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March 30, 2012

EVENT: Dealing With Iran

Cato is hosting an event today exploring options for dealing with Iran if diplomacy fails. The panel includes:

Jamie Fly, Foreign Policy Initiative

Matthew Kroenig, Georgetown University

Nuno Monteiro, Yale University

Joshua Rovner, U.S. Naval War College

It kicks off at 10:45 ET and is live-streaming above. Enjoy!

Domestic Political Bias in International Relations

Sometimes coincidences surprise me. Today two blog posts crossed my desk that spoke to each other and the wider world. At the Monkey Cage they are publicizing a new book by Clifford Bob on transnational advocacy networks. The description that the Monkey Cage quotes from Bob describes the work in these fairly neutral terms:

International activism is no longer the preserve of the left, if it ever was. More specifically, the book focuses on conflicts over gay rights and gun rights at the UN and in Brazil, Sweden, and Romania...

I have not read the book yet, but if the above quote is accurate this is a very interesting take on a popular topic. Almost all investigation from Keck and Sikkink to Charli Carpenter have focused almost exclusively on the uses by left, or left-leaning transnational actors. Logic dictates that there should be conservative transnational actors as well, and a study of them would be illustrative.

However, if you click through to the description that the University Press gives of the book, it includes this line:

He investigates the 'Baptist-burqa' network of conservative believers attacking gay rights, and the global gun coalition blasting efforts to control firearms.

This description makes the book seem less like an evenhanded evaluation of competing interests' uses of trans-national advocacy networks and more like a pathologization of alternate viewpoints, or perhaps an evaluation of enemy tactics. As if to verify this concern, over on Science Blog there was this gem:

Over the last several decades, there’s been an effort among those who define themselves as conservatives to clearly identify what it means to be a conservative,” Gauchat said. “For whatever reason, this appears to involve opposing science and universities and what is perceived as the ‘liberal culture.’ So, self-identified conservatives seem to lump these groups together and rally around the notion that what makes ‘us’ conservatives is that we don’t agree with ‘them.’

"For whatever reason" that he cannot possibly imagine. All kidding aside, unnecessary partisanship in scholarship only serves to hurt our understanding of the world we live in. Pathologizing opposition makes us leap to false conclusions, ignore important areas of study, and alienate people who might otherwise be interested in the areas studied. This is most critical in international relations where there are so many factors to take into account that a failure to do so can egregiously alter our world view.

Based upon his own description, it doesn't sound like Bob is trying to be a partisan and instead come at a serious question from a new direction. If that is the case he needs to get on the phone and get the official description changed to reflect the reality of his work.

March 29, 2012

Urine Eggs in China

I think I'll be amending my philosophy of trying any food once.

Fun Facts About the World

Apparently, two German authors have published a book of things that suck. The title (translated from German) is Atlas of Stuff that Sucks. Sounds like a great beach read. But according to Claudia Ehrenstein, the authors also catalog interesting facts as well as sucky ones:

In a single year, so much cotton is produced that 15 T-shirts for every inhabitant of planet Earth could be made from it.

If the Internet continues to grow at the present rate, by 2030 it will use up as much electricity as the whole world’s population does today.

7% of the world’s population is linked on Facebook.

There are presently up to 800 million weapons in the world.

The mining of a single gram of gold for a wedding ring produces up to 750 tons of residue.

March 28, 2012

Who Is America's #1 Geopolitical Foe?

We know Mitt Romney thinks it's Russia and now the White House is on record giving al-Qaeda the dubious honor, but neither of these answers seems all that satisfying. Romney's answer, redolent of the Cold War, at least has the benefit of anointing a bona-fide geopolitical heavyweight. The White House's response has the benefit of identifying a group that is actually implacably hostile to the U.S., even if its power is negligible.

So who should get the top spot? China, like Russia, has geopolitical clout but isn't hostile to the U.S. across the board in the manner of an al-Qaeda. Beyond China, countries like Iran or North Korea (or even Pakistan) could earn a nod for their hostility to U.S. regional aims, but again, not for their power or geopolitical weight.

Even conducting this thought experiment usefully illustrates the fact that the U.S. is actually in a pretty nice geopolitical position in 2012: it has very few implacable enemies and none that are very powerful. There are very powerful states that, on certain issues, play a spoiler role, but the era of straight-up great power antagonism is gone. As James Joyner pointed out, the entire notion of the U.S. having a "number one geopolitical foe" is an "outmoded concept."

At least for now.

March 27, 2012

The New Conventional Wisdom on Osirak?

One of the interesting facets of the debate over military strikes on Iran is a new understanding about the impact of Israel's 1981 attack on Iraq's Osirak reactor. The popular take on Osirak is that the Israeli air force sparred the world (and particularly the U.S. in the first Gulf War) from a nuclear-armed Saddam Hussein. The strike proved, moreover, the efficacy of military action as a counter-proliferation tool.

Fast forward to today, however, and a new picture is emerging. Rather than a success that spared the world from a nuclear Iraq, the Osirak strike may have actually spurred Saddam Hussein toward a nuclear weapon:

For a start, Saddam wasn't building a bomb at Osirak. Richard Wilson, a nuclear physicist at Harvard University who inspected the wreckage of the reactor on a visit to Iraq in 1982, noted how it had been "explicitly designed" by French engineers "to be unsuitable for making bombs" and had been subject to regular inspections by both on-site French technicians and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

"The Iraqis couldn't have been developing a nuclear weapon at Osirak," Wilson tells me, three decades on. "I challenge any scientist in the world to show me how they could have done so."

For Wilson, the Israeli raid marked not the end of Saddam's nuclear weapons programme but the beginning of it. Three months later, in September 1981, Saddam – smarting from the Osirak incident and reminded of Iraq's vulnerability to foreign attack – established a fast-paced, well-funded and clandestine nuclear weapons programme outside of the IAEA's purview. Nine years after Osirak, Iraq was on the verge of producing a nuclear bomb.

Wilson's analysis is shared today by leading non-proliferation experts, including Columbia University's Richard Betts ("there is no evidence that Israel's destruction of Osirak delayed Iraq's nuclear weapons programme. The attack may actually have accelerated it"); Emory University's Dan Reiter ("the attack may have actually increased Saddam's commitment to acquiring weapons"); and Harvard University's Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer ("it triggered a covert nuclear weapons programme that did not previously exist").

Colin Kohl also cited some additional evidence that the conventional wisdom about Osirak is incorrect:

By demonstrating Iraq’s vulnerability, the attack on Osirak actually increased Hussein’s determination to develop a nuclear deterrent and provided Iraq’s scientists an opportunity to better organize the program. The Iraqi leader devoted significantly more resources toward pursuing nuclear weapons after the Israeli assault. As Reiter notes, “the Iraqi nuclear program increased from a program of 400 scientists and $400 million to one of 7,000 scientists and $10 billion.”

Iraq’s nuclear efforts also went underground. Hussein allowed the IAEA to verify Osirak’s destruction, but then he shifted from a plutonium strategy to a more dispersed and ambitious uranium-enrichment strategy.

You can read a wonkier version of this argument in a paper (PDF) Dan Reiter authored in 2005.

Campaigning on Obama's Foreign Policy

For months, Democrats have claimed that Obama isn’t vulnerable on national security. But that’s nonsense. The “peace process” is in shambles; Russia is more repressive at home and aggressive internationally; Iran is moving toward a nuclear weapons capability; China’s human rights atrocities have multiplied; and Obama is presiding over a dangerous and severe cut in defense spending. A confident and knowledgeable opponent can makes these and other policy decisions into significant liabilities for the president. - Jennifer Rubin

There's plenty to criticize in the Obama administration's handling of foreign policy, but I think Rubin's post is illustrative of just why Republicans are going to have a problem. This isn't a coherent critique but a grab-bag of stuff that sounds bad but falls apart upon closer scrutiny.

How much can the internal human rights conditions of China and Russia really be blamed on President Obama? None. That's not something a U.S. president can control. How outraged will the public be about defense spending being pared back? According to recent polls, it probably won't be a galvanizing issue. Obama will definitely be criticized for his handling of Iran's nuclear program and for insufficiently backing Iranian protesters in 2009, but the substantive position of any Republican nominee is going to be almost identical to Obama's current policy - ratchet up economic pressure on Tehran and if all else fails, go to war.

I do think Rubin's approach - gather a list of bad things both relevant and not and toss them against the wall - will be the one favored by the Republican nominee. But it won't reflect "confidence and knowledge" in foreign affairs. (Moreover, barring some unforeseen catastrophe, it's hard to imagine that foreign policy will even weigh that heavily on the upcoming election.)

Update: Romney's foreign policy advisers have published an open letter to President Obama fleshing out their foreign policy critique. Interestingly, they're going after the president not just on Iran and missile defense but on Iraq and Afghanistan as well:

Contrary to the recommendations of your military commanders, you withdrew American forces from Iraq without leaving an appropriate training force behind. And contrary to the recommendations of your military commanders, you have begun to draw down American forces in Afghanistan according to a politically driven timetable that makes no strategic sense. Stability in both countries is now at greater risk. If you are reelected, would “flexibility” lead you to abandon completely American commitments, notwithstanding the enormous sacrifices American forces have made, and with little regard for our national security?

March 25, 2012

Energy Independence Won't Save the U.S. from the Mideast

The New York Times claims that the U.S. is "inching toward energy independence" which would deliver a host of benefits:

Taken together, the increasing production and declining consumption have unexpectedly brought the United States markedly closer to a goal that has tantalized presidents since Richard Nixon: independence from foreign energy sources, a milestone that could reconfigure American foreign policy, the economy and more. In 2011, the country imported just 45 percent of the liquid fuels it used, down from a record high of 60 percent in 2005.

We often hear from politicians that "energy independence" through more domestic drilling is a way to save the U.S. from all of its Mideast headaches. But that's simply not the case.

Oil is priced on a global market, so even if the U.S. were able to source all of its oil domestically, the price it pays is set globally and thus subject to the same geopolitical dynamics (like Mideast tension) that have caused prices to spike in the past. If U.S. foreign policy today is based on the principle that Mideast supply must pass through the Gulf unmolested less prices soar, it's going to remain anchored in that principle even as the U.S. produces more oil domestically.

To truly reap any foreign policy dividends from "energy independence" would require not just pumping more oil domestically but either: 1. finding so much oil in North America that's economically viable to extract that it would literally be impossible for any regional supply shocks to significantly impact prices; 2. using another energy source that is not impacted by oil price fluctuations. Neither of these options seems particularly plausible in the short-to-medium term.

Of course, there's nothing about America's oil consumption that mandates our current policies in the Middle East. But pumping more oil domestically is not going to sway the argument one way or another.

March 23, 2012

Iran Fallacies

Via Larison, Jeffrey Goldberg points to some rather alarming thinking from Israel's prime minister:

A widely held assumption about a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities is that it would spur Iranian citizens — many of whom appear to despise their rulers — to rally around the regime. But Netanyahu, I’m told, believes a successful raid could unclothe the emperor, emboldening Iran’s citizens to overthrow the regime (as they tried to do, unsuccessfully, in 2009).
As Larison notes, this is dubious reasoning:
When a foreign government or group launches an attack on their home country, people instinctively band together behind their leaders, and it usually makes no difference whether those leaders are elected or just. Even Iranians that don’t support the nuclear program aren’t going to respond favorably to a foreign attack on their country, and most Iranians do support the program. There is no nation in the world that would greet foreign military action against their country as a signal effectively to commit treason en masse in order to facilitate the regime change desired by the attacking government.

The idea that Iranians would cheer on an attack against their country and fellow citizens and use it as excuse to start a revolution sounds like the Iran war's version of "we'll be greeted as liberators."

The Origin of 'Keep Calm and Carry On'

Via Open Culture, a short video documentary on the iconic British war posters.

March 22, 2012

Saudi Arabia to the Rescue?

I've voiced some skepticism in the past about Saudi Arabia's spare capacity (or lack thereof) so it's worth highlighting this FT piece:

In a matter of days, Saudi Arabia has hired the largest number of super-tankers in years. When the tankers load their cargo in Ras Tanura, the world’s largest oil terminal, in the next couple of weeks and start a 40-day voyage towards the US Gulf coast, they will deliver a wall of oil with a single aim: to bring prices down.

Let's hope it works.

Robert Gates: Iran Attack a 'Catastrophe'

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates offered his thoughts on a possible U.S. war on Iran:

"If you think the war in Iraq was hard, an attack on Iran would, in my opinion, be a catastrophe," he said in a keynote speech to some 400 donors at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's campaign event last week....

Despite the dire assessment, he said, the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran is also inconceivable. "If the Iranian government refuses to change its policies, and there is no military attack on Iran, we will very likely face a catastrophe of a different sort -- a nuclear-armed Iran with missiles that can reach Israel and eventually reach Europe; an Iran that would likely ignite a nuclear arms race in the most volatile part of the world; an Iran emboldened to behave even more aggressively in Iraq, Afghanistan, against Israel and all across the region."

March 20, 2012

Glenn Greenwald, Meet Robert Pape

I promise I'm not starting a series ... but this from Glenn Greenwald caught my eye:

Here’s a summary of the Western media discussion of what motivated U.S. Staff Sgt. Robert Bales to allegedly kill 16 Afghans, including 9 children: he was drunk, he was experiencing financial stress, he was passed over for a promotion, he had a traumatic brain injury, he had marital problems, he suffered from the stresses of four tours of duty, he “saw his buddy’s leg blown off the day before the massacre,” etc.

Here’s a summary of the Western media discussion of what motivates Muslims to kill Americans: they are primitive, fanatically religious, hateful Terrorists.

Even when Muslims who engage in such acts toward Americans clearly and repeatedly explain that they did it in response to American acts of domination, aggression, violence and civilian-killing in their countries, and even when the violence is confined to soldiers who are part of a foreign army that has invaded and occupied their country, the only cognizable motive is one of primitive, hateful evil. It is an act of Evil Terrorism, and that is all there is to say about it.

I'm not sure which Western media outlets Greenwald reads, but I think this is just a wee bit overstated. First, there's Greenwald's own prodigious output, which routinely contextualizes most acts of violence directed against the United States as being something other than evil. Second, there is the aforementioned Robert Pape, whose work rather directly refutes Greenwald's premise that we never read about other motives for terrorism besides irrational, hateful evil (he's even got a book - and a database!).

But wait, there's more.

There is a Republican presidential nominee who has staked a large portion of his foreign policy platform on the notion that U.S. military action in the Muslim world is inciting terrorism. There's former head of the bin Laden unit, Michael Scheuer, writing in the obscure journal the Washington Post, on how the true motivations for al-Qaeda include U.S. support for Arab dictatorships. A few weeks after 9/11, Fareed Zakaria had a cover story in Newsweek offering a very nuanced take on the root causes of Islamic terrorism.

At this point, I'd say any casual reader with an interest in foreign or defense policy, or any viewer who tuned into one of the GOP debates on foreign policy, has at least been exposed to the notion that "primitive, hateful evil" is not the sole, or even decisive, motivation behind acts of terrorism.

March 19, 2012

Fighting Terrorism

Kori Schake wants the U.S. to think big when it comes to counter-terrorism:

There should also be no doubt that simply killing bad guys is an inadequate strategy. Without a positive program for governance in Afghanistan, the territory will remain an attractive locale for terrorists to organize and operate. The nature of this threat is that it migrates to ungoverned spaces, and a quarantine strategy won't be good enough -- the crises of governance and adaptation to global modernity that feed this threat will continue to produce networks of killers.

The implication here is breath-taking - we can never be safe from terrorism until the world's ungoverned spaces are governed. And you thought conservatives were all about limited government.

But obviously there is simply not enough money and manpower to make this work in Afghanistan, let alone all the other regions of the world where al-Qaeda-type organizations are springing up. Americans are far more likely to die in their bathtubs than die at the hands of al-Qaeda. Ultimately, U.S. strategy is going to have to take that fact into account and balance its expenditures accordingly.

Can the U.S. Work an Afghan Miracle?

Max Boot cautions against "going wobbly" in Afghanistan:

But President Obama’s hesitancy and irresolution should not be an excuse for Republicans to abandon the war effort. They should continue to pressure the president to respect the advice of his commanders in the field, who want to keep 68,000 troops through 2014, with a substantial residual presence after that.

What, after all, is the alternative? Peace talks have scant prospect of success given that the Taliban are now betting—perhaps rightly—that they can simply wait us out. The likely result of a precipitous American pullout, which would trigger an equally hasty exit by our NATO allies, would be a major Taliban offensive in the east and south that would aim to take back Kandahar, Marja, and other population centers that have been secured at considerable cost over the past few years. The Afghan security forces would be likely to splinter along ethnic lines, and the entire country could well be plunged into a civil war as it was in the 1990s, when Kabul was regularly on the receiving end of artillery bombardments.

So if the U.S. reverts to its "residual force" footprint now instead of 2014, all these terrible things will happen. But if we don't, then all of the nascent problems Boot highlights would be resolved or substantially mitigated in 18 months?

No one is unrealistic about what a withdrawal of U.S. troops will mean for Afghanistan's internal security, but seeing as that is ultimately an issue for Afghans to resolve, the focus needs to be on how large numbers of troops and related expenses are serving U.S. security interests.

March 16, 2012

Russia's Influence: Not Extending

Jennifer Rubin is discouraged by the Obama administration's reluctance to enter into Syria's civil war:

Not unlike the Green Revolution in 2009, the president nearly three years later is willing to allow an opportunity — to undermine Iran, support democracy, reassert U.S. leadership — slip away. Every now and then the president talks a good game on human rights, but his heart is never in it. In this case, even when coupled with an obvious and compelling national security objective, passivity rules the day.

Obama’s reelection objective, namely no more foreign conflicts, trumps decent policy. But the foreign conflicts don’t go away simply because we don’t participate. Instead, despots triumph, other powers (e.g. Russia) extend their influence and the United States’s credibility is eroded. When they ask, “Who lost Syria and Iran?” you’ll know the answer.

I commend the comments of Larison and Massie here on the dubious logic underlying the claim that either Iran or Syria were ours to "lose."

Instead, I will point out another curious concern of Rubin's - the supposed "extension" of Russian influence. Syria has always been close with Russia - they haven't suddenly become tight during Assad's crackdown. Russia is indeed backing Assad's brutal repression, but that's not an extension of anything, it's been Russia's policy to backstop the regime for years now. It's not like the Russians are suddenly "influencing" states not already allied with them...

March 15, 2012

Victor Davis Hanson, Meet Robert Pape

Victor Davis Hanson wants an explanation for the increase in violence in Afghanistan:

There are lots of legitimate differences over U.S. policy in Afghanistan. Arguments continue over what happened to the “good” or “real” war that after the first five years of relative quiet (from 2001 through 2006 there were never more than 100 Americans lost per year) began heating up in 2007–8 (even as Iraq quieted), and by 2009 (317 lost) and 2010 (499 lost) had become a mess, even as we began to pour reinforcements and more money into the country. (No one to this date has explained adequately why violence increased even as we put more troops and material into the country and disengaged our efforts and attention from Iraq. There are all sorts of possible explanations, but none really have been offered.)

It's not much of a mystery. Here's Robert Pape:

In 2001, the United States toppled the Taliban and kicked Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan with just a few thousand of its own troops, primarily through the combination of American air power and local ground forces from the Northern Alliance. Then, for the next several years, the United States and NATO modestly increased their footprint to about 20,000 troops, mainly limiting the mission to guarding Kabul, the capital. Up until 2004, there was little terrorism in Afghanistan and little sense that things were deteriorating.

Then, in 2005, the United States and NATO began to systematically extend their military presence across Afghanistan. The goals were to defeat the tiny insurgency that did exist at the time, eradicate poppy crops and encourage local support for the central government. Western forces were deployed in all major regions, including the Pashtun areas in the south and east, and today have ballooned to more than 100,000 troops.

As Western occupation grew, the use of the two most worrisome forms of terrorism in Afghanistan — suicide attacks and homemade bombs — escalated in parallel. There were no recorded suicide attacks in Afghanistan before 2001. According to data I have collected, in the immediate aftermath of America’s conquest, the nation experienced only a small number: none in 2002, two in 2003, five in 2004 and nine in 2005.

But in 2006, suicide attacks began to increase by an order of magnitude — with 97 in 2006, 142 in 2007, 148 in 2008 and more than 60 in the first half of 2009. Moreover, the overwhelming percentage of the suicide attacks (80 percent) has been against United States and allied troops or their bases rather than Afghan civilians, and nearly all (95 percent) carried out by Afghans....

The picture is clear: the more Western troops we have sent to Afghanistan, the more the local residents have viewed themselves as under foreign occupation, leading to a rise in suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks. (We see this pattern pretty much any time an “outside” armed force has tried to pacify a region, from the West Bank to Kashmir to Sri Lanka.)

How to Blow Up the Obama Administration's Pivot to Asia

In one simple step:

India has failed to reduce its purchases of Iranian oil, and if it doesn’t do so, President Barack Obama may be forced to impose sanctions on one of Asia’s most important nations, Obama administration officials said yesterday.

A decision to levy penalties under a new U.S. law restricting payments for Iranian oil could come as early as June 28, according to several U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

I imagine this is going over well in New Delhi.

March 14, 2012

Bad Arguments for Syrian Intervention

An extraordinary amount of energy in Washington is expended these days looking for reasons to stay uninvolved in Syria. I understand every single impulse against deeper American involvement, but I also believe it is to America's discredit not to do something more than it is doing, for the obvious humanitarian reasons, and for some fairly obvious strategic reasons as well (the removal of Iran's only Arab ally from the scene obviously helps the American position in the nuclear debate, as would a perception in the Sunni Arab world that the U.S. will stand up to the slaughter of innocent people by the Assad-Khamenei-Nasrallah alliance.) - Jeffrey Goldberg

The problem is that these two sentiments - a desire to help the people of Syria and the desire to depose Assad and further isolate Iran - are almost certainly mutually exclusive. There is no way the U.S. can depose Assad that doesn't entail a sharp increase in short-term violence in Syria, which would result in more deaths and violence. There is also no way - none - that the U.S. can stabilize a post-Assad Syria should the rebels succeed in running him out. There is every possibility that toppling Assad will lead to even greater violence and lawlessness.

Proponents don't want to concede this. They insist that America's interests and values are served by "doing something" in Syria, but the reality is that - at best - only half of this statement is true.

As for U.S. interests in isolating Iran, it's true that losing Assad would be a blow but there's good news here: the Assad regime is already under stress - and the U.S. has done nothing but levy some sanctions and berate it publicly. If the Sunni Arab world is as concerned about Iran as we're told they are, they are far better positioned to offer material aid to Syria's rebels than the U.S. - and better placed to manage the fallout.

The U.S., on the other hand, has an abysmal track record of directing the internal development of Middle Eastern (and North African) states.

March 13, 2012

Rory Stewart on Afghanistan

Rory Stewart, the British MP who traveled Afghanistan on foot in 2001 and 2002, argues that it's time to accelerate the Western withdrawal:

Did our mission go wrong because Nato had too few troops; or because it sent too many? Could a different strategy have fixed the situation; or was it always impossible? The reason no longer matters. Whatever the explanation, things will not improve: Nato will not “solve the relationship with Pakistan”; it will never create “an effective, credible, legitimate Afghan government”; and in most parts of the country it has already lost “the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people.

Some US and UK generals have long been pressing for “just one more fighting season”. They feel that with just a little more time, things will improve. They are wrong. The longer we stay, the worse things will become. The Prime Minister made a wise and difficult decision to set a final end-date for combat operations. The UK cannot leave tomorrow because we need to ensure an orderly transfer, help the Afghan government take over, safely extract our men and equipment, and stay in step with our Nato allies (and in particular the US).

March 12, 2012

Oil and Brains Don't Mix

My crude paraphrasing of this OECD study:

OECD’s PISA study shows that there is also a significant negative relationship between the money countries extract from national resources and the knowledge and skills of their school population (see figure): Israel is not alone in outperforming its oil-rich neighbors by a large margin when it comes to learning outcomes at school, this is a global pattern that generally across 65 countries that took part in the latest PISA assessment. Exceptions such as Canada, Australia and Norway, that are rich of natural resources but still score well on PISA, have all established deliberate policies of saving these resource rents, and not just consuming them. Today’s learning outcomes at school, in turn, are a powerful predictor for the wealth and social outcomes that countries will reap in the long run.

One wonders how the U.S. will fare with its own potential resource boom in shale oil and gas. (Via: Simone Foxman)

No Pivot to Asia?

Robert Kelly thinks the U.S. won't really "pivot" to Asia:

So the US pivot toward Asia is all the rage in foreign policy now. Obama and Secretary Clinton genuinely seem to believe in this, and there good reasons for it. Briefly put, Asia has the money, people, and guns to dramatically impact world politics in a way that no other region can now. But I think the US Asian pivot won’t happen much nonetheless, because: 1) Americans, especially Republicans, don’t care about Asia, but they really care about the Middle East (a point the GOP presidential debates made really obvious); 2) Americans know less about Asia than any part of the world, bar Africa perhaps; 3) intra-Asian soft balancing (i.e., almost everyone lining up informally against China) means we don’t really need to be that involved, because our local allies will do most of the work; 4) we’re too broke to replicate in Asia the sort of overwhelming presence we built in the Middle East in the last decades.

I would say that supporters of the "pivot" - such as it is - should be gratified that it's not getting as much high-level attention as the Middle East. It's true that the Mideast is bogging down U.S. attention - but it's also bogging down the attention of people with a lot of bad ideas. Better those bad ideas play themselves out in the Mideast than in Asia.

March 9, 2012

Japan May Send Navy Into the Persian Gulf

According to Japan Security Watch, Japan is considering sending naval forces into the Persian Gulf to escort its tankers in the event things heat up:

This appears to be an expansion of the principles guiding the anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden, and if they were to decide to go ahead with a dispatch, then it is possible that they will allow the vessels of other nations to apply for protection as in the Gulf of Aden. However, this will involve the possibility of Japanese vessels being attacked by another state’s military force, not just a non-state actor such as terrorists or pirates. This in itself seems a major obstacle to the possibility of a deployment and will necessitate neutrality that the Japanese government would be hard to feign given their close ties to the US.

The fact that Japan is debating this step seems to provide further proof that, should the U.S. seek to off-load some of its global policing duties, other nations would indeed step up.

March 8, 2012

"Peace Through Strength" - Except for China

Ironically, China's best efforts to increase its security by developing powerful military capabilities and asserting its interests more vigorously may only render its leaders more insecure. Other Asian countries are moving closer to the United States, and each other, to balance growing Chinese power. President Barack Obama is reorienting the United States' military posture away from Europe and the Middle East in ways that reinforce, rather than diminish, the U.S. leadership role in Asia. - Daniel Twining

It's an interesting observation because it's also one that, if reversed, would be rejected by a broad swath of the U.S. defense and foreign policy establishment (to say nothing of the political establishment). The idea that building up one's military strength and forcefully interjecting oneself in the affairs of others is destabilizing and ultimately results in greater insecurity is a concept that really doesn't have a lot of traction in American policy-making circles. Instead, there is the belief (not unfounded) that American security lies in an overwhelming preponderance of power and a coalition of allies to maintain favorable regional balances around the world.

We shouldn't be all that surprised to see China mimic this strategy as its own power grows.

A more interesting question to ponder is whether Twining is right about the sources of Chinese insecurity and, if he is, what lessons that poses for U.S. strategy.

Poll: U.S. Voters Have Low Opinion of Russia

According to IBOPE Zogby, some results of a recent poll on U.S.-Russian ties:

Six in ten have an unfavorable opinion of Russia (61%)
Three quarters (75%) do not think Russia is a trusted ally of the US
Three quarters (75%) have an unfavorable opinion of Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin
84% are not confident in the legitimacy of the Russian election process
52% believe Russia is a nuclear threat to the US, with 14% saying Russia is a major threat and 38% saying it is somewhat of a threat
48% believe Russia secretly aids terrorist threats to the US

More here.

March 7, 2012

Judging the Reset

Jennifer Rubin is outraged that President Obama didn't scold Russia on its recent election:

No condemnation. No rejection of the results as invalid. No protest over the arrest of an opposition leader. This sort of mealy mouthed suggestion is all we get…

One 2012 presidential candidate is unwilling to dissemble and to ignore not only a gross violation of human rights, but also a slap in the face of the U.S. administration that has dispensed one benefit after another (e.g., removing missile site for Eastern Europe, letting Russia into the World Trade Organization) with the lame promise that Russia would reform.

It's fascinating that what passes as a "conservative" foreign policy these days is the moral reclamation of various countries.

It's also wrong to claim that the "reset" was about reforming Russia. It was about reducing tensions with Russia and finding areas of cooperation. It needs to be judged on those grounds, not on whether Russia's domestic behavior conforms to our standards.

Containment Gets a Bad Rap


(Click the picture for a full-sized graphic)

On several occasions now, President Obama has stated that he has no policy to contain Iran and that, like President Bush, he will choose the option of preventative war to address it if need be.

It could be that American politics, in its infinite maturity, has put the word "containment" out of bounds. Or it could be that President Obama really has embraced the Bush Doctrine. Either way, it doesn't seem right to simply cast "containment" out of the conversation, especially when "containing" Iran itself is well within the means of the U.S.

Containing a country implies that it is otherwise expansionary. The Soviet Union had to be "contained" because the Red Army had moved across borders, absorbed new territory and had the military wherewithal to potentially do it again. Similarly, Saddam's Iraq had proven on two different occasions a willingness to use force to acquire territory. Iran, we're told, sees itself as the rightful hegemonic power in the Middle East.

But here's the thing: they aren't.

Even with a nuclear weapon, few people believe they'll be marching Revolutionary Guard divisions into neighboring capitals. Pakistan's nuclear weapons haven't made it the hegemon of South Asia. Israel, with 200 nuclear weapons, is not considered the hegemon of the Middle East. What the U.S. would actually wind up "containing" in the event that Iran went nuclear are its own allies, who might seek nuclear deterrents on their own. That's obviously a challenge but it needs to measured against the costs and risks of starting a fresh war in the Middle East.

(Image via The Gulf/2000 Project)

The Upside Down World of America's Mideast Policy

During his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, President Obama made his case for why it was in the U.S. interest to deny Iran a nuclear weapon:

If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, I won't name the countries, but there are probably four or five countries in the Middle East who say, "We are going to start a program, and we will have nuclear weapons."

I think he's right, but consider the implications of that for a minute. The biggest danger of a nuclear Iran is... America's own "allies" in the Middle East.

March 6, 2012

Iran's Concrete Strength

The Economist has an interesting piece on how Iran's expertise in ultra high performance concrete is a security concern:

Iran is an earthquake zone, so its engineers have developed some of the toughest building materials in the world. Such materials could also be used to protect hidden nuclear installations from the artificial equivalent of small earthquakes, namely bunker-busting bombs....

A study published by the University of Tehran in 2008 looked at the ability of UHPC to withstand the impact of steel projectiles. These are not normally a problem during earthquakes. This study found that concrete which contained a high proportion of long steel fibres in its structure worked best. Another study, published back in 1995, showed that although the compressive strength of concrete was enhanced only slightly by the addition of polymer fibres, its impact resistance improved sevenfold.

Western countries, too, have been looking at the military uses of UHPC. An Australian study carried out between 2004 and 2006 confirmed that UHPC resists blasts as well as direct hits. The tests, carried out at Woomera (once the British empire’s equivalent of Cape Canaveral), involved a charge equivalent to six tonnes of TNT. This fractured panels made of UHPC, but did not shatter them. Nor did it shake free and throw out fragments, as would have happened had the test been carried out on normal concrete. In a military context, such shards flying around inside a bunker are a definite plus from the attackers’ point of view, but obviously not from the defenders’.

March 5, 2012

A Crucial Canadian-American Divide

According to Angus Reid, Americans and Canadians have differing views over... Bigfoot:

People in the United States are more likely than Canadians to consider that Bigfoot is real, a new Angus Reid Public Opinion poll has found.

In the online survey of representative national samples, three-in-ten Americans (29%) and one-in-five Canadians (21%) think Bigfoot is “definitely” or “probably” real.

The Bigfoot phenomenon is definitely bigger in the United States, where 77 per cent of respondents claim to have heard “a great deal” or a “moderate amount” about Bigfoot (compared to 61% of Canadians).

Clearly Canadians are in denial about the threat.

The EU Doesn't Do Subtlety

This video promoting the European Union seems destined to provoke controversy.

Obama Commits to Iran War

Jeffrey Goldberg's big interview with President Obama is drawing a lot of attention, and it's certainly a must-read. I came away with two possible interpretations:

1. Despite claims to the contrary, President Obama is bluffing. It's an election year and Obama wants to guard his flank against Republicans claiming he's insufficiently supportive of Israel. He's talking tough now, but when the chips are down, he'll balk. I personally don't think this is the case, if only because failing to follow through on his promises, while not unusual for a politician, would be rightly viewed wantonly reckless.

2. He means to take the U.S. to war with Iran in his second term. The president's words were emphatic about the potential threat Iran posed to American interests and his determination to stop them, with measures up to and including military force. He laid down rhetorical markers which will be very, very difficult to walk back. He also, pointedly, ruled out containment as an option.

Obama interestingly did stress that military action would not solve the problem - at best, it would delay Iran. At worst, it could drive them to build a weapon they may have otherwise avoided and in a manner which would be harder to detect and harder to destroy. This is what appears to have happened in Iraq after the Israelis hit the Osirik reactor.

But if Obama believes that a military strike would not create the kind of durable solution he's looking for, is he willing to strike a grand bargain with Iran? And is Iran willing to make a deal? The alternative appears obvious - an eventual war between the U.S. and Iran, if Israel doesn't get there first.

March 1, 2012

Saudi Arabia and 9/11

For more than a decade, questions have lingered about the possible role of the Saudi government in the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, even as the royal kingdom has made itself a crucial counterterrorism partner in the eyes of American diplomats.

Now, in sworn statements that seem likely to reignite the debate, two former senators who were privy to top secret information on the Saudis’ activities say they believe that the Saudi government might have played a direct role in the terrorist attacks. - New York Times

Here's a prediction: it won't reignite any debate. People may get hung up on the fact that large numbers of Americans were killed on 9/11 but the prevailing attitude in Washington is that that matters less than geopolitical orientation. Iraq played no role in 9/11 and had an infinitely smaller role in fomenting the kind of jihadism that bin Laden embraced than Saudi Arabia. But the aftermath of 9/11 did not see a diligent search for Saudi linkages. What it did see was an effort to rope Saddam Hussein into the equation, because he, not Saudi Arabia, was the geopolitical problem child. And it worked.

Today, that problem child is Iran and I suspect no amount of Saudi complicity in 9/11 (if there was any at all) short of green-lighting the attack itself would change Washington's Middle East calculus at this point.

Putin and Vote Stuffing

Ahead of Russia's first round of presidential voting, Konstantin Sonin says that any overt ballot stuffing by Putin would be counter-productive:

In the past week, the country's leading polling organizations have issued one rosy forecast after another regarding Putin's chances of winning in the first round with more than 50 percent of the vote. But there are reasons to question the reliability of these polls.

Thus, there is a real possibility that Putin will receive less than 50 percent without falsification.

If only 45 percent of the people vote for Putin and the authorities announce that he received 52 percent of the vote, the resulting protests will probably be relatively small. But if Putin receives only 35 percent to 40 percent of the vote but declares that he won 52 percent, the protests might be so large that the authorities would be forced to hold new elections.

That might sound implausible at first, but large-scale electoral fraud in favor of the incumbent leader followed by massive peaceful protests that resulted in new elections has played out in dozens of countries over the past quarter century.

Oil Prices: Nowhere to Go But Up?

But any success in tightening sanctions on Iran could squeeze global oil supplies, pushing up prices and causing serious economic repercussions at home and abroad.

“It’s a bind for Obama,” said Mr. Kloza at the Oil Price Information Service. “How do you get tough on Iran without getting tough on American wallets?” - New York Times

I think the answer is obvious: over the short-term, you can't.

But Iran is one facet in surging prices. Increased demand from Asia and a recovering U.S. is another. This analysis (pdf) of the global oil market from Citi Group's Edward Morse points to sustained triple digit prices through 2012.

It's interesting to contemplate the implications of persistently high oil prices. Economist Jeff Rubin, for instance, has argued that it would precipitate a "de-globalization" as supply chains that were economically attractive when oil was cheap collapse under the weight of sustained triple digit prices.

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