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January 31, 2012

It's Not How Many Troops You Have, It's How You Use Them

There's a growing debate over President Obama's decision to reduce the number of U.S. ground forces by 92,000 by 2017. Frederick Kagan says it's a mistake:

Advocates of the president’s strategy say that we do not need that human capital or expertise in ground operations because we will never again fight wars that put large numbers of our soldiers at risk. Technology, they say, will make future wars precise, rapid and decisive. We have heard this argument many times since the Cold War ended, from George W. Bush as enthusiastically as Bill Clinton. Yet every U.S. president since Ronald Reagan has ordered tens of thousands of troops into ground combat. Obama himself sent 70,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of U.S. troops have been deployed abroad to wars or peacekeeping operations for 38 of the past 70 years — and nearly continuously since 1989. The argument that next time will be different is unpersuasive.

And you know what - Kagan's right. Though many of these deployments were unnecessary and ill-advised, they happened anyway. President Obama is not foreclosing the option for a future administration to make a bad decision simply because they'll have fewer resources at their disposal. Multiple military experts told the Bush administration that an invasion and occupation of Iraq would require far more troops than Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was prepared to commit, but they were ignored and a massive strain on the U.S. military ensued.

But I guess it's worth pointing out that real issue here isn't the number of troops but the strategic decision-making surrounding their deployment. There really wouldn't be an argument about whether or not we needed to retain these 92,000 soldiers if President Bush had made a better decision vis-a-vis Iraq (or President Obama vis-a-vis Afghanistan).

Via Andrew Sullivan, Peter Munson hits the nail squarely on the head:

America did not enter any of these wars (going back to Vietnam) as a counterinsurgent or a nation-builder. America entered these wars with ill-defined strategic goals, the result of lowest common denominator bureaucratic negotiations. These goals were not sufficiently thought out, clearly stated, or properly subscribed to by the government writ large, resulting in nearly immediate drift. This fact should point us toward the true roots of the problem.

When it comes to small wars, American national security decision-making institutions predispose the nation to failure. America tends to involve itself in conflicts with insufficient resources and ill-defined aims, expand its commitments based on continually changing policies, and run out of public support before these adventures have run their course.

The entire piece is an absolute must-read. As Munson points out, what unites these wars is that they are almost always wars of choice. But I suspect that Kagan is correct that it's a choice Washington will continue to make.

President Obama Defends Drone War

In his YouTube/Google + question and answer, President Obama fielded some questions about America's drone campaign. Here, via USA Today, is his defense:

Well, you know, I think that we have to be judicious in how we use drones.

But understand that probably our ability to respect the sovereignty of other countries and to limit our incursions into somebody else's territory is enhanced by the fact that we are able to pinpoint strike on al Qaeda operative in a place where the capacities of that military in that country may not be able to get them.

So, obviously, a lot of these strikes have been in the Fattah [sic] and going after al Qaeda suspects, who are up in very tough terrain along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. For us to be able to get them in another way would involve probably a lot more intrusive military actions than the one that we're already engaging in.

That doesn't mean that we shouldn't be careful about how we proceed on this. And you know, obviously, I'm looking forward to a time where al Qaeda is no longer operative network and, you know, we can refocus a lot of our assets and attention on other issues.

But this is something that we're still having to deal with, there's still active plots that are directed against the United States, and I think we are on the offense now. Al Qaeda's been really weakened, but we've still got a little more work to do, and we've got to make sure that we're using all our capacities in order to deal with it.

Speaking of Google+, you can now find RCW there as well.

January 30, 2012

How to Delay Iran's Bomb Without War

David Menashri argues it can be done:

Iran has also been pummeled economically by Security Council sanctions, together with those imposed independently by the U.S. and the European Union. The most recent sanctions threats concerning Iran's oil exports and its banks have raised serious concerns in Tehran. Iran's currency has plunged against the U.S. dollar recently and growing unemployment and inflation are squeezing the Iranian people. Although the riots of 2009 were crushed, many regime rivals killed or jailed, and the main leaders placed under house arrest, under the surface the fire of rebellion still rages. While the regime has been able to suppress dissenting voices, Iran's youth remain the main challenge to the regime and the main source of hope for its rivals.

France Readies Pirate-Busting Ship

Even in an atmosphere of austerity, French defense planners appear to be awake to the threat of piracy:

Blind them with light, drench them with water cannons or deafen them with sound blasts: these are some of the on-board anti-pirate features that figure in a project being developed in France....

A series of traps and non-lethal defenses are set to be installed on board the Partisan, a French military training vessel, in a 12-million-euro project piloted by the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME)....

The anti-pirate measures on the Partisan begin with radar systems and infrared cameras that detect the danger as early as possible, allowing the crew to alert the authorities in the hope of being rescued by a warship.

If the pirates move closer to their target on board their skiffs, they can be hit with "long range acoustic devices" that blast them with pain-inducing sounds. They might then be hit with beams of blinding light.

If they are still not dissuaded, powerful remote-controlled water cannons can continue to blast them while the crew takes refuge in a "citadel", or safe room hidden in the boat.

From there the crew can use cameras to monitor the pirates and continue to sail their ship.

If despite all that the pirates manage to get on board, they will be met with tear gas canisters. The ship's corridors are plunged into darkness and flooded with smoke to disorientate the pirates.

Most of Asia Rejects Iran Embargo

Last week we posted a chart highlighting where Iran's oil exports go. After Europe, Asia consumes most of Iran's oil and it appears that they're far less concerned about the risks Iran poses to "global" security than they are about the risks of not having Iranian oil to fuel their economic growth:

Several Asian countries are expressing an unwillingness to join the United States and Europe Union in blocking oil imports from Iran in order to pressure Tehran over its disputed nuclear program.

Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee has said his country cannot do without Iranian oil and will not be cutting its Iranian imports despite other countries' efforts to punish Tehran for its controversial nuclear activities.

South Korea and China have likewise balked at the prospect of curbing Iranian oil consumption.

A Responsibility to Protect Everyone But Americans

To be sure, one should always look at Western intervention in Arab lands with some degree of skepticism. The United States has a tragic history in the region, supporting repressive dictatorships for over 50 years with rather remarkable consistency. But where there is sin there is also atonement. What made Libya a "pure" intervention was that we acted not because our vital interests were threatened but in spite of the fact that they were not. For me, this was yet one more reason to laud it. Libya provided us an opportunity to begin the difficult work of re-orienting U.S. foreign policy, to align ourselves, finally, with our own ideals. -- Shadi Hamid

Putting U.S. troops at risk, even if the risks are small, isn't something that should be done for the sake of our troubled consciences. If the U.S. has foreign policy sins to atone for, shouldn't the sinners be the ones subjected to punishment?

I would also be very hesitant about proclaiming a great moral victory in Libya. It's not just that the interim government has been accused of complicity in torture and reprisals (that much can be expected in any war), but that it's simply too soon to tell what a post-Gaddafi Libya will deliver.

January 27, 2012

Benevolent Lunar Hegemony

Newt Gingrich's pledge to build a permanent U.S. base on the moon has come in for a lot of mockery and criticism, but most of it strikes me as extremely naive.

If the U.S. retreats from the moon, it will leave a dangerous vacuum that will inevitably be filled by powers that are indifferent, if not hostile to our interests and values. Without a stabilizing lunar presence, Iranian influence would no doubt expand (I needn't remind you of the dangers of Iran's lunar ambitions or the incipient celestial Shia cresecent). Our failure to stand by the moon would also send a damaging message to other planets that the U.S. is not willing to see through the commitments made by earlier administrations. Mars, Venus, Jupiter would all start hedging their bets.

It's possible that President Obama, mired in anti-lunar-colonial sentiment (who could forget how he apologized for the disrespect Alan Shepard showed toward the lunar surface), would reject an American presence, but a confident America must recognize that our hegemony has helped the moon at least as much as it has helped us.

The fact is, for our own security and prosperity, America must remain the indispensable planetary power, providing the galactic global goods that only we can provide. If Obama renounces a permanent base on the moon, he will be signalling in unmistakable terms his commitment to American decline.

Moral Support < Violent Repression

Senator John McCain passes judgment:

"History will judge this president incredibly harshly, with disdain and scorn for his failure to come to the moral assistance of the 1.5 million Iranians that were demonstrating in the streets of Tehran," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep today. Those demonstrators, McCain said, were "crying out ... literally crying out ... 'Obama, Obama, are you with us?' ... If we had given them some moral support, it might have made some difference."

Unless by "moral support" Senator McCain actually means "communications equipment, intelligence, weapons and allied airstrikes and no-fly zones" this really is a baseless criticism. As we've seen now, rather concretely in both Libya and Syria, "moral support" isn't enough to unseat autocrats who, like the Iranian regime, decide to hold onto power by force.

January 25, 2012

Obama's Empty SOTU Grand Strategy

Rosa Brooks makes some perceptive comments above regarding what foreign policy content there was in President Obama's state of the union address.

Christopher Preble didn't like the invocation of America as "the indispensible nation":

Have we learned nothing in the past decade? Have we learned anything? To say that we are the indispensable nation is to say that nothing in the world happens without the United States’ say so. That is demonstrably false.

Of course, the United States of American is an important nation, the most important, even. Yes, we are an exceptional nation. We boast an immensely powerful military, a still-dynamic economy (in spite of our recent challenges), and a vibrant political culture that hundreds of millions of people around the world would like to emulate. But the world is simply too vast, too complex, and the scale of transactions in the global economy is enormous. It is the height of arrogance and folly for any country to claim indispensability.

The president is hardly alone, however. Many in Washington—including some of his most vociferous critics in the Republican Party— celebrate the continuity in U.S. foreign policy as an affirmation of its wisdom. The president’s invocation of the “indispensable nation” line from the mid-1990s is merely the latest manifestation of a foreign policy consensus that has held for decades.

But the world has changed, and is still changing. Our grand strategy needs to adapt. When we embarked on the unipolar project after the end of the Cold War, the United States accounted for about a third of global economic output, and a third of global military expenditures; today, we account for just under half of global military spending, but our share of the global economy has fallen below 25 percent.

It's like U.S. foreign policy rhetoric is an exercise in Stuart Smalley-esque self-esteem building.

Al-Qaeda's Rope-a-Dope Strategy Revealed

Via Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a German paper uncovered a high-level strategy paper drafted by what's left of al-Qaeda's leaders in the Afghan-Pakistan border:

According to information obtained by Der Tagesspiegel, terror organization al-Qa’ida plans to fight a war of attrition against Germany and other Western states. Security sources say that a strategy paper drafted by the al-Qa’ida leadership based in the Pakistani-Afghan border area suggests that a combination of smaller and larger attacks “will drive the enemy to despair.” Other documents describe the taking and subsequent killing of hostages, the use of toxic substances, and how to give cover to fighters smuggled in.

Al-Qa’ida expects that growing fear among the general population and increasing reprisals on the part of the security authorities will marginalize Muslims. As a result of such escalation, Muslims will join the Holy War in ever larger numbers, security sources quote from the papers.

Gartenstein-Ross observes:

[T]his strategy paper shows that the group continues to depend on the West’s reactions to advance its objectives, demonstrated by its expectation that “increasing reprisals on the part of the security authorities will marginalize Muslims,” thus causing more Muslims to flock to al Qaeda’s jihad. I won’t reiterate the idea of al Qaeda’s rope-a-dope here, but it is worth being cognizant of to understand how the jihadi group used American reactions to strengthen its own hand over the past decade.

Drone Strikes: Short Term Good, Long Term Harm?

Robert Wright highlights dilemma between the need to take lethal action against today's terrorists with the longer-term possibility that you'll create more:

One feature of many of these wars is that we're not attacking the state itself. We're attacking groups within the state. For example, in a drone strike in Somalia three days ago (didn't read about that one, did you?), we killed someone in al Qaeda. At other times we kill Somalians who are in al-Shabab.

These are groups that, on the one hand, don't have the capacity, as a state government might, to retaliate in an immediate and specific way. But that doesn't mean retaliation won't be forthcoming. Indeed, groups such as al-Shabab, whose political goals are essentially local, may now become more inclined to consider America the enemy and begin planning anti-American terrorist attacks, or trying to recruit home-grown terrorists in America.

The blowback could assume vaguer form, as well. When we kill Muslims abroad, it often winds up being fuel for al Qaeda recruiting--especially when, as will inevitably happen from time to time, bystanders or family members get killed in the process....

This time lapse changes a president's decision-making paradigm. When the downside of attack is delayed, attacking becomes more attractive. The president can launch strikes to impede terrorism in the short run and let the blowback show up on the next president's watch. (I'm not saying the calculation is always this consciously cynical, but the result can be the same even when it's not.)

One thing that might help shape this or a future administration's decision-making is some empirical evidence that drone strikes are causing more long-term damage than they doing short-term good. It won't be precise, of course, but something akin to the work Robert Pape has done documenting the impact of military occupation and suicide terrorism would be useful in this new era of drone warfare.

It could be that the downside risks of some kind of blowback attack are much smaller than the risks of letting certain individuals out of our cross-hairs. Or it could be just the opposite.

January 24, 2012

IMF to World: Gird Your Loins

The International Monetary Fund is out with its latest forecast and it expects the global recovery to stall. The above video does a nice job summarizing the findings, but the nickle version is that it's all Europe's fault. A chart showing the the latest IMF projections for most of the world's advanced economies is below the jump.


New Foreign Policy Blogs

We're firm believers that you can never have too much foreign policy and national security commentary, so it's nice to see some new blogs pop up that are worth your time. First, there's Renewing America, a new blog from the Council on Foreign Relations on the U.S. in the global economy. Then there's Democracy Lab, from Foreign Policy, which is focused on tracking democratic transitions across the world. Last, but certainly not least, is Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, a new blog by renowned scholar Francis Fukuyama hosted on the American Interest's website. Check them out and if there are blogs we should be reading, let us know in comments.

A World In Debt: Who's Paying It Off


Ever since the world ran face-first into the credit crisis, the phrase "de-leveraging" has been on a lot of people's lips. It's considered both a short-term curse (it reduces consumer and business demand) but the long-term cure (once our books our balanced we can head back to the mall).

A new study from McKinsey surveys a number of countries whacked by the financial crisis to see which consumers have done the best job paring back their debt loads. The answer, as you can see from the chart (click it for a larger image), is that the U.S. has done quite well in this regard but in other major economies, a lot of work still remains. There is some encouraging news, though, as McKinsey notes:

The deleveraging processes in Sweden and Finland in the 1990s offer relevant lessons today. Both endured credit bubbles and collapses, followed by recession, debt reduction, and eventually a return to robust economic growth. Their experiences and other historical examples show two distinct phases of deleveraging. In the first phase, lasting several years, households, corporations, and financial institutions reduce debt significantly. While this happens, economic growth is negative or minimal and government debt rises. In the second phase of deleveraging, GDP growth rebounds and then government debt is gradually reduced over many years.

McKinsey says the U.S. is "most closely following the Nordic path" which is comprised of six critical factors: a stable banking system, a credible plan for long-term fiscal sustainability, structural reforms already in place, rising exports, rising private investment, a stabilized housing market.

I'm not sure if the U.S. has yet reached a credible plan for long-term fiscal sustainability (just the opposite) but there it is.

[Hat tip: Drezner]

Grading Obama's Foreign Policy

Foreign Policy conducted an interesting symposium, asking a number of analysts to grade President Obama's foreign policy. They didn't invite me, but that doesn't mean we can't play along. Here's a quick, incomplete list of what I think the president got right, wrong and what judgments are better left to history:


1. Shifting America's strategic focus to Asia

2. Coordinating a global response to the Great Recession

3. Killing bin Laden and the upper echelon of al-Qaeda's leadership


1. Arab-Israeli peace making

2. Prolonging a large-scale deployment of U.S. troops in Afghanistan

3. The intervention in Libya's civil war

To be determined:

1. The Russian "reset"

2. Containing Iran

3. The Arab Spring

4. Paring back U.S. defense spending

5. Expanding the drone war beyond Pakistan

January 23, 2012

Risky Business: The World's Least Business-Friendly Countries

The risk consultancy Maplecroft has found "complicity in the violation of human rights constitute the most significant environmental, social and governance (ESG) risk faced by investors in the fast growing BRIC economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China." In their newly released survey, the company also lists some of the least hospitable places for a business to operate:

According to Maplecroft’s results, the 10 countries with the highest levels of ESG risk are Somalia, North Korea and Myanmar, which are classified as ‘extreme risk,’ while South Sudan, Haiti, DR Congo, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Pakistan sit within the ‘high risk’ category.

However, global investment is centred in the new financial powerhouses of the BRICs, along with other emerging growth markets, such as Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, the Philippines and Viet Nam, and it is in these countries where responsible investors will be particularly exposed to ESG risks.

Is Iran an Existential Threat?

Bruce Reidel claims that Iran is not an existential threat to Israel or America:

Iran, in contrast, has no major power providing it with financial help. Its arms relationships with Russia and China have been severed by Security Council Resolution 1929. Its only military ally is Syria, not exactly a powerhouse. And Syria is now in the midst of a civil war, its army dissolving. If President Bashar Assad falls, Iran is the biggest loser in the “Arab Spring.” Hezbollah will be the second largest loser. The deputy secretary general of Hezbollah and one of its founders, Sheikh Naim Qassem, wrote in 2007 that Syria is “the cornerstone” of Hezbollah’s survival in the region. While Syria and Hezbollah have their differences, the relationship is a “necessity” for Hezbollah.

What Makes China an Economic Success?

Ma Guangyuan argues that it's not the "China model" that many in the West ascribe to:

Those viewing China’s model often point to the powerful Chinese government and its centralized authority as the key in propelling the development of the Chinese economy. They argue that centralization of forces makes it possible to launch major undertakings and minimize internal frictions.

However, this conclusion does not hold water when examined from a historical point of view. When the, Chinese government controlled everything at the start of the reform and opening-up drive in China, China did not prosper. On the contrary, China’s national economy fell to the brink of collapse during this period due to extreme political and economic leftism. It is obvious, therefore, that policy stability and the exercise of government power are not the key to economic transformation. In fact, the biggest hurdle blocking China’s course of development has been its stagnation in political reform and the transformation of government, as well as the government’s control over resources. Because its political reform has lagged, the Chinese government has become too involved in economic affairs and its officials have received unfettered powers over the distribution of land, capital and other economic resources. By getting directly involved in project examination and approval, licensing standards for market access, price control, and the execution of other types of administrative measures, the government not only frequently interferes with micro economic operations, but also commits many types of malpractices such as rent seeking to throttle market economic vitality.

European Sanctions Will Hurt Iran


The Obama administration has thus far managed to successfully tighten the economic screws on Iran and now they've apparently convinced the Europeans to do the same. Now, based on the chart above via the Wall Street Journal, it's clear that this is a move that will deal another major blow to the Iranian economy. Obviously the next step for the administration is to convince Asian governments to similarly restrict Iranian oil exports, since they are the countries most likely to pick up the slack in European demand. But to do that, the U.S. will have to some plausible alternative to Iranian oil to fuel Asian economies.

Where is that oil going to come from?

January 20, 2012

U.S. Views on a War With Iran

Emily Ekins gives us a look at some new findings from Rasmussen:

Yet despite the cheers the candidates received for taking hawkish foreign policy stances with Iran, a recent Rasmussen poll finds that only 35 percent of Americans favor using military force if sanctions fail to prevent Iran from developing their nuclear capabilities.

This finding is especially interesting given that 81 percent of Americans think it is either somewhat or very likely that Iran will develop a nuclear weapon in the near future, and that 63 percent of Americans do not believe it is very or at all likely that stiff economic sanctions will effectively force Iran to disband its nuclear program.

Although 76 percent of Americans believe that Iran is a serious national security threat to the United States, only 35 percent are ready to favor military intervention. This means that even though most Americans believe it's quite likely Iran will develop a nuclear weapon and that economic sanctions will fail to work, they aren’t willing for Americans to engage in another military intervention.

Too bad it doesn't matter what they think.

January 19, 2012

An Iran Attack Would Succeed, Then What?

Brendan Green makes an interesting case against a war with Iran, claiming that the problem is that it would succeed:

In sum, Tehran would have to reconstruct a program that took decades to build, from technology it could have serious trouble reproducing locally, in expansive facilities buried deep underground, while simultaneously making a major conventional effort to produce an IADS, all out of an economically struggling and generally impoverished resource base. A revived program could meet long delays and might never become viable....

The perception of success could reinforce America’s worst strategic tendencies. American statesmen will have strong incentives to increase the American military presence in the region in order to keep the Iranians from rebuilding their program. What is worse, Washington will have a new case study in the efficacy of American military power, one that appears to vindicate the broader policy of regional hegemony. Though speculative, evidence from the recent past supports the possibility of this sort of reaction.

I think this is close to the mark, but the real issue here is the timing of our judgments on what constitutes success.

I think Green makes a very convincing case that in the short-run, a U.S. military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities could do serious, long-lasting damage to their nuclear program, especially if post-strike pressure and technological embargoes on Iran were maintained. Iran can retaliate, possibly against U.S. civilian targets, but unless they're willing to risk an ever sharper confrontation, they would probably refrain from launching a 9/11-sized massacre on U.S. soil.

So any possible war with Iran would almost certainly be seen, initially, as a huge U.S. success.

But what about the longer term?

There is a very apt observation in David Ignatius' review of James Barr's A Line in the Sand: The Anglo-French Struggle for the Middle East 1914-1948:

The British and French were so eager for short-term advantage that they ignored the long-term problems they were creating.
Anyone familiar with the recent Mideast history appreciates that Britain and France created quite a few long term problems (which, curiously, Washington has taken upon itself to try and fix). This is a spirit that pervades our thinking in the Middle East. To the extent that Iran and its nuclear program posses a threat to U.S. security, it is the same threat that any potential hegemon in the Middle East could pose - using its strategic position to close down the free flow of oil to the outside world.

Seeing as any threat to blockade Hormuz is a double-edged sword, capable of doing more long-term harm to the wielder than the victim, it behooves everyone in the U.S. to take a deep breath and spend less time ruminating about sail barge nuclear attacks against the United States (!) and more about how to improve America's energy security over the long term.

Will the Middle East Be China's Problem?

NightWatch sees China's partnership with the UAE as filling a void left by the U.S. :

China has maintained a strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia since before the first Gulf War. The closer relationship with the UAE signifies that China intends to be consequential in both Sunni Arab states as well as Shiite Iran.

A recent analysis concluded that Arab states friendly to the US now perceive that the will to use US influence in the Middle East is waning and thus have begun looking for other partners to help ensure their long term security. China is the obvious candidate and is showing that it is prepared to fill any power vacuum the US choses to leave.

Omri Ceren sees this as some kind of problem, but I'd argue it's a positive development. China is more dependent on Gulf oil than the U.S. (the short-sighted killing of the Keystone pipeline notwithstanding) and should therefore take on a larger share of the Gulf's security headaches.

Putin: Radio Pours Diarrhea On Me

Metaphorically, of course:

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has accused a leading liberal radio station of constantly disparaging him and serving foreign interests.

At a regular meeting with editors-in-chief of leading media, he told Moscow Echo radio's Alexei Venediktov: "You pour diarrhoea over me day and night."

He singled out a discussion of Russia's opposition to US missile defence plans in Europe as an example of Echo's bias.

January 18, 2012

Can Saudi Arabia Pump More Oil?

Saudi Arabia's geostrategic value lies in the fact that its immense reserves of oil make it a "supplier of last resort" able to meet global demand. Kevin Drum says that Saudi power is in this regard is basically spent:

Neither the Saudis, nor anyone else, control the price of oil anymore. Saudi Arabia has very little spare capacity to speak of, and couldn't open the taps to bring the price of oil down even if it wanted to. So no matter what the price of oil is, that's approximately the price the Saudis say is fair. That way they don't have to admit that they no longer have the ability to seriously affect oil price movements.

This, by the way, is the same dynamic at work in OPEC meetings. They meet, they talk, and then they release a statement saying that they aren't going to increase production quotas because the current price is fair and "customers aren't asking for more oil." Well, of course they aren't. By definition, customers aren't asking for more oil as long as oil is selling at the market-clearing price. Which it is. Because if it's not, then the price goes up, and guess what? Markets clear and customers aren't asking for more oil. Nonetheless, this charade regularly gets played out anyway, because OPEC doesn't want to admit that their production quotas are mostly meaningless these days.

Iran a "Mortal" Threat?


There's a lot that I'm confused about in Mark Helprin's WSJ piece on the "mortal" threat that Iran poses to the U.S., but it doesn't help that it opens with a non-sequitor:

To assume that Iran will not close the Strait of Hormuz is to assume that primitive religious fanatics will perform cost-benefit analyses the way they are done at Wharton. They won't, especially if the oil that is their life's blood is threatened.

So Iran views oil as so important to their economy that in response to sanctions they would take it all off the market? That's ridiculous on its face. If they are indeed primitive religious fanatics, then what does it matter that their "life blood" is threatened? Helprin tries to build his entire argument around the fact that Iran would be immune to threats of retaliation but if that were so, then they wouldn't care about the economic deprivation caused by sanctions.

Helprin goes on to suggest that there is a 1-in-20 chance that Iran would launch a nuclear weapon at the United States without providing a scintilla of evidence or argument why this would be so. No one need think the best of the Islamic Republic to understand that even belligerent, terror-sponsoring states can have an appreciation for limits.

Stepping back, you have to marvel at where we find ourselves. The United States is orders of magnitude more powerful than Iran, has conventional and nuclear military forces that could destroy Iran several hundred times over, devotes more money to its defense every year than the entire GDP of Iran and yet in the up-is-down world of some defense analysts, we are the ones in "mortal danger." You have to wonder why we even bother devoting $500 billion a year to defense if it can't even buy Helprin & company a peaceful night's sleep.

(AP Photo)

January 17, 2012

A Debate Won't Stop War With Iran

As before, we’re letting a bunch of ignorant, sloppy-thinking politicians and politicized foreign-policy experts draw “red line” ultimatums. As before, we’re letting them quick-march us off to war. This time their target is Iran. And heaven knows Iran’s leaders are bad guys capable of doing dangerous things. But if we’ve learned anything, anything at all, from plunging into war in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, it is this: we must have a public scrubbing of fighting rhetoric before, not after, the war begins. - Leslie Gelb

You frequently heard from people who opposed the second Iraq war that the war was conducted without any "proper debate." This never struck me as all that convincing - I remember reading nothing else during 2002 and 2003. Rather, it was wishful thinking based on a flawed premise - that had the public been given adequate time and information they would have opposed the war and that that opposition would have stayed the hands of the Bush administration.

Instead, I think Justin Logan has the dynamic right:

The point is that the public may have some inchoate, a priori opinions about foreign policy, but they don’t matter all that much when it comes to influencing foreign policy.
To the extent that an avalanche of op-eds convinces elites and policy-makers that a U.S. attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would be a bad idea, a "public" debate is mostly irrelevant. Of course, if the Obama administration or its GOP successor were to actually ask Congress to declare war on Iran prior to a U.S. attack we might have some back-and-forth over the issue. But that would never happen.

January 16, 2012

Who's Winning in the Global Economy


Via the Economist.

Why Would Iran Commit Genocide Now?

A lot of the debate over whether Israel (presumably) is committing acts of terror in Iran by killing scientists hinges on the question of whether these scientists are actually civilians or not. Commentary's Jonathan Tobin, for instance, argues that it's not terrorism because these scientists were helping Iran build a weapon of genocide:

But you need a particular form of moral myopia not to see that heading off a potential second Holocaust in the form of an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel or the nuclear blackmail of the rest of the Middle East is not a form of terrorism. Anyone who believes Iran should be allowed to proceed toward the building of a nuclear bomb has either lost their moral compass or is so steeped in the belief that American and Israeli interests are inherently unjustified they have reversed the moral equation in this case. Rather than the alleged U.S. and Israeli covert operators being called terrorists, it is the Iranian scientists who are the criminals. They must be stopped before they kill.

I think if you accept Tobin's logic, then obviously killing any Iranian, civilian or otherwise, connected to the country's military-industrial apparatus is justified since the alternative is a nuclear attack on Israel that will leave potentially hundreds of thousands of people dead.

But there's ample reason to believe that Tobin's logic isn't all that logical. Consider that Iran is believed to have had weapons of mass destruction since at least the Iran-Iraq war. If Iranian leaders were truly irrational and not concerned about a devastating retaliation, they could have launched a biological or chemical attack against Israel.

January 13, 2012

What Would the British Do?

To be honest, I don't know how huge a deal the revelations are in this Foreign Policy piece (and needless to say, these are allegations, not established facts). The short version - agents from Israel's intelligence service are alleged to have disguised themselves as American CIA agents to hire terrorists to kill people inside Iran.

I think a good way to frame this is to ask: would Britain's intelligence service do something like this? If the answer is yes, then Israel's actions are in keeping with how international spy craft and subversion work among allies. If the answer is no, then the argument that Israel is key strategic asset for the United States becomes a lot less credible.

Update: Larison suggests this isn't the right way to frame the news:

I suppose that agents of any government that wanted to employ foreign terrorists to blow up civilians in another country might be inclined to pretend to be working for a different government, since they wouldn’t want to implicate their government in such crimes, but that doesn’t tell us very much. It’s not just the false flag nature of the operation that is bothersome. If the report is true, this operation involved a terrorist group that blows up civilians in mosques, and the perception that the U.S. was behind the group that did these things invited attacks on Americans. In addition to encouraging atrocities against civilians, the operation made it seem as if the U.S. were complicit in those atrocities.
My point was simply that it's difficult to tell how far over the line Israel's alleged actions were if similar stunts had been pulled by other allied intelligence services in the past. In their own right, these allegations are obviously troubling.

Update II: Evelyn Gordon says there's reason to be skeptical of the charges:

Israel termed the report “absolute nonsense,” explaining that had it been true, then-Mossad chief Meir Dagan would have been declared persona non grata in Washington rather than being a welcome visitor. Nor is that idle speculation: Those same two presidents forced the ouster of three other senior Israeli defense officials over other issues; why would they have given Dagan a pass?

Just last year, Uzi Arad was forced to resign as chairman of Israel’s National Security Council due to Washington’s anger over leaked information from U.S.-Israeli talks on nuclear issues. And in 2005, two senior Defense Ministry officials – director general Amos Yaron and chief of security Yehiel Horev – were forced out due to Washington’s anger over Israel’s agreement to upgrade Harpy drones for China, following a year in which the Pentagon boycotted Yaron entirely. Thus, had Dagan committed an offense as egregious as Perry claimed, it’s inconceivable that he would have continued for years to be not only a welcome guest, but even one of Washington’s preferred Israeli interlocutors.

What Is Obama Doing in the Middle East?

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. - Josh Rogin, Dec. 16, 2011

The Pentagon quietly shifted combat troops and warships to the Middle East after the top American commander in the region warned that he needed additional forces to deal with Iran and other potential threats, U.S. officials said.

Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, who heads U.S. Central Command, won White House approval for the deployments late last year after talks with the government in Baghdad broke down over keeping U.S. troops in Iraq, but the extent of the Pentagon moves is only now becoming clear.

Officials said Thursday that the deployments are not meant to suggest a buildup to war, but rather are intended as a quick-reaction and contingency force in case a military crisis erupts in the standoff with Tehran over its suspected nuclear weapons program. - LA Times, Jan. 13, 2012

Either Mr. Rhodes didn't get the memo, or the administration is talking out of both sides of its mouth.

January 6, 2012

The Global Power Shift

Here's an interesting talk from Paddy Ashdown on global shifts in power.

The Stat That Should Worry Europe


Via Thomson Reuters.

January 5, 2012

Who's Killing Iraqis?

Today’s event was heavy on questionable rhetoric. Obama, for instance, claimed the “tide of war is receding,” something that will be news to soldiers and Marines risking their necks every day in Afghanistan or to Iraqis whose countrymen are being blown up as an indirect result of America’s reckless withdrawal from their country. - Max Boot

If Boot is indeed blaming today's violence in Iraq on the Obama administration - even "indirectly" - would he therefore accept that the Bush administration was responsible - however "indirectly"- for the 114,000 dead Iraqis killed since the invasion?

Ron Paul and the Battle of Ideas

Andrew Sullivan offers his thoughts on the Ron Paul/interventionism debate:

If the left says "we will take care of you by entitlements" at home; the right says "we will take care of you by constant warfare" abroad. Paul - in stark contrast to both - is saying a famous "why?" to Robert Kennedy's "why not?" And part of his appeal is its complete inversion of our politics, left and right. I have no idea whether this will backfire or not. Most good ideas do, at first. But he has expanded the range of ideas in our national debate more radically than anyone since Reagan. And since I believe ideas have consequences, and that wider debates are likely to lead to better collective judgments, good for him.

I wrote as much for RCP in 2007 and I do remain convinced that - eventually - the U.S. will adopt a more non-interventionist posture and, yes, Paul more than any other candidate has helped to popularize the idea. I guess my reservations boil down to the quality of the advocate, not the advocacy itself.

Unfinished Business in Afghanistan

Two Marines walk the dusty streets at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan, Dec. 18. As the final U.S. forces departed Iraq, nearly 100,000 American troops continued counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan.
Photo by Cpl. Brian Adam Jones

By Brian Adam Jones

I have a rather polite alarm clock next to my bed.

At night, it douses my room in a cool, blue light. In the morning, it gently nudges me awake with soft tones that gradually increase in severity. The clock offers a welcome contrast to the lonely and gritty discomfort of Afghanistan, to the very concept of War.

But at 5 a.m. on Christmas morning, I was not happy to hear it.

Grumpy and bleary-eyed, I pulled on my desert camouflage uniform and laced up my boots. I’m sure my sentiment was echoed by the other American military men and women spending Christmas away from home.

As a combat journalist and communications specialist with 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) in Helmand province, Afghanistan, my Christmas morning was spent facilitating a live interview between a Detroit television station and two hometown heroes.

Not far away, on adjacent Camp Bastion, Marine Corps UH-1Y Hueys lifted off into the cold morning air.

Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 369 launched Operation Noel, an effort to deliver care packages and Christmas cheer to Marines in remote outposts that don’t regularly receive mail and don’t enjoy the relative safety I have here at Camp Leatherneck.

While most of the remaining American forces in Iraq were able to make it home in time for Christmas, nearly 100,000 other U.S. troops spent Christmas morning in Afghanistan, quietly working as a part of an international coalition to create an increasingly peaceful and independent infrastructure here.

As the final U.S. soldiers departed Iraq, a thick dust storm blanketed Camp Leatherneck. The temperature dropped about 15 degrees, locking the region in a surreal scene where the sun struggled to penetrate during the day, and the base’s ambient light couldn’t escape at night.

For the Marines at Camp Leatherneck, the days leading up to Christmas were spent in a sort of snowglobe of dust and sand – 7,000 miles from a Western world focused on the end of military operations in Iraq.

And here we progress, hopefully a bit better every day, a bit closer to a viable and reasonable end to our presence here, where we can join the veterans of Iraq and the ones we love.

I hope everyone back home had a fantastic Christmas holiday and I can’t wait to be home soon.

Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 369 launches Operation Noel, delivering care packages and Christmas cheer to Marines in remote outposts.

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
Cpl. Jones' fourth entry - A Marine's Christmas Song

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.

Iran and Spiraling Out of Control


There's a conceit in a lot of the discussion around Washington's Iran policy that heightened tensions over Iran could "spiral out of control" and produce a conflict that no one wants. This is silly, for two reasons. First, many people in the United States do, in fact, want a conflict with Iran. Indeed, they openly pine for one. Multiple articles (and here) have advocated for a war with Iran and two leading contenders for the presidency of the United States are on record about their intention to start one if Iran does not submit. The idea that a conflict would just kind of take on a momentum of its own is absurd - the momentum is being consciously generated by individuals who have expressed their desire for conflict. This holds for Iran as well. There are clearly elements inside Iran that are spoiling for a fight with the U.S.

Second, the Obama administration (and its supporters) has been patting itself on the back about the great job it has done backing Iran up against the wall. But no one has asked the administration what it intends to do if economic coercion fails or what "out" it is giving the Iranians other than a humiliating capitulation (which its leaders would be less likely to accept). The administration is putting the United States into a position where it will itself face a humiliating climb-down if Iran's defiance continues, or a war.

This is, again, done quite consciously. If a war with Iran comes, it won't be by accident.

(AP Photo)

The Coming Battle Over Egypt

As it becomes increasingly obvious that a democratic Egypt will mean an Islamist one, fissures are forming among neoconservative commentators about how to handle this. In one camp, we have those who are urging the Obama administration not to countenance an illiberal crackdown by Egypt's military (even advocating cutting off aid if the military does not allow democracy to progress). On the other hand, we hear voices urging the administration to back the military as it seeks to subvert Egypt's democracy and brutalizes its people - the better to keep the Islamists at bay.

What the Washington Post dubbed the "coming collision" between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian military will also highlight a debate in the U.S. about what its interests in Egypt actually are. For decades, the U.S. has viewed Egypt through the prism of the Cold War and Israeli security. Now that the Cold War is over and it doesn't matter whose "side" Egypt is on, sustaining the Camp David peace accords is the key "vital" interest the U.S. has in Egypt. In other words, U.S.-Egyptian relations are mediated mostly through Egyptian-Israeli relations.

If this remains the case, the Obama administration will either have to convince the Muslim Brotherhood that keeping the peace is in its own best interests (which it is likely already doing), or it will have to hold its tongue as the military subverts efforts at creating a true civilian democracy. It will be a challenge, to say the least, since the Brotherhood is already disavowing Camp David and even with U.S. support, the Egyptian military may not be able to hold the line. And even if the generals do succeed in subverting true civilian rule, the U.S. will then face the ire of the Egyptian people for being complicit in the Army's continued stranglehold on political life.

Good times ahead.

January 4, 2012

Baby and Bathwater

Daniel Larison argues that Ron Paul has done well by non-interventionism:

As it happens, it’s true that “non-interventionism has no other significant voices except Ron Paul” in the current presidential election, and probably the only other nationally-known Republican figure who would be able to match him is his son. The amusing conceit in all of this is that Paul has been or will be bad for non-interventionism. Far fewer people paid any attention to these ideas just five years ago. Non-interventionism has gone from being a more or less marginal position to one that is starting to receive a lot more attention and at least a little serious consideration. It’s impossible to ignore that this wouldn’t have happened had it not been for Paul’s last two presidential campaigns.

A fair point, but is all this exposure really beneficial? To the extent that people are paying attention to non-interventionism, most of what I read is politely dismissive (it's "isolationism") or it's obnoxious. You could argue that any exposure to non-interventionism is good exposure, but you can also see how negative associations can take root (i.e. - Ron Paul believes some nutty things. Ron Paul believes in non-interventionism. Non-interventionism is nutty.).

Ultimately though, the real center of gravity of this discussion isn't on whether the public is aware or not aware of non-interventionism. What matters is whether the elite consensus that guides U.S. policy becomes more receptive to the idea. To the extent that Paul is exposing people to the idea (especially young people) and these people eventually enter into the machinery of U.S. foreign policy slightly more skeptical of international crusades, so much the better. But he may also be reinforcing in the minds of up-and-coming policymakers that only fringe candidates support the idea and for the sake of their political careers they'd better steer clear.

Update: Larison offers some more thoughts:

I would say that just about any exposure is good exposure. There is always the danger that non-interventionists can be portrayed in a unflattering light, but to a large extent negative associations are already there, and they aren’t going to be eliminated by waiting for a different messenger to show up. It’s true that much of the coverage of Paul’s views is “politely dismissive,” and there is naturally hostility from Iraq war dead-enders and other hawks, but there are also some more respectful and positive responses that one probably wouldn’t have seen five years ago. The fact that any major newspaper articles describe Paul’s views as non-interventionist nowadays rather than using the misleading and pejorative epithet of isolationist is a mark of progress all by itself.

Indian Army's High Tech Toilets

Over the years, America's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has yielded a number of practical technologies, most famously, these here Internets. India's equivalent to DARPA, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has also gotten into the game:

The "bio-digester" toilet conceived by a DRDO unit in the city of Gwalior, works by mixing self-multiplying bacteria with human waste in specially-made tanks, resulting in the production of methane gas and water.

It was meant for Indian combat troops deployed on Siachen, a 6,300-metre-high (20,800-feet-high) glacier in disputed Kashmir where temperatures can fall up to to minus 50 degrees Celsius (minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit).

According to AFP, a number of these units are already slated for use in a housing development and a "tropical" unit for warmer climes is also in train. Then, we have this:

The DRDO also has high hopes for its "Heat Stabilised Narrow Fabrics and Cordages for Improved Elastic Recovery Property" which military boffins believe could be used in bras.

"The technology is a heat-stablised narrow fabric and the elastic in it is more robust than materials used in commercial brassieres," a DRDO official added.

Progress marches on.

Ron Paul Hurts Non-Interventionism

I wouldn't put it as strongly as Kevin Drum does, but I think this post points to some real questions about whether Ron Paul is tarnishing the idea of non-interventionism:

He's not the first or only person opposed to pre-emptive wars, after all, and his occasional denouncements of interventionism are hardly making this a hot topic of conversation among the masses. In fact, to the extent that his foreign policy views aren't simply being ignored, I'd guess that the only thing he's accomplishing is to make non-interventionism even more of a fringe view in American politics than it already is. Crackpots don't make good messengers.

Now, if you literally think that Ron Paul's views on drugs and national security are so important that they outweigh all of this — multiple decades of unmitigated crackpottery, cynical fear-mongering, and attitudes toward social welfare so retrograde they make Rick Perry look progressive — and if you've somehow convinced yourself that non-interventionism has no other significant voices except Ron Paul — well, if that's the case, then maybe you should be happy to count Paul as an ally.

But here's the thing, if you support a non-interventionist foreign policy (or more precisely, a less interventionist one) what do you do? As Andrew Sullivan notes, there is literally no other candidate in either party that represents your views.

January 3, 2012

Civilian Deaths in Iraq

The Iraq Body Count is out with 2011 figures for casualties in Iraq:

The number of civilian deaths in Iraq in 2011 was almost at the same level as in 2010 – there has now been no noticeable downward trend since mid-2009. As observed in IBC’s previous annual report, recent trends indicate a persistent low-level conflict in Iraq that will continue to kill civilians at a similar rate for years to come...

The total number of violent civilian deaths recorded since the 2003 invasion has now exceeded 114,000...

14,705 (13%) of all documented civilian deaths were reported as being directly caused by the US-led coalition.

A Tale of Two Internets

In Belarus, it is now illegal to visit any "foreign" website, while in Malaysia, it is now mandatory for an eatery in Kuala Lumpur to offer Wi-Fi access.

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