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November 30, 2012

Reagan, the Cold War and the Myth of America Omnipotence

In debating Ronald Reagan's contribution to the end of the Cold War, Daniel Larison reminds us of this quote from the architect of containment, George Kennan:

The suggestion that any American administration had the power to influence decisively the course of a tremendous domestic-political upheaval in another great country on another side of the globe is intrinsically silly and childish. No great country has that sort of influence on the internal developments of any other one.

Kennan was responding to the myth-making -- still endemic -- that President Reagan single-handedly won the Cold War. It makes for a nice sound bite, and no one doubts the Reagan administration's significant contributions to the conflict's end, but it's an absurdly narrow understanding. Yet this cartoon version arguably holds sway in the minds of many of Washington's foreign policy adventurists -- the idea that with sufficient "will" and U.S. engagement, the U.S. can work its way.

It's a quote that's as relevant today -- discussing events in Syria -- as it was diagnosing the Cold War's end. The Obama administration is moving inexorably closer to an intervention in Syria. It is already directing arms shipments into the country and may soon recognize a government in exile and provide direct material and intelligence aid to forces fighting inside the country -- all done, we're told, so that the U.S. will be able to "shape" a post-war Syria to accommodate our interests.

There is very little political discussion about the crucial issues Daniel Byman and Renanah Miles raise here: mainly, what is the U.S. going to do (what can it realistically do) when Assad falls?

The answer appears to be: very little, especially if a violent struggle for power or sectarian score settling ensues. Which makes you wonder why the urge to run in in the first place.

The Global Quest for a Better Car Battery


Steve LeVine says the race is on:

As China continues its massive push in renewable energy, the Obama administration is doing so as well, betting another $120 million to win the global race for a better battery. The administration is allocating the money to a Bell Labs-style project that, over a five-year period, is intended to push the boundaries of current technology and create far more powerful transportation and stationary batteries.

The initiative is pitted against competing efforts in China, France, Israel, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom and elsewhere. It will be headquartered at Argonne National Laboratory, south of Chicago, which won the project this week in a competitive bid filed jointly with a team of US universities, companies such as Dow and Johnson Controls, and other national labs.

Even with the Solyndras and A123 Systems of the world, the U.S. is still flushing considerably more money down the tubes policing the Persian Gulf for the purposes of energy security. Subsidizing battery research to the tune of $120 million seems like a no-brainer.

(AP Photo)

Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on European "Austerity"

Cato's Veronique de Rugy argues that far from biting spending cuts, Europe's so-called austerity hasn't been slicing away at state services.

November 28, 2012

France Beware: The Rich Might Flee After All

Earlier this month I noted a study suggesting millionaires may not necessarily flee a country in response to high tax rates. New figures released in the UK indicate otherwise:

In the 2009-10 tax year, more than 16,000 people declared an annual income of more than £1 million to HM Revenue and Customs.

This number fell to just 6,000 after Gordon Brown introduced the new 50p top rate of income tax shortly before the last general election.

The figures have been seized upon by the Conservatives to claim that increasing the highest rate of tax actually led to a loss in revenues for the Government.

It is believed that rich Britons moved abroad or took steps to avoid paying the new levy by reducing their taxable incomes.

It's not clear how many millionaires fled, used tax avoidance loopholes or simply lost too much income due to the financial crisis to no longer be counted. Still, Mr. Hollande will want to take note before he levies a much steeper tax bill on his own country's millionaires.

Europe Isn't Crazy Enough to Give Syrian Rebels Missiles, Right?

The New York Times reports that the Syrian rebels have gotten their hands on surface-to-air rockets and have used them at least once to down a regime helicopter, as shown above. The question now becomes: how did they get them? According to the Times:

Debate has raged since the start of the insurgency over whether Western and Arab nations should provide Syria’s rebels with portable antiaircraft missiles, often called Manpads. Some fear that such weapons could be smuggled away from the conflict and later used by terrorists against civilian airliners.

Manpads funneled by the United States to Pakistan helped Afghan rebels turn the tide against the Soviet Union in the Afghan war of 1980s. But that example is full of ambivalence — often cited in the Syria debate — because it led to an extended buyback program and decades of worry after Islamist militias, which eventually collaborated with Al Qaeda, prevailed over the Soviet-backed government in Kabul.

“Once these weapons are outside of government control, it is often extremely difficult to track their movement and control who has access to them,” said Matthew Schroeder, an analyst who studies missile proliferation at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.

The rebels have slowly been acquiring them nonetheless, including from Syrian military stock captured in battle, and according to the unconfirmed accounts of some rebel commanders, via smuggling from outside.

Tuesday’s helicopter downing occurred not far from a large military base outside Aleppo, which rebels overran last week. It comes after a monthlong string of rebel raids on air bases, followed by their ransacking for weapons.

Andrew J. Tabler, a Syria analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, called the use of the missile “a big deal, but not a surprising deal,” and said it appeared to confirm one of two things: weapons seized from bases are functional, or that there has been truth to the quiet talk that after the recent meeting in Doha, Qatar, to reorganize the Syrian opposition into a new coalition, outside countries would provide more sophisticated weapons to the rebels.

It would be one thing if the rebels raided regime stocks - that's unavoidable. But if any Western government thinks funneling surface-to-air missiles to Syrian rebels is a good idea, they need to have their heads examined. These weapons can be used to down passenger jets and there's no way that Western intelligence officials could stop a few of these weapons from leaking beyond Syria (it will be hard enough to stop Syria's own stockpiles from leaking).

Al-Qaeda has a long and ugly history of targeting Western aircraft. Literally handing over potent tools to Islamist rebels to do just that is insane.

Enforcing the Consensus

According to Scott McConnell, the House Foreign Affairs Committee is holding a hearing titled “Israel’s Right to Defend Itself: Implications for Regional Security and U.S. Interests.” Sounds like an interesting subject, sure to elicit a range of possible viewpoints. Except there doesn't appear to be much interest in any viewpoint but one:

The invited witnesses are Elliott Abrams, Danielle Pletka, and Robert Satloff — all neoconservatives, all staunch backers of Netanyahu, the Iraq war, etc. The committee doesn’t even pretend that there might be other worthwhile perspectives, surprising since U.S. interests are meant to be the subject matter.

November 27, 2012

How Many Troops Does the U.S. Need to Maintain in Afghanistan?


According to the Wall Street Journal, the Obama administration is negotiating to leave 10,000 or more U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014 - the date which, you'll recall, Vice President Biden adamantly insisted there would no U.S. troops in the country. Imagine that.

These 10,000, according to the Journal, would be on hand for counterterrorism missions and to continue training Afghan security forces.

Is this enough? Too many? Kimberly and Frederick Kagan argue that the U.S. would need to sustain three times as many troops to safely conduct both missions.

I'm not qualified to judge which precise number is logistically or practically wise, but this is almost besides the point. The central question is: is it worth it to have 10,000 (or 30,000 troops) in Afghanistan to battle what is left of al-Qaeda? Are the remnants of the organization that potent? Can the threat from al-Qaeda in Pakistan's tribal region be mitigated another way? And finally, how likely is it that this troop commitment will yoke the U.S. to the fate of the current Afghan government and lead to calls for more troops down the road if the Taliban insurgency grows more lethal (the Kagans' analysis does not even grapple with such a possibility, which should raise red flags).

It's striking that we can talk blithely about such a long-term commitment without any debate or argument about al-Qaeda's potency in Pakistan's tribal region. I'm not averse to leaving forces behind in Afghanistan for such a purpose, but it would be nice if the administration presented some evidence or made some kind of argument that they're vitally necessary.

(AP Photo)

November 26, 2012

The Flattering of the Hegemon

Robert Kagan thinks the world wants America:

The recurrent theme at the Sir Bani Yas Forum, hosted by the United Arab Emirates and Chatham House here last weekend, was, Where is the United States? ... It was impressive to see how much desire there is for a more active U.S. role in the Middle East. There was little talk here of America’s decline as the world’s preeminent power. No one is preparing for a Chinese, Indian or Turkish ascendancy. Not even the Europeans claim that the European Union has the will or capacity to take on a bigger role in the region. The United States remains by far the most important player.

What has people concerned and despairing is not American decline but America’s declining interest — the sense that the Obama administration, and the American people, have about washed their hands of the Middle East.

This isn't surprising: it's much like the concept of moral hazard in economics. If the world is always expecting a U.S. bailout, they'll never take it upon themselves to address their own issues.

America's Counterinsurgency Air Force for Yemen


There's no question that U.S. drones have served a beneficial purpose in prosecuting the war against al-Qaeda, but there have long been two worrisome trends associated with drone strikes. The first is the target list: it appears to be much broader than simply al-Qaeda's top leaders. The second is the executive branch secrecy and assumption of broad powers to kill people, including American citizens, at will.

A new report in the New York Times sheds a bit more light on the issue:

But by many accounts, there has been a significant shift in the nature of the targets. In the early years, most strikes were aimed at ranking leaders of Al Qaeda thought to be plotting to attack the United States. That is the purpose Mr. Obama has emphasized, saying in a CNN interview in September that drones were used to prevent “an operational plot against the United States” and counter “terrorist networks that target the United States.”

But for at least two years in Pakistan, partly because of the C.I.A.’s success in decimating Al Qaeda’s top ranks, most strikes have been directed at militants whose main battle is with the Pakistani authorities or who fight with the Taliban against American troops in Afghanistan.

In Yemen, some strikes apparently launched by the United States killed militants who were preparing to attack Yemeni military forces. Some of those killed were wearing suicide vests, according to Yemeni news reports.

“Unless they were about to get on a flight to New York to conduct an attack, they were not an imminent threat to the United States,” said Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who is a critic of the strikes. “We don’t say that we’re the counterinsurgency air force of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, but we are.”

Of course, since the administration will only discuss the drone program through self-serving, mostly anonymous leaks, it's literally impossible to judge anything that's written about it. However, taking the New York Times report at face value, it does appear that the administration has unleashed drones on a wider set of targets than seems justified given the threat.

Among the problems with serving as a "counterinsurgency air force" for countries like Pakistan or Yemen is that it makes yet another series of enemies for the U.S. Part of the problem likely stems from the co-mingling of terrorist groups and local insurgencies, but the U.S. shouldn't put its weapons in the service of foreign countries with dubious human rights records unless there is a clear danger to the United States.

(AP Photo)

November 25, 2012

Was Morsi Wrong to Grab Power?


Yes and no. Issandr El Amrani explains:

The premise of the president's plan was sound. There was a need for him to get more involved in the constitutional debate and address some of the opposition's concerns (which had, among other things, asked for more time.) Several days of clashes in downtown Cairo had become an embarrassing reminder of the state of Egypt's transition and of the desire for justice for those who paid the ultimate price for overthrowing the Mubarak regime.

Dismissing the public prosecutor and preventing the dissolution of either the upper house of parliament or the constituent assembly were risky moves that would certainly face opposition, but mostly in terms of a face-off with judges - which was taking place anyway.

Where Mr Morsi overstepped is that he formally gave himself open-ended powers to make decrees that are immune from judicial oversight (therefore barring any legal recourse against them), giving himself licence to do pretty much anything else he pleases in the name of national security. He claims that this is a temporary measure to ensure that the country reaches its end goal - a new constitution and a new elected parliament - as quickly as possible. To achieve this, he is taking absolute power for three months or so, and promising to use it sparingly.

Were Mr Morsi a beloved national leader of the stature of a Nelson Mandela, he might have pulled it off. But he is the backup candidate of an organisation - the Muslim Brotherhood - mistrusted by many of his countrymen. He was elected (narrowly) by a coalition brought together by the fact that his opponent was worse. And he made this decision at a time of unprecedented polarisation - over the constitution and religion's role within it, over the performance of the cabinet, and indeed over the poor excuse for a transitional framework to democracy that the country inherited from 16 months of disastrous military rule. Mr Morsi's political capital is simply not as plentiful as he seems to believe, as the furious reaction by opposition leaders and protesters on Friday showed.

Similarly, Nathan Brown wonders if we're possibly witnessing Morsi's "metamorphasis into an Egyptian Cincinnatus."

TBD, I suppose.

(AP Photo)

November 21, 2012

Hamas' Rise and America's Failures

Watch Israel-Gaza Talks Face 'Complicating' Regional Realities on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

In a debate over the Israel-Gaza truce talks, Brookings' Khaled Elgindy makes an important point about Hamas:

Even since the attacks began, even since the assassination of their top military commander, their popularity, their stock, if you will, in the region has skyrocketed, while their rivals' in the West Bank has plummeted.

So, and even we're at a situation now where the exact opposite of the intended outcome is what we have. The policy has been for the last five years to support and build up the leadership in the West Bank...And to minimize and weaken through sanctions and diplomatic and other means to the government of the Hamas authority in the West Bank.

Today, we have the Qataris and Egyptians and other Egyptian leaders visiting Hamas, emboldening them and legitimizing them. And it's the American-backed Palestinian Authority that is on the verge of financial collapse.

So, essentially, you cannot have -- the definition of a failed policy is when it achieves the exact opposite of its intended outcome.

November 20, 2012

Would Americans Support the Destruction of Gaza?


Walter Russell Mead (via Sullivan) argues that Americans don't understand or support the concept of proportionality in war and would not blink if Israel decided to raze Gaza:

For many people around the world, this seems patently obvious: Israel has a right to respond to attacks from Hamas but it doesn’t have an unlimited right to respond to limited attacks with unlimited force. Israeli blindness to this obvious moral principle strikes many observers as evidence of hardheartedness and national moral decline, and colors their perceptions of many other Israeli policies.

The whole jus in bello argument sails right over the heads of most Americans....From this perspective, the kind of tit-for-tat limited warfare that the advocates of just and proportionate warfare would require is a recipe for unending war: for decades of random air strikes, bombs and other raids. An endless war of limited intensity is worse, many Americans instinctively feel, than a time-limited war of unlimited ferocity. A crushing blow that brings an end to the war—like General Sherman’s march of destruction through the Confederacy in 1864-65—is ultimately kinder even to the vanquished than an endless state of desultory war.

This may be true, but it also explains why very few American wars end in victory: Korea ended in a stalemate, Vietnam in a loss and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with far-from-satisfactory outcomes. The view that a war represents an opportunity to forge a "clean break" with the dynamics that initiated the conflict is obviously alluring, but not always true. Many wars, in fact, end with murky, less-than-definitive outcomes. Even "victories" can prove ephemeral, as the victors of World War I soon discovered. There are wars that do end decisively: the American Revolution booted out the British, the Civil War vanquished the South and World War II ended in the collapse of the Nazi and Imperial Japanese regimes. But none of these are really analogous to the kind of conflict that Israel is in with Hamas in Gaza.

Israel understands this, which is why they are fighting in the manner that Mead finds so mystifying. They cannot land a knock-out blow because there is no such thing. If such an option were available to them, wouldn't they have seized it by now?

Moreover, I wonder whether Mead is right that Americans would be indifferent to -- or even encouraged by -- a "time-limited war of unlimited ferocity" against Gaza. Since Mead evokes World War II as the template, let's consider what that would entail: at a minimum it would mean the destruction of most of Gaza's civilian infrastructure and the deaths of tens of thousands, potentially hundreds of thousands, of civilians. It would take a year's worth of awful images from Syria's civil war and compress them (and magnify them) over the space of several weeks. In a fairly short period of time, Hamas would lose its ability to fight back at all and the "war" would become even more one-sided than it already is. At a certain point, unrestrained military action against a civilian population that has no capacity to fight back ceases to be a "war" and becomes something much worse.

Covering this war of "unlimited ferocity" would certainly be difficult -- it would be too dangerous for most reporters since the bombardment would be so widespread -- but the news would leak out and Americans would ultimately understand what was occurring. Moreover, there would be explosive and widespread condemnation not just internationally but also from Washington. The Obama administration would almost certainly not publicly support an Israel campaign to raze Gaza to the ground and kills tens of thousands of Gazans.

Moreover, the most recent public opinion poll shows 57 percent of Americans supporting Israel's current response. It is impossible for me to believe that this number would not decrease if Israel began flattening hospitals and homes in the widespread and coordinated fashion described above.

None of this, I should stress, is going to happen -- this conflict will likely grind down like the last time Israel and Hamas came to blows. This may, as Mead says, strike most Americans as "unsatisfactory," but it's difficult to see a viable alternative.

(AP Photo)

On the Ground with Civilians in Syria

Watch Syrian Civilians 'Feel Abandoned' by the West in Civil War on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

The NewsHour's Margaret Warner gives us a look at what Syria's civilian population is coping with.

'The Economist' Angers France, Taiwan

A few months ago, The National Interest ran an article essentially describing The Economist as the most important newsmagazine in the world. It's certainly hard to disagree with that assessment. (Full disclosure: I have written articles for The Economist.)

The author writes:

Twenty-five years ago, if you had asked a typical senior American corporate type or public official what his or her weekly reading consisted of, the answer would usually have run something like this: "Time, Newsweek and maybe U.S. News & World Report... oh, yes, and the Economist." Today, instead of being an afterthought, the Economist probably would head the list. It might even be the only publication mentioned.

That statement is also probably true globally. How do I know? Obviously, important people in France and Taiwan both read the most recent issue. And, oh boy, are they mad. High-level officials from both countries felt the need to respond. That's quite an impressive feat for a weekly newsmagazine.

What did this British publication do that ruffled so many feathers?

Calling France "the time-bomb at the heart of Europe" apparently didn't go over well in Paris, however true it might actually be. The cover photo, which was of several baguettes bundled like a package of dynamite, was their way of rubbing a little extra salt in the wound. Nobody can torque the French quite like the British can.


The French government responded with a childish ad hominem attack against The Economist. The credit rating agency Moody's responded by downgrading France's debt, which led ForexLive to speculate how exactly The Economist was celebrating. Sacrebleu!

Taiwan is upset with the magazine for referring to its president, Ma Ying-jeou, as a "bumbler." He has an approval rating of 13%, so they can't be that far off. But, this article really touched a nerve in Taiwan. Even the opposition party stated their support for the president.

The Economist should (and probably does) treat these criticisms as a badge of honor. Clearly, the magazine has more influence globally than most nations do. And even if they occasionally make some critics mad, at least they know people are reading.

(Image: The Economist)

November 19, 2012

President Obama: No Country Should Tolerate Missiles Raining Down on Them (Except the Ones We're Bombing)

"There's no country on Earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders." - President Obama

As Mike Riggs wrly observes, "That is a very interesting thing to say at a time when the U.S. is regularly raining missiles down on Pakistan and Yemen."

Interesting indeed. President Obama is right, of course. Which is why the U.S. shouldn't be surprised when its own missile campaigns generate anti-Americanism and terrorism targeting U.S. interests.

Has Obama's "Light Footprint" Strategy in the Middle East Really Failed?


David Sanger's piece in the New York Times highlights a lot of what I think is wrong about how foreign policy is discussed in Washington. The piece is anchored around the observation that a lot of things are bad in the Middle East right now (Syria, Iran's nuclear program, a war between Israel and Gaza militants) and that Obama has taken a "light footprint" approach to the region, ergo the light footprint is to blame.

This is dubious on a number of levels.

First, the "light footprint" simply isn't true relative to the baseline of America's presence in the Middle East circa the late 1970s. It is only "light" relative to the occupation of Iraq during the years 2003-2008. The U.S. still retains military bases in Kuwait and Bahrain, conducts regular military exercises in the region and has positioned additional naval power in the Gulf to contain Iran.

So the notion that President Obama has employed a "light footprint" makes almost no sense, unless we're talking about sustaining an occupation force in the region of over 100,000 U.S. troops -- and even then, Sanger's argument is untenable. There were more civilians killed in the Middle East when the U.S. had a "heavy footprint" than under Obama's light one.

Second, it's anchored in an assumption that the Middle East's problems are America's to solve - and that simply putting more effort into it (enlarging our "footprint") will yield the results we desire. This is an assumption that is belied by the history of outside powers- particularly Western powers -- in the Middle East. From the disastrous map-drawing of the victors of World War I to the disastrous intervention in Iraq, foreign powers have always struggled to forge a Mideast more to their liking.

The idea that President Obama's policies are failing presupposes a coherent alternative approach that Sanger doesn't mention (probably because it doesn't exist).

This is not to carry water for President Obama's Middle East policy - it has certainly failed, or disappointed, on a number of fronts. But it is to suggest that the reluctance to get the U.S. deeply involved in the region (any more than it already is) is based on an appreciation that U.S. interests in the region are changing and that the ability to effect positive change is extremely limited.

(AP Photo)

The Rationale for a U.S. Presence in the Gulf

As the U.S. produces more and more of its own energy, the rationale for sustaining a large forward military presence in the Persian Gulf starts to weaken. But it's not like Middle Eastern energy won't find willing consumers. Instead, Gulf oil will flow to Asian markets, which puts major Asian oil consumers like China in something of a bind, as John Mitchell explains:

The United States military and naval presence contributes to stability in the Middle East and protects oil shipping through the Straits of Hormuz. This oil now goes east, not west, and the US security of oil supply no longer depends on it. Under these circumstances, how far will the US go to defend sea lanes that mainly benefit Asian markets?

The flip-side to this subsidy is that U.S. "defense" of Gulf sea lanes is another form of leverage over rivals like China. Any military force strong enough to keep the Gulf open could, in theory, close the Gulf down in a time of crisis (albeit at enormous costs to the global economy). That, in turn, will surely weigh on the minds of any Chinese strategist if (or when) the security competition between the U.S. and China really heats up.

On the other hand, the job of keeping the Gulf sea lanes open comes with a host of costs, like terrorism and military interventions, that the Chinese are probably happy not to bear.

November 17, 2012

Debating the Israel-Gaza War

Watch How Did Latest Escalation Between Israel and Hamas Begin? on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

The NewsHour hosted a good debate between Dan Schueftan and Hisham Melhem over the fighting in Gaza.

November 16, 2012

Securing Syria's Chemical Weapons a Daunting Task

The Pentagon estimates it would need 75,000 troops to secure Syria's chemical weapons sites, according to the New York Times:

The Pentagon has not yet been directed to draft detailed plans of how it could carry out such a mission, according to military officials. There are also contingency plans, officials say, for securing a more limited number of the Syrian chemical weapons depots, requiring fewer troops.

The discovery that Hezbollah has set up camps close to some of the depots, however, has renewed concern that as the chaos in Syria deepens, the country’s huge chemical weapons stockpiles could fall into the wrong hands. Hezbollah fighters have been training at “a limited number of these sites,” said one senior American official who has been briefed on the intelligence reports and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But the fear these weapons could fall into the wrong hands is our greatest concern.”

Cost of a War with Iran: $3 Trillion

According to a report from the Federation of American Scientists, a U.S. war against Iran could cost the global economy as much as $3 trillion.

The group based its estimates on a series of escalating steps, from sanctions to a blockade to targeted air strikes to a more comprehensive aerial bombing campaign culminating in a ground invasion to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities and military bases. Each step gets its own estimated price tag: additional sanctions are expected to cost the world $64 billion while a blockade would cost an estimated $325 billion. More aggressive steps cost into the trillions.

Will these costs stay the hands of policy makers in the U.S. and Israel and Europe?

November 15, 2012

Is Australia Free-riding on the U.S.?


First Japan announces a reduction in defense spending, and now Australia has announced plans to trim its own defense bill.

This at a time when the U.S. has just bolstered its military commitment to Australia.

Funny how that works.

The Pentagon believes its defense commitments offer "reassurance" to Asian allies living under the shadow of an increasingly powerful China. Yet as we've seen in Europe, such "reassurance" can eventually degenerate into free-riding where allied defense budgets shrink, confident that Uncle Sam is on hand if the going gets rough.

The U.S. can ill afford more debt. If additional U.S. allies decide they'll trim their own defense tabs too as the U.S. "pivots" into the region, the administration may need a rethink.

(AP Photo)

Will Obama's Pivot to Asia "Score Points" with the Chinese?

Lewis Simons writes in praise of President Obama's "pivot" to Asia:

Mr. Obama, by accepting a friendly invitation to visit Southeast Asia, is choosing instead to deal with China as an equal on neutral turf, rather than seek direct confrontation. No threats. Just a show of smart power.

While his gradualist approach certainly will not be cheered by American conservatives, it is a style that is likely to score points among Chinese and other Asians who see a freshly reminted American president approaching them not with a clenched fist but with an open hand. He proposes refurbishing a long-faded American presence on the Asian mainland, competing again for its raw materials, investments and markets. [Emphasis mine]

While some Asian states have clearly welcomed the administration's "pivot," China hasn't been among them (see also here and this study of Chinese reactions to the pivot here).

President Obama isn't approaching China with as clenched a fist as the U.S. could possibly make, but the signs of a containment regime are unmistakable. It appears to be the case that Chinese officials preferred to deal with Obama than with Romney, but that does not mean their minds will be put at ease with respect to U.S. strategy.

That's not a bad thing, per se. The U.S. does need an approach to China that balances the defense of vital security interests with the need to avoid thoughtless provocation. Still, we shouldn't kid ourselves about what's going on. Certainly, the Chinese understand that the "pivot" is aimed at them and not in a manner designed "to score points."

November 14, 2012

Does China Really Have More Nuclear Warheads Than Previously Believed?

One Russian analyst thinks the Chinese have a lot more warheads than the U.S. assumes:

China has nearly 750 theater and tactical nuclear warheads in addition to more than 200 strategic missile warheads, a stockpile far larger than U.S. estimates, according to a retired Russian general who once led Moscow’s strategic forces.

New details of China’s strategic and tactical nuclear warheads levels were disclosed by retired Col. Gen. Viktor Yesin, former commander of Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces, during a conference several months ago. A copy of Yesin’s paper was translated last month by the Georgetown University Asian Arms Control Project and obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

However, according to Jeffrey Lewis, Yesin's essay is "full of errors" including referencing Chinese nuclear weapons facilities that Lewis himself visited and verified were moth-balled.

Either way, the "consensus" appears to be that China has about 240 nuclear weapons (give or take a hundred).

American Energy Supplies: Now for the Bad News

Loren Steffy pours cold water on the IEA report noting America's growing energy production:

One paragraph above the prediction about the U.S. and Saudi, the IEA lays out a far more disturbing scenario, highlighted in boldface type: “The world is still failing to put the global energy system onto a more sustainable path.”

It goes on to outline a future in which consumer demand continues to rise faster than production as nations fight for ever bigger pieces of the same pie.

Even its projection of U.S. oil dominance has an important qualifier. The IEA estimates the switch would happen “around 2020″ but noted that the U.S. would remain the biggest oil producer only “until the mid-2020s.” Our reign as the world’s oil king, if it ever happens, probably won’t last more than five years....

Taken as a whole, the report outlines a world in which we face a shrinking supply of oil, rising prices and a growing toll on the environment.

If Washington had the capacity for sensible long-term planning, it would use its new found energy wealth to position itself for an era of tighter oil. But what are the odds of that happening?

Which Governments Want Your Google Data? America Tops the List

In a new report issued by Google, it appears that large democracies are the most interested in mining data from the world's most popular search engine:

Google handed over more user data to the US government in the first six months of this year than to all other countries combined.

The US made 7,969 requests for user data, of which Google complied with 90 percent. Next most inquisitive was India, with 2,319 requests, Brazil with 1,566, France with 1,546, Germany with 1,533 and the UK with 1,425.

Obviously, the data set here is going to be skewed toward countries where Google use is prevalent. Still, it's not just governments looking for information - it's governments taking down information as well:

Meanwhile, requests to remove content were also up - by 46 percent on the case of the US. The number rose by 98 percent in the UK, 132 percent in France and 145 percent in Germany.

Turkey showed the greatest rise, with content removal requests rocketing by 1,013 percent. Many of these related to sites critical to the government.

November 13, 2012

Leaving the Middle East Will Be Good for America

Kelly McParland picks up on the IAE report that forecasts American energy abundance in the near future and sketches out the ramifications:

The obvious first reaction would be an immense wave of relief. No more dependence on the Middle East? Great. No more wars over oil; no more catering to unstable autocracies run by corrupt sheiks with their army of princes and princelings. No more need to wonder what happens if some insurgent group of religious fanatics gains control over vital shipping lanes and shuts off the energy flow. No more oil wells blazing in the desert because one murderous dictator or another doesn’t want to give up his job.

True. So what’s it all mean? The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet communism produced prophecies of halcyon days, as the world’s sole remaining superpower, the U.S., held sway over a suddenly less-threatening world. Except it didn’t quite work out like that.

Actually, it worked out rather well for Europe - the center of gravity during the Cold War. It went from being the potential locus of World War III to being peaceful (with the exception of Bosnia) and relatively stable. It's also led to a slow reduction in U.S. troops in the region - a reduction which could very easily be accelerated based on Europe's overall wealth, stability and ability to defend itself from what meager threats it does face.

A similar thing won't exactly happen in the Mideast - if the U.S. were to withdraw from the Mideast as its own production ramps up, it won't be leaving behind a peaceful and prosperous region. But with ample energy production occurring in multiple regions beyond the Middle East, America's fundamental security needs will be met. What more is there to do?

"Far Right" Views Are Rising in Germany

According to an ongoing survey of German public opinion, "far-right" attitudes are taking root in a broader cross-section of German society than previously thought:

Starting in 2006, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, which has ties to the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), began publishing "Movement in the Middle," a series of biannual nationwide surveys the organization calls a "barometer of current anti-democratic attitudes in Germany."

Since the publication of the last results in 2010, the foundation has registered an increase of right-wing extremist attitudes from 8.2 to 9 percent across the country, with xenophobia found to be the most prevalent manifestation, a prejudice held by 25.1 percent of the population. The development demands attention, the researchers say.

The survey also found regional and age variations:

The study, based on surveys conducted in the summer of 2012, found that the prevalence of right-wing extremist attitudes varied greatly according to region. Compared to 2010, western German states actually showed a slight reduction, down from 7.6 percent to 7.3 percent overall. But there was a strong jump in the states that belonged to the former East Germany, up from 10.5 to 15.8 percent, the highest level ever measured by the researchers, who say it continues to rise....

Unlike the results of previous surveys, this time young people from eastern Germany aged 14 to 30 showed a higher level of approval for things like a right-wing authoritarian dictatorship, chauvinism, social Darwinism and the trivialization of National Socialism, than those over the age of 60. And while on a national average every eleventh German has anti-Semitic attitudes, levels were higher in eastern Germany than in the west for the first time.

Why Is al-Qaeda Thriving in Yemen? Saudi Arabia

In reviewing Gregory Johnsen's book on al-Qaeda in Yemen, Clint Watts describes how Saudi Arabia fueled the rise of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP):

Going into this book, I expected to be convinced that drones were more central to AQAP’s rise. However, having read the manuscript, I actually am more confident in my assessment from this past summer that it is a combination of external and internal factors that have led to AQAP’s regeneration with the most important enabler being the Saudi purge of AQ members in 2006-2007. Greg does discuss this Saudi purge in the book and I believe it is critical to understanding where and when AQ grows and ebbs. Young Saudi foreign fighters have been the largest portions of recruits and leaders for years supplying one jihad after another. With the decline of Iraq, Saudi foreign fighters flowed into Yemen and today I imagine AQAP in Yemen is now competing with Syria for the collection of fresh recruits. Having read Greg’s book, I see the influx of Saudi foreign fighters, the failures of rehabilitation programs and repeated prison escapes as the driving factors in AQAP’s recent heights. Drones didn’t generate AQAP’s growth, drones responded to AQAP’s growth. [Emphasis mine.]

November 12, 2012

America: The Next Energy Superpower?

According to the International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook report, the U.S. will be the leading energy producer in the world by 2020:

Energy developments in the United States are profound and their effect will be felt well beyond North America – and the energy sector. The recent rebound in US oil and gas production, driven by upstream technologies that are unlocking light tight oil and shale gas resources, is spurring economic activity – with less expensive gas and electricity prices giving industry a competitive edge – and steadily changing the role of North America in global energy trade. By around 2020, the United States is projected to become the largest global oil producer (overtaking Saudi Arabia until the mid-2020s) and starts to see the impact of new fuel-efficiency measures in transport. The result is a continued fall in US oil imports, to the extent that North America becomes a net oil exporter around 2030.
If true, the geopolitical consequences of this development are profound. Put simply: it will mean the death of the Carter Doctrine or the idea that the U.S. has to police the Persian Gulf for the sake of its own security. "Energy independence" is a chimera, but the increasing diversification of supply means that no single region can hold the world economy hostage like it used to. U.S. policy should be focused on magnifying this trend - through increased domestic production, greater efficiency and the development of alternative energy technologies.

Not everyone is convinced that the future is so rosy, like Stuart Staniford:

I am less persuaded myself that using a thousand oil rigs to generate an extra one million barrels per day of oil is necessarily a sign of a large and long-term sustainable increase in US oil production (as opposed to, say, frenzied scraping of the bottom of the barrel). But, still, I'm not certain beyond a reasonable doubt just how deep this particular barrel can be scraped.
The greater challenge will be thinking long term: if the IEA is to be believed, Saudi Arabia will soon lose its "swing producer" status. Are they ready for that? And will the U.S. be similarly prepared when it own supplies eventually draw down?

Obama's Light Footprint Strategy

Would Jackson Diehl have preferred to land 130,000 U.S. troops inside Libya? That seems to be the upshot of his column today:

But ultimately the disaster in Libya derived from Obama’s doctrine. Having been reluctantly dragged by France and Britain into intervening in Libya’s revolution, Obama withdrew U.S. planes from the fight as quickly as possible; when the war ended, the White House insisted that no U.S. forces stay behind. Requests by Libya’s fragile transition government for NATO’s security assistance were answered with an ill-conceived and ultimately failed program to train a few people in Jordan.

A new report by the Rand Corporation concludes that “this lighter-footprint approach has made Libya a test case for a new post-Iraq and Afghanistan model of nation-building.” But the result is that, a year after the death of dictator Moammar Gaddafi, Libya is policed by what amounts to a mess of militias. Its newly elected government has little authority over most of the country’s armed men — much less the capacity to take on the jidhadist forces gathering in and around Benghazi.

The Rand study concludes that stabilizing Libya will require disarming and demobilizing the militias and rebuilding the security forces “from the bottom up.” This, it says, probably can’t happen without help from “those countries that participated in the military intervention” — i.e. the United States, Britain and France. Can the Obama administration duplicate the security-force-building done in Iraq and Afghanistan in Libya while sticking to the light footprint? It’s hard to see how.

It's worth noting that both Iraq and Afghanistan are far from stable success stories. If Diehl is moved to call Obama's Libya campaign a "disaster" because four Americans were killed by terrorists, he needs to examine how many Americans have died in Iraq and Afghanistan as a result of U.S. policies there.

Even if the U.S. and Western allies were to dump 130,000 personnel into Libya for security-force training and stability operations, there's no guarantee of success. Instead, what would almost certainly happen instead is that a large number of foreign forces offering to "assist" Libya would provoke an indigenous insurgency - just as it did in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Is this what Diehl wants?

The only sensible conclusion to be drawn from this is that the U.S. should have stayed out of Libya in the first place and should keep its current failures in mind when debating forward-looking policy in Syria. It's true that the "light footprint" approach employed by the administration cannot bring stability to these countries, but the "large footprint" approach is too expensive and dangerous. The sensible conclusion to be drawn from this, then, is that the U.S. needs a "no footprint" approach unless absolutely vital interests are implicated.

Debating Iranian Nuclear Negotiations

Inside Story convened several analysts for a look at the prospects of negotiating an end to the Iranian nuclear standoff.

November 9, 2012

Maybe France's 75 Percent Tax on the Rich Won't Send Them Packing After All

When French president Francois Hollande unveiled his 2013 budget and kept his promise to hammer the rich with a 75 percent tax rate, conservatives howled. Bernard Arnault, France's richest man, filed for Belgian nationality. Reuters estimated that 300,000 French millionaires might pack up their yachts, private planes and butlers and head for greener pastures.

While Hollande's "millionaire's tax" may yet prove ruinous to the French economy, there's one thing it's likely not going to do: spark a rich exodus, at least according to a research report (PDF) from Stanford's Cristobal Young and Charles Varner. Studying California income tax records they found that the movement of millionaires to and from the state had almost no connection to the tax rate. It echoed findings from a similar study conducted in New Jersey.

While the Eurozone has made it easier for citizens to move around Europe, it's doubtful that it's made relocation easier than state-hopping in the U.S.

November 8, 2012

China's Leadership Structure Explained in One Chart


Brian Fung explains:

Here's how it works: the National People's Congress brings together some 2,000 delegates. Those representatives are responsible for choosing between 200 and 300 members of what's called the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Out of those, 24 ascend to the ultra-powerful Politburo, which in the past has been responsible for many of China's major decisions. But it doesn't end there. Above the politburo sits the country's highest decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). It's effectively a seven-member inner cabinet staffed by China's most powerful individuals, who themselves are drawn from the 24-member politburo.

Video: Debating Democracy Promotion

RT's CrossTalk hosted an interesting discussion with several U.S. analysts on the topic of U.S. democracy promotion.

November 7, 2012

China's Construction Boom as Seen Through Cement


This chart, via Stuart Staniford, shows cement production. As Staniford notes, cement is a good proxy for construction activity and the chart shows how China kept surging while the rest of the world began a downward trend.

Is a Neocon Purge Coming? Or a Last Laugh?

Daniel Drezner:

A glance at the exit polls showed that Obama won the foreign policy question pretty handily. Only five percent of respondents thought that foreign policy was the most critical issue in this campaign -- but of those five percent, voters went for Obama over Romney by 56% to 33%. Voters were also more likely to trust Barack Obama in an international crisis (57%-42%) than Mitt Romney (50%-46%).

This is the first exit poll in at least three decades where the Democrat has outperformed the Republican on foreign policy and national security. And I guarantee that whoever runs from the GOP side in 2016 will not have a ton of foreign policy experience. The GOP has managed to squander an advantage in perceived foreign policy competency that it had owned for decades.

When your response to every international threat small and large is to trot out Churchill and warn of a return to the 1930s, people tend to take you less and less seriously. But will this lead to an elite shakeout among GOP foreign policy hands? (Or, gasp, a fundamental reappraisal of at least some their views?)

I'm not so sure. As Drezner notes, five percent is small enough for Romney's advisers to argue quite plausibly that it wasn't their tired bromides ("peace through strength," "appeasement," etc.) that lost the race.

Moreover, what have the Neocons really lost? A close look at how Obama captured the "center" in the foreign policy debate shows that the supposed socialist peacenik (and his party) moved considerably to the right -- he did not drag the national consensus to the left. Drone strikes, kill lists, a war in Libya, a march toward war with Iran, the expansion of special forces operations throughout the world and a continued belief that spreading freedom to the world is a sacred American mission are all now considered the "mainstream" of U.S. foreign policy.

The neocons may have lost the political battle, but in the battle of ideas, things are (mostly) still going their way -- albeit not as fast as they might have otherwise gone had Romney won.

UPDATE: Realist Writer makes a fair point:

The fact that you associate this ideology as "right-wing" seems patently absurd then (as if somehow tearing up the traditions of other countries is a time-honored tradition that the US must always pursue every single time). And that this is only now "considered" mainstream? It was always mainstream, since the 1990s (Somaila and Kosovo), and possibly since the 1960s as well (when the neoconservatives were still a part of the Democratic Party and the US was fighting in Vietnam)...or even the 1950s (CIA interventions in Latin America and Iran).

This is true. Interventionism is more of a time-honored tradition than I let on above.

November 6, 2012

Did Netanyahu Just Destroy Israel's Credibility?


Yesterday, Israel's prime minister reaffirmed his willingness to unilaterally attack Iran if it did not shutter its nuclear program but some new reporting indicates that both Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak had asked the Israeli military to prepare for such a strike in 2010 and were turned down.

One reason they were rebuffed: the military said it couldn't pull it off.

That was two years ago. Since then, Iran has hardened its nuclear facilities and moved more of its enrichment underground, so the task hasn't gotten any easier.

I was previously of the mind that Israel would ultimately strike Iran (if the U.S. did not beat them to it). That now appears to be an incorrect assumption. Netanyahu's blustery entry into U.S. politics was apparently a signal not that Israel was about to attack, but that Israel was not capable of doing so alone.

Of course, the revelation of what was debated in Israel in 2010 could itself be a form of misinformation (or simply incorrect). If Tehran thinks Israel is incapable of striking, they may not see a potential attack coming. Nonetheless, if it is true that Netanyahu knew for two years that his country did not possess the ability to strike Iran while issuing a stream of threats to the contrary, it's yet another reminder of how irresponsible politicians are with their nation's credibility.

(AP Photo)

Pakistan's War on Education

Mohammed Hanif recounts the country's hostility to education, which goes well beyond the brutal depredations of the Taliban:

What is conveniently ignored in the debate over Malala is the fact that every 10th child in the world who doesn't go to school is Pakistani. The Taliban are not the only ones keeping kids out of school. Some fairly secularly minded people think of Pakistan's children as someone else's children – not deserving the education that their money buys for their own kids. As such, Pakistan is a booming marketplace for private education. Ask anyone on the street, and they'll tell you it's the biggest business in Pakistan.

November 5, 2012

Russia Losing Out in Indian Arms Market

Russia continues to be one of the top weapons exporters around the world, having sold products worth $7 billion by September 2012, states official agency "Rosoboronexport." Yet when it comes to one of the largest global arms markets -- India -- historically active Russian sales have take a serious setback.

Moscow recently lost the fourth consecutive Indian tender for the supply of military aircraft -- the winner in the contest for six aerial refueling tankers was European A330MRTT over Russian IL78MKI. Previous Russian losers in the Indian market included MiG-35 fighter planes, as well as Mi-28NE and Mi-26T2 helicopters.

The defeat in four Indian weapons tenders, including recent attempted sales of refueling aircraft, cost Russia approximately $14 billion of lost profits. Such numbers point to the continuing importance of India -- and Asian market in general -- as the key area of military sales and acquisition. Russian military exports continue to do well on the global market -- second only behind the United States -- yet Indian refusal to purchase Russian equipment points to the changing technological and political priorities of New Delhi, which recently started prioritizing military purchases from the United States and Israel.

Such series of defeats in the Indian tenders indicate a systemic crisis in the military-industrial and arms export complex of Russia, states Lenta.ru. Part of it is ill-conceived export policy and Russia's actual marketing strategy. If the United States brings to the international exhibitions actual working samples of their products, Russia, as a rule, "teases" potential buyers with booklets and toy plastic models of its weapons. Even simulated air combat, which is so popular in the West as part of weapons marketing, is rarely seen with Russian equipment.

Have Any UK Papers Endorsed Romney?

Your interesting global election factoid of the day, courtesy of George Eaton who notes that not a single major UK paper has endorsed Romney. Even the right-leaning Daily Telegraph decided on a "none of the above" approach.

Iran Sanctions Stoke Anti-Americanism

Soraya Lennie reports:

For many Iranians, living somewhere between a state of cynicism and alarm, Obama's comments defending the destruction of their economy are unwelcome to say the least.

Many people have taken on second, even third jobs. They've watched their savings disappear, critical medicines are getting harder to find, inflation is high, factories are closing. Basically, so many people are watching their futures vanish. Then there are the comments about nuclear strikes and US military exercises with Israel. But that's another worry altoghether.

Because of this, there is a surprising change in attitude amongst some parts of society, including some of Iran's traditionally pro-western youth. At Tehran University, students of American studies have noticed it among their peers.

"They are trying to separate people here from the government, to create some kind of internal uprising, but it's going to backfire," Marziyeh, a student in her early twenties, said.

"The more they push, the more it will lead to a rise in anti-Americanism."

Washington is clearly gambling that whatever fallout it provokes from imposing misery on the Iranian people will be offset by concessions on the nuclear program.

It's also more than a bit ironic that those people who champion the Green movement and demand U.S. support for Iranian dissidents are also those urging on 'crushing' sanctions that are immiserating those very same people...

November 1, 2012

Does the U.S. Have No Choice But to Go Broke Policing the World?

It would be nice to ignore problems in faraway lands, but in the age of al-Qaeda America simply does not have that option as often as we might wish. Organized and armed terror groups can exploit chaos or even take power themselves; the United States for its own protection cannot allow global jihadis to establish safe havens or to take over national governments.

Obama’s splendid little war in Libya has created serious long term strategic problems for the United States and saddled us with commitments and responsibilities we do not want, do not need but cannot shirk. Every day the news brings more evidence that, like it or not, we’ve got more work to do in the Middle East, and it is exactly the kind of expensive, frustrating and dangerous grunt work that President Obama took office promising to end. - Walter Russell Mead

Here's the problem with this: if Mead's first paragraph is correct (and I don't think it is) then his second paragraph is incorrect. As noted early, Libya's armed uprising against Gaddafi began before Obama's splendid war and even if Gaddafi crushed it, it was likely that pockets of destabilizing resistance would remain in the country - just the kind of pockets al-Qaeda thrives in. (It's also odd for Mead to complain about this, since he wants to duplicate precisely this kind of dynamic in Syria.) Is Mead suggesting that Obama's failure was involving the U.S. in Libya in the first place, or not sending in 300,000 U.S. troops to provide post-war security?

The broader question is: "in the age of al-Qaeda" can the U.S. not afford to look away at problems like Libya and Mali? And by "not look away" I'm assuming Mead means, not send in drones, the CIA and the State Department to wage a covert and/or proxy war against Islamist forces.

Perhaps Washington can, in fact, look away. Not turn a blind eye, but not plunge in guns blazing until there's a clear indication of threat.

Most Islamists movements are piggy-backing on local insurgencies and unrest. They may hate the West, but how many of them share the bin Laden vision of attacking the U.S. homeland? How many of them could attack the U.S. homeland, even if they wanted to? These are tricky questions to answer, but they should be answered before plunging in. The default assumption that every Islamist group is ipso-facto plotting the next 9/11 on U.S. soil is a recipe for expensive over-reach.

The minute the U.S. begins training local proxies, dropping bombs on houses and generally butting into a local fight, it makes enemies and, as Mead notes, takes on a series of expensive and potentially deadly commitments. Sometimes, this can work to our advantage: the campaign in Somalia, where a U.S.-trained African Union force has made substantial gains against al-Shabaab, seems to be a model in this respect. The "blowback" - thus far - has been minimal and militant forces have been on the run.

But just because Islamists have taken up in some deserted corner of the world shouldn't mean the U.S. runs in frantically. The world is filled with chaotic spaces. It is literally impossible for the U.S. to police them all, or to send enough cash and guns to local forces to do the policing for us - even there are even willing locals ready to assist us. The U.S. would go broke faster than stability would return to these areas sufficient to stop a major terrorist attack - which is almost impossible to stop anyway, given how few people are required.

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