Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Iraq Factor: upcoming midterm elections

On November 7, the United States goes to the polls for the 2006 midterm elections. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives will be up for election, along with 35 of the 100 seats in the Senate. The election presents a real opportunity for the Democrats: the Republican party currently holds the presidency, plus narrow majorities in both the House and Senate.

If the Democrats are successful in taking a majority in the House in this election, they will significantly change the dynamic in Washington, forcing the Bush administration to cater to their demands in order to get anything done. And, if they succeed in swinging the majority in the Senate as well, George Bush will serve out the remaining two years of his term as a lame duck president, his policies dependent on the opposing parties.

The stakes are high, and the Democrats know it. They also know from poll results that many voters are uneasy with many elements of the Administration's performance, much of which centers on Iraq and the War on Terror in general. Some examples:

The amazing disappearing Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD): if you turn back to 2003, the whole purported reason for going to war in Iraq was because Iraq supposedly had an active program to develop biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, and thus presented a clear and present danger to the United States and its allies. They didn't.

The failure to catch bin Laden: Five years after 9/11, the SOB who masterminded the thing is still out there on the loose. To make it worse, the US forces had bin Laden pinned down in Tora Bora. If they had the resources there to do their own dirty work and had not been depending so heavily on Afghan proxy fighters with shifty loyalties, they'd have caught or killed bin Laden then.

Administrative bungling in Iraq: It can easily be argued that Iraq could have been a success had it not been for certain short-sighted management decisions. Disbanding the Iraqi security forces was arguably the single biggest error.

Guantanamo Bay: The legal quagmire is just becoming apparent here. The Bush administration setup the Guantanamo facility as a way to detain enemy combatants without giving them rights under the US court system - a true legal limbo. The Supreme Court ruled against this, giving detainees the right to challenge their detention in US federal court, and ruled against the administration's plan to try detainees with military tribunals. The administration's current attempt to alter the evidence standards for these tribunals, allowing classified evidence the defendant is not allowed to see and allowing confessions obtained under duress, seem likely to be thrown out by the Supreme Court even if they are passed by the House and Senate. One can easily imagine how angry the American public would be if a major terrorist was acquitted because the evidence obtained was done so under duress.

The Iraq war's effect on terrorism: Recent intelligence reports have suggested that the Iraq war has served as a rallying point for terrorist-supporting ideologies, and has proved a good recruiting incentive for terrorist groups. These reports suggest that the US is at greater risk of terrorist attacks now as a result of the Iraq war.

The failure of the Iraq war to meet its objectives: Three years ago, Americans had high hopes for Iraq developing into a model of democracy for the Middle East. Today, those hopes seem very far from being fulfilled.

The losses incurred in the Iraq war: More Americans have been killed in the Iraq war than died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And, if you look at the number of Iraqis killed, you have over ten times that number.


I have not seen any Democratic attack ads drumming up any of these themes yet, but that does not mean they are not under development. If the Democrats choose to use ads like this, they will not likely want to roll them out until the voting gets closer, saving the worst of them for the few days before election.

This will be an interesting election indeed....

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

How you know you're overworked...

Hello [my real name],
Where are you? Why are you not coming online?
Is everything Okay?

This was an email I got from a good friend of mine in Iraq last week, and if I hadn't replied to it, I'd probably have gotten a phone call or SMS the next day. The irony of this does not escape me - a friend of mine living in Iraq being worried about me in New York because I am not online as often as usual. Usually it would be me sending emails like this to friends in Iraq, not the other way around.

I guess I have been really overworked the last few weeks. Fortunately, my workload should be getting back to normal after that and I'll be blogging at my usual frequency. And, to the friend who wrote the email (you know who you are), yes, I'll be online too... :)

Sunday, September 17, 2006


Earlier today, I had to fill out a form to sign my daughter up for after school activities. Right in the middle of the form was this question:

__Caucasian __ African American __ Asian __ Hispanic __ Other

Questions like this pose a bit of a conumdrum for us in our household as to what to answer. Our children are biracial (black/white) - does this mean we should choose two answers, or should we choose "other".

Some people here suggest we should use the old mentality from slavery/segregation days, that if a child is partly black we should call him/her "black". For me, this seems backwards - the children have as much of my genetic material in them as my wife's, so in reality they are both black AND white. So, the logical conclusion would be to check both "caucasian" and "African American". That would be if it were not for my wife...

My wife detests the term "African American" - a term that was basically invented to avoid offending some overly sensitive people in this country. To my wife's point, she is not from Africa (her ancestors came from Africa hundreds of years ago), and she is not an American, and so neither word applies to her. So, whenever she is filling out a form and sees "African American", she will check the "other" box and write in "black".

And so, knowing my wife would not like it if I described our daughter as "African American", and knowing just describing her as "caucasian" when she looks more black than she does white would throw them off, I simply left the question blank.

Perhaps the bigger question is why this form was asking for ethnicity at all. Why do they need to know my daughter's ethnicity when I am signing her up for after-school activities? After all, they will plainly see what she looks like when she shows up.

People here in this country waste far too much time trying to label each other as "Caucasian", "African American", "Hispanic", or the like. Perhaps if we instead spent this time on trying to put past differences behind us, society would be better as a result.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Taking Canada/US relations to the next level(?)

A few days ago, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in Pictou, Nova Scotia at the invitation of Canadian foreign minister Peter MacKay. I remember a bit of surprise when I first heard about the trip - after all, Condi Rice just visited Canada in April. And, Pictou is a bit out of the way: a two hour flight to Halifax, followed by a 90 minute drive from the airport. It is not a major city in Canada at all. But, it is Peter MacKay's home town.

It didn't take long for some major news media on both sides of the border (including the New York Times and the Globe and Mail) to begin speculating that Condi Rice and Peter MacKay may have some sort of romance blossoming between them. Some interesting tidbits:
From the Globe and Mail:

At Tim Hortons, Peter MacKay and Condoleezza Rice playfully argued over who should pick up the tab for his tea and her half-regular-half-decaf coffee, black with Splenda.
They wrestled verbally, to and fro, until the clerk behind the counter insisted it was on the house.
From the New York Times:

Then, he said, “Something else I’ve learned about Secretary Rice is she loves the cool Atlantic breezes here in Nova Scotia, and she left the window open last night.” The audience tittered.
At the end of his speech, he took off his glasses, turned to Ms. Rice and said, “Please come back again.”
Ms. Rice, clad in a yellow jacket, black pencil skirt and black heels, also offered plenty of fodder. She repeatedly called Mr. MacKay “Peter” (he called her “Secretary Rice” or “Miss Rice”), confirmed the sleeping-with-the-window-open bit, and told the assembled local leaders that Mr. MacKay had introduced her to his family, including his father and stepmother, the night before.
Family is important, she said, with a sly smile, because “they remind you of the things you did when you were 5 years old.” Beside her, Mr. MacKay grinned and blushed.
The Calgary Sun even went to the extent of hiring a body-language expert to analyze footage between the two. Here is an excerpt:
And while others look for subtle signs, Pease says he sees raw, sexual energy. It's included in the way the two conservatives mirror one another's gestures.
"This is evident in every shot," he says. "(In one photo analyzed) they both show a facial cluster called 'restrained jubilation'. The tight-lipped smile, attempts to conceal the excitement each, particularly (she), feels."

It also doesn't take a lot of analysis to figure the two may be compatible. Both are physically attractive, both are into exercise, both love sports, both are conservative politicians, and both are single. My own suspicion is that they both may be attracted to each other, but likely felt too constrained by their professional roles to do anything about it.

Personally, I would be happy to hear news about Rice and MacKay becoming romantically involved. Condi Rice is a very intelligent and competent woman, and a very hardworking Secretary of State. She is someone I highly respect, and who I think stands a decent chance of being the next president. At the same time, it is a bit sad to see someone with as many good qualities as her sacrifice her own personal happiness just because she worries what the press might write about it, or what the American public might think about it. After all, women politicians always seem to be held to a different standard than men, and while it is okay for male politicians to have lives, female politicians are supposed to be prudes. But, I really think this mentality is based on outdated notions that are overdue to be discarded.

In reality, I suspect this kind of publicity would not hurt either of their careers. In the case of Condoleezza Rice, it may even help her career: it would humanize her in the eyes of the American public, many of whom tend to see her as a technocrat, and help many Americans to more readily identify with her. If she is planning to run for president in two years, this kind of publicity can be valuable.

Of course, all of this is just speculation, and it is difficult to know if these rumors are true. But, it will be mildly disappointing if they turn out to be false...

Saturday, September 09, 2006

The Waziristan Sellout

Earlier this week, the government of Pakistan signed a "peace" deal with a collection of militant groups in the restive North Waziristan region calling themselves the "Pakistani Taliban". Pakistan's Dawn daily newspaper reports the details of the agreement:

The agreement envisages that the foreigners living in North Waziristan will have to leave Pakistan but those who cannot leave will be allowed to live peacefully, respecting the law of the land and the agreement.

Both parties (army and militants) will return each other’s weapons, vehicles and communication tools seized during various operations.

It said that tribal elders, Mujahideen and Utmanzai tribe would ensure that no-one attacked law-enforcement personnel and state property.

“There will be no target killing and no parallel administration in the agency. The writ of the state will prevail in the area”, the agreement said.

It said that militants would not enter the settled districts adjacent to the agency.

The agreement said that the government would release prisoners held in military action and would not arrest them again.

Tribesmen’s ‘incentives’ would be restored, it said and bound the administration to resolve disputes in accordance with the local customs and traditions.

It said the government would pay compensation for the loss of life and property of innocent tribesmen during the recent operation. There will be no ban on display of arms. However, tribesmen will not carry heavy weapons.
Let's see if we can summarize this in a bit more direct language:

  • The Taliban in North Waziristan will gently ask the foreign (al-Qaeda) terrorists who are living there to leave. But, if they don't want to leave, they are welcome to stay as long as they "live peacefully."
  • The Pakistani government will release all of the terrorists it captured during the operation in North Waziristan, give them their weapons back, and not arrest these terrorists again.
  • The Pakistani government will stop hunting down terrorists in the North Waziristan region.
  • Terrorists and tribesmen in North Waziristan will be free to brandish weapons as they walk around the place, so long as they are not "heavy weapons". (not that I can see a terrorist wanting to drive around town in a tank anyway)
  • The Pakistani government will pay money to the people in North Waziristan to compensate them for any damage they caused in trying to hunt down terrorists.
  • Pakistan agreed to have any disputes resolved according to "local customs", presumably in a tribal court who will likely find in favor of the terrorists no matter what the dispute.

In short, a very one-sided agreement in favor of the "Pakistani Taliban" militants in Waziristan. Pakistan has essentially surrendered and run away with its tail between its legs, giving in to every demand the militants made of them.

This type of agreement would be disturbing enough under normal circumstances, but is particularly insidious here. One thing worth pointing out: Waziristan is the region where it is widely suspected that Osama bin Laden, Ayman Zawahiri, Mullah Omar, and all the other various terrorist leaders who fled from Afghanistan are hiding. Does this agreement mean Pakistan has just given amnesty to bin Laden?

A few days ago, ABC News conducted a phone interview with Pakistani military spokesman Major General Shaukat Sultan and asked him this exact question. After the interview was published, the Pakistani government alleged that Sultan was "grossly misquoted", however ABC News has the interview recorded on tape. Was this a misquote? Judge for yourself:

Q. ABC News: If bin Laden or Zawahiri were there, they could stay?

A. Gen. Sultan: No one of that kind can stay. If someone is there he will have to surrender, he will have to live like a good citizen, his whereabouts, exit travel would be known to the authorities.

Q. ABC News: So, he wouldn't be taken into custody? He would stay there?

A. Gen. Sultan: No, as long as one is staying like a peaceful citizen, one would not be taken into custody. One has to stay like a peaceful citizen and not allowed to participate in any kind of terrorist activity.

General Sultan said today it was "hair splitting" to speculate whether troops would be sent in if bin Laden was found in North Waziristan.

"If someone is found there, we will see what is to be done," General Sultan said today. "Pakistan is committed to the war on terror, and of course we will go after any terrorist found to be operating here," he said.

Does this sound like a misquote? I think not.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have just been sold out. Sold up the river by our allies in Pakistan, who decided it was acceptable to make a deal with the devil, and allow this devil to continue living and operating from its soil. Now that Pakistan has made this deal, the terrorists have free rein to continue operating in the Waziristan region: setting up training camps, running command and control centers, etc. So long as they "keep the peace" and do not target their nefarious works against Pakistan, they are welcome to stay there under the terms of this agreement.

The repercussions from this "peace" agreement will be felt around the world. Terrorists leaders in Waziristan will be able to freely direct the murderous activities of their followers in Iraq, Europe, East Africa, and even here in America, and we are left with no recourse. The Pakistani authorities who signed this "peace" agreement should be ashamed of themselves!

Monday, September 04, 2006

Wanted: An Iraqi Hamid Karzai

It is interesting to compare the recent history in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both countries are made up of a patchwork of divergent ethnic groups. Both countries were invaded and had their governments overthrown by US and allied forces: Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. And yet, the outcomes since the invasion cannot have been more different.

In Afghanistan, the various tribal groups came together in a gathering called a loya jirga, and hammered out a constitution. The process was not without controversy, but the constitution was generally accepted, and the first real democratic elections in Afghanistan's history were held in 2004 under its auspices. Now, Afghanistan's economy is experiencing positive growth for the first time in decades, and is definitely exhibiting positive progress.

In Iraq, the process of developing the constitution was mired in political fights and distrust between the ethnic and religious groups that made up the constitutional assembly - a process that ended with the final version of the constitution being rammed through despite the objections of the Sunni Arab representatives. Each election they have had in Iraq has been sharply divided along ethnic and religious lines, and the country's security situation has degraded to the point of civil war.

What is so different between these two places? It would be a fallacy to say that Afghanistan was less divided before the war: Afghanistan has long been the domain of warlords and tribalism, and the various ethnic groups are divided by tradition, and even language.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two boils down to one man: Hamid Karzai. As the interim president of Afghanistan in 2002, Karzai had possibly the worst job on the planet, having to negotiate with and earn the respect of the various warlords in Afghanistan, men with divergent interests, and men who had the ability to either make or break Karzai. Karzai was successful in this endeavor and in 2004 won a new mandate as the country's president.

What Iraq is sorely lacking is a true leader: someone who can garner the respect of the Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs, and Kurds, and work to bring peace between these groups. Yes, each of these groups has their own leaders, but they are only interested in promoting the interests of their constituencies and not the country as a whole. Yes, Iyad Allawi, the interim prime minster appointed by the Americans was even-handed in his approach, but Allawi is a technocrat. Allawi's thought processes were good, but Allawi's lack of real charisma limited his ability to carry out bridge-building between the ethnic and religious groups in Iraq and put a stop to ethnic/sectarian violence.

What Iraq needs is an Iraqi version of Hamid Karzai: someone with real charisma, who can earn the respect of the Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds, and build bridges between these groups without leaving any group feeling like he is favoring one over the other. Sadly, a leader like this has not stepped into the forefront, and thus Iraq has continued its descent into its abyss of violence and chaos.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The Iran Conundrum (Part II)

A few months ago, I first wrote about the Iran Conundrum. Since then, nothing concrete has been done to stop the situation, and Iran has continued in its uranium enrichment activities. Last night, the deadline imposed by the UN Security Council for Iran to stop its uranium enrichment activities was flagrantly ignored by the Iranian government, which is continuing to pursue its nuclear ambitions. It is now up to the UN Security Council to determine the next steps for what to do about Iran.

If recent history serves as any guide, the UN Security Council will probably not do much. After all, Russia and China, both of whom have veto power over any UN Security Council resolution, have consistently resisted pressure from the United States and others to get tough on Iran. If they did not act before, why should they act now? So, if recent history serves as a guide, we can look forward to another several weeks of wrangling at the UN Security Council, which would be eventually followed by a vague resolution "condemning" Iran, or possibly a set of emasculated sanctions that have no real effect on limiting Iran's capabilities. Another oil-for-food scandal, here we come!

At the same time, I cannot understate the severity Iran's nuclear program poses to stability in the Middle East region. As I have written in the past, it is troublingly easy to make a nuclear weapon, the only really difficult part is getting your hands on the ingredients. Weapons-grade enriched uranium or plutonium is not something you can buy at your local grocery store - it is extremely difficult, dangerous, and expensive to manufacture. And, the same process that makes reactor-grade enriched uranium can be used to make weapons-grade enriched uranium, which is why the existence of a uranium enrichment program in a country like Iran can be worrisome.

Iran's Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has been very vocal about his hatred of Israel, referring to it repeatedly as a blot that needs to be wiped off the map. However, Ahmedinejad must know that Israel would not go down without a fight. If Iran were to have nuclear weapons and seek to use them against Israel, the other challenge would be hitting a target that far away: Iran does not share a border with Israel - to hit Israel from Iran requires a flight over both Iraq and Jordan - a distance of over a thousand miles. Iran does not have missile technology that could accurately hit a target at that distance. And, even if Iran does figure out how to hit Israel with a nuclear weapon, they must realize that Israel's nuclear capability and missle technology far exceeds its own.

Unfortunately, Iran does have a possible solution to this puzzle: Hisballah. Many of the missiles Hizballah used against Israel over the past month were provided by Iran. Imagine how different the war would have been if a few of those missiles had been long range, and nuclear-tipped: Haifa and Tel Aviv would be radioactive piles of rubble. As a guerrilla group, Hizballah does not have as much to lose as an army representing a country.

I am sure Israel's government knows all of this too. The key question is how long they will tsand for it. Will they allow Iran to continue developing nuclear technology, knowing that if they are successful, this technology may end up in the hands of Iran's Hizballah allies and used against them. Or, will Israel take unilateral action to stymie Iran's nuclear ambitions. I expect the latter course is the more likely - Israel has done it before (to Iraq in 1981), and would likely do it again if they needed to. Israel's government must also realize that if Iran is successful in developing nuclear technology, its own long-term existence in the region will become much more tenuous.

The next few months will be interesting indeed....