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August 31, 2012

Nuclear Deterrence Has Worked

Charles Krauthammer doesn't think much of deterrence:

There are few foreign-policy positions more silly than the assertion without context that “deterrence works.” It is like saying air power works. Well, it worked for Kosovo; it didn’t work over North Vietnam.

It’s like saying city-bombing works. It worked in Japan 1945 (Tokyo through Nagasaki). It didn’t in the London blitz.

I can think of a lot more silly proclamations than that. Be that as it may, this assertion would make sense if Krauthammer were trying to undermine the concept of "deterrence" in a conventional military sense. But he's not. He's actually using this intro to make that case against nuclear deterrence with respect to Iran. And when it comes to nuclear deterrence we know, rather self-evidently, that it has worked. Indeed, it has a perfect record.

Krauthammer pivots from this disingenuous framing to a sustained argument about why nuclear deterrence's perfect record holds no lessons for Iran should they acquire a nuclear bomb. Since past performance is no guarantee of future results and because the stakes are so high, it's worth exploring this a bit further. Krauthammer essentially bases his argument on the nature of the Iranian leadership. They are, he argues, a novelty in the history of the nuclear age.

Krauthammer argues that because the Iranian regime has underwritten suicide terrorist attacks by its proxies, that it would therefore commit national suicide by launching a nuclear weapon at Israel. That's a gigantic leap. Iran has never used its chemical or biological weapons against anyone. Yet we are supposed to believe that they will, out of the blue, launch a nuclear weapon at someone. Why? This is a state that employs terrorism precisely because it is weak conventionally and doesn't want to risk direct confrontations. That's evidence of ruthless cunning, not suicidal fanaticism.

Then Krauthammer goes one further:

For all its global aspirations, the Soviet Union was intensely nationalist. The Islamic Republic sees itself as an instrument of its own brand of Shiite millenarianism — the messianic return of the “hidden Imam.”

It’s one thing to live in a state of mutual assured destruction with Stalin or Brezhnev, leaders of a philosophically materialist, historically grounded, deeply here-and-now regime. It’s quite another to be in a situation of mutual destruction with apocalyptic clerics who believe in the imminent advent of the Mahdi, the supremacy of the afterlife and holy war as the ultimate avenue to achieving it.

Before the Soviet Union even had a nuclear weapon they had killed millions of people. They conquered and retained huge swaths of territory beyond their borders and refused to let go after World War II, subjugating millions more. The current regime in Iran is certainly no piker when it comes to barbaric human rights absues, but their "Shiite millenarianism" has not been remotely as lethal a vessel for human carnage as the Soviet Union's "intense nationalism."

It's true, as Krauthammer notes, that Israel has a lower margin of error when it comes to judging Iranian intentions than the U.S. They may weigh the evidence, and Iranian rhetoric, and conclude a military strike is necessary. But from a U.S. standpoint, the historical evidence would suggest that a deterrence regime vis-a-vis Iran would work to safeguard the U.S. homeland from an Iranian nuclear strike.

August 30, 2012

Tracking U.S. Drone Strikes? There's No Longer an App for That

Apple doesn't want you to know when a U.S. drone kills someone:

It seemed like a simple enough idea for an iPhone app: Send users a pop-up notice whenever a flying robots kills someone in one of America’s many undeclared wars. But Apple keeps blocking the Drones+ program from its App Store — and therefore, from iPhones everywhere. The Cupertino company says the content is “objectionable and crude,” according to Apple’s latest rejection letter.

It’s the third time in a month that Apple has turned Drones+ away, says Josh Begley, the program’s New York-based developer. The company’s reasons for keeping the program out of the App Store keep shifting. First, Apple called the bare-bones application that aggregates news of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia “not useful.” Then there was an issue with hiding a corporate logo. And now, there’s this crude content problem.

Begley is confused. Drones+ doesn’t present grisly images of corpses left in the aftermath of the strikes. It just tells users when a strike has occurred, going off a publicly available database of strikes compiled by the U.K.’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which compiles media accounts of the strikes.

GOP Foreign Policy Platform: Faith in Leviathan


I spent some time reading the GOP foreign policy platform yesterday. Like any campaign document, there's a limit to how much stock we can put in such things, but it is a useful bellwether for party thinking on such matters. So what does it tell us?

The most striking thing to me is the platform's complete repudiation of the kind of limited government principles espoused in the domestic chapters of the platform. The title of the foreign policy platform is "American Exceptionalism," so you can already tell where this is going: the same federal government that the party does not trust to manage the domestic economy, or whose actions have a distorting and largely negative effect when acting at home, suddenly transforms itself into God's appointed deputy for spreading freedom to the world's peoples.

It's a breathtaking transformation and one that is, ideologically at least, nonsensical. The national security state is the antithesis of limited government.

At one point, rather amazingly, the platform slams President Obama's national security strategy as "budget-constrained." In other words, when it comes to the federal government's obligation to American citizen's welfare, education, infrastructure, etc. there must be a strict accounting (something, incidentally, I agree with), but at the water's edge, any and all budgetary concerns are literally not operable. It's a subversion of the very idea of strategy - i.e. the matching of means and ends.

A strategy that is not "budget-constrained" is what's known in polite company as a "fantasy."

(AP Photo)

August 29, 2012

Romney Campaign Gets Tough on Russia

Josh Rogin reports that the Romney campaign isn't backing down on its tough rhetoric toward Russia:

"Russia is a significant geopolitical foe. Governor Romney recognizes that," Romney advisor Rich Williamson said at a Tuesday afternoon event hosted by the Foreign Policy Initiative. "That's not to say they are the same sort of direct military threat as they were."

Williamson, joined on the panel by top advisor Pierre-Richard Prosper, said that the Russian government under Vladimir Putin has made strategic opposition to the West and the United States in particular a premier plank of its agenda. A Romney administration would end the Russian "reset" and confront Russia on Syria, Georgia, Iran, and several other issues, he said.

"They are our foe. They have chosen a path of confrontation, not cooperation, and I think the governor was correct in that even though there are some voices in Washington that find that uncomfortable," he said. "So those who say, ‘Oh gosh, oh golly, Romney said they're our geopolitical foe' don't understand human history. And those who think liberal ideas of engagement will bend actions also don't understand history. We're better to be frank and honest."

So the Romney campaign is basically arguing that Russia's internal governance is going to be a matter of high priority for them and that Russia's lack of cooperation with the U.S. is a result of a failure of the Obama administration's reset policy. In other words, the Romney campaign seems to be suggesting that they will not only shame and excoriate Russia at every turn over their domestic shortcomings, but also extract more cooperation from them on matters vital to U.S. interests.

I wonder how this will work.

The only evidence we have to suggest this would work is Williamson reminding us that Reagan called the Soviet Union an "Evil Empire" yet still negotiated arms limitations treaties with them - ignoring the fact that these negotiations were almost universally opposed and derided as appeasement by neoconservatives.

It's obvious the Romney campaign wants U.S. relations with Russia to get worse. What's not clear - and where the campaign still needs to show its work - is how this deterioration is going to redound to America's benefit.

Update: Larison unpacks the campaign's thinking:

The thinking seems to have been something like this: 1) the “reset” is a signature Obama initiative; 2) Romney is therefore against the “reset” no matter what; 3) if that isn’t enough of a reason, Romney is against the “reset” because it represents appeasement and weakness; 4) Russia only respects strength and resolve, so Romney will undo the “reset” to show that America is “strong.” There is no evidence that Russia would respond well to being hectored over its domestic political and legal systems, and there is even less evidence that the Russian government and Putin in particular would respond well to direct confrontation of the sort Romney’s adviser Richard Williamson endorsed yesterday. There is a great deal of evidence supporting the opposing view...

August 28, 2012

Is Saudi Arabia's King Sick?

Simon Henderson raises the alarm:

This morning, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia left the country for an undisclosed destination after deputizing Crown Prince Salman to take over his responsibilities in his absence. The reason for the trip has not been revealed, but there is widespread speculation that the eighty-eight-year-old king will head to New York City for medical treatment, perhaps after a brief stop in Morocco. He had operations for a back complaint in 2010 and 2011, and he was almost bent double while standing during an Islamic summit in Mecca two weeks ago. Photographs showed him in obvious discomfort as he left the kingdom today.

Despite the lack of information about the trip, now is a good time to examine Saudi Arabia's regional role and relationship with the United States. The Obama administration sees King Abdullah as a crucial ally in several fields. In Syria, Riyadh is providing arms to the anti-Assad rebels. In the oil market, it has expanded production to offset the drop in Iranian exports caused by nuclear sanctions. Although Riyadh was reportedly disappointed with Washington's swift removal of support for longtime ally Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the kingdom appears to share many policy objectives with the United States. Washington undoubtedly views Saudi leadership of the Arab and Muslim worlds as useful, not to mention its role as a major oil supplier.

August 27, 2012

How to Contain China: Romney Campaign Edition


In the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs, Aaron Friedberg, a China expert and adviser to the Romney campaign, published a long piece arguing that it was time for the U.S. to get tougher with China. Friedberg begins by describing America's current strategy:

Although U.S. policymakers have grown more circumspect in recent years, they have long hoped that trade and dialogue would help eventually transform China into a liberal democracy. The other half of Washington's China strategy, the balancing half, has looked to maintain stability and deter aggression or attempts at coercion while engagement works its magic.

But this isn't working, he writes:

The CCP's determination to maintain control informs the regime's threat perceptions, goals, and policies. Anxious about their legitimacy, China's rulers are eager to portray themselves as defenders of the national honor. Although they believe China is on track to become a world power on par with the United States, they remain deeply fearful of encirclement and ideological subversion. And despite Washington's attempts to reassure them of its benign intentions, Chinese leaders are convinced that the United States aims to block China's rise and, ultimately, undermine its one-party system of government.

What's odd here is that Friedberg is essentially arguing that China's leaders have it right: they have correctly understood American strategy (as stated by Friedberg in the first graf). Whatever Washington is doing to reassure them, it's clear (from the Communist Party's standpoint) that America's intentions are not benign. Friedberg's advice largely hinges on making the Communist Party feel even less secure - on the grounds that if a little insecurity and sense of besiegement have not produced Washington's desired outcome, doubling down on the strategy will do the trick.

An alternative (better?) strategy might be to disaggregate America's concerns for how China is governed - an issue that is not properly Washington's business anyway - with how China behaves abroad. Many insist on drawing linkages between the two - and undoubtedly some do exist - but it's hard to see how a democratic China becomes less interested in natural resources in the South China Sea or less immune to the nationalist urge to make expansive and aggressive claims on other nation's territorial waters. By objecting not just to China's behavior, but to the legitimacy of its very system of government, the U.S. takes an already difficult problem and makes it infinitely harder to manage.

Friedberg also offers some suggestions for how to right the military balance in Asia. Much of it makes sense - the U.S. should harden its facilities in range of China's increasingly sophisticated missiles and develop new capabilities that are less vulnerable to Chinese attack. But the advice is anchored in what I'd argue is a very questionable assumption:

Failing to respond adequately to Beijing's buildup could undermine the credibility of the security guarantees that Washington extends to its Asian allies. In the absence of strong signals of continuing commitment and resolve from the United States, its friends may grow fearful of abandonment, perhaps eventually losing heart and succumbing to the temptations of appeasement. To prevent them from doing so, Washington will have to do more than talk. Together, the United States and its allies have more than sufficient resources with which to balance China. But if Washington wants its allies to increase their own defense efforts, it will have to seriously respond to China's growing capabilities itself.

Won't this have precisely the opposite effect - i.e. the more America does, the less its allies will do? Haven't we already seen the script play out already in Europe? Why yes we have.

In fact, Asian militaries have been bulking up since before the Obama administration made its famous "pivot" to Asia. There is every reason to believe that Asian states will continue to invest in their defenses and that American moves to beef up their own defenses, particularly the kind of lavish, Cold War-style commitment Friedberg advocates, would take the pressure off. At a time when the U.S. is up to its eyeballs in red ink, this hardly makes much sense.

Friedberg's reasoning flies in the face not just of the very recent and relevant history of European defense spending, but in the face of his party's own orthodoxy when it comes to how incentives work. To understand how discordant this is, imagine Mitt Romney saying that the best way to get people to work is to give them lavish unemployment benefits and promise to support them no matter what they do.

However Friedberg is right to note that the trajectory of the U.S.-China relationship appears rocky and that some form of security competition is already underway. Anyone seeking some ideas of how a prospective Romney administration might approach this competition would do well to grapple with his arguments.

(AP Photo)

August 25, 2012

Breivik Kills 77 People, Gets 21 Years in Prison


Anders Breivik, the racist and extremist who murdered 77 people in Norway last year, was sentenced to a mere 21 years in prison. This is because Norway's criminal justice system focuses more on "rehabilitation than retribution," according to the New York Times. And prison, by Norwegian standards, is quite different from what most people probably have in mind. According to the article:

Mr. Breivik, lawyers say, will live in a prison outside Oslo in a three-cell suite of rooms equipped with exercise equipment, a television and a laptop, albeit one without Internet access. If he is not considered a threat after serving his sentence, the maximum available under Norwegian law, he will be eligible for release in 2033...

Of course, he most likely will be considered a threat, since he went on racist ramblings during court proceedings and even mentioned beheading an ex-Prime Minister. Because of this, his "maximum" 21-year sentence can be extended:

[H]owever lenient the sentence seems, Mr. Breivik is unlikely ever to be released from prison. He could be kept there indefinitely by judges adding a succession of five-year extensions to his sentence.

That's sort of comforting. But, what if, in the future, he faces a panel of judges who decide to let him go? For a crime of this magnitude, that simply should not be a possibility. Norway would be wise to reconsider some aspects of its rehabilitative approach to criminal justice. Some members of our society are simply beyond rehabilitation.

(AP Photo)

August 24, 2012

The Problem with Threatening Iran with War

Charles Krauthammer thinks Anthony Cordesman has the right idea for dealing with Iran:

“There are times when the best way to prevent war is to clearly communicate that it is possible,” he argues. Today, the threat of a U.S. attack is not taken seriously. Not by the region. Not by Iran. Not by the Israelis, who therefore increasingly feel forced to act before Israel’s more limited munitions — far less powerful and effective than those in the U.S. arsenal — can no longer penetrate Iran’s ever-hardening facilities.

This is a common refrain among analysts - that only a credible threat of war has any chance of making Iran change course. The basic problem, though, is that for the threat to be genuinely credible the U.S. has to be ready to follow through on it. It's a policy that backs both countries - the U.S. and Iran - into a corner. Iran submits or the U.S. starts another war in the Middle East.

To endorse the threat of war against Iran is to endorse the real thing.

August 23, 2012

Can Immigration Save the Global Economy?

Everywhere you turn - from Europe to China - the signs of an impending global recession are multiplying. A new paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research (paywalled) argues that liberalizing immigration would be a boon for the global economy. Dylan Matthews explains:

University of Wisconsin’s John Keenan tries to quantify it in a new paper. He builds a model that assumes that in the absence of restrictions, people will try to maximize income while still feeling some attachment to their native countries, and so some but not all workers will move to where their wages will be highest. He estimates that fully eliminating immigration restrictions worldwide would effectively double the world’s labor supply. This, unsurprisingly, leads to enormous economic growth, such that typical workers in developing countries would see annual wages more than double, from an average of $8,903 today to $19,272 with open borders. That is, the typical worker in the third world would end up making about double the individual poverty line in the United States today. Certain countries have even more astounding results; the typical Nigerian would see gains of $21,940.
Needless to say, such an immigration scheme is unobtainable in today's world. But the world is still leaving a lot of economic growth on the table by bottling up its most important resource.

August 22, 2012

How Will Iran Act If It Gets the Bomb?

Bernard Avishai argues that an "Iranian nuclear umbrella" won't embolden Tehran's proxies, and wouldn't do them much good anyway:

The thing is, once you understand the holes in the argument for an Iranian first strike, the idea of a “nuclear umbrella” for clients falls to the ground: strategic advantage is not a function of total blasting power; and a nuclear bomb is not a “weapon” in the ordinary sense. It is, at best, a doomsday hedge against invasion or other existential threat to a regime, which is precisely why Israel acquired one, North Korea acquired one, and Iran wants one.

But if hostilities started-up again between Israel and Hezbollah, say, Iran would refrain from using a nuclear bomb because Israel (and its ally, America) has one, too. Indeed, why didn’t Hezbollah fear Israel’s “nuclear umbrella” when it attacked in 2006? America attacked Vietnam, though its patron had a thousand bombs. Where was the Soviet umbrella?

August 21, 2012

The Paranoia of the Hegemon

David Frum argues that the U.S. must remain the world's top dog:

The prospect of the U.S. as number 2 is a threat and challenge. So long as China remains a repressive authoritarian oligarchy, the prospect of a world reordered to meet Chinese imperatives is an ugly one.

The U.S. has only been the undisputed leading global power for about 30 years, meaning that for most of American history we have had to contend with either equal or stronger global powers, some of whom did not share our values and had conflicting interests.

Additionally, China has not proven that it can reorder its own backyard (although it clearly wants to) and they have never evinced any sign of having the kind of global ambition that so regularly infects America's Wilsonians and neoconservatives. And even in the event China overtakes the United States and suddenly decides it wants to exert its benevolent hegemony over the world, it would be opposed by a coalition that would likely include - at a minimum - the EU, Japan, India, Australia, the UK and the United States. Almost every major power, that is, except Russia and Brazil. China might find it rather lonely at the top.

A world with a more powerful China will not pose any ideological threat to the United States or the idea that free-market capitalism is the best way to organize a society. The biggest threat to that idea are the free-market capitalist societies themselves, which are busy imploding or staggering along with sub-par growth. Righting that ship has very little to do with the relative position of China - and would be the right thing to do with or without the prospect of a rising China. And China has already embraced the market (albeit with a heavy dose of state interference). Moreover, the lack of freedom in China's one-party state is not something that they have expressed much interest in exporting to other countries.

By all means the U.S. should take China seriously - more seriously than it has to date. As far as potential challenges to global stability goes, the territorial disputes in Asia are arguably more dangerous than an Iranian nuclear weapon. But we're not facing a Cold War style contest for global supremacy. Acting otherwise is not conducive to clear-headed thinking about what the U.S. does next.

Why Any Financial Aid to Sudan Must Be Conditioned


By Jennifer Christian

Recently, the U.S. government announced that it will lobby international donors to pledge financial support for Sudan. The release of any funds that these efforts yield should, however, be conditioned so as to incentivize the government of Sudan to cease ongoing human rights abuses.

The U.S. announcement came on the heels of an agreement concluded between the governments of Sudan and South Sudan on oil and related financial transfers. Alongside this deal, the international community gave Sudan certain assurances that it would do its part to assist Sudan in closing the so-called financial gap it now faces following South Sudan’s July 2011 declaration of independence.

In light of the government of Sudan’s track record of committing atrocities against its own people, the U.S.’s commitment to assist in galvanizing financial support and debt forgiveness for Sudan may come as a surprise to some. Indeed, today, Sudanese government forces continue to wage an indiscriminate offensive against civilians in the states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, while impeding the unhindered flow of international humanitarian aid to these populations.

Atrocities such as these, and those that the Sudanese government previously committed against the people of Darfur and South Sudan, caused the U.S. government to enact sanctions against Sudan in the 1990s. These sanctions preclude the U.S. government from directly contributing any financial support to Khartoum. They do not, however, prevent the U.S. from lobbying other states, including China, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, to provide Sudan with direct cash transfers and debt forgiveness in an effort to alleviate the financial losses Sudan has recently sustained and help secure peace and stability within and between the two Sudans.

While the U.S. government has a constructive role to play in bolstering economic stability, its lobbying efforts, and the financial support those efforts yield, should not come without certain conditions. Specifically, the international community should refrain from transferring to the government of Sudan any cash or forgiving any of Sudan’s debt without demanding that Khartoum first meet the following conditions:

1. The immediate and continuous cessation of unlawful attacks against civilian populations throughout Sudan, including in South Kordofan, Blue Nile, Darfur, and the east;

2. The conclusion and demonstrated good faith implementation of a comprehensive agreement with the government of South Sudan concerning all remaining outstanding north-south issues, among them, the final definition and demarcation of the north-south border and the final status of the Abyei area;

3. The lifting of all restrictions on movement and access for international humanitarian aid organizations operating throughout Sudan;

4. The conclusion of a comprehensive ceasefire agreement with all militarily active components of the Sudan Revolutionary Front, or SRF, a coalition of rebel forces that is currently engaged in an armed struggle with the Sudanese government; and

5. The conclusion of a comprehensive negotiation process with the SRF, other Sudanese opposition political parties, and civil society groups concerning governance and related issues in Sudan; this process should culminate in the completion of a fair, transparent, and all-inclusive constitutional review process followed by democratic elections.

In the meantime and until Khartoum clearly meets all identified conditions, members of the international community should deposit pledged donations into a basket fund or trust fund. However, the premature transfer of any such funds to the government of Sudan, prior to Khartoum’s clear demonstration of compliance with all identified conditions, would risk the international community funding a government that continues to perpetrate massive human rights violations against its own people and threatens the peace and stability of the region.


Jennifer Christian is a Sudan Policy Analyst at the Enough Project in Washington, DC, whose mission is to end genocide and crimes against humanity.

(AP Photo)

Senator Webb Issues Warning About China

Senator James Webb is concerned about China:

While America's attention is distracted by the presidential campaign, all of East Asia is watching what the U.S. will do about Chinese actions in the South China Sea. They know a test when they see one. They are waiting to see whether America will live up to its uncomfortable but necessary role as the true guarantor of stability in East Asia, or whether the region will again be dominated by belligerence and intimidation.

The Chinese of 1931 understood this threat and lived through the consequences of an international community's failure to address it. The question is whether the China of 2012 truly wishes to resolve issues through acceptable international standards, and whether the America of 2012 has the will and the capacity to insist that this approach is the only path toward stability.

We're likely to hear more of this type of rhetoric as Asia's territorial drama heats up. Unfortunately this is where Webb ends his op-ed. It would have been more profitable to spell out more concretely just what he thinks the U.S. should do vis-a-vis China's claims. Vague invocations of will really aren't sufficient. Current U.S. policy - that these disputes be settled diplomatically - sounds reasonable, but what else should the U.S. be prepared to do if China (or other Asian claimants like Vietnam) assert broad claims? If this is a "test" - what constitutes passing?

Israel, Iran and the U.S.: A Study in Negotiation Styles


One interesting dynamic about the rising fear in Washington that Israel may launch a preemptive attack against Iran is how people propose to dissuade Israel. Most of the arguments hinge on offering Israel a series of carrots: military aid, pledges to strike for them if negotiations fail, even tighter sanctions - essentially doing all they can assuage Israel's concerns.

When it comes to Iran, many of the same analysts do a complete about-face: it's all sticks, threats and the promise of pain if Iran doesn't behave.

Obviously most the difference can be chalked up to the fact that Israel is a very close U.S. ally and Iran is not.

But it's still telling what people think is an effective approach when it comes to dealing with a country that is doing something (or poised to do something) deemed detrimental to U.S. interests. No one thinks that threatening Israel or withdrawing aid (or even sanctioning them) is going to dissuade Netanyahu from attacking Iran if he and his cabinet feels it's in their interest to do so. When it comes to Israel's defense issues, people seem to understand that there's a limit to how far outside powers can influence them and that only positive inducements have a chance of steering their behavior in the desired direction.

Yet somehow this understanding evaporates when it comes to Iran. It's not that positive inducements at this stage in the Iranian nuclear standoff have a chance of succeeding - it's too late for that. But if it's proving challenging to dissuade a close ally with nothing but positive inducements, how much faith can we have that negative inducements will actually convince an adversary?

(AP Photo)

August 20, 2012

Why a War with Iran Is Inevitable

Over the past several weeks, talk of an Israeli strike against Iran has surged forward. Amidst the leaks and counter-leaks, one narrative is emerging among analysts, as explained by former Israeli intel chief Amos Yadlin:

Despite seeing eye to eye on this strategic goal, the United States and Israel disagree on the timeline for possible military action against Iran. Superior U.S. operational capabilities mean that it will be another year or two before Iran’s nuclear sites become “immune” to a U.S.attack. Unlike Israel, therefore, the United States can afford to delay beyond this fall, which is precisely what the Obama administration wants. Leave your planes in their hangars, the president has signaled to Israel.

A long-standing principle of Israeli defense doctrine is that it will never ask the United States to fight for it. That is why Israel’s political leaders have emphasized that when it comes to national security, Israel will ultimately decide and act on its own.

This principle may hold true for certain security threats, but Yadlin makes very clear in his op-ed that the Israeli strategy vis-a-vis Iran is very much to have the United States take on this fight. Indeed, Yadlin's entire op-ed is dedicated to urging President Obama to threaten war with Iran in no uncertain terms to restrain an Israeli strike. Dennis Ross makes a similar point here.

Given that the official line from both Republican and Democratic foreign policy camps is that a nuclear Iran is "unacceptable" there really is no constituency to push back against Israeli pressure for a strike.

There is an Israeli concern that they will be seen as having goaded the U.S. into an action it would have otherwise not taken, but that ultimately isn't the case. Any U.S. attack cannot be said to be taken on behalf of Israel because U.S. officials have consistently spoken about an Iranian nuclear capability in the most dire terms (when not making glib jokes about attacking them).

Had the Obama administration (or a Republican challenger) argued that U.S. interests do not warrant a war with Iran absent some dramatic casus belli, the dynamic would be different. But there's no real constituency for containment. As Yadlin notes, the crux of the disagreement between the U.S. and Israel isn't over whether military force should be used to stop Iran, it's simply a matter of the timing and which military lands the first blow. Absent a diplomatic breakthrough, a war with Iran appears inevitable.

August 18, 2012

Russia's Real Problems: Angry Feminists, Gay Parades


It was a strange Friday in Russia. The feminist punk rock group called Pussy Riot was convicted of hooliganism and faces two years in a prison colony for an anti-Putin performance in a Moscow cathedral. The very same day, a Moscow court upheld a 100-year ban on gay parades.

Russia has a long list of very serious problems. By 2050, the country may lose 25 million people. Having so few young people to care for an elderly population will place an enormous strain on the government. Also, Russia faces an epidemic of alcohol abuse. And large protests, such as those that occurred after Putin's election, show that the Russian people are growing weary of Putin's heavy-handed tactics.

As they did toward the end of the Soviet regime, Russians are once again openly mocking their government. During the Pussy Riot trial, the Moscow Times reports that "[e]ven court marshals and police guards couldn't hold back their laughter. It got so bad at one point that the judge had to throw several people out of the courtroom for chuckling, and one observer who dared to smile was escorted out by a security guard."

Indeed, Russia is facing many serious problems. Fortunately for Putin, the existential threat of angry feminism and gay parades have been eliminated for now.

(AP photo)

August 17, 2012

Is Paul Ryan a Neocon?

Bret Stephens argues that Paul Ryan is a neocon. Jacob Heilbrunn isn't surprised:

But there is another, more compelling reason—apart from these Kremlinological tidbits—to surmise that Ryan is sympathetic to neocon views. It is this: the surprising thing would be if Ryan rejected neocon theology. The doctrine is dominant in the GOP. It offers a useful cudgel with which to bash Democrats as pussyfooting when it comes to national security. There is no conceivable incentive, in other words, for Ryan to embrace realist views on foreign affairs. It would cause him no end of grief and make Ryan an object of suspicion on the Right, which currently reveres him. So it is almost axiomatic that Ryan, who likely has no more than a passing familiarity with foreign-affairs issues, is inclined towards neoconservatism.

It would also jibe with Ryan's legislative record. Ryan, we must remember, voted for the budget-busting bills of Bush-era, so it's only natural that he would endorse a foreign policy doctrine that puts its faith in the federal government's power abroad.

However, given that Ryan is now posing as a paragon of fiscal restraint it is a bit odd that this sensibility is apparently stopping at the water's edge.

Update: Larison has more:

It’s important to understand that Ryan thinks about the U.S. role in the world in highly idealized and ideological terms. Even if Ryan had a record as a fiscal conservative at home, his vision for America’s role in the world is so expansive that it simply overrides any concerns about what the U.S. can afford. Ryan assumes that U.S. hegemony is essential, and any diminution of it would simply lead to “chaos.” As far as Ryan is concerned, subsidizing the defense of other wealthy countries in perpetuity is something the U.S. just has to keep doing.

Mitt Romney Insults Japan! (Or Not)

One of the more persistent criticisms of President Obama's conduct of foreign policy is that he is insufficiently supportive of U.S. allies - insensitive to their needs and willing to trash them in pursuit of other objectives. Fortunately for the president, Mitt Romney has quickly established himself as a candidate willing to insult U.S. allies as well.

The latest kerfluffle is over Japan, as Josh Rogin reports:

"We are not Japan," the presumptive Republican nominee told donors at a $2,500-a-plate fundraiser Thursday. "We are not going to be a nation that suffers in decline and distress for a decade or a century. We're on the cusp of a very different economic future than the one people have seen over the past three years."

Japan experts on both sides of the Pacific told The Cable that Romney's offhand assertion that Japan has been in decline for "a century" isn't a fair characterization of a nation that emerged from the ashes of World War II to build the world's second- (now third-) largest economy on a small island with few natural resources.

Moreover, they worry that Romney is needlessly insulting the face-conscious Japanese and giving them the impression that is he wins in November, his administration won't appreciate the importance of America's top alliance in the East at a time when the United States is attempting a diplomatic and military "pivot" to Asia.

Oh please - how can we presume anything about a Romney administration's Asia policy from an off-the-cuff remark at a fundraiser? The irony here is that this likely would have passed without a mention had Romney's advisers not worked themselves into a tremendous lather about all of Obama's perceived slights against U.S. allies. Obviously, U.S. officials should speak respectfully about American allies in public or on the record, but the fetishization of the alliance system is a partisan absurdity - one that Romney himself is now putting to bed.

Who Will Determine Afghanistan's Fate?

Michael Hart makes an obvious, if politically uncomfortable, point:

However effective Western military organizations are in transitioning to Afghan control, the country’s future will not be decided primarily by the residual structures and legacies of Western involvement, the current Taliban insurgency or even any formal process of reconciliation. Rather, it will be decided more by the country’s ethnic character, the particular nature of local and national governance, and the influence of neighboring powers with enduring geopolitical and strategic imperatives in the region far stronger than those of the West.

In other words, the future of Afghanistan will be determined by forces that antedate the latest Western effort to direct a turbulent area—and which probably will long survive this and future efforts to dominate the country.

The key questions that emerge from this conclusion are whether the U.S. can preserve the ability to deny al-Qaeda safe havens should the Taliban re-establish control over larger portions of Afghanistan and whether a non-Pashtun stronghold can hold out against a stronger Taliban insurgency. Hart makes the case the answer can be a provisional "yes" to both, but the reality is that Afghanistan is going to remain a violent and dangerous state for years to come.

August 10, 2012

Hezbollah's Falling Stock

David Schenker charts it:

Prior to the so-called "Arab Spring," Nasrallah was among the most beloved and feared men in the Arab world. But a year and a half into the popular Syrian uprising, with Hezbollah's allies in Damascus in trouble and the militia's clerical patrons in Tehran facing a possible American or Israeli attack, Nasrallah seems to have lost his mojo.

Question: is it better over the long-run for Nasrallah to be marginalized by events in the region or martyred by an Israeli missile?

James Baker Defends GOP Realists

Josh Rogin follows up on the Zoellick kerfluffle by speaking to former Secretary of State James Baker:

Baker argued that the George H.W. Bush-led 1990-1991 Gulf War, which was prosecuted by an international coalition Baker himself played a key role in creating, was a more successful model than the wars that followed in Iraq and Afghanistan, wars that happen to have been urged and led by neoconservative officials in the George W. Bush administration.

"That was a textbook example of the way to go to war," Baker said of the Gulf War. "Look at the way [George H.W. Bush] ran that war. I mean, we not only did it, we said ‘Here's what we're going to do,' we got the rest of the world behind us, including Arab states, and we got somebody else to pay for it. Now tell me a better way, politically, diplomatically, and militarily, to fight a war."

August 8, 2012

Romney's Big Foreign Policy Mistake: Appointing a Realist!

Jennifer Rubin is outraged that Mitt Romney is associating himself with realists, specifically former World Bank President Robert Zoellick:

For foreign policy hawks, Zoellick is an anathema. As the right hand man in the State Department and Treasury Department of James A, Baker, who was infamous for his anti-Israel stance, Zoellick acquired a reputation as ”soft” on China, weak on pressuring the Soviet Union at the close of the Cold War, opposed to the first Gulf War and unsupportive of the Jewish state. His stint as U.S. Trade Representative, and Deputy Secretary of State, in the George W. Bush administration did nothing too alter his image with foreign policy hardliners. That tenure will no doubt complicate Romney’s efforts to distance himself from his predecessor. And in 2011, Zoellick shocked foreign policy gurus by delivering a speech praising China, suggesting that it was a “responsible stakeholder” in Asia, at a time human rights abuses and aggressive conduct in Asia were bedeviling the Obama administration.

The odd thing about this, though, is that Zoellick never called China a responsible stakeholder - he urged China to become one. Indeed, the piece Rubin links to in castigating Zoellick notes that he called China a "vital but reluctant stakeholder."

I'd be very surprised if any of Romney's advisers actually disagreed with that assessment.

Update: Daniel Drezner isn't having it:

Hey, did you notice a key word difference between what Rubin claims Zoellick said and what Zoellick actually said? And that the word "responsible" appears nowhere in tha[t] story? And that Zoellick's statement here is fully consistent with what he told a Chinese audience the next month? So either Rubin didn't bother reading the embedded link you provided her, or she didn't read the embedded link at Zoellick's Wikipedia entry... or she didn't care. Either way, it doesn't look good.

Update II: Josh Rogin gets more feedback:

The chief complaint among critics is that Zoellick, who served as deputy secretary of state under Bush before being appointed to head the World Bank, is a foreign-policy realist who has seemed too friendly toward China and, as a disciple of former Secretary of State James Baker, not friendly enough toward Israel. Romney's vows to be tougher on China and closer to the Israeli government are key pillars of his foreign-policy platform.

"Bob Zoellick couldn't be more conservative in the branch of the GOP he represents," said Danielle Pletka, vice president at the American Enterprise Institute. "He's pro-China to the point of mania, he's an establishment guy, he's a trade-first guy. He's basically a George H.W. Bush, old-school Republican."

Indeed. The last person we'd want advising Romney during this period of economic malaise is someone who's spent years working on international economic and trade issues! Instead, we need more people who cultivate the proper emotional attitudes towards countries and who write op-eds about the awesome power of "will" to make the world conform to American wishes. That will right the ship.

Russian General: Rumors of My Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Some dark humor out of Syria:

A Russian general met reporters at the Defense Ministry in Moscow on Wednesday to deny reports that he had been killed by rebel forces in Syria and was shown on television looking well. "I want to confirm that I am alive and well. I am in good health and I'm living in Moscow," Vladimir Petrovich Kuzheyev, a reserve general, was quoted as saying by Itar-Tass news agency.

Russian television briefly showed footage of Kuzheyev, in a blue shirt and no tie, at the Defense Ministry.

A Syrian rebel group said it had killed a Russian general working as an adviser to Syria's Defense ministry in an operation in the western Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus.

The Global Small Arms Trade, Visualized


The world is awash in weapons. This interesting interactive database visualizes the flow of small arms and ammunition around the world. (Hat tip: Smeechi Mittal)

Are Iran Sanctions Doing More Harm Than Good?

Brookings' Djavad Salehi-Isfahani reports from Iran:

Sanctions are slowly transforming Iran from a country with an expanding middle class and a rising private sector into a country with a shrinking middle class and private sector. Financial sanctions have placed private firms at a disadvantage relative to government-owned firms in making global transactions. Where the private sector withdraws, the state is often ready to move in.

More severe sanctions will go beyond hurting the private sector and threaten the living standards of the middle class. As basic services deteriorate, and the shortages and long lines that were common sights during the Iran-Iraq war reappear, the government will once again become not the source but the remedy to their problems.

The sanctions will do much to undermine the belief among Iranians about the benefits of the global economy. Such beliefs are what distinguish India from Pakistan.

It would be grimly ironic, to say nothing of counterproductive, if the sanctions applied against Iran not only failed to stop their acquisition of a nuclear weapon, but wound up entrenching the current regime and turning the population against the United States. But that is what happened in Iraq (absent the nuclear weapons) in the 1990s.

August 7, 2012

Can the U.S. Defense Budget Survive Sequestration?

Cato analysts make the case that the defense cuts looming in sequestration ($500 billion in automatic cuts over the next 10 years unless Congress can agree to a major deficit-cutting bill) won't leave America defenseless.

I tend to agree that the U.S. military budget has ample room to be shaved back, commensurate with a realignment of U.S. resources. But in an ideal world these cuts should be made as a result of a strategic assessment, not Congressional dysfunction.

What the Arab World Thinks It Knows About America

Mohammed Dajani did a deep dive into the Arab world's understanding of the United States:

In total, just over 1,000 books were collected. This shockingly low number alone says a lot about the poverty of Arab knowledge about America. Of the total, about 25 percent covered U.S. foreign policy, reflecting three dominant themes:

* the United States as policeman of the world, directing global politics to benefit U.S. interests;

* the Israeli lobby as the major force behind U.S. decisionmaking;

* and the United States as waging a war against Islam.

Typically, the authors of these books have never traveled to or studied in the United States, but that has no impact on their immense credibility and wide readership.

Dajani contends that the three major points above represent biased information about the United States. And indeed, the beliefs about the power of the "Israel lobby" or there being a "war on Islam" are spurious. But the first contention - that the United States acts as policeman of the world, directing global politics to benefit U.S. interests - seems pretty straightforward and unobjectionable, not the product of misinformation. Obviously the U.S. doesn't always succeed in directing global politics toward the benefit of its interests, but that's clearly America's grand strategy.

August 6, 2012

Obama Administration Planning for a Post-Assad Syria

Over the weekend, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration has embarked on contingency planning if and when Bashar Assad is run out of town (or up a lamp post):

Even with fighting raging in Syria and President Bashar al-Assad digging in, the State Department and Pentagon are quietly sharpening plans to cope with a flood of refugees, help maintain basic health and municipal services, restart a shattered economy and avoid a security vacuum in the wake of Mr. Assad’s fall, administration officials say....

Even though the White House has all but ruled out military intervention, the Pentagon is drafting contingency plans for operations with NATO or regional allies to manage a large flow of refugees over Syria’s borders and safeguard the country’s arsenal of chemical weapons.

The administration’s efforts have been driven by a bleak prognosis shared by most officials: Mr. Assad’s fall would be likely to set off a grave, potentially violent and unpredictable implosion in a country strained by even more tribal, ethnic and sectarian divisions than Iraq, possibly in the midst of a presidential election campaign at home.

On the one hand, this is the eminently sensible thing to do. The U.S. may have very limited leverage over what happens inside Syria, but it can try to mitigate the regional fallout as best it can. On the other hand, it is also a somewhat surreal exercise, as the Times continues:

“What we don’t want to do is descend into the total chaos that Iraq did,” said Ms. Jouejati, who is participating in a similar planning effort among Syrian activists coordinated through the United States Institute of Peace, an independent but Congressionally financed organization in Washington. Even so, she added, “I don’t think we want the United States to impose lessons learned here.”

Exactly. Does the U.S. really have any credibility when it comes to patching up societies riven by multi-ethnic and sectarian clashes? Why does the administration think its plans are going to survive contact with a post-Assad Syria, especially when it won't have the ability to implement or enforce them inside the country? There's a strong case to be made that the U.S. should be actively monitoring and trying to interdict some of the more potent weapons of the Assad regime, but wading into the political arena is a bridge too far.

August 3, 2012

Winner of the London Olympics? Mayor Boris Johnson


He may have had an unfortunate run-in with a zip line, but London's voluble Tory mayor Boris Johnson is riding high in the polls:

Back in May at the time of the mayoral elections YouGov asked a couple of questions on Boris as Tory leader, asking a hypothetical “how would you vote with Boris as leader” question and whether people thought Boris was suited to being Prime Minister. Back then Boris did marginally worse than David Cameron on voting intention, and only 24% of people saw Boris as suited to the job of PM.

YouGov repeated the same questions again yesterday, and found significant improvement in Boris’s figures. On the control question of how people would vote if the party leaders at the next election remained Cameron, Miliband and Clegg the figures were CON 34%, LAB 40%, LDEM 10%*, if the leaders were Johnson, Miliband and Clegg the figures change to CON 37%, LAB 38%, LDEM 10% – narrowing the gap by 5 points.

On being suited to the role of Prime Minister Boris has also seen his stock rise. 36% of people now think he is suited to being PM (up from 24%), 54% do not.

Photo: Rebecca Denton

China's Solar Boondoggles

Bill Powell says that after pinning its hopes on solar, Chinese firms are finding it to be a "capital destruction" machine:

These are epic, historic collapses in market valuation, made all the more stunning by the assumption, so prevalent just four years ago, that "clean" energy's time had come. How ironic it is that Barack Obama's insistence that the United States invest government money into the creation of so called "green jobs" -- which led to the debacle of Solyndra and other wasted investments -- was predicated on the fact that if the U.S. didn't do so, the industry of the future would be Made in China. A credulous political press, egged on by the environmental lobby, swallowed the reasoning wholesale.

Powell argues that solar's ability to reach "grid parity" - where it is price competitive with other fuel sources - has been dealt a big blow by the collapse in U.S. natural gas prices, but may yet still happen in China, where gas is still expensive. That is, until they start fracking.

August 2, 2012

The Obama Administration's Not-So-Secret Plan for Syria

Inexorably, the administration is pushing itself deeper into Syria's civil war, as Josh Rogin reports:

Two administration sources confirmed that the president has issued a finding allowing non-lethal assistance to non-violent groups inside Syria, which opens the door to more communications and intelligence help for the local councils, but closes the door on the idea of providing the Free Syrian Army with direct arms, military training, or other deadly assistance. It also closes the door on the idea of providing safe havens inside Syria using U.S. assets.

The White House wants to try to limit U.S. involvement in the crisis before the election, these administration sources said, in what one official said amounts to a "political lid," and the agencies are trying to come up with strategies to increase pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad within those boundaries.

The CIA, for instance, is reportedly aiding in the flow of arms from Gulf countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia by helping to vet arms recipients, as allowed by the non-lethal finding. The Washington Post's David Ignatius also reported that the finding allows the CIA to help the rebels with "command and control."

But some inside the administration are pushing for more.

I wouldn't be surprised to learn, when the dust settles, that the U.S. was doing quite a bit more than advertised.

August 1, 2012

India's Electrical Generation Compared

India is currently suffering through a massive blackout. Our newly launched Data Engine lets you compare countries by how they rank across a number of vectors, including electricity generation. Check it out:

The Syrian Aftermath

Anne-Marie Slaughter offers a strategy for intervening in Syria:

It is time for bold action, of the kind Mr Obama took in deciding to go after Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad and to intervene in Libya. In Syria this would mean putting together a coalition of countries that would commit to providing heavy weapons (and possibly air cover) to all commanders on the ground who sign the “Declaration of Values” supporting a democratic and pluralist Syria put forward by the nine commanding generals of the military council of the FSA. To receive weapons, these commanders must show they control safe zones and admit foreign journalists, civil society activists and the UN to monitor the implementing of the declaration’s principles. They must also allow citizen journalists to upload photographs of what they witness to an official website maintained by the coalition.

Let's presume that rebel commanders sign and abide by this declaration. Let's further imagine that this cohort successfully overthrows Assad. That still leaves the entire post-war transition to manage. That's the most important part! How is that going to work? What gives Slaughter confidence that the forces on the ground in Syria can cohere around a new, modestly improved government? Who manages that transition? Who provides security for that transition?

It's rather astounding that Washington policymakers can talk so blithely about waltzing into another Middle Eastern state with the memory of the Iraq war and its attendant debacles so fresh.

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