Sunday, February 18, 2007

Opinion: The "Hot-Air" Debate on Iraq

Here's another great "polemic" on Iraq from my good friend Curt Jones. (Click here to read his previous posting on this blog.) Curt is a retired foreign service officer who spent practically all of his thirty year career in the Middle East. Now a leading expert on the region, he's a relentless critic of the Bush administration's Iraq and Palestine policies, but he faults the Democrats just as severely for their failure to pose a serious challenge to those policies.*

Surge versus Redeploy Equals Zero

       Congress is perpetrating another fraud. This time the issue is Iraq. The debate is intense, but off-target: The result is nonbinding, and both sides are missing the point.

       From the surgers, we hear irrelevant allusions to the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the resolve and sacrifice that made America great. Worse, they are recycling the myth about “Islamic fascism” while avoiding the elementary fact that the illegal and misguided invasion was the original sin.

       From the redeployers, we hear desperate efforts to clothe disengagement in artful phrases that don’t sound like surrender, backed by overoptimistic expressions of hope that the challenge will galvanize the Maliki government into taking charge of a situation that may have gotten out of any faction’s control.

       Neither side tells us the truth, because we voters have never been good at swallowing bad news. Politicians avoid it like the plague. No one is going to admit that an American soldier died in vain. But after four years, three thousand deaths on 9/ll, tens of thousands of deaths in Iraq, and three million Iraqi refugees, the time is long past to bite the bullet: American policy in the Middle East is imperialist, and imperialism always loses.

       It started with oil: Back in 1945, FDR made a seemingly innocuous promise to protect Saudi Arabia in return for an inside track to Saudi oil. Today, that promise has snowballed into security guarantees to seven precarious regimes, backed by an overwhelming complex of ground, air, and naval installations across the Middle East.

       In 1948, America orchestrated the insertion of a Jewish state into a non-Jewish environment. As the inevitable Arab-Iranian-Israeli conflict escalated over the years, American support for Israel escalated in synchrony, until their foreign policies were inextricable. Whenever Israel went to war, America joined in – though generally behind the scenes.

       On December 26, 1991, the Russian flag replaced the hammer and sickle over the Kremlin, and America awoke to the realization that it was the last superpower left standing. Statesmen would have seized that opportunity to enlist the new American colossus in the cause of international comity, but America’s leaders of the time were politicians; they seized the opportunity for aggrandizement of parochial American interests. In September 2002 President George W. Bush issued “The National Security Strategy of the United States” – a blueprint for world domination. It professes dedication to freedom, but it is couched in the chauvinist rhetoric of triumphalism.

       In this spirit, America has staked a partisan claim to Middle East oil, underwritten preeminence of Jewish rights over Arab rights in Palestine, and waged a campaign to promote docile regimes across the Middle East.

       In March 2003, this campaign culminated in the disastrous effort to change the regime in Iraq. There’s nothing we can do about that now. Iraq is out of American control. Our problem is to get the troops out. The operative questions are how soon and how far.

       If you’re a politician, timing is everything. When disaster looms, you do your best to stave it off until you’re out of office. As for redeployment, reasonable observers have expressed the hope that we might be able to confine the conflagration to Iraq by maintaining military readiness around the periphery. This strategy is not promising. Someday the United States will choose to take all its ground troops out of the Middle East.

       For now, let’s quash those rumors of American and/or Israeli preemption – possibly even nuclear – against Iran. If Washington starts to display signs of dementia, the public has an existential interest in taking corrective action.

* Curtis Jones is the author of Divide and Perish, the Geopolitics of the Middle East (AuthorHouse 2006).

Friday, February 16, 2007

In Niger, "Trees Turn Back the Desert"— but it's too soon to celebrate

Ambassador James Bullington astonished his foreign service colleagues (including me) when he marked his retirement at the end of a 37-year career as a diplomat by signing up with Peace Corps to run its program in Niger, one of Africa's poorest countries. After reading the New York Times' interesting and hopeful piece on Niger* last Sunday, I asked Jim how well it matched what he had learned about the country during his six sun-burnt years there. Here is his response, plus two of his own photos:

The New York Times article on the greening of the desert in Niger is a welcome change from the gloomy reports of famine, disease, war and other disasters that dominate news reports from Africa. It's backed by what seems to be good scientific evidence, and it's consistent with what I saw during my time as Peace Corps Director in Niger, 2000-2006. Perhaps the best news in the article is that this progress in reclaiming areas that fell barren due to desertification has been achieved by simple, low cost methods undertaken by ordinary farmers, not by a massive (and probably unsustainable) government project.

The article is less than satisfyingly informative, however, on how millions of illiterate farmers were inspired to protect existing trees and were given the rudimentary skills needed to reclaim land that has turned into hardpan and plant new trees on it. In fact, this has been a decades-long process facilitated by the Niger Government (with regional tree nurseries and arbor day campaigns), and fostered especially by more than 3000 American Peace Corps Volunteers who have lived in Nigerien villages and promoted tree planting and other conservation techniques over the past 45 years. Peace Corps remains very active in Niger, with about 120 Volunteers working today alongside poor rural people in extraordinarily harsh conditions. They are highly appreciated by the people they serve, and by the Nigerien Government, but they receive little credit from Americans and little notice by the American media.

Also, in spite of the very good news that the long-term southward creep of the Sahara seems to have been halted or even reversed in Niger during the past few years, we need to bear in mind that this is only one of the problems besetting this poorest of the world's countries. (It ranks 177 out of 177 countries covered in the United Nations Development Program's 2006 Human Development Index.) An even worse problem, for example, is uncontrolled population growth, which has been running at 3.3% to 3.6% annually for decades and shows no signs of moderating. This means that the population doubles every 20 years or so. In 1960, it was only 3 million. Today, it is 14 million, and it is projected to reach 23 million by 2020. Consequently, per capita GDP has been falling steadily, and most Nigeriens are even poorer today than they were in the 1960s.

Moreover, while land reclamation and more trees are certainly useful, they can't even solve the problems of water availability and soil fertility, much less cope with global warming. Water tables have continued to drop throughout most of Niger, as water is drawn off to support the growing human and animal demands; and per-hectare yields of millet and other food crops are falling as increasingly marginal land is brought under cultivation.

Although the good news of a greener Niger is most welcome, any tendency to celebrate should be restrained by the grim realities of intractable problems and poor prospects. Niger needs a lot more help, over many years, if it is to be lifted from its grinding poverty.

*Lead photo by Michael Kanber for The New York Times