Never-Ending Stories

Peace processes don’t work.

In the Newspaper Roundup, The National Interest distills the day's foreign-policy editorials.


Never-Ending Stories (April 27)

Yesterday, we noted Richard Haass's op-ed on how the United States shouldn't focus all its energy on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Today, Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens takes that viewpoint, broadens it and makes it global. While Haass was concerned with the disadvantages of pursuing a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace plan, Stephens is convinced that all peace processes are a bad idea.

He uses the recent sinking of a South Korean naval vessel as a springboard for his thoughts. It is suspected by some that North Korea torpedoed the ship. "Kim Jong Il," Stephens writes, "likes his metaphors to be as literal as possible. When he wants to blow up diplomacy with the U.S., he detonates a nuke. When he wants to torpedo relations with South Korea, he torpedoes one of their ships." Despite this bellicosity, Stephens believes that a lot of people in the West simply don't get it: "Every time [Kim Jong Il] bids to be the Worst Person in the World, some liberal chimes in to explain that he's just a short, misunderstood man driving a tough peace bargain, badly in need of Jimmy Carter's TLC."

Stephens sees the Obama administration's approach to peacemaking-presumably not only in North Korea, but also in Israel, Iran and other trouble spots-as little different. Although Stephens doesn't explicitly say so, he seems to believe that this sort of diplomacy emphasizes process and dialogue above all else, even if process and dialogue aren't producing any results. The Obama team, Stephens argues, isn't the first to employ this method-it has a long pedigree in American statecraft, dating back to the first Bush administration, and continuing on during the Clinton years.

Back then, Foggy Bottom had all kinds of peace plans, for the Koreas, Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Columbia and Sri Lanka. "Name your intractable conflict," Stephens says, "and the U.S. State Department had its hand off-the-shelf appliance to deal with it."

Were any of these programs successful? Well, the Northern Ireland one was. But Stephens isn't willing to concede that American involvement in the dispute helped end the conflict between unionists and republicans. The eventual settlement "owed less to George Mitchell's interventions than to the fact that the conflict-pitting prosperous, English-speaking Irish Protestants against increasingly prosperous, English-speaking Irish Catholics-no longer made sense to the bourgeois terrorists at the helm of the IRA."

Meanwhile, the other peace plans didn't work at all. The Sierra Leone deal "collapsed within months." Colombia's resolution "ceded an area the size of Switzerland to the FARC" leftist rebel organization. Instead of getting along with Bogota, the FARC "used its safe haven to better arm itself, take high-profile hostages, train foreign terrorists and nearly overthrow the government." The Palestinians and Israelis went on disagreeing. And North Korea's peace deal involved the transfer of "several hundred million dollars" from Seoul to Pyongyang "for a June 2000 photo-op summit that produced nothing."

Not a very good track record. Why, then, do we persist in this peace-process framework if it doesn't achieve anything? Stephens believes that "even as peace processes almost invariably fail between the warring parties, they also almost invariably succeed as political theatre for the peace processors themselves." Quite a few of the leaders involved in the above proposals (Stephens mentions Kim Dae Jung, Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and President Obama) won Nobel prizes for their work. As such, what Stephens sees as a meaningless political charade will continue, as "the peace processors . . . bask in the glow of their good intentions." But it will be to their, and their nation's, detriment. For "wicked men, convenient partners in this game of self-congratulation, illusion and deceit, will plot their own advantage."


The Distraction (April 26)

Richard Haass is getting tired of President Obama's great interest in the Arab-Israeli peace process. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, he argues that while "peace between Israelis and Palestinians would be of real value" and "constitute a major foreign-policy accomplishment for the United States," it wouldn't be a panacea. "It is easy to exaggerate," Haass writes, "how central the Israel-Palestinian issue is and how much the U.S. pays for the current state of affairs." A peace settlement certainly won't solve all our problems in the Middle East. In fact, it might even serve as a distraction from far more pressing issues that need to be dealt with-now.

Take Iraq, for example. Haass notes that the country is in the midst of a peaceful political struggle to form a new government. Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds all want to participate in the process. They are "divided over the composition of the new government, how to share oil revenues, and where to draw the border between Kurdish and Arab areas." The creation of a Palestinian state would do absolutely nothing to resolve "any of these power struggles."

Afghanistan, meanwhile, is stewing in its own political conflict. And the United States is ramping up its operations in the country. Will peaceful relations between Israel and a potential "Palestine" have any impact on the Taliban and its own, highly localized grievances? Will a fancy peace treaty do anything to stop the "weak and corrupt" Hamid Karzai's frustration of "American efforts to build up a government that is both willing and able to take on the Taliban?" Probably not.

Then there's Iran. It, of course, has a burgeoning nuclear program. Would the creation of a Palestinian state do anything to stop Tehran from building a bomb? Nope, says Haass. A peace deal might actually "reinforce" Iran's "nuclear aspirations." The mullahs would be "sidelined by the region's embrace of a Palestinian state and acceptance of Israel, perhaps causing Tehran to look to nuclear weapons to compensate for its loss of standing and influence."

And herein lies the rub. According to Haass, none of the issues that really effect U.S. interests in the Middle East will be changed all that much by an Arab-Israel peace settlement. As such, that the peace process is a noisy distraction from problems that are of far greater import to American security.

In addition to this power calculation, there's also the issue of timing. America's relations with Israel aren't so hot right now. And both the Israelis and the Palestinians aren't very keen on speaking with one another. If we propose a peace agreement, it isn't very likely to succeed, says Haass: "Announcing a comprehensive plan now-one that is all but certain to fail-risks discrediting good ideas, breeding discussion in the Arab world, and diluting America's reputation for getting things done."

Instead of worrying about a grand, comprehensive settlement that will bring peace to the Holy Land, we instead need to focus on repairing our relationship with Israel so that we can deal with the "most important issue" facing our two countries: Iran. A "protracted disagreement over the number of settlements or the contours of a final settlement," writes Haass, "is a distraction that would benefit neither the U.S. nor Israel, given an Iranian threat that is close at hand and a promise of peace that is distant."


The Korengal (April 23)

As you might have heard, last week the American army pulled out of the Korengal valley, a remote locale in northeastern Afghanistan. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Bing West explains why the army decided to retreat. Because the Korengal is so isolated, getting supplies to the troops based there "required onerous air operations." And the locals didn't want much of anything to do with the American soldiers. West quotes a blunt "Korengali elder" who didn't mince words: "Everybody hates them [the Americans]. . . . They shoot at people, they raid our houses and kill our women and children."

As such, West writes that "the presence of U.S. troops was a source of conflict in the valley." The tribesmen wanted to be left alone. The American high command, which "never designed a successful campaign for holding small villages in mountainous terrain in northeast Afghanistan," decided to leave, betting that "the Korengali fighters would simply settle into their remote 10th century caliphate and, regardless of whether they remained hostile to the U.S., not carry the war outside their valley."

West isn't sure what to make of this approach. During his own trips to the Korengal, his interpreters "estimated that a third of the voices on the local radio transmissions . . . had Pakistani-tinged accents, a third were Pashto, and a third were local dialects," which would seem to indicate "that foreigners and many locals were working in unison." It also convinced West that "Korengali elders who were part of the insurgency would never come to shun hard-core jihadists who came from Pakistan to organize attacks on Americans."

Bad news? Well, it certainly isn't good. But is it something that could derail the entire U.S. effort in Afghanistan? There is one thing of which West is certain: if we can't control the area, "President Hamid Karzai also won't be able to control it after our soldiers withdraw." The question now is whether or not Korengal will remain an isolated outpost of jihadism, or if it will serve as a base to attack American and Afghan soldiers. West believes that if "the lowland, richer Pashtun tribes will accept the presence of more Afghan soldiers (mostly Tajiks) and resist the gangs of local insurgents," it's more likely that the Korengali will keep their jihadism to themselves. But if "Taliban propaganda about an inevitable U.S. withdrawal infects the social organisms of the lowland tribes" and "raids and oppression increase," violent Islamism could spread outward from the region.

West believes that "we will know in about a year whether the Korengal is an isolated failure or a bridgehead for insurgents." Whatever happens, West thinks the American retreat from the area is an illustration that "our counterinsurgency doctrine of winning hearts and minds with good will and material projects can be checkmated by Islamic extremism and tribal xenophobia."


Iraq's Progress (April 22)

As you might have heard or read, Iraqi security forces recently killed one of the top leaders of al-Qaeda in Iraq. In today's paper, the Washington Post's editors praise the development, and note that Iraq is making a lot of progress. To Western eyes, this may seem a bit premature. Baghdad still hasn't managed to settle the election it had back in March. The loser of that poll, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, is suspected of trying to reverse the outcome by agitating for a vote recount in Baghdad-which an Iraqi election monitoring body approved this week. The supporters of the election winner, former-Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, are concerned Maliki will commit voter fraud during the recount. The possibility of a jealous incumbent stealing an election, simmering political tensions-isn't this the same, violent Iraq we've been trying to stabilize for the past six years?

Not really, says the Post. What isn't happening in Iraq's election dispute is perhaps more telling about the country's character than what is. "There is no sign," write the editors, "that Sunnis, Kurds or Shiites have responded to the election results or the uncertainty about the next government by taking up arms." And "civilian casualties as a whole over the past three months are at the lowest point since 2003." In short, while there's a lot of boisterous political intrigue, massive sectarian violence hasn't returned to Iraq-which means the country has made some major strides since its near descent into civil war four years ago.

Even Maliki's potentially shady dealings obscure some "good news": that "Mr. Maliki and his principal rivals appear to agree that the next government will be cross-sectarian, with representatives of Sunni and Kurdish voters as well as the majority Shiites." Although this "may not lead to the most capable or coherent of governments," it "could ensure that Iraq's slow progress toward peace continues"-and give America an opening to withdraw its troops from the Middle Eastern country.


Dealing with Tehran (April 21)

Are sanctions enough to stop Iran? Apparently, Defense Secretary Gates isn't so sure-hence the eponymous memo he sent to senior administration officials that, according to the New York Times, argues "the United States does not have an effective long-range policy for dealing with Iran's steady progress toward nuclear capability." Gates's reasoning (which he has subsequently distanced himself from) seems to have convinced David Ignatius that sanctions alone might not prevent Tehran from going nuclear.

In his column for the Washington Post, Ignatius notes that the White House is hard at work on crafting a sanctions package that aims to "build a sticky trap" for Iran-"so that the harder the Iranians try to wriggle out of the sanctions, the more tightly they will be caught in the snare." To that end, Stuart Levey, the undersecretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, is devising a sanctions regime with "several interlocking components," including:

 . . . a new UN Security Council resolution to add sanctions against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and its affiliated companies, along with other Iranian firms involved in manufacturing, transporting and financing weapons shipments and other illicit activities.

But because anything coming out of the UN will be "watered down" by China and Russia, Ignatius writes that the Obama administration is also crafting "private" sanctions to be used by America and its friends against the Iranian regime. These would target specific Iranian financial institutions and business, and their penalties would increase if Tehran tried to sneakily circumvent the UN sanctions.

The objective is to make the cost of doing business with Iran and Iranian companies prohibitively expensive. And such a strategy has worked in the past-Ignatius gives the example of Lloyds and Credit Suisse, which both did business with an Iranian bank. Once Western monitors found out, the companies were slapped with fines for $217 million and $536 million respectively. As such, "most global banks have decided that doing business with Tehran isn't worth the risk." If Iran is cut off from the international financial markets, it will have a big economic problem, to say the least.

Even so, Iran still has banking operations that slip through our fingers, "which illustrates the difficulty of using sanctions to force a change in policy." In Ignatius's view, we simply don't know if economic penalties will stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. That's why "for policymakers, the discussion is beginning to shift to the sensitive area suggested by Gates's memo-the space between sanctions and outright military action." What are the strategies we can use "short of war, to raise the cost to Iran of pursuing a nuclear weapons program?" Does this involve "subverting, sabotaging or containing such a program" without actually bombing targets in the Iran? It's unclear.

Presumably owing to the necessity of keeping such matters behind closed doors, Ignatius thinks "we won't be hearing a lot of public discussion about this gray area." But he believes "that's where senior officials will focus more of their energy in the coming months," as they ready for the possibility that sanctions alone might fail to get the job done.


Grounded (April 20)

Globetrotters and travelers of all sorts have had a bad week. As you probably have heard, a volcano in Iceland ruined everyone's April by spewing tons of dark ash into the heavens over Europe, making airplane travel all over the Continent unsafe. For many people, this has been an incredible inconvenience and might even result in major financial losses for businesses across the globe.

Well, boo hoo, says Seth Stevenson. Writing in the New York Times, Stevenson argues that the volcano was one of the best things that could have happened to the jet set. It returned us to a time of "700-mile taxi rides through Scandinavia" and "horse-drawn stagecoach" journeys "over the Alps," reminding travelers of "the romance we trade away each time we shuffle board an airplane."

The problem with jets, Stevenson writes, is that they are an "empty, soulless way to traverse the planet." They are "a means of ignoring the spaces in between your point of origin and your destination." Land- and water-based travel, by contrast, forces you to interact with your environment. You have the chance to look at the terrain rolling by. And car and ship journeys take a lot longer. As such, "surface transport can be contemplative, picturesque and even enchanting in a way that air travel never will be." With planes, it isn't so: it's hard to think about the meaning of life in a tiny seat and over the din of crying babies.

Flying also robs travelers of one of the joys of traveling: meeting people. Stevenson, for example, took the Trans-Siberian Railway across Russia and drove through the Australian outback. This allowed him to interact with actual Russians and Australians: "Going our way meant sharing bread and cheese with kindly Russians in a shared train cabin, and drinking beers with Australian jackaroos (we'd call them cowboys) at a lonely desert roadhouse. These are warm, vivid memories that will stay with us forever." Such pleasant thoughts, he opines, are hard to come by on an airplane-in fact, Stevenson argues that "the best flights are . . . the ones you forget immediately after hitting the tarmac."

In short, Stevenson finds airplanes to be unnatural and devoid of humanity. Sure, they get us to where we want to go faster than any other mode of transport we've yet discovered. But in placing speed over all else, we've lost something, a certain romanticism-which Stevenson, in the midst of delays and inconveniences, hopes volcano-stranded travelers in Europe can view a silver lining to their current troubles.


Other Priorities (April 19)

Jackson Diehl thinks that President Obama has the wrong set of Mideast foreign-policy priorities. Writing in the Washington Post, Diehl asserts that America "faces three big strategic challenges in the Middle East." First is Iran. Second is the Arab-Israeli conflict. And third is "the corrupt and crumbling Arab autocracies of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and half a dozen other states, which fuel Islamic extremism and provide almost all of al-Qaeda's recruits." Obama, Diehl believes, is focusing all his energies on the first two areas and slighting the third.

This wouldn't necessarily be an issue if conditions in the Middle East were different. American "diplomacy can have an impact on all of [these] problems-but Washington can't impose solutions by itself," Diehl writes. "It has to seek or create moments of opportunity and then use them well." The problem with Obama's prioritizing is that there aren't moments of opportunity in Iran and Israel, his primary areas of interest. Diehl thinks circumstances are perfectly aligned to produce a breakthrough in changing the nature of the autocratic Arab regimes-but Obama isn't paying much attention to this development.

What, exactly, Diehl asks, is the White House going to do about Iran? Anything "more than delay and containment of Iran's nuclear ambitions is "far-fetched, unless military force is used or a domestic revolution takes place." And the Israelis and Palestinians have next-to-no interest in talking to one another right now. Diehl goes so far as to say that "the conditions on the ground make a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace settlement impossible to accomplish in the short term." Why, then, is Obama spending all his energy on two issues that are extremely unlikely to respond to our pressure at this time?

In contrast, Diehl sees the prospects of democratic change in Arab states as being unusually rosy. Egypt, "the region's bellwether," has an "ailing" strongman in the form of 81-year-old Hosni Mubarak, a "grass-rots pro-democracy movement" with "hundreds of thousands of supporters," and Mohamed ElBaradei, a former UN nuclear inspector and "credible reform leader." Diehl believes all these things add up to an Egypt ready for governmental change.

America could help assist in this shift, by pressing the Mubarak government to give more legal leeway to ElBaradei and his fellow reformers, especially in changing Egypt's constitution "so that next year's presidential election can be genuinely democratic." The $2 billion we provide to Cairo in annual aid is a powerful bargaining chip, and was used before to effect democratic reform, "as George W. Bush demonstrated in 2005, when he induced Mubarak to change the constitution before the last presidential election so that opponents could run against him."

Diehl closes by wondering why Obama is investing so much effort into projects that probably won't turn out very well. Indeed, he points out that "according to [his] colleague David Ignatius, [Obama] is seriously considering putting forward a comprehensive U.S. plan for an Israeli-Arab peace, at the urging of some internal and outside advisers. At a time when neither Israel or the Arab countries are interested in a settlement, Diehl thinks this is inviting "a diplomatic disaster." Across the border in Egypt, however, lies the opportunity for a real American diplomatic victory.

Diehl isn't arguing that Obama should abandon the peace process, or let Iran get a bomb. But "the big challenge for the president is to set aside his preconceived notions about what big thing he can or should accomplish in the region-and seize the opportunity that is actually before him."


Nuclear Spring (April 16)

President Obama's nuclear summit is finally over. Did it accomplish much of anything? Charles Krauthammer doesn't think it did. Writing in the Washington Post, he notes that the meeting was "oddly disproportionate." The last time we had this many foreign leaders on our soil was for the founding of the United Nations in 1945.

That, of course, was a very big deal. But Krauthammer thinks Obama's nuclear gala doesn't begin to match up. Its stated purpose was to "prevent the spread of nuclear material into the hands of terrorists," which Krauthammer believes is a "worthy goal." Yet the "two greatest such threats were not even on the agenda." Iran, which is "frantically enriching uranium to make a bomb, and which our own State Department identifies as the greatest exporter of terrorism in the world" didn't come up. Neither did Pakistan's "plutonium production, which is adding to the world's stockpile of fissile material every day." And though Islamabad is nominally friendly, Krauthammer points out that "it is the most unstable of all the nuclear states." It has an internal Islamist insurgency. It is most likely the hiding place of al-Qaeda's high command. And its own security forces have disturbing links to the Taliban.

Instead of dealing with these pressing matters, the nuclear summit's "major breakthrough" was an agreement on uranium enrichment . . . in "Ukraine, Chile, Mexico and Canada." Krauthammer sarcastically dismisses this accomplishment. Canada isn't exactly the type of place he'd expect to hawk its nuclear wears to wild-eyed mullahs.

Instead of spending a large amount of time and political capital with the leaders of a plethora of foreign countries, Krauthammer thinks such a deal would have been better hashed out by a "meeting of experts in Geneva, who after working out the details, get their foreign ministers to sign off." Because of the high-wattage star power at this week's summit, however, Krauthammer believes it worked as "an exercise in misdirection-distracting attention from the looming threat from Iran, regarding which Obama's 15 months of ‘engagement' has achieved nothing but the loss of 15 months."

Krauthammer sees the meeting as the latest iteration of Obama's "nuclear spring." Last week, he singed a new START treaty with Russia that was "redolent of precisely the kind of Cold War obsolescence Obama routinely decries." And Krauthammer is equally unhappy with the president's Nuclear Posture Review, which he believes is "a softening of the U.S. nuclear deterrent posture."

Note that none of these things have anything to do, at least directly, with Iran, at a time "when top U.S. military officials told Congress that Iran is about a year away from acquiring the fissile material to make a nuclear bomb. Then, only a very few years until weaponization." In closing, Krauthammer says "not to worry. Canadian uranium is secured. A non binding summit communiqué has been issued. And a ‘work plan' has been agreed to.'" In short, the columnist sees the summit as having accomplished little-at the expense of a looming nuclear crisis.


Turmoil in Thailand (April 15)

As you might have heard or read, Thailand is in political turmoil. Low-income supporters of former-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's populist movement have been protesting against the largely middle- and upper-class based government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. Last week, the army moved against the Shinawatra supporters, evicting them from a tent city they had set up in Bangkok to continue their endless protests. The process was violent, and many protestors and troops were killed or wounded.

The editors of the Washington Post think both sides need to calm down. In today's paper, they portray the impasse as being relatively simple: the Thai establishment doesn't like Shinawatra's political program. The Thai masses do. So, in a democratic vote, Shinawatra's party would probably win. The middle- and upper-class elements in the country don't want that to happen, so they're stonewalling calls for new elections.

Right now, Prime Minister Abhisit is "suggesting that he could call an election at the end of this year." The Post's editors think this idea is "dangerous and unlikely to work." Even the army commander voiced that "it might be necessary to meet the protestor's demand that parliament be dissolve and a new election called immediately." What Bangkok ought to learn from this bad experience is "that anti-democratic tactics, from military intervention to street barricades to convenient court edicts, will not end Thailand's turmoil." Free-and-fair elections "should decide who governs Thailand" and "both winners and losers should respect basic political and civil rights."


Funny Money (April 14)

As per usual, the editors of the New York Times are happy with President Obama. This time, they're praising his approach to our recent spat with China over currency valuation. The White House decided to postpone a yearly Treasury report that names and shames currency "manipulators"-and Beijing, which plays fast and loose with the value of the yuan to maintain its dominance of export markets, probably would have been at the top of any such list.

The Times' editors think this is a good idea, largely because "going one on one" with China is "likely to backfire." The Chinese are prickly whenever it comes to issues of sovereignty and nationalism. The "best hope" for dealing with the problem is "sustained pressure from many countries." That way, Beijing won't be able to "hide behind claims of sovereignty and accusations of big power bullying."

As such, the Times demands that Obama "work hard to rally others to jointly press the issue." Once he's got a coalition, the editors suggest that the president confront China at the upcoming G20 meeting in Toronto. America and partner nations must "tell China, in no uncertain terms, that it cannot keep building up its own economy by undercutting the rest of the world's exports." All parties must be clear that China's "global standing will suffer if it does not listen." The grey lady thinks that "under sufficient pressure from its trading partners, Beijing would be likely to relent."

Obama's cause against China's monetary malfeasance is aided by internal divisions within the Chinese bureaucracy. Central bank officials, for instance, "have been arguing for some time that a stronger currency would help them combat rising inflation." Nonetheless, the Times' editors believe that Obama must convince the rest of the world that China's bloated export balance and unfair currency policies aren't just a problem for America-they're an issue for the rest of the world as well.


Atomic Chatter (April 13)

The week's big event in foreign policy is President Obama's nuclear-security summit, which continues today in downtown Washington, DC. Writing from their perch in New York, the Wall Street Journal's editors cast a bemused eye at the whole affair. Sure, the meeting is a nice idea. And it'd be "hard to dislike" the stated goal of the attendees: "to brainstorm ways to secure weapons-grade plutonium and uranium and ensure that terrorists groups don't get their hands on the bomb." To this end, Ukraine "agreed to eliminate its stockpile of highly enriched uranium."

Well, that's "welcome," say the Journal's editors. But it "won't make anyone in the free world sleep better at night." As President Obama duly noted, the real threat the international community faces is nuclear proliferation to terrorist organizations. The Journal thinks, then, that the meeting's agenda should be a no brainer: how to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and North Korea from loaning its missiles to other nefarious characters. If Tehran got nukes, "the danger automatically rises that the world's leading sponsor of terrorism might share [them] with its friends in Hezbollah or Hamas." And "imagine a North Korea hard up for cash and willing to sell a device to al-Qaeda."

Despite the great danger in each of these scenarios, Obama's summit isn't addressing Iran or North Korea. In fact, note the Journal's editors, the meeting agenda purposefully avoided both topics "to ensure that all countries came on board." (China, for example, might "be annoyed by raising such state-sponsored proliferation.") The controversial issue at the outset of the meeting was Israel's nuclear deterrent, which was lambasted by both Egypt and Turkey. Ankara and Cairo's outrage provoked an angry response from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who refused to attend the summit.

This, the Journal's editors argue, is absurd. Israel's nukes don't threaten Turkey, Egypt or the wider Middle East-but an Iranian bomb would. It "would unleash a new age of proliferation that would swamp this week's attempts at controlling nuclear materials."

So, why is Obama spending his time promoting "high-profile nuclear summitry"? Though the Journal concedes that such exercises "have [their] uses," the gabfest won't "mean much if Mr. Obama dodges the hard decisions necessary to stop the world's most dangerous proliferators."


Friends With Seoul (April 12)

South Korea is a fully-developed democracy with a thriving, free-market economy. Why, then, asks Fred Hiatt, is the Obama administration unwilling to work more closely with the country? In the Washington Post, Hiatt relays an interview he had with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. Lee spoke of many things, but stressed the need for a close alliance between Washington and Seoul. He was especially insistent that the pending Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between South Korea and the United States pass the U.S. Congress. But "President Obama," Hiatt notes, "has yet to submit the agreement to Congress for ratification or say when he might do so."

Why the delay? Hiatt argues that South Korea is "an astoundingly successful democracy that wants to be friends." Why wouldn't we return the favor? South Korea is located in a crucial part of the world, and is-like the United States-concerned about a rising China. Lee's "desire for an American counterweight is shared by leaders throughout East and Southeast Asia, but few will say so as candidly." Cast in this light, the FTA is not only an economic treaty-it is a symbol of a solid alliance between South Korea and America. Nonetheless, it has considerable opposition in Congress, from unions and some U.S. corporations, which at least partly explains President Obama's reluctance to push the agreement forward. He'd also face opposition from congressional Democrats were he to do so.

Even so, Hiatt doesn't understand why Obama continues to dither on the issue. He writes that "if anything . . . Lee is too restrained, too polite, to point out how short-sighted the United States to slight Korea." The country has "transformed itself from a Third World military dictatorship to a prosperous democracy that wants to cooperate with the United States in Haiti, Afghanistan and beyond." Why wouldn't we want to become closer friends with such an already staunch ally?


China & the Dollar (April 9)

China has been taking a lot of flak recently for its currency policy, wherein it pegs the yuan to the dollar to keep it undervalued, and thus make Chinese exports artificially cheap on the global market. This, of course, has hampered the economic recovery in the rest of the developed world-if Chinese goods are still the cheapest, where's the space for American or European ones?

The editors of the Washington Post note that this sad chapter in recent economic history might soon be coming to an end. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner recently traveled to China and apparently ironed out some sort of deal on Chinese currency revaluation. The Post's editors are pretty happy about this, pointing out that "in China, some are starting to realize that there are costs to pegging the yuan to what is now, and probably must be for some time to come, a cheap dollar."

In addition, the prospect of action from Beijing on yuan valuation will lighten up the political atmosphere in the United States. Right now, a lot of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are "arguing that tariffs, not more talks, are the only way to get China to change." By negotiating a settlement with Beijing (if indeed that is what has happened), the Obama administration has defused a potential trade war, which would have had disastrous consequences for both countries.

For now, the Post writes that "cooler heads are prevailing on both sides," and "futures markets are betting on a stronger yuan." The form of the compromise will probably look like China's "policy of modest appreciation it had followed from July 2005 to July 2008."

Still, the Post's editors want Beijing and Washington to do more. Such action is "no substitute for the broader policy changes both China and the United States must adopt to rebalance the global economy." But the White House deserves credit in the paper's eyes for making a solid first step in the right direction.


Hugo's Plot (April 8)

The Washington Post's editors are getting concerned about the antics of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez. In today's paper, they note that the caudillo has purchased a large cache of weapons from Russia for a cool $5 billion-"a huge sum for a Latin American country that is deep in recession and busy rationing its water, electricity and hard currency." What's behind Hugo's penchant for Moscow's arms?

The Post's editors think its all "one more sign of the political, economic and human rights meltdown underway in a major U.S. oil supplier-and where it might lead." Chavez has arrested three more leading opposition members. The charges? For one of the imprisoned politicians, it was mentioning the indictment of a Spanish judge "accusing the [Venezuelan] government and armed forces of facilitating contacts between Colombia's left-wing FARC terrorists and those of the Basque group ETA, who were allegedly concocting plots to assassinate the Colombian president and other leading politicians."

The editors write that Chavez's paranoia over the issue is telling, and links it to the arms sale. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is Chavez's bete noire, and the Venezuelan leader "has made little secret of his preference for the FARC over Colombia's democratic government." He has also threatened violence against the country on numerous occasions.

So do the Russian weapons have anything to do with a broader plot to destabilize Colombia? The Post's editors don't explicitly say so. But they are worried that Washington isn't paying enough attention to these developments in South America. Chavez's jailing of opposition leaders was "met with perfunctory-sounding statements of concern." And State's response to the weapons sale was pretty lackadaisical. "Colombians-and average Venezuelans," write the editors, "can only hope such nonchalance is justified."


Ditching Karzai (April 7)

Hamid Karzai has been taking an extended trip off the reservation. Last week, he accused Western officials of perpetrating voter fraud in last year's Afghan presidential election. And he recently threatened that he'd quit the presidency and join the Taliban. It's no wonder that U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry noted in a now-infamous cable to his Washington superiors that the Afghan president is "not an adequate strategic partner." What is America to do with such an unreasonable, and potentially harmful, ally?

TNI contributor Bing West says we should give him "the organizational ‘mushroom treatment'-that is, we should shut off the flows of information and resources directly to the national government." Writing in the New York Times, West argues that if we simply stopped funding Karzai, a lot of our troubles with him (and possibly the president himself) would go away. Right now, we allocate a lot of our resources from Kabul. This allows Karzai to exercise a tremendous amount of political influence, as he doles out the cash to his friends and supporters. Instead, why don't we just give that money directly to provincial officials? If Karzai is cut off from Western aid, he will become increasingly irrelevant in Afghan political life and his support base will evaporate.

West points out that we've done this before, and pretty successfully too. When Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos got to be more trouble than he was worth, President Reagan

warned Marcos that if government troops attacked opposition forces holed up on the outskirts of Manila, it would cause ‘untold damage' to his relations with the United States-meaning the aid spigot would be turned off. When his countrymen saw that he was stripped of prestige and support, they forced Marcos into exile.

A similar fate could await Karzai. After he's out of the picture, West writes that "we should work directly with those local and provincial leaders who will act responsibly, and cut off those who are puppets of Kabul." By definition, this will involve creating a greater role for the Afghan military in local governance, including "in the allocation of aid and the supervision of the police." To a certain extent, this is already happening in Helmand Province, where "the coalition has independent control over $500 million in reconstruction aid and salaries." The local governor has helped us out, and proved "an innovative partner." In any case, the Helmand example proves "that coalition aid need not flow through Kabul."

If this emphasis on provincial leadership, sometimes in the hands of the military, sounds relatively undemocratic, that's because it is. West, however, doesn't find this deficiency all that important. "Although isolating Mr. Karzai will strike many as a giant step backward," he writes, "the truth is that we don't have a duty to impose democracy on Afghanistan." West astutely observes that other countries, like the Philippines and South Korea, "evolved into thriving democracies at their own pace, well after American aid helped to beat back the military threats facing them. It was enough to prevent the Communist takeovers and leave behind governments controlled in the background by a strong military."

West believes we should treat Afghanistan in a similar fashion. We could easily leave a "diminished Hamid Karzai . . . to run a sloppy government, with a powerful, American-financed Afghan military insuring that the Taliban do not take over." Though this risks turning Afghanistan into another Pakistan-"an army that has a country rather than a country that has an army"-West thinks the benefits outweigh the dangers. "We are not obliged," he says, "to build a democratic nation under a feckless leader. We need to defend our interests, and leave the nation-building to the Afghans themselves."


Dry Wells (April 5)

Last week, we noted that President Obama shifted his energy policy and decided to approve oil- and natural-gas drilling operations off the Eastern Seaboard. Environmentalists were not happy, and neither were many pro-energy Republicans. Now, to make matters worse for the White House, the New York Times has published an op-ed arguing that Obama may have engendered all this criticism by permitting drilling in a place that doesn't have very much mineral wealth to begin with.

Michael Lynch writes that though the Atlantic coast has the potential to become an energy-production zone, the level of its mineral wealth is uncertain. "Unfortunately, there is always a possibility that little or no oil or gas will be found in the new sites . . . where past exploration has been confined to a few unsuccessful wells decades ago." Even if there are reserves there, they might take a long time-Lynch says "decades"-to extract, which won't provide any immediate benefit to our economy or quest to become energy independent. And they might be so expensive to access that the consumer wouldn't see cheaper prices at the pump.

The big American energy prize, Lynch opines, is in a region President Obama didn't open up to new exploration: California. "We know from earlier operations," he states, "that it has significantly more resources than the [sic] all the newly opened areas combined." The resources would be cheap to extract and ship to the mainland as well, which would probably bring some price relief to energy consumers. And the tax revenues, totaling around "at least $20 billion a year" would be a big boon to the federal government.

The problem is that petroleum and natural gas exploration on the California coast has become "one of the third rails of American politics" because of a nasty oil spill on a rig off Santa Barbara in the 1960s. Though Lynch stresses that "the petroleum from the new areas isn't going to offset our 12 million barrels a day of imports, and the tax revenues aren't going to put a huge dent in a budget deficit in the hundreds of billions of dollars," he still believes it'd be a good idea to open California's waters to exploration. In his eyes, it'd certainly be "better than spending billions on money-wasting alternatives like ethanol, or taking more tax money directly out of consumers' pockets by raising taxes at the pump."


Defending Drones (April 2)

Perhaps it has something to do with the good cheer that accompanies the end of Lent, or the general sunny weather on the Eastern Seaboard, but for whatever reason, the editors of the Wall Street Journal are certainly in a good mood-so much so that they're praising the Obama administration's conduct of the war on terror. The Journal notes that Harold Koh, the State Department's top legal advisor, gave a speech yesterday to the American Society of International Law in which he made a "meticulous, even fastidious" defense of America's use of drone strikes to kill terrorists. Koh stressed that the attacks are within the realm of international and domestic law.

The Journal's editors also point out that Koh's address "represented a strong defense of the prosecution of the war itself." In their eyes, it couldn't have come at a better time, either: "Mr. Koh's speech was a useful riposte to the growing chatter from the anti-antiterror left." UN officials have been making noise that the drone strikes violate international law. So have "leftist groups" in the United States. The ACLU, for instance, "sued the federal government for information on the drone strikes, including who gets to authorize them and what kind of damage they do." The Journal also snidely notes that "The New Yorker magazine has also been raising a mini-fuss" over the drone issue. The editors "guess that these voices would be louder and more common if Mr. Obama weren't a Democrat, and one virtue of his elevation to Commander in Chief is that it has forced liberals to confront the military and legal realities of defending America."

In any event, the Journal is quite happy at Mr. Koh's spirited defense of drone usage, which the Obama administration seems quite keen on. In a parting shot, the editors write: "it's good to know the Bush Administration's best weapons will be used to keep the enemy on the run."


Offshore Drilling (April 1)

As you might have heard, President Obama has decided to allow offshore oil exploration in formerly protected areas off the eastern seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico. Some environmentalists, including the Sierra Club, condemned the plan as a sop to the oil companies. A few Republicans even said that the plan didn't go far enough toward ensuring America's energy independence. So is anyone actually happy about Obama's policy reversal?

The editors of the Washington Post certainly are. In today's paper, they applaud the decision, stating that "there is no reason to avoid tapping [America's] reserves, if they can be reached affordably and with appropriate care for the environment." The Post thinks the areas Obama opened up for potential drilling fit the bill. And anyway, it's not as if drilling would start tomorrow. We first must find out where exactly the oil is (or if there is any to begin with). So it makes perfect sense to explore our coastal waters. While private companies are searching for the valuable resource, the government can "robustly ensure that ecological disruption is minimized."

The Post's editors think that the main reason to laud the Obama administration's decision, however, is its implications for our energy independence. "Offshore drilling will proceed regardless of whether the government allows it here," they argue. "The alternative, after all, is to import more foreign oil, from among other places, offshore rigs in Nigeria and Azerbaijan, where oversight of the environmental effects might not be as stringent."