Friday, May 29, 2015

Tiptoeing around the fringe.

Last week, Seymour Hersh published The Killing of Osama bin Laden in the London Review of Books. According to Hersh, the Oscar winning movie Zero Dark Thirty chronicling the killing of Osama bin Laden was a work of fiction. According to Hersh, Osama bin Laden was not found through the diligent efforts of a CIA analyst tracking an Al Qaeda courier. The Pakistani intelligence service did know where bin Laden was living and was protecting him. And the Pakistanis were aware of and facilitated the raid on Abbottabad, where Navy Seals killed him.

This is not the first time Hersh has accused Barack Obama of not being forthright with the public. Last year, Hersh published The Red Line and the Rat Line, in which he claimed that the Syrian government of Bashir al Assad did not launch the chemical weapons attack that nearly resulted in a US attack on the Syrian regime. Instead, Hersh asserted that the chemical attack was launched from rebel-held territory as part of a Turkish operation instigated by the President of Turkey, who was seeking to provoke an American attack on the Syrian regime.

The response to Hersh's articles has been unequivocal. With respect to The Killing of Osama bin Laden, Obama administration officials denied Hersh's allegations in the harshest possible terms, while pundits and others in the media have belittled the once-iconic journalist as having become a conspiracy theorist and a crank.

It may well be that Seymour Hersh has wandered off the reservation into the world of conspiracy theories, but he offers in each case a plausible story line that fits well with the motivations of the parties to the conflicts. You don't have to believe Hersh's accounts to find that they illuminate hard truths about the challenges we continue to face in the region.

Hersh's rendition of the killing of bin Laden makes more sense in many respects than what we now understand to be the truth of what transpired. According to the official story, the CIA tracked down bin Laden to a house in Abbottabad by following the movements of an al-Qaeda courier over time. Hersh claims instead that the CIA learned of bin Laden's location from a Pakistani intelligence officer who approached the CIA seeking a part of the $25 million reward offered for the information. According to the official story, neither the Pakistan's military nor its Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) knew of bin Laden's whereabouts at the time of the US raid that killed him. Hersh claims instead that the ISI had located bin Laden in the tribal areas of Pakistan several years earlier and--with the support of the Saudis--was keeping him under wraps in Abbottabad.

And according to the official story, the Pakistanis knew nothing about the US raid until the Navy Seal team was leaving the country after killing the al Qaeda leader. Hersh claims instead that once the US learned from the informant where bin Laden was and demanded his return, the Pakistanis agreed to facilitate the Navy Seal raid as long as they were assured both that bin Laden would not be taken alive and that any Pakistani knowledge of bin Laden's whereabouts or facilitation of the raid would be denied.

The essential assertion of the Hersh story was that Pakistan's intelligence service knew where bin Laden was all along. It is the central point around which everything else revolves and that is vociferously denied by the Obama administration. That aspect of the official story--that bin Laden was living within two miles of a major Pakistani military training facility in Abbottabad but no one knew he was there--has always been the least plausible element of the official account. Over the past year, two news accounts have supported key elements of Hersh's version of events. Last year, New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall confirmed that the ISI had known bin Laden's whereabouts for years and had been protecting him. Then, last month, a Pakistan-based journalist disclosed the name of the Pakistani "walk-in"--an ISI agent who was subsequently relocated to the US with his family--who had provided the CIA with the information about bin Laden's whereabouts. The CIA has subsequently acknowledged the walk-in, but denied that he provided specific information regarding bin Laden's whereabouts.

Hersh's article published last year about the Syrian chemical weapons attack similarly presents a version of events significantly at odds with the official account. Both versions of the Syria story begin with President Obama's ill-conceived words setting down a red line threatening the Assad regime with retaliation if it used chemical weapons. In the official account, after Obama had laid down his red line, Assad launched a chemical weapons attack. In the wake of the attack, Obama equivocated about whether to make good on his threats and launch a military assault on the Syrian regime, until he was ultimately bailed out by the Russians who got the Assad regime to agree to give up its chemical weapons.

Hersh describes a completely different sequence of events. The central actor in Hersh's account is Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Up until 2011, Erdoğan had been a close supporter of Assad. Then, early on in the Syria uprising, the two had a public falling out and since that time Erdoğan has been determined to destroy his former ally.  

Hersh writes that both the military and the CIA immediately recognized that Obama's laying down a red line was a serious error. They pushed from the beginning for clarification of what it meant, what would constitute a violation, and what the consequences would be. The Turkish President understood as well that laying down a red line was a mistake, but one that provided him with an opportunity. According to Hersh, the Turks conspired to launch the chemical weapons attack that became the focus of international outrage as a "false flag" operation intended to point blame at Assad and trigger an American retaliation. As Hersh tells it, after the chemical attack Obama pushed for a massive assault on Assad even as the military and the CIA pushed back, believing that a US attack would lead a broader regional war. The military joint chiefs of staff--and particularly joint chiefs chairman General Martin Dempsey--did not believe from the outset that there was clear evidence that the Assad regime had launched the attack. The evidence against Assad only weakened under further investigation, leading Obama to seek a face saving way out.

Yet, if Hersh's accounts are true, those lies can be rationalized as having been in the interest of national security. Once the US learned of bin Laden's whereabouts, the Pakistanis insisted on secrecy about their role, and for good reason. Keeping Pakistan's role a secret was critical to keeping the relationship intact--a relationship that serves a range of US interests, including suppression of the Taliban, maintaining relative calm in the Indian subcontinent, keeping pressure on Iran's eastern flank, and preserving some semblance of American control over the Pakistani nuclear arsenal. Similarly, even if Erdoğan is a scheming egoist, Turkey remains an essential ally as well, both as a power in the region and as the southern flank of the NATO alliance. Of course, the President may not have lied. It may simply be that in his old age, Seymour Hersh has become a conspiracy theorist and a crank. 

Whether one believes Hersh's accounts or not, his stories paint credible portraits of key parties to each event. Taken together, they paint a coherent picture of the dynamics that the United States faces in the region. Today, the United States is struggling to execute an effective strategy to roll back the rise of ISIS, while almost every one of our allies in the region is either standing on the sidelines or actively acting to undermine our efforts. 

Turkey, our NATO ally and the country with the strongest military in the region, borders on ISIS territory but has proven to be largely sanguine about its presence. Erdoğan's singular priority is the destruction of the Assad regime that was once his close ally. Turkey is actively supporting Jabhat al Nusra, the al Qaeda affiliated Sunni rebel group widely viewed as the most powerful faction in the Syrian conflict, and which is tacitly allied with ISIS in opposition to Assad. Turkey has been and continues to be the conduit for jihadi fighters and funding coming from other countries to join ISIS as well as other groups. Similarly, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are actively backing Sunni jihadist groups fighting Assad. For Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies, Assad and Iran are their sworn enemies. ISIS is of less concern to them.

Our relationships with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies exemplify our challenge in the region. While in the US media the battle against ISIS is presented as the sine qua non of the conflicts in that region, our allies there have each chosen their own paths, and are each now either actively or tacitly aligned with ISIS. And so it has always been with Pakistan, our other ally in the region, whose ISI created and nurtured the Afghan Taliban against whom we fought the longest war in our history. 

In the official stories of the killing of Osama bin Laden and the Syrian chemical attacks, our allies had only marginal roles. While we tracked down and killed bin Laden on their turf, the much vaunted Pakistani intelligence service was oblivious to what was happening. When Assad launched chemical weapons at his own people, our President bumbled his way along until the Russians finally bailed him out. But to hear Seymour Hersh tell it, in both events, our allies were cunning and devious in the pursuit of their own interests, and worked against us each step of the way. In his telling, our allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia protected the architect of 9/11 for the better part of a decade while their US ally was searching the globe to find him. In his telling, it was our ally the Turks who seized on Barack Obama's ill-conceived red line comment as an opportunity to manipulate Barack Obama into going to war in Syria, while it was our adversary the Russians who bailed him out.

Hersh may be making his stories up out of whole cloth, but they ring true. We may think we are leading the fight against ISIS today, but none of our allies seem to be following. Instead, they are soldiering on, just as Hersh portrays them, feigning to be our friends, while fighting us every step of the way. Only Iran, it seems, is prepared to fight by our side against ISIS, but our allies won't abide it. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Jeb's dilemma.

Jeb Bush finally got his answer right. Bowing to the political correctness of the moment, the aspiring President Bush III fell into line and spoke the magic words. If I knew then what I know now, I would not have launched an invasion of Iraq. 

It did not come easily. Bush readily admitted that he has a hard time disagreeing with his family and he was loath to say anything about the Iraq War that might cast his older brother in a bad light. Even as he said the magic words, he was walking it back:

“That’s not to say that the world [isn’t] safer because Saddam Hussein is gone. It is significantly safer. That’s not to say that there [wasn’t] a courageous effort to bring about a surge that created stability in Iraq. All of that is true. And that’s not to say that the men and women who’ve served uniform and many others who went to Iraq to serve, they did so, certainly, honorably. But, we’ve answered the question now.”

Bush's grudging response made it clear that candidates are being asked the wrong question. Across the board, from the dozen or so Republicans through Hillary Clinton, the candidates to succeed Barack Obama have embraced the "If I knew then what I know now" consensus, blaming the decision to invade Iraq, in Bush's words, on "mistakes as it related to faulty intelligence in the lead-up to the war."

But intelligence regarding WMD was not what led George W. Bush and his administration to take the country to war. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, in his 2003 interview with Sam Tanenhaus in Vanity Fair just weeks after the U.S. invasion, succinctly set forth the administration's rationale for war against Saddam: "There have always been three fundamental concerns. One is weapons of mass destruction, the second is support for terrorism, the third is the criminal treatment of the Iraqi people. Actually I guess you could say there's a fourth overriding one which is the connection between the first two..." The subsequent 911 Commission Report documented the administration's extensive focus on Saddam Hussein in the wake of the 9/11 attack, including the determination to use the attack as a pretext to bring down the Iraqi dictator.

Immediately after the publication of the Wolfowitz interview, the Pentagon and Conservative commentators objected to emphasis in the Vanity Fair article that the administration had settled on WMD as the sole or primary rationale for the invasion. A Pentagon official asserted, correctly, that in the Vanity Fair interview Wolfowitz "made clear that there were multiple reasons for the use of military forces against Iraq." Writing a few weeks later, Bill Kristol, conservative doyen and editor of The Weekly Standard, disputed the notion that the war had been sold to the American public on false pretenses, explicitly focusing on the conflation of chemical and nuclear weapons under the single acronym WMD. "No one doubts that Saddam's regime had weapons of mass destruction, used weapons of mass destruction, and had an ongoing program to develop more such weapons." Kristol's first two assertions were unarguably true. We knew that Saddam had had chemical weapons--which he used against both Iran and his own people--because we sold them to him. And the Bush administration intelligence on that matter was flawless because Wolfowitz's boss, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, had arranged the sale of those weapons to Saddam as the envoy of President Reagan 19 years earlier. Only the latter assertion about an ongoing program was in doubt.

The WMD intelligence-failure narrative gained favor, particularly among Democrats who had voted for the war but had come to regret their vote--and now has been embraced by nearly all of the presidential contenders--but it was not a deciding factor for President Bush or his team at the time. Their determination to bring down the Iraq regime rested on firmly held convictions about both Saddam Hussein in particular and their broader foreign policy theory of regime change as the preferred path to best effect change in the Middle East. WMD or no, Saddam was who they thought he was, and one only needs to look at the viciousness of his former generals who are now leading the ISIS campaign of terror if one doubts what Saddam's regime was capable of.

At the end of his 2003 article, Kristol raised the central issue: "People of good will are entitled to disagree, even in retrospect, about the wisdom and probable effects of Saddam's forcible removal." This week, Scott Walker commented that "Any president would have likely taken the same action [President George W.] Bush did with the information he had." But this is not true. Most likely not even George W.'s father. This was exactly the issue that James Baker and Brent Scowcroft raised in 1991 when they advised President Bush I not to send troops to Baghdad in the closing days of the first Gulf War and not to depose Saddam Hussein because of the chaos they believed would ensue. And it was exactly the issue raised again by Scowcroft in 2002 when he advised President Bush II through a Wall Street Journal op-ed Don't Attack Saddam, mirroring those same concerns--and widely interpreted at the time as reflective of the view of the President's father. And it is apparent from the 9/11 Commission Report that just "any president" would likely not have even have considered invading Iraq--given the lack of evidence linking Saddam to 9/11--unless, like Bush II, that president's administration came into office looking for an opportunity to take Saddam out.

So far, of the candidates running for president, only Rand Paul has focused explicitly on the issue Kristol raised. Just a few days before the Jeb Bush story broke, Paul asserted that toppling Saddam Hussein--as well as our broader policy of regime change in the Middle East-- was a mistake: “Each time we topple a secular dictator, I think we wind up with chaos and radical Islam seems to rise.” Paul was roundly dismissed as an isolationist, despite articulating views that mirrored the Republican Party mainstream prior to the ascendancy of the neoconservatives under the second Bush administration.

As documented in the 9/11 Commission Report, the determination to invade Iraq in 2003 was a decision in search of supporting intelligence, not the other way around. The lessons of the Iraq war are about the limitations of regime change and preventive war as foreign policy doctrines. Today, as we hear literally the same rationales for war coming from Iran hawks that Wolfowitz expressed to Sam Tanenhaus regarding Iraq over a decade ago, it is important to know what each candidate sees as the lessons of our recent history. The question for Jeb Bush is not about spurious faulty intelligence, but whether as President Bush III he would choose to walk the foreign policy path of his father or that of his brother, or whether his loyalty to his family would render him incapable of choosing between the two.  

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The shaming of the American worker.

President Obama is fed up. At long last, he has found an issue where he can move forward in common cause with Republicans in Congress and his own Democrat compatriots won't stand for it. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren first set the President off by comments claiming that the proposed trade deal would exacerbate income inequality and erode national regulatory sovereignty. "The idea that we can shut down globalization, reduce trade … is wrong-headed," the President responded. "That horse has left the barn." And then it got personal. Warren and her allies were being dishonest, spreading lies about the deal, he suggested. They are, the President inferred, behaving like Republicans.

It is hard for the rest of us to debate the merits of the TPP because the actual terms have not yet been disclosed to the public. And this was the essence of Warren's response. The President is trying to have it both ways: he criticizes opponents for misrepresenting the deal--even as he deliberately mischaracterizes their stance as being anti-trade--but won't allow the public a peak at the text or engage in a direct public debate of the issues that Warren and others have raised. Speaking this week, he amped up the rhetoric as he derided his erstwhile Democrat allies for wanting to “pull up the drawbridge and build a moat around ourselves.”

It is good to see robust opposition forming to the TPP. The alliance of Tea Party critics on the right with the Warren Democrat camp on the left is heartwarming, and in another era or in another political system might have constituted a political force in defense of the broader public interest. The American middle class has not been treated well by our political system over the past several decades--in terms of incomes and job security, and the sharing of growing economic wealth--and both the substance and politics of the TPP tell the story why.

Globalization and technology have combined to turn the American economy into part of a globalized system of production and consumption. International trade theory, as famously set forth by British economist David Ricardo two hundred years ago, suggests that the world as a whole benefits through systems of free trade that lead each nation to produce those goods and services where they have a comparative advantage. Combine our modern capitalist world and the World Wide Web with Ricardo's theory, and the world effectively shrinks, accelerating the migration of investment and jobs.

We all know the story that has unfolded over the post-World War II era, when first Japan, then the Asian Tigers, and finally China became the beneficiaries of increasingly free trade. And Ricardo's theory has been proven right. Free trade has lifted hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people around the world out of destitute poverty, as the share of the world population living in extreme poverty declined by fifty percent--from 43% in 1990 to 21% in 2010.

The American middle class paid the price of opening our markets and shipping millions of jobs overseas to the benefit of other nations. During the past forty-five years--going back to 1969--median U.S. income has been flat in real terms, after having increased by 50% over the prior fifteen years. Since 1973, wages and salaries have declined steadily as a share of U.S. GDP, from 54% to 45%, even as corporate profits have reached record highs. Globalization has created an economy in which the economic benefits of growing productivity and global wage competition have inured to the benefit of corporate management and investors even as it has depressed family incomes. As a result--the President's snarky riposte notwithstanding--from the perspective of the average American family that may not appreciate the nuances of David Riccardo's economic theory, building a moat around ourselves might seem like a good idea.

No doubt, the American middle class should be applauded for the sacrifices that it has made for the rest of the world. But our politics are not about sacrificing for the greater good. Political money spent to buy the support of members of Congress or occupants of the White House has grown dramatically, and those who spend that money rarely do it for charitable purposes. And so it is with trade agreements. One purpose of the TPP no doubt is to align the world in the manner envisioned by David Ricardo, to boost aggregate global incomes to the ultimate benefit of all nations. But the TPP is also about private interests, and as such it addresses both traditional issues such as intellectual property and patent rights, but also apparently adds new corporate protections such as the right to seek damages for lost profits deriving from a participating nation's sovereign action, such as raising the minimum wage, implementing environmental regulations or putting warning labels on cigarettes. Apparently, Americans can parse the difference between the public and private benefits of free trade agreements. In a Pew Research Center poll in 2010, Americans indicated overwhelming support for free trade while showing significant skepticism for free trade agreements.

Supporters of free trade agreements have consistently suggested two strategies to protect workers from the impact of opening up domestic markets to global competition. The first is trade adjustment assistance and job retraining programs, which may be useful for those who lose their jobs but does little or nothing for those who keep their jobs but whose incomes are undermined by global wage competition. The second is education, claimed by many to be the silver bullet that will prepare American workers for new careers in the new economy of the future.

Educational attainment is directly linked to family income and employment security. In the wake of the Great Recession this linkage has become increasingly stark. Three years after the 2008 collapse--when the recession was officially over--the unemployment rate for those with a college degree was half the rate for those with a high school degree, while the unemployment rate for those with a professional degree was half again the rate for those with a college degree. In a free trade world, higher education has become as essential for Americans as a high school degree was a half-century ago.

But even significant increases in the educational attainment of U.S. workers have failed to offset the impacts of globalization on middle class incomes. From 1980 to 2009, college participation rates--the percentage of high school graduates who enroll in two and four year colleges--rose steadily from 49.3% to 70.1%, yet over that same thirty-year period median per capita income remained stagnant in real terms. That is to say, increasing educational attainment may have led to increased job security for Americans that pursued higher education but it did not translate into real growth in median incomes, as global wage competition allowed companies to retain the economic benefits of significant increases in labor productivity.

Since 2009, faced with cuts in federal Pell grants, significant tuition increases at state colleges and universities, and Congressionally-mandated increases in student loan costs, fewer high school graduates continued on to college. By 2013, the national college participation rate declined to 65.9%, with the decline most pronounced among low-income students, from a peak of 58.4% in 2007 to 45.5% in 2013. With the trend of reduced public funding of higher education unlikely to be reversed, it is reasonable to expect that the struggles of the middle class will only be exacerbated by the new proposed trade deal.

Against that backdrop, the idea of building a moat around the country might look like an attractive path forward to many Americans . Considering a half-century of flat real wages that are at least in part attributable to the impacts of globalization, why should anyone be mocked by the President for advocating a position that might benefit those individual U.S. workers whose jobs will be put at risk? With armies of paid lobbyists fighting tooth and nail to have the interests of their corporate clients addressed in the TPP, why should workers and their families in Indiana or Ohio be asked to quietly accept the inevitability of one more trade deal so that others might prosper?

President Obama's stance on TPP is that Americans should trust him. But even for those who fundamentally support free trade, the experience of the last half-century is hard to square with the President's conviction. The President can talk about the benefits of global trade to middle income Americans--they have heard it all before--but he ignores the fact that supporters of free trade have consistently declined to support measures that might assure that all Americans have affordable access to the higher education that is essential to their ability to prosper in a free trade world or to provide for a sharing of the economic benefits of globalization and productivity growth beyond senior management and investors.

Mr. Spock's utopian mantra on Star Trek that "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" does not apply to our politics, where increasingly the loudest voices heard are those of the few. President Obama must know that this is not a debate about free trade--which Americans overwhelmingly support--but part of a larger, continuing debate about how we make the rules and who benefits in our economy and society. With corporate America and the Republican Party lined up four square behind the President, it seems unlikely that in this proposed trade deal the interests of the few are going to be set aside for the interests of the many, and it is understandable why the President's erstwhile allies are having a hard time taking him at his word.