but why did we keep them all these years?

    How did this happen? In Part II of this article, we’ll look at the factors internal to State and the United States, and those external, global changes, that left the Department adrift.

      

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Looking for Jim Jones Amid COVID-19

    March 30, 2020 // 12 Comments »


     
    I’m not worried about the guy coughing next to me. I’m worried about the ones who seem to be looking for Jim Jones.
     
    Jim Jones was the charismatic founder of the cult-like People’s Temple. Through fear-based control, Jones took his followers’ money and ran their lives. He isolated them in Guyana, where Jones convinced over 900 followers to commit suicide by drinking cyanide-laced grape Kool Aid. Frightened people can be made to do literally anything. They just need a Jim Jones.
     
    So it is more than a little scary Never Trumper and MSM zampolit Rick Wilson wrote Twitter to his 753k Twitter followers “People who sank into their fear of Trump, who defended every outrage, who put him before what they knew was right, and pretended this chaos and corruption was a glorious new age will pay a terrible price. They deserve it.” The Tweet was liked over 82,000 times.

    The NYT claims “the specter of death speeds across the globe, ‘Appointment in Samarra’-style, ever faster, culling the most vulnerable.” Others are claiming Trump will cancel the election to rule as a Jim Jones. “Every viewer who trusts the words of Earhardt or Hannity or Regan could well become a walking, breathing, droplet-spewing threat to the public,” opined the Washington Post, which suggested they should be placed on hiatus. And the rest of you, drink the damn Kool Aid and join in the panic enroute to Guyana.

    In the grocery store in Manhattan just after the announcement of the national state of emergency was pure panic buying. I saw a fight broke out in one aisle after an employee brought out a carton of paper towels to restock the shelf and someone grabbed the whole carton for themselves. The police were called. One cop had to stay behind to oversee the lines at the registers and maintain order. To their credit the NYPD were cool about it. I heard them talk down one of the fighters  saying “You wanna go to jail over Fruit Loops? Get a hold of yourself.” Outside New York, sales of weapons and ammunition spiked.

    Panic seems to be something we turn on and off, or moderate in different ways. Understanding that helps reveal what is really going on.

    No need for history. Right now, in real time, behind the backs of the coronavirus, is the every-year plain old influenza. Some 12,000 people have died, with over 13 million infected from influenza just between October 2019 and February 2020. The death toll is screamingly higher (as this is printed corona has killed just 69 Americans.) One does not hear much about that. Why?
     
    Bluntly: more people have already died of influenza in the U.S. than from coronavirus in China, Iran, and Italy combined. Double in fact. To be even more blunt, no one really cares even though a large number of people are already dead. Why?
     
    The first cases of the swine flu, H1N1, appeared in April 2009. By the time Obama finally declared a national emergency seven months later, the CDC reported 50 million Americans, one in six people, had been infected and 10,000 Americans had died. In the early months Obama had no HHS secretary or appointees in the department’s 19 key posts. No commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, no surgeon general, no CDC director. The vacancy at the CDC was especially important because in the early days of the crisis only they could test for the virus; states weren’t allowed until later (sound familiar?) The politically-appointed DHS secretary, not a medical doctor, led the federal effort. Some 66 percent of Americans thought the president was protecting them. There was no panic. Why?

    Of course Trump isn’t Obama. But if you really think it is that black and white, that one man makes that much difference in the multi-leveled response of the vast federal government to a health crises you don’t know much about the federal bureaucracy. In fact, most of the people who handled the swine flu are now working the coronavirus, from rank and file at CDC, HHS, and DHS to headliners like Drs. Andrew Fauci (in government since 1968, worked Obama-ebola) and Deborah Brix (in government since 1985, prior to her current role with Trump-corona was an Obama-AIDS appointee.)

    Maybe the most salient example is the aftermath of 9/11. Those who lived through it remember it well, the color threat alerts, the sneaky Muslims lurking everywhere, the sense of learned/taught helplessness. The enemy could be anywhere, everywhere, and we had no way to fight back. We panicked like never before. But because the Dems and Repubs were saying basically the same thing, there was a camaraderie to it (lead by Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg, where are they now?), not discord. But the panic was still very real. Why?
     
    Why? We panicked when people took steps to ensure we would. We were kept calm when there was nothing to gain by spurring us to panic (the swine flu struck in the midst of the housing crisis, there was enough to worry about and it could all be blamed on the previous administration.) The aftermath of 9/11 is especially clarifying. A fearful populus not only supported everything the government wanted to do, they demanded it. Nearly everyone cheered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and not believing the government meant you were on their side, either with “us” or against us. The Patriot Act, which did away with whole swaths of the Bill of Rights, was overwhelmingly supported. There was no debate over torture, offshore penal colonies, targeted assassinations, kidnappings, and all the other little horrors. The American people counted that as competent leadership and re-elected George W, Bush in the midst. Fear and panic were political currency.

    Jump to 2020. Need an example of how to manipulate panic? Following fears of a liquid bomb, for years after 9/11 TSA limited carry-on liquids to four ounce bottles. Can’t be too careful! Yet because of corona they just changed the limit for hand sanitizer only (which with its alcohol content is actually flammable, as opposed to say shampoo) to 12 ounces. Security theatre closed down alongside Broadway tonight.

    False metrics are also manipulative because they make fear seem scientific. We ignore the low death rate and focus on the number of tests done. But whatever we do will never be enough, never can be enough, the same way any post-disaster aid is never delivered quick enough because the testing is not (just) about discovering the extent of the virus. For those with naughty motives, it is about creating a race we can’t win, so testing becomes proof of failure. Think about the reality of “everyone who wants one should get a test.” The U.S. has 331 million people. Testing 10 percent of them in seven days means 4,714,285 individuals a day for seven consecutive days while the other 90 percent of the population holds their breath. Testing on demand is not realistic at this scale. Selective decision-based testing is what will work.

    South Korea, held up as the master of mass testing, conducted at its peak about 20,000 a day. Only four percent were positive, a lot of effort for a little reassurance. Tests are valuable to pinpoint the need for social distancing but blunt tools like mass social distancing (see China) also work. Tests do not cure the virus. You can hide the number of infections by not testing (or claim so to spur fear), but very sick people make themselves known at hospitals and actual dead bodies are hard to ignore. Tests get the press, but actual morbidity is the clearest data point.
     
    There will be time for after-action reviews and arguments over responsibility. That time is never in the midst of things, and one should question the motives of journalists who use rare access to the president to ask questions meant largely to undermine confidence. If they succeed, we will soon turn on each other. You voted for him, that’s why we’re here now. Vote for Bernie and Trump wins and we all literally die. You bought the last toilet paper. You can afford treatment I can’t. You’re safe working from home while I have to go out. Just wait until the long-standing concept of medical triage is repackaged by the media as “privilege” and hell breaks loose in the ERs. We could end up killing each other long even as the virus fades.

    At the very least we will have been conditioned to new precedents of control over personal decisions, civil life, freedom of movement and assembly, whole city lock-downs, education, public information, and an increasing role for government and the military in health care. More control by authorities over our lives? Yes, please! Gee, it’s almost as if someone is taking advantage of our fears for their own profits and self-interest. Teachers who just digitized their classes at no cost to their employers and created the online infrastructure to eliminate classrooms, don’t be surprised if less of you, and fewer actual classrooms, are needed in the virus-free future.
     
    There are many reasons to take prudent action and not downplay the virus. There are no good reasons for fear and panic. The fear being promoted has no rational basis compared to regular influenza and the swine flu of 2009. We have a terrifying example in 9/11 of how easily manipulated fearful people are. Remaining calm and helping others do so is a big part of what your contribution to the disaster relief is going to be. As John Kennedy said, “We cannot expect that everyone will talk sense to the American people. But we can hope that fewer people will listen to nonsense.”
     
    That’s one way to see this. Too many right now however seem to be looking for Jim Jones.
      

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Memories of Baghdad

    December 31, 2019 // 16 Comments »


     

    Watching events in Baghdad with sad interest. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, once the world’s largest, is now nothing except a symbol of our multi-decade failure in that country. It sounds like most of the civilians are already evacuated. There were once some 5,000 in that compound at the peak of Occupation.
     
     
     
     
     

    I hope the protesters don’t trample the huge green lawn we planted as a monument to our hubris. When I was in Iraq the ambassador organized lacrosse games out there. It took millions of gallons of water to keep that lawn green. What were we thinking?

    I remember that entrance way into the Baghdad Embassy you see in the videos well. When I came into the Embassy from the field as a “State Dept” person I used another way in, just for us.
     
     

    But when I came in from the field with the soldiers I was embedded with, State made us go through the gate you see on the videos being breached, the “public” gate, and submit to a full security screening. It was a way for State to say fuck you to the soldiers and assert their fake alpha male status. I remember asking the Embassy RSO security officer what the security status was, and he replied “WiFi’s down in the lounge, Iraq is pretty much the same.”

    If any of those soldiers from 2ID are watching the video, I am sure they are thinking these same things.

    The soldiers had their rifles taken away at the gate “for security” and one time a fight almost broke out when one refused to surrender his weapon at first. On that trip I also smuggled a female trooper into the Embassy beauty salon where she got her nails and hair done. She couldn’t stop laughing about how the Embassy women could go there daily, and said it was the first (and only) time she felt clean in a year.

     

    Ah, that street where the protesters are massed. On one visit the Embassy security goons decided the armored MRAP vehicles we arrived in had parked too long inside the Embassy and had to leave NOW. They were waiting for me, and I was running late. Embassy security told the soldiers to park outside on that street and when I arrived at the inside gatehouse they’d re-clear the vehicles into the compound, I’d jump in, and we’d return to the real war. The soldiers were in a hurry (and pissed off at how they were treated) and so called me on the only communications device we had in common, local Iraqi cell phones. They said it would take too long to re-clear and told me just to come outside the walls and board the truck. I felt like the baddest of bad asses pushing past the Embassy guards to just step out of the compound alone and walk the maybe 20 yards to the vehicle.

     

    I also remember those tall apartment buildings you see in the background of the videos, the ones outside the Embassy walls. They were part of the Green Zone, the huge area inside Baghdad once sealed off from the population by Saddam, then by the U.S. occupation forces. Those apartments were once gifted to Saddam’s lower-level toadies. The U.S. chased them away in 2003, and the apartments were issued to new toadies of the Iraqi puppet government (I’m guessing a decent number were the same people, toadies are pretty adaptable.)
     
     

    That area had a few small shops, and led to the naughty parts of the Green Zone, the many fortified compounds run by various “other” agencies, contractors, media organizations, British and Australian I-don’t-know-what-they-do folks, and the like. It was inside the Green Zone but outside the Embassy fortress walls, so existed as a kind of gray zone. I remember just after I arrived being driven by a contractor colleague all through the area. We even stopped at a semi-convenience store for him to buy cheap smokes and I felt like Lawrence of Fucking Arabia and Colonel Kurtz all at once. Later in my tour I’d make fun of people who thought they were cool traveling basically across the street from the Embassy but since people made fun of me once for doing the same thing it was all part of karma balancing.

    Good times.
     


     
     

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    We Meant Well in Afghanistan

    December 16, 2019 // 22 Comments »

     

    If only someone had written a book about the mistakes in Iraq, the waste, the fraud, the endemic corruption which was clearly leading nowhere to warn everyone before they made the same errors in Afghanistan, Anne Smedinghoff would be on her fourth tour and I’d be Consul General in Belize.
     

    But how about those Afghan Papers, crazy stuff huh?

        

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military