At the urging of the United States, the United Nations Security Council passed on Wednesday a resolution permitting Iraq to have a civilian nuclear program. The resolution, which also lifted prohibitions on exports to Iraq of certain materials that could be used to develop nuclear and other unconventional weapons, was one of several U.S.-backed measures to end restrictions that dated from before the invasion that removed Saddam Hussein from power. The Council's action represented a retreat from its earlier position that it would not lift the nuclear restrictions unless Baghdad accepted an additional protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that provides for more intrusive international inspections. The Council's action in affirming Iraq's right to a peaceful nuclear program is ironic in view of the obsessive campaign to deny the country on its eastern border the same right.
During my recent conversations in Athens with Greek officials, it was apparent that they were extremely anxious to demonstrate their country’s valuable contributions to the policy objectives of the United States and NATO. In particular, several people stressed the importance of the large Greek air and naval bases at Souda Bay, on the island of Crete. And they had a point, since U.S. and other NATO forces have access to those installations. Souda Bay has played a crucial logistical role in numerous missions, including the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s and the current U.S. operation in Iraq.
Indeed, when the administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton considered which NATO military bases could be closed once the Cold War ended, a top Pentagon official reportedly stated that he could live with most possible closures—as long as budget cutters kept their hands off Souda Bay.
The desire of the Greek government to emphasize the value of that facility--and other contributions to Western strategic goals--is understandable. In particular, officials fret that Washington persistently regards Turkey as a more important ally. They want to make the case that Greece is also important, and that it is more reliable than Turkey. Given Ankara’s sometimes maverick behavior, such as the recent opposition to new economic sanctions against Iran, Athens is gaining some traction with that argument.
The Obama administration's Afghanistan strategy review is out, and the New York Times is reporting that although allied troops have seized the initiative in Kandahar (where quoted Taliban leaders are saying things that seem to come right out of General David Petraeus's script, i.e., admitting that "we did not provide" the population "with anything except fighting" and now the locals won't cooperate; or that the public became "hopeful" after the Americans announced "they would stay until 2014."), they appear to be losing ground in the northern part of the country.
And the Wall Street Journal headlines that the tenuous progress means the administration will (surprise!) hold off on making any decisions about changing strategy, tactics or troop levels. (Paul Pillar details some reasons for the indecision here.) But President Obama says the study shows that America is "on track" to meeting its "goals" and can start withdrawing in July.
Drum roll, please… the day of the Afghanistan strategy review has finally arrived. As anticipated, the report says that U.S. forces can begin drawing down in Afghanistan starting in July, though the number of forces that can leave is still vague. Citing headway made against insurgents as a positive, the review notes that the progress thus far is fragile and can easily disappear unless it is consolidated by, for example, going after militants in Pakistan. An unclassified summary was released today, and President Obama, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, is expected to present the strategy review today.
Julian Assange is a free man again. He was released today by Britain's high court on bail of 240,000 pounds. This might be a new trend: England took an Australian and imprisoned him. In the past they used to ship their convicts to Australia.
Sweden continues to hope to extradite Assange and try him on allegations of sexual crimes. But the American government, singed by the WikiLeaks revelations, livid at the exposure of its diplomats, wants to take him down as well. The eager beavers at the Justice Department are working overtime to concoct a case against Assange. According to a New York Times report,
Among materials prosecutors are studying is an online chat log in which Private Manning is said to claim that he had been directly communicating with Mr. Assange using an encrypted Internet conferencing service as the soldier was downloading government files. Private Manning is also said to have claimed that Mr. Assange gave him access to a dedicated server for uploading some of them to WikiLeaks.
Maybe the government can eventually put Assange on trial for conspiring with Private Manning, who is himself in the brig. But I continue to think it's a bad idea. And a silly one.
The only thing a trial will accomplish is to give Assange a fresh pulpit and turn him into a martyr. Already a petition is being circulated by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights defending Assange. The petition makes a simple but persuasive case that Assange shouldn't be censored. The case of Assange could become a huge and fresh sore point between America and Europe. It would be ironic if the Obama administration, in pursuing Assange, ended up reviving the kind of anger that existed toward America during the Bush years.
Another “review” by the administration of policy toward Afghanistan is an occasion for reviewing the different roles played by Americans who have something to say about the Afghan war.
The president has to play the role of the commander in chief of a military expedition that is accomplishing something. Americans expect that from their presidents in time of war. We know that Mr. Obama has serious reservations about the size and duration of the commitment that the United States has undertaken in Afghanistan, but he must put up a brave and confident face because of that public expectation and for other reasons. One of those reasons is his own political baggage, which includes his admirable opposition from the beginning to the ill-advised war in Iraq, leaving the war in Afghanistan as the contrasting “good” war through which he is expected to demonstrate his fortitude on matters of national security. His current political status does not lead him to diverge from these expectations. Democrats can cause him some grief over the issue, but Republicans could cause him even more if he were to change course. Besides, where else would Democrats go in 2012?
According to the New York Times, Japan is set to release later this week a new defense strategy that will focus less on Cold War–era fights with the Russians to the north, "in favor of...more mobile units that could respond to China’s growing presence near its southernmost islands." The reports, first circulated in Japanese newspapers over the weekend, have attracted little attention here in the States. Nonetheless, according to the Times, the shift was partly precipitated by pressure from Washington. "The United States is making new calls for Japan to increase its military role in eastern Asia," the Times reported, "in response to recent provocations by North Korea as well as China’s more assertive stance in the region."
If that is true, the Obama administration has an odd way of going about its business. After all, when then–Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama requested last year that the United States renegotiate the terms of the six-decades long U.S. Marine Corps presence on Okinawa, the Obama administration flatly refused. Indeed, Washington's intransigence ultimately led to Hatoyama's humiliating resignation from office in June. If the Obama administration was truly committed to ensuring that Japan played a larger role in its own defense, and in its region, U.S. officials would have seized upon Hatoyama's professed desire to reduce Japan's dependence upon the United States for its defense.
General David Petraeus, the commander of forces in Afghanistan, remembered special envoy Richard Holbrooke yesterday in the Washington Post. Petraeus said that Holbrooke’s “vision, tirelessness and determination will inspire all of us in the months ahead.” The two worked closely together, and Petraeus fondly referred to Holbrooke as his “diplomatic wingman.”
Also yesterday, State Department spokesman PJ Crowley tried to shed some light on the rumors going around about Holbrooke’s last words. Crowley, who noted that he had “consulted with a number of folks who were in the room” before a sedated Holbrooke went into surgery on Friday, said the special representative had a lengthy conversation with his medical team, who tried to get him to relax. Holbrooke said that was impossible, “I’m worried about Afghanistan and Pakistan,” to which his surgical team replied that they’d try to deal with it while he was in surgery. And Holbrooke responded, “Yeah, see if you can take care of that, including ending the war.” Crowley noted that the exchange reflected Holbrooke’s determination to bring the situations in Afghanistan and Pakistan “to a successful conclusion.”
It's time to kill the estate tax. End it, don't mend it. So says Ray D. Madoff, a professor at Boston College Law School, in today's New York Times.
His point is simple. Americans don't believe in the tax. The idea of confiscating wealth at death has itself become toxic for the Democratic party. It amounts, in essence, to a double tax on income. Originally designed to break up the enormous concentration of wealth in America, the estate tax has now run its course. Already Obama has acceded to lowering it to 35 percent for the next two years. Writing in the Washington Post, Rep. Chris Van Hollen sounds the traditional Democratic mantra about the iniquities of failing to tax estates at a higher rate.
But as Madoff puts it,
After all, the Democrats have already lost the battle. The president’s proposal is fresh evidence that even Democrats have given up championing the fundamental value that the estate tax was originally intended to promote. This tax, first enacted in 1916, was never intended to be simply a device for raising revenue. Rather, it was meant to address the phenomenon of a small number of Americans controlling large amounts of the country’s wealth — which was considered a national problem.
The New York Times and Wall Street Journal are reporting that the U.S. Air Force has blocked its personnel from viewing websites posting the WikiLeaked classified diplomatic cables and documents. This includes not only specific articles that mention the leaks, but entire sites of media outlets that have posted the documents. So members of the Air Force can't read the Times (and about twenty-five other organizations) at work. Violators have been warned "that they face punishment if they try" to see the files on "unauthorized Web sites." Strangely, though, the other branches of the armed forces have not taken the same step, simply relying on the good will of their employees to follow the White House directive that the classified files should be treated as such and not looked at by people without security clearances. Responding to the policy, a Times spokeswoman called it "unfortunate."