Wednesday, November 30, 2005

 

Excellent Academic Publication

I recently read an article published in the US Army War College's publication, Parameters. Bradley Bowman wrote the article, "Realism and Idealism: US Policy Toward Saudi Arabia, from the Cold War to Today". I found Mr. Bowman's article to be extremely engaging and very readable. Unlike many academically based foreign policy publications, Mr. Bowman was able to conduct a survey of American foreign policy in Saudi Arabia and the greater Middle East in an articulate manner that was not beyond the general understanding of the average reader.

I was particularly impressed with the way Mr. Bowman explained how the United States can achieve its realist interests in a manner that reflects the country's idealist conscience. He was quick to point out for the US policy of spreading and supporting the growth of democracy to be effective, more work must be done to temper the expectations of the American people. The growth of democracy will certainly not happen over night and recognition of this fact and adjusting the expectations of the American people will help to better clarify the policy of the United States to Americans. In much the same way most Americas were familiar with the concept of containment during the Cold War, Americans now need to be re-educated on the policies and philosophies governing US foreign policy during the 21st century and beyond.

Mr Bowman then went on the rectify the concerns over the pace of government reforms in countries of strategic importance to the US versus the need for stability. Before elections can take place and the final touches are completed marking the transition to democratic governance, the key components of civil society must be in place or else elections will prove to be destabilize and counter-productive. The civil institutions identified by Mr. Bowman include, "constrained executive power, rule of law, an independent and nondiscriminatory judiciary, civil liberties such as the freedom of press and the freedom to join groups and lobby government, and the right to own private property...". Without the existence of these institutions, elections will be at best tenuous and at worst fraudulent in their execution.

Reading through the article and understanding the US high priority on oil supply stability over democratic reform in Saudi Arabia, one is tempted to contemplate how much better off the US would be if it had a diversified energy sources. However, while the need for energy source diversification is important, readers should resist the temptation to reduce this article to a discussion on the subject. In a globalization world, the US is always going to need something from someone. The question is how the US secures that something without compromising its moral standards. The pursuit of secure and viable oil supplies is just one example for study between America's needs and its values.

After reading this article, one topic worthy of discussion is how best to temper the expectations of the people in the countries in the world with the least amount of freedom. During the Cold War the US often times pursued its realist interests at the expense of its idealist conscience by supporting authoritarian regimes for the sake of stability and containing the spread of communism. Unfortunately the support of authoritarian regimes went hand in hand with the restriction of freedoms for many of the people living in these countries. This inherently led to an erosion of US image in many of these countries and was a contributing factor to the overall deep levels of frustration within countries not featuring democratic governments. Therefore, its imperative for the US to continue to articulate its policies overseas and to utilize every resource to temper the expectations of the the people living in the countries with less than ideal democratic tendencies. This is especially the case in the countries where the US depends on the support of questionable regimes and governments (see Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Kyrgyzstan). If the citizens of these countries continue to believe the US is willing to turn a blind eye to the repression of their freedoms for the sake of stability, the image of the US will continue to plummet. For this reason US Embassies must do a much better job of articulating US policy goals and encouraging the establishment of civil institutions in countries where they're non-existent or underdeveloped. US Embassy sponsorship of small business initiatives, local universities, think tanks and good governance non governmental organizations is essential to countering the idea of US hypocrisy in its execution of foreign policy.

Friday, November 18, 2005

 

Maybe Gingrich Isn't So Creepy

I really don’t know much about Newt Gingrich. Honestly whenever I see the guy on television he usually gives me the creeps. However, from what I understand his intellect meets no rival and even his adversaries are forced to admire his skill and vision. I must admit, I think I understand what all the positive hype surrounding Newt Gingrich is all about now that I’ve read his testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He testified on 19 October about the condition of the US intelligence apparatus and projections for that apparatus to fulfill the requirements necessary to counter the threats facing the United States in the 21st century.

All in all the testimony seemed balance, but he had plenty of recommendations about how the US should continue to reform the intelligence community beyond the fledgling steps taken with the appointment of John Negroponte to the position of Director on National Intelligence. One of the more poignant observations the former House Speaker made was that the United States has not adequately organized itself from a governmental or societal perspective to address the issues that are critical to this country’s survival in the 21st century and beyond. On this point, I cannot agree with Mr. Gingrich more. He wisely cites the Hart/Rudman Commission’s observation that the condition of math and science education in this country is in need of serious repair and that ignoring the need for more focus on science and mathematics in our schools has serious implications for our national security.

The American people have thus far demonstrated we learned our lesson from the dreadful way we treated our military service members during the Vietnam War. Although public support for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan is failing, the devotion and respect the American people pay to the men and women of the armed forces remains strong. However, Mr. Gingrich’s point about the status of American science and math education illuminates there are other heroes in this country who need to be recognized for the role they play in securing this nation’s security and prosperity. Where would this country be with Edison, Bell, Ford, Gates, Carnegie, and Einstein? The key to out continued security and prosperity is rooted not just in our military prosperity and strength but also in the strength of our educational system especially in math and science. As a country we need to refocus our efforts to produce more citizens with the skills in math and science that will keep the United States at the forefront of discovery, innovation, and creativity. If we don’t regenerate our science and math expertise to a new generation then our ability to make technological advances will suffer. This will have dyer consequences for out national security.

Math and science education is just one point Mr. Gingrich made about the changes we need to make as a society to remain in as position of strength. Assessing intelligence successes and failures using measurable standards and metrics, developing and nurturing the analytical capacity of the intelligence agencies, re-educating our intelligence agencies about the importance of linguistics and culture, and redefining the nature of the enemy and the war the US in currently engaged in are all issues discussed during Mr. Gingrich’s testimony. I highly recommend people take a few minutes to read this very provocative and thought provoking assessment of the US intelligence community and its development for the 21st century.

 

Teachers Getting Whipped in Saudi Arabia

Yahoo.news published an article today about a court case with serious implications for free speech and educational reform in Saudi Arabia. Mohammed Salamah al-Harbi is a high school chemistry teacher in Riyadh and he has recently been sentenced to 40 months in prison and 750 lashes for comments he made during a class. What sort of comments could he have made that would warrant such a harsh and strange sentence? The court found the teacher made comments that were considered blasphemous to Islam. He defended Jews and Christians and openly ridiculed some of the components of Islam.

Although this is just one example, it serves as a necessary reminder so much work still needs to be done at the lowest, tactical levels to combat backward ideologies that are poisoning tomorrow’s citizens in Saudi Arabia. True Mr. Al-Harbi might have been better served sticking to density, test tubes, and chemistry in his classroom. But if Saudi Arabia is really going to counter the radical forces that are eroding the Kingdom from within, then it needs to address the lack of freedom of speech in its society and the lack of reform in its school. Saudi students need to be given academic freedom in order to secure the critical thinking skills necessary to be productive members of their society. Their teachers need to be given the freedom to instruct their students and give them the knowledge required to lead their country through the 21st century. This inability for Saudi society to adapt and reform itself is a problem not only for the Kingdom itself but for the region and the world as well. The lack of education reform and freedom of speech is thwarting the Kingdom from developing innovative thinkers and breaking through the ideologies crippling the country. The country’s entire financial well bring is not rooted in the skills and innovation of its people. It is rooted in crude oil. That will remain the case until Saudi Arabia makes the essential reforms to save itself.

How many more outspoken high school teachers will be whipped before this happens?

Friday, November 04, 2005

 

War on Terrorism and Congress

America's funding of the efforts to combat extremism and terrorism took a bit of a funding hit this week. In this era of high federal debt and growing financial obligations lawmakers are making every effort to reduce the pressures of budget deficits on the economic solvency and security of the United States. Both chambers of Congress have approved tens of billions of dollars in cuts of discretionary spending for the next five years. Among some of the programs impacted by these cuts in the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the State Department's Antiterrorism Training Assistance program.

While I applaud Congress' efforts to reduce the country's fiscal deficit I am disappointed two low profile yet essential national security programs are being targeted for funding cuts. The Millennium Challenge Corporation is an agency with the mission of distributing American foreign aid only to countries engaging in serious political reform aimed at reaching appropriate levels of good governance. More than any other factor, I believe the absence of good, transparent governance contributes to so much human suffering in the world. While their is certainly a fair amount of suffering and trouble in country's featuring the characteristic's of good governance, I don't think its too far a stretch to say those countries without good, accountable governance are far less capable of protecting the rights and ensuring the tools of self determination are provided to their people.

By reducing the funding levels of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, Congress is reducing the amount of assistance the US is willing to provide countries making the difficult and necessary reforms to improve their quality of governance. Its sending the message that the spread of quality governance around the world is less of a priority. Its is my opinion the US should be enabling reform and good governance rather than turning its back on those in need of assistance to make the transition to quality governance. While not a "silver bullet" to all of the threats out there, the nurturing of quality governance around the world is an important component to US national security.

On the less theoretical, more tangible side of the US national security strategy, cuts in funding for the State Department's Antiterrorism Training assistance Program is another disappointing development. The US can't be everywhere at all times, and enlisting other global players in the war against terrorism is an essential element to victory. This is one of the best tools for national security professionals to assist in the training of counter-terrorism forces in countries wishing to help fight against extremism. Not to mention it helps establish a diplomatic bridge with these countries that can extend benefits in the realms of trade and intelligence sharing as well.

Self sufficiency, independence good governance. Encouraging these ideals will go a long way to combating the threats posed to the United States and will also help other countries and other people of the world ensure a better future for themselves. Cuts in these two programs works against the best interests of the United States and the rest of people so badly in need of freedom.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

 

Iran: Is Ayatollah Khamenei Having Second Thoughts?

If not a coup, I think there are indicators pointing to a power struggle between Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the new President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Although Ayatollah Khamenei supported the candidacy of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad it appears the decision to back a little known politician with no foreign policy experience is beginning to trouble the Supreme Leader. The recent increase in unpredictable and unexplainable behavior by President Ahmadinejad may actually be an indication there is a growing power struggle between the President and the Ayatollah.

EurasiaNet.org recently published an extraordinary article detailing some of the behind the scenes political maneuvering going on in Iran. It appears Ayatollah Khamenei has taken a series of steps to counter-balance the growing domestic authority of President Ahmadinejad in the conservative circles of the Iranian ruling establishment. According to EurasiaNet, “Ayatollah Khamenei is reportedly worried about the meteoric political rise of clerics and institutions with close ties to Ahmadinejad’s presidency - in particular Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Messbah Yazdi”. Apparently Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Messbah Yazdi has been making serious attempts to stack the Assembly of Experts with members supporting his hard-line views. The Assembly of Experts is one of several quasi-governmental panels in Iran tasked with overseeing the activities of the country’s secular governing bodies. However, the Assembly of Experts is the only organization with the constitutional authority to replace the Grand Ayatollah. This in conjunction with President Ahmadinejad’s appointment of virtual political novices to key positions within the Iranian government seems to be fueling the Ayatollah’s suspicions that efforts are being made to consolidate power within the new hard-liner leadership hierarchy.

The key counter-balancing initiative the Ayatollah has taken has been the reorganization of the Expediency Council presently led by former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The Expediency Council, which is led by Rafsanjani, has now been given the authority to supervise the work of the three branches of government one of which is headed by President Ahmadinejad. This constitutional maneuver brings us to the present point. After the Ayatollah re-asserted the pragmatic Rafsanjani to political relevance, President Ahmadinejad made his now infamous speech calling for Israel to be wiped off the map. The EurasiaNet article explains, “those comments were designed to accomplish two objectives - to reassert the supremacy of presidential authority and to undermine an attempted rapprochement with the United States that was being guided by Rafsanjani”. One under current to the ongoing situation with Iran’s nuclear program has been the subtle whisperings from US and Iranian officials about the possibility of direct dialogue between the two rivals. The recent statements and appointments made by President Ahmadinejad to co-opt those favoring rapprochement within the Iranian government with new officials more willing to support the less than pragmatic ideologies of Ahmadinejad’s hard-line backers.

This brings us to today’s announcement by the Ahmadinejad Administration about the re-call and re-assignment of several ambassadors to key foreign posts. The senior diplomats to France, the UN, Germany and Great Britain were all instructed to return today. All four of those diplomats were appointed to their posts by the reform minded former President Khatami. All four were major players in the ongoing debate concerning Iran’s nuclear program. In addition to these ambassadors, the BBC reports at least 35 other ambassadors are scheduled for replacement in the very near term. This comes as the President nominated a virtual unknown to the critically important and remarkably prestigious position of oil minister. The President nominated Sadeq Mahsouli, to be the new oil minister but the appointment needs to be approved by Parliament. The President’s first nominee was rejected by the Parliament in August but the rejection didn’t deter the President from nominating someone from his conservative camp.

The removal of some many ambassadors and the continued insistence to appoint strict hard-liners to key government positions indicates the President is not going to sit idly by and let the Ayatollah dictate the terms of his Presidency. I don’t pretend to know all the in’s and out’s of Iranian domestic politics, but this rift within the conservative movement in Iran is likely to have serious ramifications for energy and security issues in the region and around the world.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

 

Central Asia and US Policy

Central Asia and the greater Caucasus region has developed into a strategically important part of the world for many different countries. More than the Middle East, Africa, or Latin America, the bigger countries of the world seem to be engaged in a serious competition vying for influence in a part of the world that literally "straddles" so many different civilizations.
I was reading some of the testimony offered by witnesses for the US House of Representatives International Relations Subcommittee on Middle East and Central Asia. Daniel Fried is the Assistant Secretary of State this region. During the course of his testimony he outlined the key interests the US has in Central Asia. Security, energy and economic collaboration, and freedom through reform were the three most important factors to US interests in Central Asia. Secretary Fried's analysis of the ongoing security and political developments in the region were clearly articulated and I enjoyed this one particular piece from his testimony:

"In FY 2005, we budgeted over $240 million in assistance to Central Asia, focusing our efforts on building and strengthening civil society, promoting democratic and economic reform, and combating criminal activities and terrorism. We are also directing assistance toward promoting regional security through counterproliferation, counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics
cooperation. This is money well spent.

We pursue all three sets of our strategic interests in tandem, because failure in one area will undermine the chance of success in another. We are therefore supporting political and economic reform, rule of law, good governance, respect for human rights, religious freedom and tolerance, free trade and open markets, development of small businesses, energy investment, and cooperation in the fight against terror and weapons of mass destruction, all at the same time".

I take the Secretary's testimony at face value and assume he is telling the truth. I like the language he uses and sincerely hope the US is taking a three dimensional, muti-faceted approach to advancing our interests in this region the Secretary identifies in his testimony. For a few years now there has been a debate between those supporting a purely realist approach to US foreign and national security policy versus those who advise a more humanistic approach focusing on securing our security by helping others advance their freedom and security. I think the key point of Secretary Fried's testimony is the idea that working for others interestss in conjunction with our own is consistent, long-term, winning strategy in promotion of our position in Central Asia as well as the rest of the world.

I just fear so much damage has been done to America's reputation in recent years that no matter how mutually beneficial our foreign policy may be, the international community is going to resist it simply becausee its being put forth by America.

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