Labour and Uncle Sam

Should Britain expect more from the Special Relationship with the United States than managed decline? What price should progressives be willing to pay for influence? Latest in our #progressivedilemmas series on conundrums facing the next Labour government. 

Pakistan, Kilcullen, Evans – a reply to David Miliband

British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband has responded to Alex’s post questioning the wisdom of drone attacks in Pakistan. Citing David Kilcullen, Alex’s argument was that drones killed too many civilians, contradicting basic counterinsurgency doctrine, which is, above all, to secure and serve the population.

Miliband (cautiously) agrees:

The threat to US and Pakistani (and UK) interests is real, the danger and damage of civilian casualties serious, and the range of options limited.

US technology is vitally important, but Pakistan is fighting its own struggle against violent extremism. The drone attacks have undoubtedly hurt the core of AQ, but I see the dangers. The first best solution is obviously to build up Pakistan’s capacity, but first best solutions are not always immediately available.

Miliband’s is right, I think, but there are, unfortunately, much deeper and darker questions to address. As I argued in August last year, Pakistan’s “struggle against violent extremism” has been mounted very much at the America’s behest – and its urgings have been wrong-headed at best, disastrous at worst.

Last summer, the Pakistani Prime Minister was given “an earful” by the White House and told to sort the border regions out. All well and good, except that the United States was pushing the Pakistan military towards a conventional encounter with the militants, something that it’s own manual on counter-insurgency advises strongly against.

The pattern was similaar in 2004, when General Musharraf was persuaded to attack the tribal areas. That led to fury among tribesman, forcing them into the arms of the Taliban. It also led to humiliation for the army, with one poor Colonel taking shelter in a mosque and then emerging to beg for mercy with the Koran on his head. Tribesmen stripped him of his uniform and sent him on his way.

Now, in 2009, we have a massive attack on the Swat valley, which has killed some militants – sure – but has led to the forceful displacement of 2.5 million people, “an exodus that is beyond biblical,” according to the Independent. In the long run, will this campaign contribute to Pakistan’s security? Time will tell, but I suspect not.

I am not, in way, pleading for tolerance for extremism. But I am demanding that we – the Americans in particular – start to stand account for the counterproductive nature of their Pakistan policy since 9/11.

Throughout its time in office, the Bush administration seemed intent on showing it could push a functioning state to the brink of failure. Pakistan’s complicity in arming and supporting the Taliban was ignored by the Bush administration. Instead, it pursued its short term goals in the war on terror with little care for the long term impact on a nuclear armed state with a young, fast-growing, and deeply frustrated population.

In his time in office, Bush hosed billions on the Pakistan army, but dedicated only around 1% of total aid to non-military purposes. America’s political strategy has been non-existent. Its influencing strategy even weaker. It really beggars belief that so much money could be spent only to achieve the reverse of the desired result.

Now, the Obama administration wants to engage in nation building, but it continues to focus efforts on the country’s most unstable zones, rather than supporting a comprehensive, nationwide response from the government. It is also arriving with its cheque book open, only to find that neither it nor the Pakistan government has much idea as to how or where the money should be spent.

Above all, it’s unclear whether – unlike in Iraq at the beginning of the surge, where there was a doctrinal revolution – the protagonists have truly accepted just how badly they have got things wrong. The US counterinsurgency manual describes insurgencies as ‘learning competitions’. If so, I fear that the best that we – the West – and the various arms of the Pakistan state can hope is some kind of consolation prize for taking part. Continue reading

Saudi Arabia’s warning to the US

If you missed Turki al-Faisal’s op-ed in the FT last week, then take a look.  Entitled “Saudi Arabia’s patience is running out”, the language of the former Saudi Ambassador to the UK and the US (and before that the long-time head of Saudi intelligence) is blunt.  For instance:

Unless the new US administration takes forceful steps to prevent any further suffering and slaughter of Palestinians, the peace process, the US-Saudi relationship and the stability of the region are at risk. Prince Saud Al-Faisal, Saudi foreign minister, told the UN Security Council that if there was no just settlement, “we will turn our backs on you” …

America is not innocent in this calamity. Not only has the Bush administration left a sickening legacy in the region, but it has also, through an arrogant attitude about the butchery in Gaza, contributed to the slaughter of innocents. If the US wants to continue playing a leadership role in the Middle East and keep its strategic alliances intact – especially its “special relationship” with Saudi Arabia – it will have to revise drastically its policies vis a vis Israel and Palestine.

Think that’s strong?  Try this:

Last week, President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad of Iran wrote a letter to King Abdullah, explicitly recognising Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Arab and Muslim worlds and calling on him to take a more confrontational role over “this obvious atrocity and killing of your own children” in Gaza. The communiqué is significant because the de facto recognition of the kingdom’s primacy from one of its most ardent foes reveals the extent that the war has united an entire region, both Shia and Sunni. Further, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad’s call for Saudi Arabia to lead a jihad against Israel would, if pursued, create unprecedented chaos and bloodshed. So far, the kingdom has resisted these calls, but every day this restraint becomes more difficult to maintain …

Today, every Saudi is a Gazan, and we remember well the words of our late King Faisal: “I hope you will forgive my outpouring of emotions, but when I think that our Holy Mosque in Jerusalem is being invaded and desecrated, I ask God that if I am unable to undertake Holy Jihad, then I should not live a moment more.”

The FT followed Turki’s article up with a leader yesterday, observing that:

Anyone with a stake in the stability of the wider Middle East should take very seriously the warning set forth in the Financial Times last Friday by Prince Turki al-Faisal … The Saudis have emitted a crescendo of warnings, as Arab leaders over the past decade have lost faith in American leadership and signalled they may make their own arrangements: hostile to Israel, in detente with Iran, and turning their backs on the US – unless it can restrain its Israeli ally. 

Pretty sobering.  Also worth checking out this analysis from a retired US foreign service officer who was twice posted to Sauid Arabia.

Get us out of this mess…

I’ve been in Japan today, speaking at ‘Reforming International Institutions – Meeting the Challenges of the 21st Century’,  a seminar organized by the United Nations University and the British Embassy in Japan.

You can download my talk here (with pictures, references etc) – or the text only is available below the jump. There’s a webcast too.

Headlines:

  • It’s going to be a tough year. The financial meltdown has a long way to go, and the downturn is risking turning into a global depression.
  • Trade is a bell wether. Protectionist pressures are already on the rise. If they gain traction, take that as a warning of a wider loss of confidence in global institutions.
  • The unravelling of global economic imbalances could prove corrosive to the international order. If countries start to devalue to protect exports, expect a tit-for-tat dynamic to kick in.
  • Scarcity issues (energy, water, land, food, atmospheric space for emissions) remain the key medium term driver of global change. Commodity prices will spike again as soon as there’s recovery.
  • The downturn has stemmed the uncontrolled growth of emissions, but also lessened the chance of a robust global deal on climate.
  • Economic bad times could well drive increased conflict. A major new security threat might be the fabled black swan – hitting just when the global immune system is already overloaded.
  • If we experience a long crisis (or a chain of interlinked crises), we are likely to see either a significant loss of trust in the system (globalization retreats), or a significant increase in trust (interdependence increases). 
  • You need to stretch time horizons to get the latter – shared awareness (joint analysis of risks and challenges), as a basis for shared platforms (loose coalitions of leaders), which can lobby for a shared operating system (a new international institutional architecture).
  • 2009 sets a challenging agenda for the G20 (financial reform and economic recovery – but framed by a broader vision on climate, resources, security etc.)…
  • …the G8 (caucus of rich countries able to tee up Copenhagen and kick start development assistance if developing countries begin to teeter)…
  • …the UN (especially Ban Ki-Moon’s proposed high level ‘friend’s group’ on climate, but also as a fora for getting to grips with scarcity issues)…
  • and the Bretton Woods institutions and the WTO (first of all ensuring they keep their heads above water, then looking to ‘save globalization from itself’).
  • Oh and be ready for the backlash – people are angry and rightfully so, but that may well lead us down some populist blind alleys.

Continue reading

The genius of Larry Kudlow

Optimism is in short supply at the moment, so I was psyched to read that Larry Kudlow – the National Review’s economics editor and (in his owns words) “a renowned free market, supply-side economist armed with knowledge, vision, and integrity acquired over a storied career spanning three decades” – has read the tea leaves and seen clear signs that the US economy is now bottoming out from a recession that hasn’t been “that big a deal”.

Phew. We can all stop worrying then. After all Kudlow’s stunning track record proves he really has his finger on the pulse of US economic performance. Let’s review some of the highlights from his analysis over the past couple of years:

Feb 2007: Praises Ben Bernanke for “laying the groundwork for what is virtually a runaway bull market” – one he assures us a few months’ later has guaranteed the US’s role at the epicentre of a “a global boom, marked by a spread of free-market capitalism like we’ve never seen before.”

Sept 2007: Warns us that “it’s very easy to be totally pessimistic and bearish right now, but that’s precisely why I will avoid falling into that trap. Optimists are winners. Pessimists are losers.”

Sticks to this creed throughout the quarter in which the recession got underwayOctober (“if things are so bad, why are they so good?”), when he says growth is accelerating…November (subprime is “just not that big a deal”)…and December (“the prophets of recessionary doom…have been proven wrong once again”)

In Feb and March 2008, admits that a mild recession is possible, but assures us that “Bernanke’s emergency machinations to fight the recession in housing and housing-related credit are starting to show very positive effects.” There is no “genuine, across-the-board credit crunch,” he tell us in April. As a result, any slump “could be over by late summer.”

In September (with summer a memory and the economic clouds darkening), swoons for Henry Paulson who has embraced the gales of creative destruction and promised “no more federal bailouts. Not for Lehman Brothers. Not for global insurer AIG.”

Three days later, however, swoons for Paulson again, this time for preventing what would have been an “unfathomable” – an AIG collapse. Bailouts, it turns out, are a simply wonderful idea – not only will they save capitalism from doom; for taxpayers they’re a “win-win-win-win.” The government is sure to get its money back – even better it’s highly likely to make “a handsome profit” – enough to “pay down the national debt.”

October 2008: Is appalled by the “fear and panic” that have gripped the economy. “It is one of those moments in history when people feel helpless, frustrated, and bewildered about what’s going on and why it’s happening.” But still assures us that “much good may ultimately come of this terrifying correction.”

November 2008: Is cock-a-hoop at the “economic-primer” George Bush has left for his successor-elect Barack Obama, who apparently now has “an outsized responsibility [eh?] to mend and revive the economy.” Obama needs to access Bush’s wisdom and follow his economic-growth model, one “that has worked so well and so long for this country.”

Yes – that’s right. Bush (“the top economic forecaster in the country”) and his administration have left the US poised for recovery. If it all goes wrong, we’ll all know who to blame – that “extremely liberal-left” guy who is just about to take over. But as long as the new President tries to do what Bush would have done, then everything – my friends – will be alright.

Dennis Blair Right Choice for U.S Spy Chief

Retired Navy Admiral and former commander of U.S. Pacific forces, Dennis C Blair, has reportedly been chosen as Barack Obama’s next Director of National Intelligence (DNI), the country’s senior intelligence job.

Blair, a 6th generation, Oxford-educated naval officer, occupies a number of teaching posts and once served as the first associate director of CIA for military support. He also ran the federally-funded Institute for Defense Analysis before being forced out after a conflict of interest dispute.

But it is his role as the Deputy Director of the Project on National Security Reform, a bi-partisan, Congressionally-funded reform initiative, that may say most about how, if confirmed, Blair intends to manage the U.S intelligence community. For despite the misgiving of some like Bob Baer, the former CIA analyst, Blair is both a manager and a reformer.

During my time in Washington, DC, I spent a little time with Blair, who struck me as a reformer with deep insights into how both soldiers and spies work and think. See this clip where he argues that the U.S government needs to work on the basis of “integrated, agile, collaborative, inter-agency teams” rather than the departmental stove-pipes currently in existence. Not the sound of a status-quo thinker.

Being reform-minded, however, will only go so far. Blair will need to will reform, demand reform, and pursue reform. For most intelligence-watchers believe that the Bush administration’s post 9/11 intelligence reforms were hurried and have created as many problems as they have solved. The current spy chief, Admiral Mike McConnell has done what he could to improve the situation, launching a 100-day initiative when he took over from John Negroponte, to improve “integration and collaboration” across the many intelligence agencies. Meanwhile Robert Gates has scaled down the Pentagon’s footprint on intelligence.

Yet most people believe the situation needs to improve further if the U.S is to get more for the $43 billion it spends annually on intelligence. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has become a large bureaucratic contraption with hundreds of personnel camped out in a Washington airbase. Many staff are unclear about their roles vis-à-vis their CIA colleagues.

The DNI himself, though he briefs the president daily, has only limited authority over the 16 agencies in the intelligence community as the reform legislation did not give the spy chief the kind of budgetary muscle needed to lead the intelligence community. In spite of the efforts of Gates and McConnell the National Security Agency, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office remain under Pentagon’s command. 

Then there is the question of domestic intelligence. Many believe the U.S should create a domestic intelligence agency like Britain’s Security Service. But how to do so and avoid adding complexity to the intelligence system, slowing down rather than promoting information flows among the existing agencies, while respecting civil liberties? And who would run such an agency – the DNI, the Homeland Security Secretary, the FBI, the CIA?

Finally, there is a need to look again at Congress’ role. Oversight has deteriorated amid battles between different committees. The President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and the Intelligence Oversight Board have also atrophied in the last eight years while the Bush administration failed to create a Civil Liberties Board, despite being mandated to do so by Congress.

Blair seems well-placed to lead a reform process without allowing it to descend into something like the Church Committee hearings, which investigated intelligence-gathering by the CIA and FBI after the Watergate affair, but ended up encouraging many of the intelligence community’s bad traits. No doubt his confirmation process will drag up the conflict-of-interest case that forced him out of his last government-funded job, as well as his controversial role in opening diplomatic ties with Suharto’s Indonesia.

But the real question is: how ambitious will Obama be in leading changes in Congress; and reforms in the Executive Branch to ensure a well-functioning intelligence apparatus that can deal with foreign and domestic threats, produce politically-neutral assessments, work with other government departments and guarantee civil liberties. Obama’s choice of Blair shows the President Elect wants to reform, but also wants to keep the intelligence community on board.

Deadlock in Ghana

One of Africa’s few shining lights, Ghana, is on tenterhooks as it awaits the result of an incredibly closely-fought general election. Publication of the results has been delayed, as the remote outpost of Tain in the west has yet to vote in the second round because of problems with voting materials. The national result is so tight that Tain, with just 23,000 voters, could be decisive. The poll there will open on Friday.

Ghana is important not just because it is one of very few West African countries that is not mired in corruption, civil strife and abject poverty (although there is plenty of the latter and not a little of the former if you look hard enough). It is also one of only a handful of countries on the entire continent that has regular peaceful democratic elections (it has had five since 1992). After the debacles in Kenya and Zimbabwe in the last two years, and after the recent coups in Guinea and Mauritania, it is crucial that Ghana’s poll passes off peacefully.

So far, there has been relatively little unrest, but as Chris Blattman reports, tensions are rising by the day:

My friend Naunihal sends me this dispatch, cobbled together hastily this afternoon (he urges me to tell you):

The situation is starting to look like Bush v. Gore. The election commissioner just said that the opposition leads by 23,000 votes and that there is one constituency where there was no election for security reasons which has over 50,000 votes that will vote just after new years.

But it gets messier. The incumbent party (NPP) points out that 2 big constituencies in Kumasi (its key area of support) were not included in the officially counted votes (probably because they are contested) and that it won one of those by over 51,000 votes.

In addition, they point out that in 11 constituencies in the opposition’s key area of the Volta region, NPP poling agents were thrown out and did not sign the election returns. I’ve seen the violence done to one of the party election observers – he was beaten and stoned and may lose his eye.

Right now fear is running high in Accra. Makola Market, the main market, is closed because of fear of violence. I’m getting reports right now from people aligned with the NPP, so I’m only hearing about NDC “Machomen” riding around in empty streets.

The constituency that has yet to vote for the President, voted against the incumbent party at the Parliamentary level, thus kicking out the incumbent MP. So it looks good for the opposition in that area, but everything is really too close to call.

And rumors are spreading that the election commissioner is under pressure from the incumbent government to throw things their way.

None of this is good in terms of street level tensions and legitimacy for whichever candidate gets declared.

Update: Fortunately, the election concluded peacefully, as Nana Akufo-Addo of the New Patriotic Party graciously conceded defeat to John Atta Mills’ National Democratic Congress. A rare example of a peaceful democratic transition, then, from one African party to another, and further evidence that Ghana really is a beacon of hope for the region. Let’s hope leaders in other parts of the continent take note.