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December 31, 2012

Why Hagel Should Not Tell Obama to Go to Hell

Terry Michael thinks that Chuck Hagel should prefer a pose of ideological purity to becoming secretary of defense:

Assuming his nomination isn't proactively yanked by the president, here's the question that Hagel first needs to answer: Should he allow himself to be used as a pawn in Barack Obama’s continuing deflection of presidential responsibility?

Tempting as it may be to get inside the tent, Hagel should decline. Given Obama's uninspiring track record, he won't have a major impact on policy. Far more likely, he'll serve as a prop for a president who asserts the right to kill even American citizens without judicial oversight and to send manned and unmanned planes anywhere he chooses.

This doesn't sound very persuasive. Ultimately, if people sympathetic to Hagel's views on various matters want their arguments to prevail, they're going to need to wield positions of authority. That will naturally entail some compromises and deviations from time to time, but that's inevitable. An ideological purity that never translates into policy outcomes isn't worth much.

Update: Larison adds more:

What makes Terry Michael’s argument even less persuasive than Scoblete allows is that Hagel would have virtually no influence as an outside critic demanding that Obama “bring the troops home now.” There is no guarantee that a Secretary Hagel would move the administration in the right direction on many things, but he will likely be a brake on military spending and future military action instead of a goad to both. The chances are good that he would be an advocate for withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan as quickly and completely as possible, and he stands a much better chance of making that happen if he is inside the administration than if he remains outside it.

December 28, 2012

The Wages of Chinese Economic Growth: 80 Percent of China's Coral Reefs Destroyed


China's torrid economic growth is one of the most spectacular tales of human improvement in recent memory, with literally millions of people being lifted from poverty into higher standards of living. Yet it's come at a cost -- environmental devastation on a truly large scale, as a new study from the Australian Research Council makes clear. To wit: China's coastlines have lost 80 percent of their coral reefs due to pollution, over-fishing and development.

To make the matter more challenging, some of the devastated coral is located in parts of the South China Sea with multiple claimants. Whoever assumes control over these waterways will not only inherit resource rights, but a serious ecological problem to boot.

(Photo: California Academy of Sciences)

The Libyan Intervention and Syria

Walter Russell Mead makes a very odd argument here:

Not to harp on the same sad note over and over again, but the West could have been much more effective in averting the more dangerous and devastating disaster in Syria had it not intervened in Libya first. This is not to say that solving Syria would have been simple absent the toppling of Qaddafi. But statesmanship is all about making prudent choices, and the choice we made was anything but. Qaddafi’s fall has left Libya an unstable question mark and has created new problems in Mali and beyond. The consequences of the Libyan intervention dissipated the political capital of the interventionist wing of the Obama administration; even the noblest and most multilateral Wilsonians can launch only so many wars in a presidential term. And by choosing to intervene in Libya while making lots of empty boasts and vain noises about our commitment to universal human rights and principles, we encouraged the Syrians to believe we would help them at the same time we made help less likely. This has cost both us and the Syrians much already; the bill will continue to mount.

Look, I distrust Wilsonians as much as the next guy, but none of this makes any sense.

First of all, the Syrian revolution didn't take its impetus from Obama administration rhetoric but from Assad's oppression. Moreover, it was only well into the Syrian revolution that the general public began to notice that the Libyan intervention hadn't gone as well as advertised (basically after the Benghazi consulate attack). When Gaddafi was hauled out of his sewer pipe and sodomized with a knife, the Obama administration was patting itself on the back for waging a smarter war. That's the kind of hubris that tends to lead to more interventions -- not fewer.

It also strains credulity for Mead to suggest that it was somehow a (non-existent) Libyan war fatigue that stayed the administration's hand in Syria and not the objectively different circumstances at play. Syria was (and is) a tougher nut to crack: the costs of intervention are significantly higher than in Libya. Syria has more great power support than Libya did and the regime has a much more robust defense establishment than Libya.

But what makes Mead's argument all the more untenable is that he accurately describes the history of U.S. intervention in the Mideast as misguided and more often producing negative consequences, then suggests that the U.S. should nonetheless "do more" in Syria so that things would be better:

A more “selfish” policy—doing less in Libya and more in Syria—would likely have had better strategic and humanitarian results than the dog’s dinner of a policy that we have actually followed.
Of course, we're not told what "doing more" in Syria means nor given any reason to believe why it would be better. Chances are, if Mead's description of U.S. actions in the region are accurate, it wouldn't be better. It would make things worse -- a dog's dinner on a much wider scale. Yet in his odd zeal to slam the Obama administration over Libya, Mead twists himself into arguing that we should make an even bigger mistake in Syria. Mead insists on presenting a partisan lesson about Libya (Obama = incompetent Wilsonian) instead of actually digesting the upshot of his argument, which is that Libya (and Iraq, and Afghanistan) prove that U.S. interventions in the Mideast are dangerous and counterproductive and need to be avoided unless absolutely necessary.

December 27, 2012

Nationalism in Japan? Maybe Not as Much as You've Heard

With the election of Shinzo Abe, many Japan watchers have warned that a rising nationalism could pull the country into a dangerous confrontation with China. Yet, from the looks of Abe's cabinet, Reiji Yoshida argues that the first priority of the Abe government is getting its economic house in order:

With the Upper House election approaching in July, Abe this time around seems to be focusing on economic issues first by appointing most of his close aides and party heavyweights to the economic and financial posts.

Among them are Finance Minister Taro Aso, a former prime minister and advocate of public works spending, who has hinted he might delay the 2014 sales tax hike.

Abe has also created the new post of "economic revitalization minister" and given it to Akira Amari, one of his closest allies.

His hawkish diplomacy meanwhile seems to be on hold — at least for now. The new foreign and defense ministers — Fumio Kishida and Itsunori Onodera — are not regarded as outright hawks, choices that apparently reflect Abe's newfound efforts to soften his diplomatic profile and avoid more friction with Japan's neighbors, who still have memories of the war.

Indeed, Abe's comments repeatedly emphasize that his focus is on economic issues and the Upper House election.

Yoshida notes that there's still an appetite among Abe's cabinet for measures, such as watering down apologies for World War II-era crimes (no "apology tour" for Abe), that will stoke regional unease.

Stopping Iran's Nuclear Program Won't Stabilize the Mideast


In the course of yet-another attack on Chuck Hagel, Jonathan Tobin writes that "stopping the Islamist regime in Iran is the prerequisite for stability in the region."

This is a common refrain among those who want to take more aggressive action against Iran. And it's completely wrong. In fact, it's an ironic argument coming from Tobin since he (rightly) dismisses the naive "linkage" argument when it comes to Israeli-Palestinian peace (i.e. the argument that said peace is the key to ensuring Mideast stability).

First, Iran is not the only, or even the worst, source of instability in the region. Gulf state efforts at containing Iran's influence are fomenting a far greater source of instability in the form of Sunni jihadists. Moreover, U.S. support for the repression of its allies in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Jordan and the U.S. covert war in Yemen are also destabilizing the region. Throw in centuries-old sectarian fault lines, battles over water resources, ethnic separatism and map lines drawn by clueless colonial powers and it's painfully obvious that there are no shortage of powder kegs in the Middle East.

Iran and its support for militant proxies no doubt plays a role in stirring this already turbulent stew, but it's naive at best to think that merely "stopping" them (however that's done) would be sufficient to calm things down.

(AP Photo)

December 26, 2012

Is the U.S. Digging Itself a Deeper Hole in Yemen?

The Washington Post offers some reporting from Yemen that suggests the U.S. drone campaign there is creating a mess:

U.S. airstrikes have killed numerous civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other parts of the world, and those governments have spoken against the attacks. But in Yemen, the weak government has often tried to hide civilian casualties from the public, fearing repercussions in a nation where hostility toward U.S. policies is widespread. It continues to insist in local media reports that its own aging jets attacked the truck.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has kept silent publicly, neither confirming nor denying any involvement, a standard practice with most U.S. airstrikes in its clandestine counterterrorism fight in this strategic Middle Eastern country.

In response to questions, U.S. officials in Washington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said it was a Defense Department aircraft, either a drone or a fixed-wing warplane, that fired on the truck. The Pentagon declined to comment on the incident, as did senior U.S. officials in Yemen and senior counterterrorism officials in Washington.

Since the attack, militants in the tribal areas surrounding Radda have gained more recruits and supporters in their war against the Yemeni government and its key backer, the United States. The two survivors and relatives of six victims, interviewed separately and speaking to a Western journalist about the incident for the first time, expressed willingness to support or even fight alongside AQAP, as the al-Qaeda group is known.

“Our entire village is angry at the government and the Americans,” Mohammed said. “If the Americans are responsible, I would have no choice but to sympathize with al-Qaeda because al-Qaeda is fighting America.”

Public outrage is also growing as calls for accountability, transparency and compensation go unanswered amid allegations by human rights activists and lawmakers that the government is trying to cover up the attack to protect its relationship with Washington. Even senior Yemeni officials said they fear that the backlash could undermine their authority.

“If we are ignored and neglected, I would try to take my revenge. I would even hijack an army pickup, drive it back to my village and hold the soldiers in it hostages,” said Nasser Mabkhoot Mohammed al-Sabooly, the truck’s driver, 45, who suffered burns and bruises. “I would fight along al-Qaeda’s side against whoever was behind this attack.”

Relatedly, Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen spoke to the Canadian International Council about the budding air war in Yemen. It's a very illuminating interview and in it, Johnsen argues that U.S. policy in Yemen is backfiring:

In the West, the debate over U.S. policy in Yemen has become focused on drone strikes, but in Yemen, the focus is on the civilian casualties that are a result of some of those strikes. When the Obama administration started carrying out attacks in Yemen, there were about 200-300 individuals affiliated with AQAP. Today, it’s at least 1,000 – in fact, the U.S. State Department estimates that it’s at least a few thousand. I don’t think all of this is attributable to the use of drones, or to the civilian casualties they’ve resulted in, but I think a large portion of it is, and because of this, one of the things that I think the U.S. has to do is reconsider its strike policy.
Johnsen goes on to argue that a more targeted policy of fewer strikes against only truly high value targets may yield better results. But he also makes a crucial point -- because of the secrecy that surrounds U.S. counter-terrorism policy, it's very hard to make critical judgments about its effectiveness:
So we’re all basing our analyses on what’s been made public, and because there’s so little of that and so much that remains shrouded in secrecy, we’re all able to import our own biases into the discussion. Two well-intentioned, honest individuals could look at the same thing, and one could claim the action represents an evolution of what the term “imminent threat” means, while the other could see an example of the U.S. acting as a counterinsurgency air force. The truth is that most of us on the outside just don’t know what the government officials who are making these decisions are thinking, or what’s driving the program.

December 24, 2012

Keeping Troops in Afghanistan

Max Boot argues that the U.S. should station large numbers of troops in Afghanistan indefinitely, then undermines his argument at the end of his op-ed:

It is hard to imagine how anyone in the Obama administration could conclude that a force of just 6,000 personnel would be sufficient after 2014 when, even with 68,000 troops today, the United States cannot prevent the Taliban and Haqqanis from operating openly an hour’s drive from Kabul. Such a precipitous drawdown vastly increases the risk of a Taliban takeover. [Emphasis mine.]

It's obvious to even the war's die-hard supporters that there is no sufficient American force available to keep the Taliban and Haqqani militants from threatening Afghanistan. So why subject an arbitrary number to an indefinite stay in Afghanistan?

December 21, 2012

Israeli Missiles vs. Palestinian Rockets

One of the themes from the recent war between Israel and Hamas was the performance of Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system. In this video, Uzi Rubin, president of the defense consulting firm Rubicon, and founding director of the Israel Missile Defense Organization discusses how well it did.

China's Self-Containment Strategy

More evidence that China's assertiveness over its territorial disputes is backfiring:

Anti-Japan riots in Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere in China in September triggered by Japan's nationalization of the disputed Senkaku Islands brought vandalism and violence to Japanese restaurants, stores and car dealers and a boycott of Japanese products.

The disturbances prompted Japanese companies to worry that they have been too dependent on China for their sales and production and thus should consider diversifying their global exposure.

The "China-plus-one" concept, in which firms look to establish footholds elsewhere in Asia, was fostered several years ago but since September has gained greater traction.

Many Japanese firms are now looking to other emerging Asian markets to spread their risks.

James Clad and Robert Manning dubbed this "China's self-containment" and it appears to be unfolding before our very eyes. It does not appear that Asian states will meekly drop into Beijing's orbit as compliant satellites. Instead, it looks like they will push back against pressure from China, heightening the risks of a conflict -- one that would almost certainly implicate the U.S.

Character Assassination Isn't an Argument

One of the striking things about the argument over Mr Hagel, who was a Republican senator for Nebraska for 12 years, is the nastiness of the arguments over foreign policy within the Republican Party. The disputes within the party over taxes and immigration are so prominent that it is easy to lose sight of the fierce disagreements between its realist and neo-conservative wings. The same sort of personal animus was evident when the Romney campaign announced that Bob Zoellick, the former World Bank boss and realist standard-bearer, would be in charge of foreign policy personnel in the event of an election victory, prompting howls of disapproval from neo-conservatives. If Mr Romney had won the election, the infighting would have been fierce. -- Geoff Dyer

I think we need to distinguish between "howls of disapproval" and "nasty smears." It's perfectly fine for neocons to argue (even howl) that Hagel is unfit to be defense secretary because he's soft on Iran or whatnot, but to call him an anti-Semite is character assassination.

December 19, 2012

Europe's Economic Epic Fail


This chart, showing unemployment in the so-called PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain) is a sorry sight to behold. It's courtesy of Stuart Staniford who observes that "[t]his has got to be the largest policy failure in the developed world since the second world war."


Foreign Affairs' New Look


The storied Foreign Affairs magazine is getting a makeover. The first issue of the new year will be the first in 90 years to have a photo gracing the cover. Magazine editor Gideon Rose previews the redesign:

There were several reasons for the makeover, among them to distinguish successive issues from one another, to work effectively across multiple digital platforms, and to attract an even larger general-interest readership. Our goal is to build on our strong success in recent years and to introduce fresh audiences to all our wonderful content, and so we spent a lot of time and effort coming up with an incremental redesign that would maximize our aesthetic appeal and accessibility while preserving our readability and gravitas.

Politico also has a nice write-up on the magazine's new look.

RCW named Foreign Affairs as one of its top five world news sites of 2012, and suffice it to say we're excited to see what the magazine has in store for 2013.

(Image credit: Foreign Affairs)

Canada Gets a Failing Grade ... on Human Rights

I admit I thought this was a typo when I saw the headline:

For Canada’s international human rights standing, 2012 was an annus horribilis.

This year three UN expert committees rated the country’s performance on meeting rights commitments — and returned a failing grade.

“These mandatory reviews are carried out every four or five years, and it just happened that this year Canada was the focus of three,” said Alex Neve, who heads Amnesty International Canada. “It’s a wake-up call that although we have things to be proud of, there are many fronts where we have long-standing issues that need to be addressed.”

An Amnesty report released Wednesday says that committees on racial discrimination, prevention of torture and children’s rights found “a range” of “ongoing and serious human rights challenges,” especially for indigenous peoples.

“By every measure, be it respect for treaty and land rights, levels of poverty, average life spans, violence against women and girls, dramatically disproportionate levels of arrest and incarceration or access to government services such as housing, health care, education, water and child protection, indigenous peoples across Canada continue to face a grave human rights crisis,” it said.

December 18, 2012

China's Looming Water Crisis

Brian Dumaine reads the latest global trends report from the National Intelligence Council and concludes that China could hit a rough patch:

One theme in particular that stands out this year is the coming food and water crisis in China. According to the report, climate change coupled with China's move toward urbanization and middle class lifestyles will create huge water demand and therefore crop shortages by 2030. As the report states: "Water may become a more significant source of contention than energy or minerals out to 2030."

Globally, demand for food is estimated to increase by more than 35% by 2030 and that means the world will need more water. After all, agriculture and livestock account for 70% of our water use. According to a major international study, global water requirements—mostly to sustain agriculture and livestock—will rise to 40% above our current sustainable water supplies.

China is particularly vulnerable to this trend. The report points out, for example, that cereal production in China faces significant challenges from environmental stresses relating to water scarcity—the melting Himalayan glaciers aren't helping—soil depletion, and pressures on land availability from urbanization. China is a major wheat producer and the second-largest producer and consumer of corn after the US.

The Real Hagel Debate

Ever since former Senator Chuck Hagel's name has been floated as a possible nominee for Secretary of Defense, critics have been attacking his supposed lack of support (even "animus") for Israel. Bill Kristol went so far as to say a Hagel nomination would be a referendum on "who has Israel's back."

More relevant, I think, are the issues Josh Rogin zeroes in on:

Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, rumored to be in contention for the job of defense secretary, has a long record of opposing sanctions on countries including Iran, North Korea, Syria, Libya, and Cuba.

Hagel, who serves as co-chair of President Barack Obama's intelligence advisory board, throughout his career has publicly supported the idea of engaging with rogue regimes and focusing on diplomacy before punitive measures. While in Congress, he voted against several sanctions measures and argued vociferously against their effectiveness.

Hagel's stance on sanctions puts him outside of the current consensus of his Senate colleagues -- even outside the public position of the Obama administration, which has touted its harsh sanctions against Iran and has mostly maintained the panoply of economic shackles on Cuba, North Korea and Syria. His preference for engagement over confrontation is also at odds with President Obama's pledge to deny Iran a nuclear weapon no matter what.

The trouble for Hagel's critics is that the sanctions regimes against all of these countries have failed to produce the desired outcome. Iran and North Korea continue to advance their nuclear programs and missile programs, respectively. The Castros still rule Cuba. Assad remains in power in Syria and if he falls (or when he falls) no one will believe it was because the U.S. slapped sanctions on the ruling regime.

But that doesn't mean Hagel's supporters are going to have an easy time of it. In none of the above cases is it clear that engagement would work miracles (and to be fair, Hagel has said as much). The problem with most proponents of engagement is that it's difficult to claim on one hand that the U.S. has "vital" interests in a region or particular outcome and then whirl around and say the only way you'll pursue those interests is through dialogue. As I wrote in 2008:

By conceding the premise of American security interests, it’s easy to see why Democrats keep losing the politics. If America is to be the world’s policeman, who is the more credible figure: the state trooper ready to club the bad guys, or the security guard at the mall, brandishing a walk-talkie?

The politics have clearly shifted a bit since I wrote this, but there is still an environment of irrationality and demagoguery that hangs over these issues that makes it difficult to make the case for engagement unless you're willing to concede that the U.S. really doesn't have a vital stake in the outcome -- something Hagel (or any high office holder) is unlikely to do.

Hagel's position on sanctions also cuts directly against Washington's self-professed identity as moral arbiter of the globe. As Michael Rubin unwittingly demonstrates in his attack on Hagel, sanctions serve, in part, as a kind of moral affirmation for those in the U.S. foreign policy community who believe the purpose of U.S. power is the uplift of the human soul. In this view, you are morally suspect if you are unwilling to endorse collective punishment and subject literally millions of people to economic misery and hardship in the attempt to coerce a handful of people in a regime to change course.

It's also important to remember that Hagel's views on engagement and sanctions are just one question that needs to be resolved to everyone's satisfaction. Equally, if not more important, are his views on the kind of military the U.S. should field in the future and America's global defense posture. Where does he believe future defense dollars should be allocated? What kind of military would he want to build?

December 17, 2012

Debating Iran: A Countdown to War?

The London School of Economics hosted an interesting panel discussion with, among others, RCW contributor Meir Javedanfar on the prospects for a military confrontation with Iran.

December 14, 2012

State Capitalism, Russian Style

One of the simmering fears provoked by the rise of emerging market economies is that the race for critical resources is being won by states that are not afraid to bend the laws of capitalism to advance strategic interests. (The Eurasia Group's Ian Bremmer wrote a nice primer on the rise of "state capitalism" which we reviewed here.)

Russia's state-run energy giant Gazprom shows us how it's done:

Bloomberg has estimated that Russia's Gazprom will beat Exxon Mobil this year to become the most profitable company in the world, and yet its shares are down 18 percent. Why? As well as being the most profitable, it is also the biggest spender, using its cash to finance large infrastructure projects that are also priorities of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Last year Gazprom spent $53 billion on capital expenditure projects, more than PetroChina's $46 billion or Exxon's $36.8 billion. The huge expenditure meant that just 7 percent of earnings remained to be paid out as dividends, the least amount of the top 10 largest energy companies in the world.

Anaylsts at IFC Metropol and Sberbank CIB have suggested that Gazprom's shareholders are basically paying for Putin's political priorities: building a pipeline to bypass Ukraine, and developing Russia's poor Eastern regions.

While the U.S. certainly puts a lot of diplomatic and military effort into making the word safe for U.S. firms to operate and win contracts, this kind of direct state control isn't yet the norm. Yet as the race heats up for strategic minerals and other resources, we'll likely see a sharper debate over which approach best secures a nation's interest. Will Chinese and Russian firms ultimately implode under the weight of state interference (or be propped up at a loss indefinitely) or will the U.S. begin to mirror their approach in bending (to an even greater degree than it already does) the operation of private firms?

(AP Photo)

December 13, 2012

How Will China React to North Korea's Missile Test?

By all accounts, the North Korean missile test was a significant technical milestone in the advancement of the country's arsenal. Jonathan Pollack wonders whether the test will strain the Hermit Kingdom's ties to China:

The bigger risks for Pyongyang concern its relations with China. The US, Japan, and South Korea have already called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, since the North’s test are in direct violation of Resolutions 1718 and 1874, which prohibit North Korea from undertaking any rocket tests “using ballistic missile technology.” Since North Korea announced on December 1 that it would attempt another satellite launch, there have been persistent reports that the Obama Administration would seek to impose even harsher sanctions, even though North Korea is probably already the world’s most heavily sanctioned state. The US thus seems very likely to put great pressure on China to agree to additional sanctions. In recent weeks, the Chinese have openly cautioned the North Koreans from undertaking another test, without signaling what China would do should Pyongyang decide to test. Beijing’s first comments on the test had an ominous tone: “all parties concerned should stay cool headed and refrain from stoking the flames so as to prevent the situation from spiraling out of control.” How China chooses to respond will be the first foreign policy challenge for the newly installed Party General Secretary Xi Jinping.
Just a guess, but chances are the response will be in keeping with previous episodes. There will be a pro-forma denunciation from the United States and allied powers, a bland reproach from China and then everyone will quickly look the other way until the next provocation.

December 12, 2012

China's History of Humiliation


Zheng Wang explores China's historical memory and how it impacts present day attitudes:

The English translation of the Chinese phrase "Wuwang Guochi" is "Never forget national humiliation." It is the title of the book that I have just published. In this book, I refer to it as the "national phrase" of China. The Chinese characters associated with this motto are engraved on monuments and painted on walls all over China. For the Chinese, historical consciousness has been powerfully influenced by the so-called "century of humiliation" from the First Opium War (1839-1842) through the end of the Sino-Japanese War in 1945. The Chinese remember this period as a time when their nation was attacked, bullied, and torn asunder by imperialists.

As the research in this book has identified, China's unique national experiences, most significantly pride over its civilization as well as a collective memory resulting from the "century of humiliation" vis-à-vis Western powers, have played a crucial role in shaping the Chinese national identity.

Wang notes that China's educational system was revamped in the 1990's away from the class struggle narrative and toward a "victimization narrative" with the West as the principle architect of said victimization. If China were to move to a a multi-party democracy, Wang writes, these narratives could easily be seized on by nationalist leaders to mobilize support.

This is something many policymakers in the U.S. need to be mindful of. There's a thread that runs through some hawkish commentary on China that until the country democratizes to Western standards, the U.S. can never have a good relationship with Beijing. This stance not only overlooks the nationalist dangers that democratization could provoke, it also reinforces the idea in China that the West is intent on dominating their domestic politics. And as Wang notes, that is a potent historical grievance -- one the U.S. should be mindful of.

(AP Photo)

December 11, 2012

Why Doesn't Washington Trust in Incentives?


Hadley Gamble reports from a conference on U.S. interests in the Middle East:

U.S. delegates to the summit in Bahrain's capital Manama were pounded by questions from nations making up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) over the meaning of the administration's"pivot" to Asia and the possibility of a de-escalating American presence in the Gulf, this despite the half-billion dollars in investment earmarked for the Fifth Fleet's operational base in Bahrain.

But it was the specter of a rising China that pervaded much of the debate including security in the Strait of Hormuz. With over 87 percent of crude oil exports passing through the Arabian Gulf now headed to Asian markets,one question U.S.policy makers could soon be facing is whether America can or should continue to foot the bill for the security of China's oil supply.

"It's a technical problem as well as a strategic problem," says Jon Alterman, Middle East Program Director at another think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). "It's a global energy market that must be secured. Energy headed from the Gulf to Asia ends up fueling exports to the U.S. and America has the only navy capable of providing that security."

One reason the U.S. has the only navy capable of providing Gulf security is because none of the other stakeholders needs to make such an investment -- the U.S. taxpayer is doing it for them. It's odd that in the 21st century any outside power such as the U.S. or even China needs to be a guarantor of Gulf oil -- the Gulf states have enormous wealth and have a direct incentive to ensure that crude passes through Hormuz. The incentives align very neatly here: those that produce the oil should be responsible for securing its transit to global markets given that those regional navies are literally the best placed for such a role.

This is obviously not something that could happen over night (and in reality, it's not going to happen anytime soon since the U.S. is pouring more money into the Fifth Fleet's Bahrain base) but it's funny how a Cold War strategic imperative has morphed into an unassailable orthodoxy.

Instead of restructuring this regional bargain, the U.S. is content with a situation where it not only secures the Gulf states' oil revenue but also protect these states from Iran. In exchange, these states use the oil wealth that should be funding a regional navy to fund Islamist terrorist organizations and repress their own citizens.

(AP Photo)

Iran's Long Range Missile Program: A Tale of Two Reports

How advanced is Iran's missile program? If you read the Washington Free Beacon, you'd be stocking your bomb shelter:

Iran possesses the “largest number of ballistic missiles in the Middle East” and is secretly producing long-range missiles capable of carrying a nuclear payload, according to a nonpartisan report authored by Congress’ research arm.

Additionally, Tehran has developed “a genuine and ambitious space launch program, which seeks to enhance Iran’s … international reputation as a growing advanced industrial power,” according to a Dec. 6 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report investigating Iran’s increasingly sophisticated military capabilities.

It is suspected that Tehran’s space program “could mask” the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to targets across the region.

Yet if you clicked over to Reuters, you'd be a bit more reassured:

An internal report for the U.S. Congress has concluded that Iran probably is no longer on track, if it ever was, to having an ocean-crossing missile as soon as 2015. The study casts doubt on a view long held by U.S. intelligence agencies that Iran could be able to test-fly by 2015 an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, if it receives "sufficient foreign assistance."

"It is increasingly uncertain whether Iran will be able to achieve an ICBM capability by 2015," said the report by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, which works exclusively for lawmakers.

Iran does not appear to be receiving as much help as would likely be necessary, notably from China or Russia, to reach that goal, according to the 66-page report dated Thursday.

It is also increasingly tough for Tehran to obtain certain critical components and materials because of international sanctions related to its disputed nuclear program.

If you read all 66 pages of the report here (pdf) you'd come away with a very thorough understanding of the issue, with all its caveats (you might also cure that insomnia you've been battling).

One thing the report emphasizes is that ballistic missile trend reports rarely "materialize as expected" and predictions of steady or rapid progress toward such capability are rarely born out. Instead, it usually takes a state longer than expected to arrive at such capability. Even the five advanced nuclear weapons states with ICBMs have worked for decades to perfect the technology.

December 10, 2012

The Obama Administration's 'Benign Neglect' of Israel


Peter Beinert outlines his view of the Obama administration's second term approach to Israel:

So instead of confronting Netanyahu directly, Team Obama has hit upon a different strategy: stand back and let the rest of the world do the confronting. Once America stops trying to save Israel from the consequences of its actions, the logic goes, and once Israel feels the full brunt of its mounting international isolation, its leaders will be scared into changing course. “The tide of global opinion is moving [against Israel],” notes one senior administration official. And in that environment, America’s “standing back” is actually “doing something.”

Administration officials are quick to note that this new approach does not mean America won’t help protect Israel militarily through anti-missile defense systems like the much-heralded Iron Dome. And they add that the U.S. will strongly resist any Palestinian effort to use its newfound U.N. status to bring lawsuits against Israel at the International Criminal Court. America will also try to prevent further spasms of violence: by maintaining the funding that keeps Mahmoud Abbas afloat in the West Bank and by working with Egypt to restrain Hamas.

What America won’t do, however, unless events on the ground dramatically change, is appoint a big-name envoy (some have suggested Bill Clinton) to relaunch direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The reason: such negotiations would let Netanyahu off the hook. Senior administration officials believe the Israeli leader has no interest in the wrenching compromises necessary to birth a viable Palestinian state. Instead, they believe, he wants the façade of a peace process because it insulates him from international pressure. By refusing to make that charade possible, Obama officials believe, they are forcing Netanyahu to own his rejectionism, and letting an angry world take it from there.

I wouldn't interpret it this way at all.

Consider what the Obama administration is doing: it is still offering Israel the full panoply of material and military aid and support, it is still going to orient its regional diplomacy around making the Mideast safer for Israel and it is going to impede any Palestinian attempts to leverage international bodies to Israel's disadvantage. In exchange for this, the administration is not going to push Netanyahu to do anything. Instead, it's simply going to refrain from defending Israel rhetorically from European criticisms.

If you were Netanyahu, wouldn't you take that deal?

Moreover, the "facade of the peace process" was never for the benefit of Netanyahu -- or Israel, for that matter. It was a means for the United States to offset the negative regional response to U.S. aid to Israel. Dropping this facade isn't going to materially harm Israel, and I doubt it will do any damage to the U.S., either. It has long been understood in the region that U.S. aid to Israel is unconditional, so the new administration policy isn't a sharp break with the past. Indeed, it seems like the Obama administration is resetting U.S. policy to what it was under the first term of the Bush administration: there will be a stated desire for a negotiated settlement ending in "two states for two peoples" but little U.S. effort to push the process along.

(AP Photo)

What's the Deal with Qatar?


There's one thing the revolt against Libya's Gaddafi and the revolt against Syria's Assad have in common: weapons have been provisioned to Islamic extremists and al-Qaeda syndicates by the government of Qatar.

It's difficult to tell whether it's due to incompetence (one person quoted by the Times describes weapons being handed out "like candy" without regard for who's getting one) or whether the government is deliberating seeking out Islamists to empower as a means of expanding its regional influence. But either way, Qatar's actions are bolstering people who may present a direct threat to the United States as failed states emerge in both Libya and Syria.

The U.S. is no passive observer: it has an air base in Qatar, is building a missile defense radar installation there and is ostensibly close to the government. While it probably couldn't stop Qatar outright, it seems odd that the Obama administration is doing nothing besides registering token complaints.

Or maybe not so odd: after all, Qatar is a plank in a regional strategy designed to contain Iran. It is, in fact, a perfect example of how such a strategy is going to end up fueling forces far more hostile to the U.S. and its interests -- and far less deterrable -- than Iran.

(AP Photo)

December 7, 2012

Should the U.S. Attack Syria if Assad Uses Chemical Weapons?

When President Obama first warned Syria’s leader, President Bashar al-Assad, that even making moves toward using chemical weapons would cross a “red line” that might force the United States to drop its reluctance to intervene in the country’s civil war, Mr. Obama took an expansive view of where he drew that boundary....

But in the past week, amid intelligence reports that some precursor chemicals have been mixed for possible use as weapons, Mr. Obama’s “red line” appears to have shifted. His warning against “moving” weapons has disappeared from his public pronouncements, as well as those of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. The new warning is that if Mr. Assad makes use of those weapons, presumably against his own people or his neighbors, he will face unspecified consequences. -- New York Times

This sounds a bit too finely parsed to me -- and in any event, the newer formulation makes more sense. But that begs a vastly more important question: it a good idea? Should the U.S. intervene militarily if the Assad regime uses chemical weapons against the rebels?

According to the Pentagon (and outside experts) efforts to neutralize Assad's chemical stockpile could entail upwards of 75,000 troops and days of airstrikes. And, as the Times piece notes, bombing chemical weapons depots could simply release the toxins into the air -- the very result everyone is trying to avoid. Many of those stockpiles are in urban areas and efforts to destroy them may also facilitate their uncontrolled spread if they're not entirely destroyed at the outset.

Moreover, and to put it bluntly, if tens of thousands of Syrians dying by mortar round and small arms fire hasn't moved the U.S. to intervene, it's not clear why Syrians dying by chemicals would be any different. The only reason I can see is a desire to enforce a norm against the use of WMD -- but is that reason enough to deepen U.S. involvement? The U.S. has an obvious interest in this norm, but so do all civilized states. (I'm personally on the fence. I can see the argument for attacks, not against Syrian chemical weapons depots perhaps but against regime assets -- Assad's house, military bases and airfields, etc. -- if Assad takes that fateful step.)

December 6, 2012

Who Owns America? Not China

Daniel Gross dives into the figures:

Over the past few years, our dependence on China as a lender has declined in both absolute terms and in relative terms. For all those who say the U.S. doesn’t make anything the world wants, look no further than the Treasury’s monthly statement of the public debt, which can be seen here (PDF). We manufacture government debt. And the world buys it. In the recently concluded fiscal year, the deficit was about $1.1 trillion. Between September 2011 and September 2012, the grand total of marketable debt held by foreigners rose from $4.9 trillion to $5.455 trillion, or about $555 billion.

So, yes, the amount of debt owned by foreigners has risen in the past year. But the portion of the debt owned by foreigners has stayed about the same—at about 51 percent—and the portion owned by China has fallen sharply. China’s total holdings of U.S. debt are about where they were in the middle of 2010, when the volume of total U.S. debt was much smaller.

December 5, 2012

A Nuclear-Free Mideast in Israel's Interest?

Sam Roggeveen runs down the scenarios:

My logic is simple. With regard to Iran's nuclear program, Israel faces one of three possible futures:

1. Israel has nuclear weapons but Iran does not.
2. Both Israel and Iran have nuclear weapons.
3. Neither Israel or Iran has nuclear weapons.

Which scenario is better for Israel's security?

Roggeveen concludes that option one is probably unsustainable and option two undesirable, which leaves option three as the best course. Moreover, it would put Israel in a better position because of its superior conventional military.

My guess: we're heading toward option two. No country with an arsenal as well developed as Israel's has ever completely abandoned nuclear weapons, the regional environment isn't exactly reassuring for Israel to do so in the first place and Iran would be foolish (from their own perspective) to live with such a huge conventional imbalance if the nuclear option was within reach.

December 4, 2012

Why Israel (and the U.S.) Are in Worse Trouble Than They Think in the Mideast

The Washington Institute's Robert Satloff argues that Israel now faces a starkly deteriorating strategic landscape:

With Hamas’s strong political backing from regional states, future historians might very well view the Gaza conflict as the first episode of a new era of renewed inter-state competition and, potentially, inter-state conflict in the Arab-Israeli arena. This is not to suggest that full-scale Arab-Israeli war is in the offing. Israel’s potential adversaries, such as Islamist-led Egypt and an Islamist-led post-Assad Syria, may quite likely be consumed with other priorities, such as sorting out internal socio-economic problems or resolving domestic ethnic disputes, for years or even decades to come. This focus on problems at home may, for a long time, mask the strategic shift now underway—a shift in which countries that used to share strategic interests in preventing direct state-to-state conflict may find tactical ways to postpone conflict to another day. But that doesn’t make the shift any less real or menacing, either for Israeli or American interests.

Israel insulated itself from state-to-state wars by both beating its adversaries handily and relying on U.S. aid and pressure to keep regional dictators at bay. Yet that structure is collapsing before our eyes. Newly democratic governments in the region are likely to continue to use Israel as a scapegoat for their own domestic failings, but unlike the autocrats of old, they may feel more pressure to actually deliver on anti-Israeli rhetoric. Autocrats face no such referendum.

Satloff continues:

What makes this development particularly worrisome for friends of Israel is that it puts the Jewish state at the heart of two mega-trends that are defining what can be termed the “new new Middle East.” The “old new Middle East” was a region of peace, trade, and regional cooperation about which visionaries, like Shimon Peres, waxed poetic. This Middle East reached its heyday in the mid-’90s, when Israelis were welcome everywhere from Rabat to Muscat. The “new new Middle East” is the region defined by the twin threats of Iranian hegemonic ambitions and the spread of radical Sunni extremism, a vast area where Israelis are not only unwelcome but where they are building fences along their borders to separate themselves from the Gog-versus-Magog fight around them.

In some parts of the region, such as Syria and Bahrain, these two trends are fighting each other, whether directly or via proxies. But in the Arab-Israel arena, these two trends have found a way to join forces, as seen in the division of labor between Iran’s provision of rockets and weapons to Hamas and the growing Sunni (Egyptian-Qatari-Tunisian-Turkish) provision of political support to Hamas. That these two trends, which battle each other ferociously elsewhere in the Middle East, can find common ground in their battle against Israel does not augur well for Israel’s strategic situation in the future.

No it does not and it might be worse than that. The problem is that as the U.S. seeks to blunt "Iranian hegemony" (such as it is) it winds up empowering the Sunni radical threat (i.e. the same forces that brought us 9/11) and vice-versa. There's no simple method to balance these forces in a way that doesn't invite future catastrophe. Satloff's suggestion is to bribe Egypt back into the fold and prop up Jordan's monarchy -- solutions that may provide a temporary reprieve, but no more.

Vogue Editor as UK Ambassador?

Anyone who has paid a few minutes of attention to the news over the past, say, three years, should appreciate that Europe is undergoing monumental upheaval - its most significant since the collapse of the Soviet Union. So, naturally, the U.S. is looking to staff its embassies with top-flight talent:

President Barack Obama is considering nominating Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue, as his next ambassador to either the U.K. or France as he looks to reward his biggest fundraisers with embassies never out of fashion, according to two people familiar with the matter.

It's a time-honored tradition to dole out ambassadorial positions to donors and Wintour is no less qualified than the other under-qualified people who have held these positions through the years.

Still, it's a nice reminder of how Washington's "meritocracy" works.

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