« November 2011 | Blog Home Page | January 2012 »

December 29, 2011

Has America Lost Its Self Restraint?

Nuno Monteiro has an interesting break-down of America's post Cold War strategic behavior:

Has this unparalleled power allowed the United States to enjoy the much-touted peace dividend it earned by winning the Cold War? Is the United States better able to impose its will peacefully today than when Stalin blocked Berlin on Khrushchev placed nuclear missiles in Cuba?

Many seem to think so. Writing in the New York Times a week ago, Joshua Goldstein and Steven Pinker argued that "war really is going out of style." In what concerns the United States, however, nothing could be further from the truth. The last two decades, less than ten percent of U.S. history, account for more than 25 percent of the nation's total wartime. Between the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 and the Soviet demise, great powers were involved in wars on average one every six years. Since it became the sole superpower, the United States has been at war for more than half the time, or twelve out of twenty two years.

I think a lot of this boils down to human nature, and a parallel could be drawn to America's budget and personal consumption habits.

The U.S. balance sheet is deep in the red. America faces the daunting prospect of a prolonged slog to pare back these debts to something approaching a sustainable level. While major events like the 2008 financial crisis triggered some of this debt accumulation, most of it was done via a series of deliberate policy choices. In other words - when Washington was confronted with a budgetary choice, it choose to act irresponsibly and without adequate respect for the long-term consequences of its action. Hence, the U.S. faces a challenging long-term budget outlook almost entirely of its own making.

This lack of restraint is mirrored at the personal level. The savings rate for individual Americans is 3.5 percent - abysmally low internationally and by America's own historical standards. While the rate today can be dismissed as the result of leaner times, America's savings rate were even lower during the "boom" years (which explains why they boomed in the first place). So the idea of saving for a rainy day is not only lost on Congress - it's utterly inconceivable to most of their constituents.

I think a case could be made that this attitude has permeated into America's strategic behavior. Looking over the post Cold War military interventions, it's very difficult to justify all but two (the first Iraq war and Afghanistan) on strict national security grounds. There may be defensible reasons for the wars in Kosovo or the second Iraq war or the intervention in Somalia or Libya (now's not the time to litigate them) but no one could argue with a straight face that Washington had "no choice" but to fight them. It's instructive that the supposedly "conservative" position during America's post Cold War era was not to conserve and shepherd American power but expend it sustaining a globe-spanning hegemony the likes of which would make the Romans blush.

Like the deficit spending engaged in by Congress, the U.S. has engaged in military activity in part because Washington has become incapable of saying "no."

Today we face an era where the U.S. will make choices - both financially and strategically - from a position of weakness rather than a position of strength. The self-restraint and discipline that we were unable to summon on our own will slowly but inexorably be imposed on us by outside forces. That said, I'm not completely pessimistic about America's prospects, not by a long shot. Nor do I think that, faced with a similar set of circumstances, other countries would behave all that differently. But to the extent that we find ourselves in a hole, it is one entirely of our own making.

About Those Arab League Monitors in Syria...

This would be bleakly funny if it wasn't so tragically absurd:

"I am going to Homs," insisted Sudanese Gen. Mohammad Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, the head of the Arab League observer mission, telling reporters that so far the Assad regime had been "very cooperative."

But Dabi may be the unlikeliest leader of a humanitarian mission the world has ever seen. He is a staunch loyalist of Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide and crimes against humanity for his government's policies in Darfur. And Dabi's own record in the restive Sudanese region, where he stands accused of presiding over the creation of the feared Arab militias known as the "janjaweed," is enough to make any human rights activist blanch.

Iran's Hormuz Bluff

It's not yet clear if the Obama administration's saber-rattling toward Iran is an elaborate bluff, but we can be fairly confident that Iran's threat to close the Strait of Hormuz is a ruse. In fact, when members of the Iranian government are insisting it's a bluff, you can be pretty sure it's a bluff:

And Iran — which has enjoyed record oil profits over the past five years but is faced with a dwindling number of oil customers — relies on the Hormuz Strait as the departure gate for its biggest client: China.

“We would be committing economical suicide by closing off the Hormuz Strait,” said an Iranian Oil Ministry official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. “Oil money is our only income, so we would be spectacularly shooting ourselves in the foot by doing that.”

Ahmad Bakhshayesh Ardestani, a political scientist running for parliament from the camp of hard-line clerics and commanders opposing Ahmadinejad, said it is “good politics” for Iran to respond to U.S. threats with threats of its own.

“But our threat will not be realized,” Ardestani said. “We are just responding to the U.S., nothing more.”

There seems to be a good deal of confusion about this point among Washington's Iran hawks. Iran's one true potential for mischief is tampering with the flow of oil from the Gulf into global markets - and it's a threat that is percieved, by Iranians, as being too dangerous to fool around with. An Iran with a crude nuclear weapon, or the latent capacity to assemble one if they wanted to, can't change this basic dynamic.

Does Obama Really Want a War With Iran?

I used to be of the mind that the Obama administration would ultimately not launch a preventative war against Iran's nuclear program, but I'm beginning to change my mind. Over the past few weeks, there have been several unmistakable signals that the Obama administration is serious about starting a war with Iran if the country does not come clean about its nuclear program. First, we had Dennis Ross, formerly of the administration, assuring us in no uncertain terms that President Obama would use military force if need be. Then came the "clarification" of Defense Secretary Panetta's remarks cautioning against such a strike. And now Eli Lake's reporting that the Obama administration is discussing its "red lines" with Israel to assuage their concerns about America's willingness to go to war over Iran's nuclear program.

Finally, and most significantly, is the potential sanctioning of Iranian oil. This is, for all intents and purposes, a declaration of war against Iran as it cuts the country's economic lifeline, leaving Iran little choice but to fight, capitulate or face severe economic deprivation.

So either the administration is engaged in a very high-wire bluff designed to make Iran think an attack is likely or it is actually willing to start a new war in the Middle East. In any event, if I were an Iranian strategist, I would be preparing for the worst.

December 28, 2011

The Interesting Ties of Libya's Rebels

John Rosenthal passes along this tidbit from Spain's ABC:

... [A] Libyan rebel commander who played a key role in overthrowing the rule of Muammar Qaddafi previously participated in the May 2010 attempt to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza aboard the Turkish-owned vessel the Mavi Marmara. The operation famously culminated in a deadly clash between Israel Defense Force commandos and “activists” armed with iron rods and knives aboard the ship.

The paper’s source for the story is the rebel leader himself: Mahdi al-Harati, the commander of the so-called Tripoli Brigades, which are widely credited with having played a decisive role in the rebel conquest of the Libyan capital in August. After the seizure of Tripoli, al-Harati was named second-in-command to Abdul-Hakim Belhadj, the head of the newly formed Tripoli Military Council. Belhadj is the historical leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), the Libyan affiliate of al-Qaeda.

According to his December 17 article, ABC correspondent Daniel Iriarte unexpectedly ran into al-Harati and two other Libyan associates of Belhadj in Syria, where the Spanish journalist was working on a story on the “Free Syrian Army,” the recently formed rebel force that aims to overthrow Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

An Israeli Strike on Sudan?


Officials in Israel are refusing to confirm claims by the Sudanese press that Israeli planes recently attacked weapons convoys crossing the desert in Sudan. The attacks reportedly took place between Dec. 15 and 20. Media in Sudan say Israeli jets pulverized at least two convoys headed toward Egypt. The convoys were reportedly transporting arms destined for the Gaza strip.

Not everyone in Israel is so tight-lipped. A former Israeli Air Force head told the army radio station Galeï Tsahal on Monday that “whoever carried out [the attack] should be congratulated.” He added: “Our information was accurate as were our strikes.”

Sudanese press claims the attacks killed at least five contraband traffickers. The first convoy involved six trucks packed with weapons. The second attack, which occurred Dec. 18 and involved just a single vehicle, may have been a mistake. The first raid took place while Salva Kiir, the president of the newly created Southern Sudan, was on an “historic” 24-hour visit to Jerusalem.

Social Networking: A Global Addiction


A new study from ComScore breaks down hours spent on social networking. As you can see, the U.S. is far from a global leader here. (And that's probably not a bad thing...)

Obama's Short Term vs. Long Term Risks


The last few weeks has revealed an interesting divergence to how the Obama administration treats long and short term risks.

First, there's Iran. We're used to hearing that one of the key interests of the U.S. in the Middle East is the security of oil. But almost every move the Obama administration has made with respect to Iran has driven the price of oil up in the short-term (notwithstanding the impact the global economy is having on oil prices). An administration concerned with lowering oil prices for American consumers would not be actively seeking to keep Iranian crude off global markets or goading Iran into doing the same. Yet the administration is obviously willing to tolerate short-term pain to stave off the long-term implications of an Iranian nuclear weapon.

In Pakistan, and with counter-terrorism more broadly, the administration appears far more concerned with short-term risks than long-term dangers. The sharp deterioration in U.S.-Pakistan relations speaks directly to this - the Obama administration has ramped up drone strikes and cross-border attacks to stem a short-term threat without much concern for the potential long-term damage it is doing. Similarly, Obama's aggressive use of drone strikes and the resulting collateral damage is a strategy that clearly is more concerned with immediate risks than longer-term dangers.

Does the administration have the balance right?

(AP Photo)

December 27, 2011

Keeping NATO Relevant

Via Larison, Kori Schake's piece on why NATO is worth saving serves up an interesting meditation on how an alliance ostensibly formed for defensive purposes is being warped to serve the needs of intervention:

The big risk is not whether the alliance can win whatever wars it chooses to fight. It can. The risk is that NATO will choose not to fight, that its members will withdraw into their own narrowly defined interests, close to home.

But notice how this concern stands in contrast to NATO's original intention, as described by Schake:

NATO’s membership has more than doubled to 28 countries since its inception in 1949, but its basic principle remains the same: “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.”

Many Washington policymakers want to keep NATO in business to provide some kind of multilateral imprimatur on their various international adventures, but European defense budgets point pretty clearly to another reality - Europe itself is not facing any serious military threats and many European countries are scaling back their defense budgets (a trend accelerated by the Eurozone crisis). The great irony is that NATO could remain relevant in this era or austerity by actually serving as a conduit to collective defense - allowing member states to enjoy cost-savings by eliminating duplicate capacities. But instead it's being torn apart by those who insist it fight wars of choice - not wars of self-defense.

December 22, 2011

Read Communist Propaganda

The Korean Central News Agency of the DPRK has a useful round-up of links to articles memorializing the "Dear Leader." Click the link to read why, among other things, Kim Jong-il's field jacket was an object of devotion:

In that dress he inspected the posts on the defence line of the country including the post under shrub pine trees, Mt. Osong, Mt. Taedok and Panmunjom to protect the independent destiny and future of the people.

This dress instilled the wisdom and bravery capable of matching a hundred into soldiers.

He visited time and again many factories, enterprises and co-op farms in his field jacket reeking of soil of heights, leading the people to a victory.

Creepy and compelling at the same time.

Maintaining Leverage Over Egypt

Andrew Exum argues that American leverage in the Middle East shouldn't be traded away so lightly:

The principle problem is one that has been in my head watching more violent crackdowns in Bahrain and Egypt: the very source of U.S. leverage against the regimes in Bahrain and Egypt is that which links the United States to the abuses of the regime in the first place. So if you want to take a "moral" stand against the abuses of the regime in Bahrain and remove the Fifth Fleet, congratulations! You can feel good about yourself for about 24 hours -- or until the time you realize that you have just lost the ability to schedule a same-day meeting with the Crown Prince to press him on the behavior of Bahrain's security forces. Your leverage, such as it was, has just evaporated. The same is true in Egypt. It would feel good, amidst these violent clashes between the Army and protesters, to cut aid to the Egyptian Army. But in doing so, you also reduce your own leverage over the behavior of the Army itself.

But all of this begs an important question - leverage for what? The idea is that the U.S. invests in places like Bahrain and Egypt because it needs or wants something in return. During the Cold War, it was keeping these states out of the Soviet orbit. In the 1990s and beyond, it was ensuring these states remained friendly with Israel and accommodative to U.S. military power in the region. Today, what? What is it that U.S. policy requires from Egypt and Bahrain that necessitates supporting these regimes during these brutal crack downs?

Fleeing Europe in Droves

Helen Pidd charts a mass exodus:

Since its conception, the European Union has been a haven for those seeking refuge from war, persecution and poverty in other parts of the world. But as the EU faces what Angela Merkel has called its toughest hour since the second world war, the tables appear to be turning. A new stream of migrants is leaving the continent. It threatens to become a torrent if the debt crisis continues to worsen.

Tens of thousands of Portuguese, Greek and Irish people have left their homelands this year, many heading for the southern hemisphere. Anecdotal evidence points to the same happening in Spain and Italy.

December 21, 2011

Things Fall Apart (Iraq Edition)


No sooner do U.S. forces leave Iraq than Prime Minister Maliki sends the tanks towards his political opponents. It's a measure of how debased Iraqi "democracy" is that the sympathetic figure in this latest drama is a man accused of running death squads to murder his political opponents.

This incident underscores just how fragile Iraq's government really is. The timing of Maliki's moves was clearly intentional and it's hard to believe he would have pulled a stunt like this had the U.S. remained in Iraq in force. So supporters of an indefinite U.S. military presence in Iraq have a point - the U.S. might well have stayed Maliki's hand and lent a degree of stability to Iraq that will otherwise be missing.

But this also demonstrates quite clearly that actually creating an Iraq that does not descend into violence the moment the paternalistic hand of the U.S. military is withdrawn was going to be the work of decades - or more. And that's if everything went well - and there's no reason to believe that it would have. Asking large numbers of troops to stay inside Iraq as a hostage to Iraqi political squabbling is a huge investment at a time when the U.S. has other pressing needs around the world (and at home).

(AP Photo)

Obama Beefs Up Firepower of U.S. Allies in Asia

According to John Bennett, the Obama administration is flooding Asia with advanced fighter aircraft:

The culmination of this work will leave Washington with nearly 150 F-35s in the Asia-Pacific region and more than 100 F-16s.

That means about 250 of the world's most advanced warplanes are on their way to the region, even as China is building its own sophisticated jets and anti-aircraft systems.

The U.S. Air Force also has its super-stealthy F-22 fighter stationed in the region, bringing even more firepower as a check on possible Chinese aggression.

What’s more, Japan’s decision to buy 42 F-35s ... "increased the likelihood that South Korea will follow suit, enabling the U.S. to maintain a coalition of friendly forces in the region that operate compatible combat systems,” defense insider Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute wrote in a column on Forbes.com Tuesday.

It's better for the U.S. to sell allies the tech required for self-defense than promise to do it for them, so all-in-all this is a positive development. It also proves, once again, that there is little chance that China's rise is going to create a cascade of states falling into its orbit. Most countries in the region are reacting in just the opposite fashion, which means the U.S. has more leeway to remain the "balancer of last resort."

December 20, 2011

Why They Weep for Kim Jong-il

Millions of people have viewed the above video depicting North Koreans bawling over the death of Kim Jong-il. NPR's Louisa Lim offers an explanation:

When Kim Jong Il's father, Kim Il-sung, died in 1994, the party actually conducted surveys to see who displayed the most grief. And those people who stayed dry-eyed and just got on with their jobs as normal and didn't cry, they were actually punished. So that kind of thing looks like it's happening again.

The U.S.-China Solar War


Martin Green documents it:

On October 18, the U.S. government was asked to impose tariffs on imports of Chinese solar cells and modules, based on the argument that China-based producers have been heavily subsidized and are selling solar products at unfairly low prices. Perhaps not surprisingly, some Chinese companies have now asked the Chinese government to impose tariffs on imports of American solar products, arguing that U.S.-based producers have been heavily subsidized, too. And just like that, the production of affordable and competitive solar products has become a political liability in the world's two largest producers and consumers of energy.
Green notes a tragic irony - at a moment when, in some parts of the world, solar energy has finally become economically viable, the trade dispute threatens to cripple the industry.

(AP Photo)

The Psychology of Dictatorship


Jason Goldman has a fascinating post that delves into the psychology of several infamous dictators. (Click on the picture for a larger-sized image.) Goldman observes:

Further comparisons among the dictators revealed that Kim Jong-il had more in common with Saddam Hussein (their profiles had a correlation of .67) than with Hitler (their profiles had a correlation of .20). Indeed, both Jong-il and Hussein had sadistic personality disorder as their highest rated item, and their scores were nearly identical – more than three standard deviations above the population average!

However, Howard French argues against seeing Kim Jong-il as a madman:

The focus on Kim's foibles and on his reputed unpredictability always hampered understanding of the man and of the real nature of the regime. From beginning to end during 17 years of rule, he was capable of minutely sliced and, it must be stressed, rational calculations about how to stay in power and how to keep the world at bay.

December 19, 2011

North Korea and State Collapse

The death of Kim Jong-il brings to the fore the hopeful-yet-daunting possibility that North Korea's long nightmare might be coming to an end. It's hopeful for obvious reasons - among the world's nasty regimes, Kim Jong-il arguably ran the worst. But it's daunting too, for reasons Robert Kaplan laid out in a 2006 piece:

For a harbinger of the kind of chaos that looms on the peninsula consider Albania, which was for some years the most anarchic country in post-Communist Eastern Europe, save for war-torn Yugoslavia. On a visit to Albania before the Stalinist regime there finally collapsed, I saw vicious gangs of boys as young as eight harassing people. North Korea is reportedly plagued by the same phenomenon outside of its showcase capital. That may be an indication of what lies ahead. In fact, what terrifies South Koreans more than North Korean missiles is North Korean refugees pouring south. The Chinese, for their part, have nightmare visions of millions of North Korean refugees heading north over the Yalu River into Manchuria.

Kaplan goes on to note that a true, disorderly end to the regime in North Korea would result in the largest "stabilization" mission since World War II and possibly in history:

On one day, a semi-starving population of 23 million people would be Kim Jong Il’s responsibility; on the next, it would be the U.S. military’s, which would have to work out an arrangement with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (among others) about how to manage the crisis.

U.S. Resets in the Middle East

According to Josh Rogin, the Obama administration is framing the Iraq pullout as a return to off-shore balancing (without calling it as such):

President Barack Obama's administration has disproved the notion that a large military footprint helps fight terrorism and, following the end of the Iraq war, is now returning the United States to a pre-1990 military level in the Persian Gulf, according to a White House official.

Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, told a group of supporters on a private conference call Wednesday that the entire idea of deploying large numbers of troops in the region, which has been U.S. policy since the Gulf War in 1990, is now over.

"The tide of war is receding around the world," said Rhodes. "It's certainly going to be the lowest level, in terms of number of troops, that we've seen in 20 years. There are not really plans to have any substantial increases in any other parts of the Gulf as this war winds down."

Just after the administration announced it was not able to reach a deal with Iraq to extend the U.S. troop presence there in October, the New York Times reported the administration was planning to increase troop levels in nearby countries, such as Kuwait, to account for the risk of Iraq backsliding into violence. But Rhodes said Wednesday that's just not the case.

"I don't think we're looking to reallocate our military footprint in any significant way from Iraq. They won't be reallocated to other countries in the region in any substantial numbers," he said.

This is certainly an encouraging sign as far as it goes. But the U.S. still retains a significant military footprint in the region and is likely to do so for a long time.

2011: A Bad Year for Bad Guys


2011 will be remembered for many things but it will also undoubtedly go down as a very bad year for bad guys. Consider the roll call. Among the dead: Kim Jong-il, Osama bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi. Among those ousted from power: Hosni Mubarak, Ben Ali and Ali Saleh. Then we have the teetering despot Bashar Assad. Even Vladimir Putin has had his smooth transition plans ruffled.

There's no unified theme here, but it's still pretty amazing as far as it goes.

(AP Photo)

December 16, 2011

Ron Paul's Foreign Policy Is More Popular Than You Think


Via Larison, Conor Friedersdorf takes issue with a National Review editorial that insinuates that GOP candidate Ron Paul is a 9/11 Truther:

Conservatives in general and National Review in particular are perfectly within their rights to find Paul's views about blow-back, non-interventionism, and the undue bellicosity of the establishment wrongheaded, and to argue against his libertarian take on foreign policy. In the editorial above, however, Paul's actual views are egregiously obscured, and the editors seem to reach the transparently absurd conclusion that the popularity his foreign policy message has found is grounded in a conspiracy theory about 9/11 rather than understandable disgust at the actual foreign policy decisions made in response to it.

The evasive treatment of Paul's views and popularity is of a piece with the general refusal among movement conservatives to logically rebut critiques of American foreign policy made by libertarians and paleocons. The crank card and the 9/11 card are often the extent of their response.

Personally, I would not go as far as Ron Paul on a variety of foreign policy issues (pulling out of the United Nations for instance, and rolling up all overseas military bases) but it has always been curious to me why no other candidate would adopt a Ron Paul "Lite" approach. I thought Huntsman was heading there - but he's far too eager to start a war with Iran to plausibly be considered a non-interventionist.

It's not like such non-interventionist views are unpopular. Based on polling done during the Libyan intervention and during the Syrian uprising, the American people do not express a strong desire to poke their noses into other countries' internal affairs. They're willing to cut defense spending, too. I think that wariness could be effectively channeled without framing things as radically as Paul does.

(AP Photo)

Was the Iraq War Worth It?

CFR put the question to four foreign policy heavyweights. Andrew Bacevich picks up on a theme I raised yesterday:

The disastrous legacy of the Iraq War extends beyond treasure squandered and lives lost or shattered. Central to that legacy has been Washington's decisive and seemingly irrevocable abandonment of any semblance of self-restraint regarding the use of violence as an instrument of statecraft. With all remaining prudential, normative, and constitutional barriers to the use of force having now been set aside, war has become a normal condition, something that the great majority of Americans accept without complaint.

December 15, 2011

War, the GOP and 2012


With the exception of Ron Paul, it appears every Republican in the field is quite willing to start a war with Iran.

With unemployment still high and the economy still weak, I doubt foreign policy will figure much in the election, but it's worth considering how the discussion (I won't call it a debate) on Iran would play out between the GOP nominee (assuming it's not Paul) and Barack Obama. GOP Nominee X will declare his or her intention to bomb Iran if it came to it, and President Obama will say that he's definitely open to the possibility.

What's significant in this, I think, is the extent to which the idea of preventative war has been rejuvenated - if it was ever truly discredited. Whatever misgivings the U.S. public had about the Iraq war are fading (alongside, not coincidentally, American attention to what is actually happening inside Iraq) so it is obviously politically safer to muse openly about starting another war.

A Marine's Christmas Song

Master Sgt. Robert Allen, a native of Pawnee, Okla., serves as the aircraft rescue firefighting chief for Marine Wing Support Squadron 371 in Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan. An avid musician, Allen wrote a Christmas song for his wife, Carla, as he spends the holidays away from her and their three children.
- Photo by Cpl. Brian Adam Jones

By Brian Adam Jones

Afghanistan’s getting cold. My Marines and I have hung our Christmas stockings from a table with care, and strung lights along the top of the plywood wall in our office on the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) compound on Camp Leatherneck.

As public affairs Marines, Thanksgiving was spent linking Marines with their hometown television, radio and newspaper outlets, with Christmas promising much of the same.

My favorite part of my job as a combat journalist is meeting and interacting with all the great men and women in uniform, proud Americans who leave their friends and loved ones in the spirit of defense.

But there’s one Marine I’ve met here who certainly stands out.

Master Sgt. Robert Allen, an aircraft rescue firefighter with Marine Wing Support Squadron 371, loves playing the guitar. The first time I met the bald-headed Oklahoman with a big smile, it was to take his photo for articles by the Tulsa World and Stillwater News Press.

“Hey,” he said to me anxiously, “Can you listen to this song I wrote, let me know if you think it’s any good?”

I followed him into his office where he picked up a beautiful, dark wood guitar and began a touching ballad about being away from his wife on Christmas.

The master sergeant wrote the song for his wife, Carla, while he was deployed to Iraq and sent it to her on Christmas Eve. Now, he’s gone again over the holidays, in Afghanistan this time, as the Marine aircraft rescue firefighting chief for southwestern Afghanistan.

About a week after I met Master Sgt. Allen, my mentor (EIF –25), Staff Sgt. Christopher Flurry, and I created a video of master sergeant’s song, hoping to share with folks back home the story of sacrifice thousands like Master Sgt. Allen endure as they spend holidays away from their family.

From the moment I met Master Sgt. Allen, I was struck by his humility and motivation. He lives in his office so his Marines never have to stand duty overnight there. He once told me he looks forward to getting out of bed every morning to watch his Marines come into work.

And as the video of his song has gained popularity, master sergeant has expressed surprise to me that so many are interested in a song he wrote for his wife.
I think the reason the response to his Christmas song has been so overwhelmingly positive is that it’s such an honest expression.

As a YouTube viewer commented to Carla Allen, “I always wondered why the music superstars don't write and sing these – now I know. It's so much more genuine coming from the source. Your husband has an amazing talent and I hope this makes it 'round the globe this holiday as we appreciate all those who are not only sent off to foreign lands to serve our country, but those left behind who also sacrifice during these trying times. Happy Holidays.”

As you celebrate the holidays, I hope you all bear in mind the sacrifice of the men and women who left spouses and children behind. Because as the master sergeant said, he hopes the song "will help people understand that though we're willing to do it all, it's still heartbreaking."

Cpl. Jones' first entry - My Path to Afghanistan
Cpl. Jones' second entry - A Glimpse at the Future of Afghanistan
Cpl. Jones' third entry - Leadership in the Afghan Sky

To contact me with feedback or questions, email me at brian.adam.jones@gmail.com. To learn more about the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), visit the Facebook page.


The views, opinions, positions or strategies expressed by the author are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect the Department of Defense or United States Marine Corps.

America's Energy Future and Iran

Iran recently declared that it would practice "shutting down" the Strait of Hormuz - the narrow passageway through which all Persian Gulf energy resources must flow on their way to world markets. The threat reinforced both Iran's potential for mischief and the possible economic costs of starting a war with the country. But how big of a threat is it really?

A recent piece by Daniel Yergin argues that America's energy security is in much better shape than commonly believed:

There are other changes in the world oil supply that can work in our favor. Many Americans have the impression that most U.S. oil imports come from the Persian Gulf region, or from hostile states. And it is true enough that Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, for instance, hardly hides his deep-seated enmity toward the U.S.

But the Persian Gulf represents 16% of our imports, and Venezuela 9%. By far the largest, and growing, source of imports is Canada, which supplies about 25%; Mexico is second, at 11%.

The main reason for Canada's large role is the expansion of output from its oil sands. Canada's oil sands now yield more output than Libya's total exports prior to its civil war. Current plans could double production to three million barrels per day by the beginning of the next decade. That would mean a higher share of our imports coming from our friendly neighbor and largest trading partner.

The point here isn't that a temporary closure of Hormuz wouldn't be a big deal. It would. But from a strategic perspective, America's economic and resource security needs are in a lot better shape than many would have it. The U.S. already has the military capacity to "re-open" the Strait should the need arise. The longer-term policy response to Iran's possible threat to energy resources is not to start a war with the country, but to green-light things like the Keystone Pipeline and boost the efficiency of the U.S. automotive fleet - i.e. things that would further marginalize Iran's potential for economic mischief.

The Word in 2011 (According to Google)

I could do without the music, but the video's pretty good.

What Can Iran Do With America's Drone?

Seeing as they won't give it back, the BBC investigates what Iran can actually do with America's spy drone:

So how easy is it to extract information from a drone?

It all depends what state the aircraft was in when they recovered it, says Nick Brown, editor-in-chief of Jane's International Defence Review.

"It could have crashed and come apart. The version seen on the video clips could be a reconstruction. But if the aircraft is relatively intact, you could take a fair bit from it."

One thing the Iranians might be doing is testing it with radar in an anechoic chamber, he says, to find its "radar cross-section", which is a measure of how detectable it is. They could also learn from some of the more exotic radar-defeating shaping and materials.

Even if the Iranians aren't up to the challenge of reverse-engineering the drone, the BBC notes that there are reports of Russian and Chinese scientists in Iran interested in taking a peak.

December 14, 2011

Newt Gingrich and EMPs

Ever since Newt Gingrich began his rise in the polls, I was meaning to dust off his repeated warnings about the dangers of an electro-magnetic pulse weapon and what it says about his foreign policy judgment. However, the New York Times beat me too it. Dan Drezner picks up the story and compares Gingrich's hyperventilation over EMPs to his nonchalance about the potential impacts of climate change:

This is fascinating. On the one hand, you have a long-term cataclysmic threat to the planet that commands the consensus of an overwhelming majority of experts in the field. On the other hand, you have a long-term cataclysmic threat to the United States that commands nowhere close to the same level of consensus. Based on his rhetoric, Gingrich wants urgent action to be taken on the latter, but not the former. Why?

I'm not bringing this up to suggest that Gingrich is a buffoon. He could plausibly argue that a lot of people are harping on climate change while only Gingrich can call attention to the EMP possibility. It's possible that the costs of preventive action on climate change are much greater than dealing with EMP (though if that includes preventive attacks on Iran and North Korea, I'm dubious).

What I'm wondering is whether there is a partisan divide in assessing threats, as there is in assessing economic principles. I wonder if conservatives are far more likely to focus on threats in which there is a clear agent with a malevolent intent, whereas liberals are more likely to focus on threats that lack agency and are more systemic in nature (climate change, pandemics, nuclear accidents, etc.)

Another way to look at this is that conservatives tend to be more focused on threats which can be addressed with military force, while liberals are more likely to worry themselves about threats that require a lot of international cooperation to address. They pick threats that reinforce political narratives about the role of the military and international cooperation. The judgments are self-serving ones.

That said, we shouldn't lose sight of the buffoonery aspect here.

How Europe's Mess Will Hurt America

Kevin Drum points to an analysis by Goldman Sachs that suggests that a credit tightening by European banks could give the U.S. GDP a haircut:

If [European banks] decided to shrink at the same pace as in the period from 2008Q1 to 2009Q1 — the fastest decline during the global financial crisis — this would imply a decline of just under 25%. If so, the direct hit to US credit growth would be about 0.8 percentage point (that is, 3.3% multiplied by 25%)....How much could a 0.8% drop in credit supply shave off of US GDP growth? [A bit of explanation follows....] This would imply that a retrenchment by Euro area banks could result in a hit of 0.4 percentage point to US growth.


Anti-Semitism and the Iran War Debate

I have read many an article making a reasoned case for why the U.S. should, as a last resort, take military action against Iran's nuclear facilities. In all those pieces I admit I have never encountered the argument that David Mamet makes here. To wit: that a failure to take military action against Iran is akin to practicing "human sacrifice" with the state of Israel (and, by the way, is anti-Semitic):

In abandonment of the state of Israel, the West reverts to pagan sacrifice, once again, making a burnt offering not of that which one possesses, but of that which is another's. As Realpolitik, the Liberal West's anti-Semitism can be understood as like Chamberlain's offering of Czechoslovakia to Hitler, a sop thrown to terrorism. On the level of conscience, it is a renewal of the debate on human sacrifice.

This is not the first time the idea has been raised that it is anti-Semitic to warn against the dangers of a war against Iran. Mitchell Bard asserted that there were "disturbing anti-Semitic undertones" in Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's observations that an attack on Iran would have negative consequences.

December 13, 2011

Is COIN Dead?

Trefor Moss agrees with a growing number of analysts that counter-insurgency is on the way out:

These are probably very good reasons for reorienting NATO and the U.S. military away from COIN – but not, it seems to me, the best or most obvious one. COIN should be abandoned because it’s time to accept that it simply hasn’t worked.

Counterinsurgency was always a paradoxical idea that involved the simultaneous waging of war and peace on the same country: you shoot the bad guys and build schools for the good guys. Afghanistan, though, was always resistant to these neat distinctions. The bad guys didn’t always seem so bad, and we were never quite sure if the good guys were really on our side.

Even so, politicians, military commanders and think tankers often maintained that the problem in Afghanistan wasn’t COIN itself, but rather the inadequacy of the doctrine’s implementation. In theory, yes, counterinsurgency could have delivered in Afghanistan – if there’d been a million more troops and a trillion more dollars. Or if the terrain hadn’t been so impenetrable, or the tribal politics so inscrutable. Or if Karzai hadn’t been Karzai, and Pakistan hadn’t been Pakistan...

COIN was wreathed in so much hype that for a long time there was a general, uncritical acceptance that it was the right and only way. But in the end, Afghanistan left counterinsurgency looking like intellectual naivete: a smart idea on paper that was utterly unworkable in real world conditions.

Another important aspect of the counter-insurgency debate is not whether or not it worked or "could work" if adequately-resourced, but whether the U.S. should really put itself into a position where it needs to suppress an insurgency in the first place.

Put another way, if the U.S. had to do Afghanistan over again, would it have been better to apply the approach used at the early outset of the war (special forces and air power) without any commitment to reconstruction, nation building or political reform?

Libya is a bit instructive in this regard. Post war Libya is quite unstable - with armed militia groups holding out against what is nominally the governing authority in the country. It may yet collapse into a full-blown civil or tribal war. But the U.S. accomplished the goal of killing Gaddafi and running his family out of power and won't be stuck with large numbers of troops in the country and billions of dollars on the line should things get ugly.

The entire recourse to counter-insurgency, then, was indicative of a larger and more important failure in American strategy - the imposition of goals for Afghanistan that were far too broad and ambitious given the nature of the conflict the U.S. found itself in after 9/11. COIN is very much like asking whether we can clean up a mess after we've made one - a good question, but better to figure out how not to make the mess in the first place.

A Street View of Japan Tsunami Damage


Via Google:

Back in July, we announced our initiative to digitally archive the areas of Northeastern Japan affected by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Today, we’re making good on that promise—after driving more than 44,000 kilometers through the affected regions, 360-degree panoramic imagery of those areas is now available through the Street View feature in Google Maps. The images can also be viewed via a special website called “Build the Memory,” where you can easily compare before and after shots of the towns changed by these events.

A virtual tour via Street View profoundly illustrates how much these natural disasters have transformed these communities. If you start inland and venture out toward the coast, you’ll see the idyllic countryside change dramatically, becoming cluttered with mountains of rubble and debris as you get closer to the ocean. In the cities, buildings that once stood proud are now empty spaces.

You can start this grim tour here.

Should Iran Give the U.S. its Drone Back?

The Obama administration wants its spy drone back:

“We submitted a formal request for the return of our lost equipment as we would in any situation to any government around the world,” Clinton told reporters at a State Department news conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague.

“Given Iran’s behavior to date we do not expect them to comply but we are dealing with all of these provocations and concerning actions taken by Iran in close concert with our closest allies and partners,” she said.

I have no problem with the idea that the U.S. is flying drones over Iran to collect intelligence. But it's really silly to pretend that we're the aggrieved party here. The U.S. violated Iranian airspace, we should have no reason to expect the drone back. The administration really should just keep quiet about the whole thing.

December 12, 2011

Mapping a Pacific President


President Obama has called himself America's "first Pacific president." Tom Lasseter created the map above to highlight visits from key Obama administration officials:

It strikes me that the map's message is in the eye of the beholder. If you throw in Obama's trip to China in 2009, it suggests the blanket approach that the Americans have claimed. And there are, of course, many non-China reasons for trips to places like Pakistan and Russia.

But if you don't trust the United States and see its increased engagement in Asia as a way of hemming in China's rise, well, it might suggest that too.

I think a fair reading is that it's a bit of both.

In Photos: America's Secret Drone War

Danger Room has assembled a powerful slide show of graphic photos taken by Noor Behram, a resident of North Waziristan:

Before posting Behram's photos we took a number of measures to confirm as best we could what was being shown. We verified Behram’s bona fides with other news organizations. We sifted through the images, tossing out any pictures that couldn’t correlate with previously reported drone attacks. Then we grilled Behram in a series of lengthy Skype interviews from Pakistan, translated by Akbar, about the circumstances surrounding each of the images.

Still, we weren't at the events depicted. We don't know for sure if the destruction and casualties shown in the photos were caused by CIA drones or Pakistani militants. Even Behram, who drives at great personal risk to the scenes of the strikes, has little choice but to rely on the accounts of alleged eyewitnesses to learn what happened.

But we know for sure that these are rare photos from a war zone most Americans never see.

Behram's images are not conclusive proof that the Obama administration was incorrect (or disingenuous) when it claimed that no civilians had been killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, but it's additional evidence that the claim was unfounded. It does beggar belief why such a claim was made in the first place. I suspect most Americans would support drone strikes even if the administration acknowledged that they carry the risk of killing innocent bystanders. Yet rather than level with the public about the hazy nature of the drone campaign, the administration insisted on a clear-cut assertion that no "non-combatants" had been killed.

On Practicing What One Preaches

Imagine if the US government, with no notice or warning, raided a small but popular magazine's offices over a Thanksgiving weekend, seized the company's printing presses, and told the world that the magazine was a criminal enterprise with a giant banner on their building. Then imagine that it never arrested anyone, never let a trial happen, and filed everything about the case under seal, not even letting the magazine's lawyers talk to the judge presiding over the case. And it continued to deny any due process at all for over a year, before finally just handing everything back to the magazine and pretending nothing happened. I expect most people would be outraged. I expect that nearly all of you would say that's a classic case of prior restraint, a massive First Amendment violation, and exactly the kind of thing that does not, or should not, happen in the United States.

But, in a story that's been in the making for over a year, and which we're exposing to the public for the first time now, this is exactly the scenario that has played out over the past year -- with the only difference being that, rather than "a printing press" and a "magazine," the story involved "a domain" and a "blog." - Mike Masnick

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged countries not to restrict Internet freedom in a speech in The Hague, The Netherlands, on Thursday.

"After all, the right to express one’s views, practice one’s faith, peacefully assemble with others to pursue political or social change — these are all rights to which all human beings are entitled, whether they choose to exercise them in a city square or an Internet chat room," Clinton said. "And just as we have worked together since the last century to secure these rights in the material world, we must work together in this century to secure them in cyberspace." - The Hill


December 9, 2011

How Many Nukes Does China Have?

A recent study from Georgetown suggested that China had 3,000 nuclear weapons. Hans Kristensen isn't so sure:

Although we don’t know exactly how many nuclear weapons China has, we are pretty sure that it doesn’t have 3,000. In fact, the Georgetown University estimate appears to be off by an order of magnitude.

In fact, he thinks the number is actually ... 100.

December 7, 2011

Clinton to Pyongyang?

Scott Snyder thinks it's possible:

Secretary Hillary Clinton’s historic visit to Myanmar, the first by a U.S. secretary of state in over fifty years, has stimulated speculation among journalists (including at the end of her interview with the BBC in Rangoon) regarding the circumstances under which she might visit North Korea. The conditions in Myanmar also suggest some likely benchmarks for what it would take for the secretary of state to visit Pyongyang: an embrace of nascent economic and political reforms (including the possible release of some political prisoners); a return to the denuclearization commitments embodied in the September 2005 Six Party Joint Statement; and a South Korean political leader with the credibility to champion U.S. engagement so as to protect the administration from conservative congressional criticism.

Falklands Blockade Is an Act of War Toward Britain

By Nile Gardiner

Argentina’s launch of a naval blockade “to isolate the Falklands” is in clear violation of British sovereignty. It should be considered an act of war and must be met with the use of force by Great Britain if Argentina does not back off.

According to a report by The Telegraph’s Fergus MacErlean:

Argentine patrol vessels have boarded 12 Spanish boats, operating under fishing licences issued by the Falkland Islands, for operating “illegally” in disputed waters in recent weeks.

Argentine patrol commanders carrying out interceptions near the South American coast told Spanish captains they were in violation of Argentina’s “legal” blockade of sea channels to the Falklands.

The warning has been backed up in a letter to Aetinape, the Spanish fishing vessels association from the Argentine embassy in Madrid warning boats in the area that “Falklands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands and adjoining maritime spaces are an integral part of the Argentine territory.”

The Kirchner regime has for some time been threatening a blockade of the Falklands and is now beginning to implement it in an effort to strangle the Islands economically. London should respond forcefully to this provocation by dispatching a second destroyer to the South Atlantic, as well as further Typhoon fighter aircraft and an additional attack submarine, as a warning to Argentina. Britain should also prepare to deploy its contingency infantry battalion – the Spearhead Lead Element (SLE) – to the Falklands at short notice to reinforce the 1,200-strong British Forces Garrison based near Stanley.

A significant show of force by Britain, rather than a weak-kneed "official complaint" by the Foreign Office, is needed to emphatically demonstrate to Argentina that it is playing with fire.

The British government should make it categorically clear to Cristina Kirchner and her administration that its behavior over the Falklands is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Its blockade is not only a violation of international law: it is an aggressive, hostile act designed to intimidate foreign ships doing business with the Falkland Islands. Mrs. Kirchner has also threatened to cut off air links to the Islands that had been negotiated back in 1999 and has launched a series of tirades against Britain, including calling it "a crude colonial power in decline.”

This is not a moment for diplomatic niceties by the prime minister and the foreign secretary, but a time for firm leadership in the defense of over 3,000 overwhelmingly British Falkland Islanders threatened by a hostile power on the other side of the world.

For David Cameron, his handling of the Falklands issue may be a defining moment. He should not underestimate the gravity of the situation Britain faces today, or be unwilling to do what is necessary to defend British sovereignty. If Argentina persists with its blockade, it must face the consequences and be sharply reminded that any attempt to cut off the Falklands or invade it will end in heavy defeat for Buenos Aires.
Nile Gardiner is a Washington-based foreign affairs analyst and political commentator. He appears frequently on American and British television and radio, including Fox News Channel, CNN, BBC, Sky News, and NPR.

Mapping Europe's Debt

Via Matthew Yglesias, an interactive map of Europe's debt levels. Read it and weep.

December 6, 2011

For Whom the Debt Crisis Tolls

Time marches on, or rather, speeds up:

Metallica's longtime manager, Cliff Burnstein, is accelerating the band's tour plans to avoid getting sucked into Europe's debt troubles. With the gloom among investors spreading to richer countries such as France, Mr. Burnstein is worried that the euro will tank, making it harder for concert promoters in the 17 countries that use the currency to pay Metallica's fees.

Instead of playing Europe in 2013, as originally envisaged, Metallica will take a "European Summer Vacation" next year, including gigs at Germany's Rock Im Park and Rock Am Ring festivals in early June—where the top-grossing thrash band will play its chart-topping 1991 record known as "The Black Album" in its entirety—before heading to Britain and Austria.

"Look, I'm not an economist, but I have a degree, so it helps," Mr. Burnstein said one afternoon, sitting in the back room of his midtown Manhattan office in jeans and a red Economist magazine T-shirt with "Think Responsibly" printed on it. "You have to ask yourself, what's the best time to be doing what, when and where."

A New Policy Toward the Middle East


Kenneth Pollack calls for a reappraisal of U.S. strategy toward the Middle East, advocating a move away from backing oppressive autocrats to supporting democrats. Here's his rationale:

Whether we like it or not, the changes sweeping the Middle East will affect America's vital national interests as well. We hate to admit it, but we must face the fact that our economy -- and the economy of the wider world, with which we are inextricably intertwined -- is addicted to oil. And the price of oil, and thus the welfare of our economy and that of the rest of the world, is deeply affected by what happens in the Middle East.
From this observation, Pollack goes on to sketch out a strategy whereby the U.S. aids the Middle East through a complicated political transition without angering Saudi Arabia, endangering Israel or empowering autocratic Islamist forces.

That's certainly one way to avoid high oil prices, but there are other ways to mitigate rising or unpredictable oil costs. Between improved automobile mileage standards, research into alternative fuels, better urban planning and domestic drilling - the U.S. has other policy options available than attempting a complicated strategy of micromanaging Middle Eastern politics.

(AP Photo)

December 2, 2011

CELAC: Chavez's Latest "Alternative"

After creating the ALBA with Cuba 10 years ago, Hugo Chávez now is hosting the inaugural for the CELAC (Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y del Caribe - Community of Latin American and Caribbean States).

ALBA is mostly dependent on Venezuelan oil, and its current members - Bolivia, Nicaragua, (Honduras dropped out), Ecuador, Dominica, St. Vincent and Antigua - are not exactly the largest economies in the world. Another Chávez brainchild, the Bank of the South (Banco del Sur) has tanked, so far, due to liquidity issues and lack of reserves.

But Chávez knows how to get publicity, and he also knows that his fellow heads of state in Latin America love to travel all-expenses-paid-by-their citizenry to other countries since it gives the appearance of doing something; everybody gets to badmouth the USA; the local media (which he controls) will lap up the meeting; Mexico wanted to be included in something; and, who knows, there may even be slush fund opportunities in the bargain.

Voilá, CELAC was born, created in Mexico last year.

The spin is intense: CELAC is touted as "a new geopolitical structure," soon to replace the "old and worn out" OAS, with Caracas not only as its capital (of course!) but also the capital of the Americas, with growing economies; just take a look at the map:

The map shows the purported growth in GDP for 2010 in each country's economy. Let me dampen your enthusiasm over these numbers by pointing out that anyone who believes Cuban government statistics deserves to be called a fool. I leave it to you to verify other statistics, for instance, Argentina's, where its government is prosecuting independent economists.

Canada and the USA are not invited, of course. Chile's president prudently sent his vice-president instead. In total, leaders of 33 countries are expected.

Raúl Castro turned up for the opening, crowing "for the first time, we'll have an organization for our America", conveniently forgetting that his brother said more or less the same thing about ALBA a decade ago. Venezuela rolled out the red carpet and lined up the military in full tin soldier garb, but Hugo couldn't make it to the airport to greet him,

Crisitina Fernández of Argentina and Dilma Rousseff of Brazil already met with Chávez, and Felipe Calderón tweeted from Mexico this morning that he's on his way.

And, this morning oil price is up, which may help fund the proceedings.

What is there not to love?

Well, for one thing:

Because it lacks any formal charter or mandate, however, Celac will be more effective as a forum for left-wing figures like Mr. Chávez to "pontificate" and fan anti-U.S. sentiment, said Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas in New York.
It's a good photo-op, but:
"It's a good show for Chávez. It boosts his standing and shows Venezuelans that he is a regional leader and that other heads of state will come to Venezuela," Mr. Shifter said.

But beyond photo opportunities, Mr. Shifter says he doubts CELAC will be able to distinguish itself from the slate of existing regional organizations such as Mercosur, the Union of South American Nations, the Andean Community of Nations, and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas.

"There are very significant problems among the subregional organizations," Mr. Shifter said. "It's hard to imagine that an organization that includes all of Latin America and the Caribbean will have fewer obstacles."

Or, as The Economist put it:
On paper CELAC will try to co-ordinate among trade blocks, such as Mercosur and the Andean Community (but UNASUR is also supposed to do that). It will also try to stimulate regional trade and speak with one voice in international forums. If only. The lesson of ALBA is that regional clubs based on political ideology rather than national interest do not get very far.
The USA is the major trading partner for most of these countries.

It'll be interesting to see what the heads of state end up signing, if anything, at the end of this summit.

Cross-posted at Fausta's blog

Does the GOP Have a Plan for Asia?

The foreign policy debate in the GOP primary has been something of a non-event, but Galrahn raises some important issues:

The Republican candidates, one of which is likely to replace Barack Obama unless the President can learn economics in the next 12 months, are almost certain to adopt the Obama doctrine for Asia that centers on US primacy. All evidence suggests that US political leaders cannot take any political stand except one that focuses on US primacy in Asia now and forever. This is a fools gold, but no one ever said politics wasn't foolish.

So we are left to search for other leaders, whether civilian or military, who are ready to promote visions of Americas future foreign policy in Asia and around the world that is congruent with the very real possibility that China may indeed have the largest economy in the world by 2025 - just 15 years from now. If China becomes the worlds largest economy, would that disrupt American primacy in Asia? President Obama's policy record isn't very good, indeed he isn't running a reelection campaign based on his record in case you haven't noticed, so there is certainly no evidence this new Obama Doctrine for Asia will be successful. There is also little evidence that anyone is thinking about a Plan B.

As China builds up military resources and capabilities commensurable with their economic growth, how should the US respond? Whose strategic vision of the future includes US prosperity and security regardless of whether China is the largest economy in the world or not?

Is Obama Waging a Preemptive War on Iran?

Jeffrey Goldberg thinks so:

Following a (perhaps not-so-mysterious) explosion on a military base last month that took with it the life of Gen. Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam--one of the Iranian missile program's most distinguished OGs--comes news of a second explosion in Isfahan this past Monday, which according to sources "struck the uranium enrichment facility there, despite denials by Tehran."

Of course, accurate news out of Tehran is hard to come by, but if you want to take this a step further, one might consider Tuesday's (perhaps not-so-spontaneous) storming of the British embassy by Iranian "students" to be quite an effective smokescreen in keeping news of this second explosion from making serious waves. If you've had a lot of coffee, it's also worthy to note that on Monday evening, following the explosion in Iran, four missiles fired from southern Lebanon struck Israel--the first such incident in over two years.

Thomas Donnelly slams the Obama administration for not preparing the public for a full-out war:

So this might be a last opportunity to formulate a larger strategy for dealing with Iran, and for defining what would really constitute success. Spooky operations are fine as far as they go, but rarely achieve significant strategic results. The United States is, indeed, in a low-level war with Iran, and no one particularly wants to see it get bigger. On the other hand, wars have a logic of their own, and the presumption that everything is under control – that all repayments will be “in kind” and somehow proportionate – in not the best basis for planning. What is now merely curious might easily become deeply compelling.

We are not well prepared for a larger war. We’re not prepared domestically, diplomatically, or militarily. Even a successful small-scale Iranian attack here would be a profound shock. The British and French may be with us (or in front of us, hence the attack on the British embassy) when it comes to sanctions, but they have little appetite or capability for any next step; China and Russia object to further sanctions. And we’re not only retreating from the region but in the process of a larger defense drawdown.

I think Donnelly raises an important issue - the U.S. is either leading (or following Israel) into a hot war with Iran and Donnelly's right to warn that events could quickly and unexpectedly take on a life of its own. But I don't know what "preparing the public" for war with Iran would accomplish. I suspect that a majority of Americans would oppose such a war, and it's not altogether clear that Obama wants to wage it in a more overt fashion.

I think it's clear the administration does not want a hot war with Iran - an administration hell-bent on conflict would have seized on the plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador - but if the tit-for-tat intensifies it might find its options sharply constrained.

Consider too the implication that Americans would find an Iranian attack against its interests or even the homeland a "profound shock." But how could the Obama administration prepare the public for such a shock without casting its Iran policy in a less-than-favorable light? If President Obama told the public that America was working with Israel to murder Iranian scientists and blow up Iranian buildings and sabotage Iranian infrastructure and that the Iranians might seek to retaliate in kind, it would implicitly cast Iranian motives as rational.

As we saw in the run up to the Iraq war, one of the key arguments advanced against Saddam Hussein was that he would do something irrational (hand over WMD to al-Qaeda) and hence couldn't be trusted. Iranian irrationality and religious fanaticism is also a critical component in the case for taking military action against their nuclear program. A key to sustaining the aura of irrationality is to strip out any of the strategic context of Iranian actions.

December 1, 2011

The Dynamic of Russia's Ruling Tandem

In two photos:



(AP Photo)

Can America Learn Anything From China?


Writing in the Wall Street Journal (of all places) Andy Stern argues that China's model of single party authoritarianism and state-directed capitalism is superior to America's economic model. I think Stern is wrong - but his piece does raise two very important questions: 1. At what point does Stern's diagnosis become correct? 2. Would the United States possess the capacity to recognize that its system was failing and change course?

Usually when talk turns to China's performance and fears about America's future, we're reassured by knowledgeable experts that Churchill's maxim applies: "democracy is the worst form of government except for the all the others." We're also reminded of China's very deep social and economic problems - problems which even three decades of torrid economic growth have not fully solved (and in some cases may be exacerbating). I also find this analysis very persuasive - I'd be more willing to bet that the U.S. looks a lot stronger in 10 or 20 years than China does. I don't believe history vindicates the kind of strong central planning role that Stern lauds in his piece (to say nothing about the many abuses that abound in China's single-party system).

But what if China makes it work? What if over the next 20 years, China continues to experience strong economic performance with ever larger numbers of people rising from unemployment or subsistence wages and the U.S. creaks along with stagnant growth, very high unemployment and very high levels of income inequality? What if China makes the leap from a manufacturing-based economy to an innovations-based economy? What would defenders of the American status quo say then? At what point does China's economic performance, and America's lack thereof, speak to something more systemic? Something ideological?

The second question is even more intriquing - would the United States and its political leaders even be willing to acknowledge it had fallen behind and look abroad for solutions? We know that several Asian countries were able to do this kind of rigorous self-assessment and adopt growth-boosting reforms. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, Japan realized their society was lagging behind the West and embarked on a crash modernization that saw Japanese power grow enormously before World War II. China has done much the same thing in the economic arena. Could America?

(AP Photo)

Top Five Military Robots

Discovery News has a cool slideshow on new military robots about to take the battlefield.

Mapping Cross-Border Investment Flows


Via the Big Picture, a look at how investment cash flows around the world.

« November 2011 | Blog Home Page | January 2012 »