Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Right Bet in the Mideast

By David Ignatius
The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 17, 2007; Page A19

It was axiomatic during the Cold War that presidents should not gamble with matters of national security. The stakes were too high. The Bush administration's Iraq policy has long suffered from a lack of that prudence -- and the misplaced gambler's instinct is especially evident in the administration's plan to send more troops to Baghdad.

President Bush's "surge" is a mistake because it is piling more precious chips -- more human lives -- on what so far has been a losing bet. The public sent a clear message in the November election that it wants to take some of those chips off the table. That cautionary theme -- that it's time to reduce America's bet on the long shot that Iraq's sectarian mess can be fixed quickly -- was ably distilled by the Iraq Study Group in its December report.

Bush chose to go the other way, to pursue "an experiment based on high risks," in the words of Anthony H. Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has written extensively about Iraq.

What prompted Bush's decision, by the president's own account, was his concern about the consequences for regional stability of an American failure in Iraq. To avoid the Baker-Hamilton problem of negotiating from weakness, Bush has chosen instead to signal American resolve in the region in various ways: by sending more troops to Baghdad; by seizing Iranian agents operating in Iraq; by sending additional warships into the Persian Gulf; and finally, according to the well-sourced foreign policy Web site, by working covertly with Saudi Arabia to support the Lebanese government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora against the Iranian-backed Shiite militia Hezbollah.

These moves are especially risky now because they are played against the background of a Middle East riven by conflict between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. This sectarian war is destroying Iraq, and a similar war is perilously close in Lebanon. In this larger arena, U.S. strategy is hard to understand: We are allied with the Shiite government in Iraq against Sunni insurgents; and we are allied with the Sunni government in Lebanon against Shiite insurgents.

Edward Luttwak, a contrarian strategist, argued in the Wall Street Journal last week that by riding Shiite and Sunni horses at the same time, we have accidentally hit upon the divide-and-rule strategy that "past imperial statesmen strove to achieve with much cunning and cynicism."

I fear that Luttwak is being uncharacteristically overoptimistic. The reality is that in neither Iraq nor Lebanon are we checking the rising regional power, Iran.

And it seems to me that our adversaries are doing a better job at this business of cynical alliances: Iran and Syria are the key supporters, respectively, of Shiite death squads and Sunni insurgents in Iraq. Yet although they are backing different sides in Iraq, Iran and Syria remain close and effective allies. Two years ago, a pro-Syrian Lebanese warned me in an e-mail that the United States would be caught in a "sandwich strategy" in Iraq -- squeezed by Sunni and Shiite fighters who shared a hatred of American interference. His warnings have proved chillingly accurate. He wrote me a few days ago to reiterate that, for Arabs who oppose American intervention, the operating rule is: "You kill us, we kill you."

The lesson of the Cold War was to be tough -- but also to be careful. I wish I saw more evidence of that prudence now. When U.S. officials encourage the Saudis to check Hezbollah by sending money to Sunni groups in northern Lebanon, do they understand that this region is a stronghold of al-Qaeda and that they are pushing Sunni-Shiite tensions toward the point of explosion?

When officials contemplate regime change in Syria, as the Bush administration again seems to be doing, do they understand that they may be creating a wider band of chaos that would stretch from Lebanon to the Iranian border?

When the administration decides to send more ships into the Gulf as a signal to Iran, do officials understand that there are members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards who might favor a torpedo attack -- so as to provoke an American retaliation and suck us deeper into an apocalyptic battle for control of the region?

In this volatile part of the world, there's just one area where I wish President Bush would take more risks -- and that's in diplomatic efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. If you want to strike a blow at Iran, Sunni insurgents and Shiite death squads all at once, that's the way to do it. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a start this week, but this is one poker game where we should be adding more chips -- doubling down the American stake in peace.

The writer co-hosts, with Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues at His e-mail address

Russia: Back to the future?

By Arnaud de Borchgrave
The Washington Times
January 17, 2007

It's no longer politically incorrect to be skeptical about Vladimir Putin's Russia. In fact, said a leading European expert on Russia, speaking privately in Washington, "Russia is a far different political construct than the one we Europeans thought we were dealing with for the past five years."

The authority's other conclusions:

Parts of Russia are still stuck in mid-19th century while other parts of the economy are already globalized. Nothing indicates Russia's new nomenklatura wishes to emulate the political democracies of the rest of Europe. After the Cold War, it was a "huge mistake" to assume otherwise. Besides, no democracy is possible without a vibrant middle class, and Russia is yet to develop one, let alone a satisfied strata in the middle between extreme wealth and extreme poverty.

The 1990s, following the fall of communism and implosion of the Soviet Union, was a gradual descent into anarchy, not the fast ascent to market economics and democratic capitalism perceived by many experts in the West. It was a society in ruins going through disastrous times. The benign view that Russia's robber barons were the modern counterpart of America's 19th-century robber barons was a case of terminal naivete.

Russia's new oligarchs plundered the country, siphoning out an estimated $220 billion, which went into everything from French Riviera mansions to numbered accounts in the world's principal tax havens. America's 19th-century tycoons reinvested ill-gotten gains into growing the U.S. economy. The Bank for International Settlements (BIS) reports Russian citizens still hold $219.6 billion in bank accounts abroad -- an amount greater than all bank deposits in Russia, even exceeding Russia's annual budget.

The emerging democracy some experts saw in the 1990s was an unmitigated disaster. Today, Russia enjoys respect. When Mr. Putin took over in 2000, the political order changed drastically from chaos to authoritarianism. It was neither dictatorship nor democracy, but nonetheless welcome in a country that has only known authoritarianism for the last 1,000 years.

Under former KGB agent Mr. Putin, the Russian state became powerful again with oil revenues -- and former KGB operatives. Out of more than 1,000 leading political figures, almost 800 are former intelligence or security officials. But Russia is still a far cry from being a global superpower.

Russia's new ruling elite does not see the world the way Westerners do. For key leaders, it's the world of the 1920s -- a traditional game of power politics. They don't share the same fears about looming threats, such as the environment. But they are aghast in saying other major powers threaten the unity of Russia by trying to co-opt former Soviet republics into NATO.

What's happening to the U.S. in Iraq is welcome news in the Kremlin. Russian leaders are not interested in helping to solve or even ease problems that concern the Bush administration. President Bush once gazed into Mr. Putin's eyes, inspected his soul, and concluded he could trust him. A second, deeper look is now in order.

References to the European Union's relationship with Russia are also misleading because there is no coherent EU Russian policy. Finland during its recent six-month presidency of EU before Germany took over this month tried but failed to get EU in lockstep on Russia. Besides, EU doesn't have much clout, bogged down as it usually is with yawn-provoking minutiae.

For anything to happen in the EU, two of the three big ones (Britain, Germany and France) have to get their act together. And that, too, is mission impossible under current conditions. Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel is a conservative who lived under the brutal tyranny of East German communism. She worries about Russia a great deal. But she has to share power with Social Democrats in a coalition government. And they advocate a softer policy toward Russia. Besides, Germany is tremendously dependent on Russia's oil and gas deliveries.

In early January, with no prior notice, Moscow suddenly stopped pumping almost 2 million barrels of oil a day to Germany and Poland through Belarus in a price dispute with the former Soviet republic. Mrs. Merkel forcefully condemned Mr. Putin's decision as "unacceptable," but she was powerless to retaliate, as was the EU.

France is in limbo pending next April's presidential elections, widely expected to be a generational change. But whether it will be a right- or left-of-center president will be determined by a small percentage in a second-round runoff.

In Britain, Tony Blair, thoroughly discredited for throwing the U.K.'s full weight behind President Bush's Iraqi campaign, will step down as party leader next September. No one knows where his successor, Gordon Brown, stands on Russia. But the recent London assassination by poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, an ex-FSB officer who worked for a British security firm, widely suspected of being the work of Russia's FSB, the KGB's successor, was not designed to elicit warm and fuzzy feelings in Whitehall.

So via-a-vis Russia, EU is dead in the water. Meanwhile, Russia's power is constantly growing via-a-vis EU -- and America, too. Less than two years after blocking such a sale, Russia is now ready to approve export of the Iskander-E (SS-26 Stone in NATO nomenclature) medium-range rocket to Syria. It has a range of 280 kilometers and multiple warheads. This is a not-so-friendly warning to both EU and the U.S. that Russia is back in the Middle Eastern game of nations -- opposed to Western interests.

Thus, Russia is drifting away from Western values, which it never espoused in the first place. There is still a lack of laws to guarantee Western investments. And even if new laws are enacted, they will be unenforceable because of widespread corruption in law enforcement and the judiciary.

The 15 topsiders in the Kremlin not only rule but own Russia. At least, that's what the prominent European authority on Russia said not for attribution. Listening to him took us back 30 or 40 years. If his assessment is correct, and there is no reason to doubt that it is, why is Russia a member of the G8, the eight leading industrial countries in the Western world?

On balance, he said: "We would rather have them in than out. Russian leaders do not seek confrontation, but when they try to improve their advantages on the global chessboard, it sounds and feels like confrontation. But they definitely do not seek one." Hence, Winston Churchill's advice: "I deem it highly important we shake hands with the Russians as far east as possible." But Churchill still could not "forecast the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.