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February 29, 2012

I Prefer to Give the Inhabitants a Say: Reality and the Surge in Iraq
Posted by Eric Martin

Joel Wing recently conducted an interview with Douglas Ollivant - a retired Army officer who served as Chief of Plans for the Multi-National Division Baghdad both before and during "the Surge." Through the course of the question and answer session, Ollivant provides a detailed, thoughtful and remarkably balanced accounting of "the Surge." He seeks to correct the “new orthodoxy” - or mythmaking - surrounding the putative success of the Surge, while also providing credit where do. Ollivant's thesis is captured in this response:

My fundamental point is that we may want to consider the possibility that the actions of several million Baghdadis were more important than those of 30,000 troops or even one very talented general.

He goes on to note that the winding down of the civil war in Iraq had much more to do with decisions by Iraq's warring factions than with the change in US posture - from the stand-down of the Sadrists and the emergence of the Awakening movement, to demographic changes resulting from past sectarian cleansing in Baghdad.

That said, he does credit the Surge with conveying a sense of certainty with respect to US policy to Baghdad (which was valuable in informing certain decisions to be made by the Maliki administration), as well as enhanced security and a more efficient targeting of the extremist fringes. However, Ollivant considers these to be the “supporting characters” to the lead role played by Iraqis - a conclusion which was previously espoused by me on this site.

Ollivant also discusses the crucial role Iraqi sovereignty and agency played in setting the stage for the withdrawal of US forces (again, echoing sentiments appearing on this site):

I don’t think it is quite accurate to say that deadline was “set” by the Bush Administration, but rather that is was “negotiated by” the Bush Administration. Again, the Iraqis had a vote here, and made it very clear that they wanted a clear end date when U.S. troops would leave the country after the expiration of the United National mandate...I think we got about as good as we could get in the 2008 SOFA, and even that was a near thing.

Finally, I think it is important to note that while we call this agreement the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement, the Iraqis call it something like the “Agreement Between the United States of America and the Republic of Iraq on the Withdrawal of United States Forces from Iraq and the Organization of Their Activities during Their Temporary Presence in Iraq.” I would highlight the words “withdrawal” and “temporary.” From the Iraqi perspective, this agreement was always about our withdrawal, and our presence over the last three years was simply a temporary accommodation to allow us to do that in an orderly manner. [emphasis added]

I do have one quibble with Ollivant, however, and it concerns something mentioned in the following excerpt:

While there are some disadvantages to the withdrawal of U.S. troops, I think that it is, overall, a good thing. First, I think it has gone a long way towards restoring U.S. credibility in the region. There are still Iraqis who don’t believe we have really left, that the U.S. was there to get Iraqi oil. As the truth sinks in that we really did leave, in accordance with an agreement that we signed with the Iraqi government, I think that will help repair the narrative as to why we went to Iraq in the first place. This is not to say that I endorse the invasion of Iraq, but rather that we did not go there with the intention of stealing oil or setting up long term bases.

I do not mean to argue, with certainty, that the US invaded Iraq for the sole purpose of obtaining access to Iraq's vast oil reserves, or for the purpose of establishing a robust military basing network in such a strategically vital region. However, there were myriad objectives, desired outcomes and possible benefits that motivated the various policymakers, and it is at least possible that some viewed such bases and the proximity to an increasingly scarce and invaluable resource as potential positive results of the invasion.

Furthermore, I would be wary of pointing to our exit from Iraq as definitive evidence of our ultimate intentions. As Ollivant is wont to point out quite correctly, the Iraqi people - and the democratic political apparatus established in Iraq - were the driving forces of our departure, regardless of what we might have wanted to occur.

After all, it is no secret that our military leaders were pushing for a prolonged presence in Iraq, it's just that they were stymied by political realities. Likewise, the original Bush administration plan was to govern Iraq via a Viceroy for several years before gradually easing into some form of domestic representative rule for the Iraqi people. It was only in response to mounting pressure from Iraq's religious leaders (Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in particular) that the Bush team was forced to accelerate the democratic transition.

At the risk of stating a tautology, simply because a given conflict ends with a certain status quo does not mean that the various participants had intended that status quo as the end-game. Ultimately, the Iraqis had a vote.

February 25, 2012

The Apologist
Posted by David Shorr

I'm sorry, but the apology controversy is a sorry-**sed sorry affair (latest coverage here and here). If this is going to be taken seriously as campaign issue, it needs to be looked at from both directions. The Republicans shouldn't get a free pass to put the president on the defensive. We need to hear more about how this Americans-do-no-wrong thing works. We've heard plenty of President Obama's opponents' shock and dismay. The Republicans have been scathing about the current commander in chief, cocksure they'd do a better job. Well okay, we have two cases here: the careless destruction of sacred texts and friendly fire that claimed the lives of two dozen troops who were on our side. What would the would-be commanders in chief say to the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan? As far as I can tell, it's along the lines of "forget you."

February 24, 2012

What's the Matter With Martin Dempsey?
Posted by Michael Cohen

ScreamOver at Foreign Affairs, Micah Zenko and I have a new piece that makes the somewhat obvious and yet counter-intuitive point that for all the doom-saying and threat-mongering of foreign policy elites . . . the world today (and the United States) is actually pretty safe:

The world that the United States inhabits today is a remarkably safe and secure place. It is a world with fewer violent conflicts and greater political freedom than at virtually any other point in human history. All over the world, people enjoy longer life expectancy and greater economic opportunity than ever before. The United States faces no plausible existential threats, no great-power rival, and no near-term competition for the role of global hegemon. The U.S. military is the world’s most powerful, andeven in the middle of a sustained downturn, the U.S. economy remains among one of the world’s most vibrant and adaptive. Although the United States faces a host of international challenges, they pose little risk to the overwhelming majority of American citizens and can be managed with existing diplomatic, economic, and, to a much lesser extent, military tools. 

And yet for a variety of reasons this singular reality of global affairs in the 21st century is pretty much not reflected in our foreign policy and national security decision-making. If you want a good explanation as to why this is - I present to you the words of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, who in testifying before Congress earlier this month said this“I can’t impress upon you that in my personal military judgment, formed over thirty-eight years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime, right now.”   

Now keep in mind, Martin Dempsey wasn't born yesterday. While this might seem obvious it's also relevant. You see, Martin Dempsey was born in 1952 and lived through 39 years of the Cold War. He lived through the end of the Korean War, the Berlin crisis of 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, the Yom Kippur War (which almost sparked a superpower conflict) the first few years of the Reagan Administration etc and yet in Martin Dempsey's personal judgment the most dangerous moment in his lifetime . . was February 15th, 2012.

Not only is this quite clearly and empirically incorrect - it's also completely insane. To believe that February 15th, 2012 is the most dangerous moment in Martin Dempsey's lifetime is to have a stunningly poor grasp of international relations, history and common sense.

Someone who holds such views would barely be qualified to teach undergrad IR no less be the highest ranking officer in the American military. To be sure, I don't know if Martin Dempsey actually believes what he is saying here. It may be that he is engaging in the endless bureaucratic activity of protecting his budget (i.e. if the world is really dangerous then the military needs even more advanced toys that blow s**t up) or perhaps he simply skipped over the Cold War in his academic training. (And in fairness to Dempsey he certainly has some positive attributes, like believing that an Israeli attack on Iran would be  "destabilizing.")

Whatever the rationale, however, the far bigger problem is that such statements can be made and not be dismissed as complete balderdash and gobsmackingly uninformed about the world we live in. Either way it's a problem - and that's a big part of the reason Micah and I wrote this piece (and why you should read it!)

February 22, 2012

What the Candidates Didn’t Talk About Tonight
Posted by Jacob Stokes

Tonight’s GOP debate featured a longer discourse on Arlen Specter than it did on America’s relationship with the rest of the world. It’s become something of a lost cause to lament the lack of discussion of foreign policy issues in the GOP debates, but tonight once again confirmed that trend. Here are several of the most important topics that didn't get talked about:

China. The U.S. recently hosted the next president of China, Xi Jinping, in an effort to build personal relationships between leaders of our two countries. And this week marks the anniversary of Nixon’s visit to China, one of the most important pieces of diplomacy in American history. What are the candidates' plans for managing this extremely important relationship? Mitt Romney wrote a big op-ed on it last week. Where’s the follow-up?

Afghanistan. As I’ve written, Romney’s plan for Afghanistan has all the makings of a 100 years war. He’s pledged not to talk to the Taliban and to fight them until they’re defeated militarily. That would require a dramatic escalation for an unspecified period of time. Do his fellow candidates agree with that position, and how would justify such an expenditure against other interests?

Real defense budget plans. Romney’s plans for the defense budget call for massive increases in addition to the increased war funding he’d need to fight the continued escalation in Afghanistan. How will Romney pay for that? We heard false claims about Obama's plan "cutting $1 trillion from the defense budget," but no talk about what candidates' suggestions would be. To be fair, Santorum mentioned it at the beginning, but only said he would not cut spending on defense.

Europe. This week Greece got a deal from the European Union on their debt. But it will impose draconian austerity measures on the Greek economy. Two questions here that weren’t answered: How important is the Transatlantic alliance to U.S. security, does the U.S. have a role in resolving the European debt crisis and what will it take to sustain that alliance in the face of budget pressures? And a bigger question: Austerity is failing Europe, why would it work in the U.S.?

Cybersecurity. The threat from cyber is real and growing. A bill is being debated in the Senate that would address a lot of key holes in America’s defenses, but it faces Republican opposition. Where do the candidates stand on the importance of cyber security? As president, would they be willing to back such a bill?

Instead of answers to those questions, Americans got Gingrich insulting the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and pushing a foreign policy narrative that amounts to essentially Neocons 2.0. I wrote about this back in November, and it has proved more or less accurate (with Ron Paul as the exception, of course).

Sad, sad night for U.S. foreign policy and America's role in the world.

Pity the Fact-Checkers
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

I would say the just-completed GOP debate set a new record for mendaciousness in its Iran/Syria phase, but that record's been falling a lot lately. But I took away five developments -- and in lieu of drinking games consumed quite a bit of cough syrup.

1. The GOP has discovered women in combat. none of the candidates would come right out and oppose this and Gingrich said, quite rightly, that servicemembers are in danger everywhere now in an age of total warfare. This is a remarkable turnabout from just 2 years ago -- I'm looking forward to analysts of the GOP women's vote to explain it.

2. Gingrich thinks you can question the judgment of a wartime Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on national tv, and get away with it.  He ridiculed General Dempsey for saying that Iranian President Ahmadinejad is a rational actor (a view shared by the CIA, among others) and dismissed Dempsey's opposition to an Israeli strike.  Now, thought experiment -- if candidate Obama, or Clinton, or Edwards had ever said something so negative about the senior uniformed American on national tv, what would have happened the next day? An outcry of editorial writers urging him/her to apologize and/or get out of the race. Donations drying up. Protests from the VFW. So, can you get away with it if you're a Republican?

3. Looks like no one really cares about the Syrian people. Fascinating to see how every candidate turned the Syria question to Iran, with scarcely a word for the terrible travails of Syrian civilians on behalf of the same "freedom" these candidates are always on about. Of course, if you don't favor military intervention or arms deals, that leaves you with... the UN. Never mind.

4. Looks like no one cares much about gas prices either. Mitt Romney was shockingly quick to pivot away from the real effects of a gas price rise to the still-hypothetical effects of a still-hypothetical military strike on a still-hypothetical Iranian nuclear weapon (note, the program is not hypothetical, it's real, but it hasn't produced a weapon, or anywhere near it). One could have a serious debate about how much volatility in gas prices, for how long, would be worth it to produce what concrete increase in regional stability/security. One would have to look elsewhere to have it, however.

5. Did I say mendacious? The candidates:

  • repeated oft-debunked critiques of alliance management;
  • mistakenly claimed that Obama "got nothing" for missile defense change of plans (what we got: 1) a system that actually works 2) Russian coop on Iran in 09-10 and overflights for Afghanistan)
  • misstated Admin positions on the 2009 Iranian Green Revolution, and on support for Syrian opposition and demanding Assad step down
  • claimed that Obama opened a new embassy in Syria, when in fact he sent a new ambassador who was widely praised for toughness on Assad;
  • said that Admin wasn't considering military options for Iran, when Panetta has said publicly at least twice (once to Jewish group and once to Wall Street Journal) that Pentagon was drawing up plans.

Profoundly grateful not to be a fact-checker tonight.

Today in Iran-Diplomacy-Will-Fail Fatalism
Posted by David Shorr

5+1When you boil it down, much of the recent right-wing commentary on Iran are variations on the theme of just how futile diplomacy is. President Obama's handling of Iran has been subject to intense cross-pressures --and plenty of second-guessing -- at every step along the way. And now, having painstakingly built an international coalition for economic sanctions far more stringent than ever before, the president's skeptics are no less impatient with him. Which leaves us with a policy / political debate skewed dangerously toward military confrontation.

Given this rush to war, kudos to the New York Times for today's piece by Scott Shane trying to separate the rhetoric from the facts of Iran's nuclear program. Shane gives the last word to Shadow Government's Peter Feaver, who situates President Obama at the midpoint of public sentiment on the issue and notes how election campaigns tend to distort policy debates. This is my exact question about Feaver's most recent post about Iran: which side of the line is he on, straight policy analysis or political maneuvering?

In comparison with the GOP candidates, who would have voters believe Obama is helping Iran get the bomb, Feaver does give a more sympathetic and realistic take on Obama administration policy. But then, that sets the level-of-discourse bar pretty low. Wrapped within the fair-mindedness, however, is a policy prescription that would more likely doom diplomatic efforts to failure than help them succeed. 

Feaver wrote in response to a Times op-ed by former architect of Obama policy Dennis Ross, who argues that the intensified pressure of recent sanctions could change how Iranian leaders calculate cooperation versus defiance toward the rest of the world. The moment could be ripe for a peaceful solution, and we must give diplomacy a chance. Now look at the way Feaver gives with one hand and takes away with the other: 

He rightly points out that the current Obama strategy on Iran was to squeeze Iran with sufficiently painful sanctions so that Iran's cost-benefit calculation would change, making the regime decide that the costs of the nuclear program were not worth the gain.

...then a few sentences later...

All current sanctions must be maintained at the current level of pressure throughout, until a deal is struck that will verifiably prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

According to Feaver, the key to a diplomatic solution is to resist ratcheting the sanctions back even a single notch until a final deal is reached. The United States and the other nations imposing sanctions should not relent in the slightest until Iran's total cooperation has been pocketed. (Please note: the strongest current sanctions are those being imposed bilaterally by various countries, with the UN Security Council resolution merely providing a framework.) He is imagining a diplomatic process -- imagine being the operative verb -- in which all of the significant moves come from one side, while the other sits impassively until fully satisfied. This leads me to a critique I've made many times: the right wing's inability to make a crucial distinction between cooperation (or concessions) versus capitulation. In their imaginary diplomacy, you can insist on outcomes that meet your every wish and give the other guy nothing. But back here in the real world, negotiation is based on give-and-take, not take-and-take. 

At one point in his post, Feaver writes, "As Ross surely knows, the Iranians have a standard approach for alleviating the kind of sanctions and isolation they currently face." Feaver then goes on to note Iran's past success in blaming sanctions for undercutting diplomacy, which has indeed helped Iran fend off pressure and keep working on its nuclear program. 

But if Ross and presumably his former Obama administration colleagues "surely know" this, then what is Feaver's point? I really have to flag how brazen it is to tell President Obama how to manage the unprecedented set of sanctions that he's put together. Given that Feaver's been trying to argue that all of President Obama's policy successes stem from his adoption of Republican ideas, it's no surprise that Feaver would short-change the very un-Bushlike diplomacy needed to get the sanctions.

And oh by the way, I don't have much patience for critics who claim utmost concern about Iran while shrugging off the US-Russia reset; whatever else can be said about the reset, it had everything to do with the cooperation on Iran that Moscow has provided. Likewise it's totally hypocritical for Republicans to be staunch advocates of sanctions and then complain about high oil prices, which are being driven upward mainly by the Iran standoff. 

So even though Feaver didn't really mean it, yes, the Obama administration knows very well that Iran must be kept from wriggling out from under the international pressure. Let me remind everyone that President Obama pressed ahead with the pivotal UN sanctions resolution in June 2010 in rejection of a deal brokered by Brazil and Turkey, based precisely on the argument Feaver presents. The administration's policy for three years has put the clear burden of proof squarely on Iran, a strategy that Feaver acknowledges but can't quite affirm.

I'll conclude by focusing on what a ridiculous false choice Feaver presents, with his idea of keeping every sanction in place until Tehran capitulates. A fuller outline of the choices includes Feaver's prescription, his straw man, and the sensible approach:

A) refuse to reciprocate any Iranian moves short of a final agreement

B) trade significant elements of the sanctions in exchange for trivial Iranian concessions

C) gradually ease sanctions in response to any meaningful Iranian steps to prove the civilian nature of their activities (if and only if they materialize)

Contrary to the right wing's over-the-top alarmism, President Obama is not foolish enough to adopt approach B. Sadly, Republicans are too ideological to go for option C. And the ultimate irony is that option C was the key to President Bush's success in getting Ghaddafi to abandon his nuclear program. 

Caribbean Security Wake–Up Call
Posted by The Editors

BreyerThis guest post by Johanna Mendelson Forman, an expert in international security issues who serves on the board of RESDAL, the Latin American Security Network, and Michele Manatt, a former official of the Clinton administration’s Office of National Drug Control Policy and now serves as Chair of the Council on Women’s Leadership at Meridian International Center.

When Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and his wife became crime victims while on vacation on the Caribbean island of Nevis, news spread rapidly of this home intrusion.  Fortunately, the Justice, his wife and guests were only relieved of their money by a machete-wielding robber who fled the scene.  As of this writing the police in St. Kitts and Nevis have not caught a suspect.  But the events underscore the ongoing need to address citizen security in the Caribbean.

California’s Dianne Feinstein, Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, held a hearing on this very subject in the Senate Drug Caucus on February 1st.   Her opening statement noted that the Obama Administration continues to provide assistance to the Caribbean, through an initiative started in April 2009. The Caribbean Basin Security Initiative continues to receive funding to help address the ongoing crime wave, and especially the increased violence associated with drug-related attacks that have become the norm in the region. The high homicide rates in Jamaica (52 homicides per 100,000), the Bahamas (28 per 100,000), the Dominican Republic (up from 14 to 25 per 100,000 in one year) all signal the urgent need to support training and professionalization of the police.  The Breyers were just plain lucky.

Crime reduction is essential in a region that is so dependent on tourism, both mass market and high-end.   Many Caribbean countries earn 25 percent of their foreign exchange earnings from tourism. 20 percent of all jobs are connected to it.   Keeping the islands safe not only in the best interest of business, but is also akin to their credit rating. When it takes a hit, everyone suffers.

The Obama administration gets precious little credit for its work in the Americas.  Not fair, given the sharp focus put on Caribbean citizen security through many programs and partnerships.  “Citizen Security” is the Lingua Franca throughout official circles these days, and will be the “IT” issue of the next gathering of democracies at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia in April.  Coming to common cause on addressing the realities of youth unemployment, the swelling number of youths in gangs and better preparing citizens to vigilantly report drug-related crime are unifying governments and NGO players across the Caribbean.

While Republicans continue to spend most time either micromanaging US policy towards Cuba or neutering the OAS, there has been a strong, whole-of-government effort to ensure that our third border gets the attention it needs in response to onslaughts from illegal drug syndicates and related activities like human trafficking and counterfeiting.

In the run-up to the Colombia-hosted Summit in April, look for more progress as President Obama and Secretary Clinton emphasize their diplomacy and programs that address the core issues underlying criminality – professionalization of police, strengthening rule of law, and empowering citizens to be more involved in community vigilance.   Through fiscal year 2012, $212 million have been committed to this objective.

Justice Breyer ‘s unfortunate vacation intrusion in what seems an idyllic place is just what complacent Americans may need to wake up and take notice of what their government does to assist Caribbean friends and neighbors join closer to confront the joint threat of insecurity.

Photo: ABC News

February 21, 2012

What The Anti-Declinists Get Wrong
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over at Foreign Policy I have a new Flag_0 up that takes on the argument that tales of American decline are a myth - by noting that relative US power on the global stage is all well and good but it doesn't mean much if its built on a shaky foundation:

U.S. global power remains unparalleled and its hegemony is uncontested . . . America today faces no great power rival, no existential threat, and an economy that -- while currently in the doldrums -- remains vibrant and adaptive.  Compared to other nations, the United States is not simply a great power, it is the greatest power. Even if its influence declines, it is likely to continue to enjoy an outsized role on the international stage, in part because there is a consensus among foreign-policy elites -- like Romney and Obama, for instance -- that the U.S. must do whatever it takes to remain, as Madeline Albright once put it,  "the world's 'indispensable nation.'"

There is, however, one serious problem with this analysis. Any discussion of American national security that focuses solely on the issue of U.S. power vis-à-vis other countries -- and ignores domestic inputs -- is decidedly incomplete.

A focus on U.S. global dominance or suasion that doesn't factor in those elements that constitute American power at home ignores substantial and worsening signs of decline. Indeed, by virtually any measure, a closer look at the state of the United States today tells a sobering tale of rapid and unchecked decay and deterioration in a host of areas. While not all of them are generally considered elements of national security, perhaps they should be.

You can read the whole thing here - and please do! But the bottom line is that any discussion of national security that ignores our worsening education system, our inefficient health care system, our lack of technological innovation and our horrible legislative dysfunction tells a very incomplete tale of what defines national power in the 21st century.

February 17, 2012

Has Iran Decided to Build the Bomb?
Posted by David Shorr

Ahmadinejad_iran-nuclearSenator Lindsey Graham is convinced the goal of Iran's nuclear program is military, and the contrast between Graham's certainty and the more judicious view of President Obama's director of national intelligence highlights critical points for a peaceful resolution of the issue -- or a war. Hat tip to Eli Clifton over at Think Progress for flagging an exchange between Sen. Graham and DNI James Clapper at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing earlier this week. The bottom line of Graham's position is that a diplomatic solution is impossible, and a military confrontation is inevitable. 

Clifton's post focuses on the key elements of the intelligence assessment. Here's how Director Clapper described where Iranian policy stands in terms of building the bomb:

I think they’re keeping themselves in a position to make that decision but there are certain things they have not yet done and have not done for some time.

Underneath the careful vagueness of this statement lies a crucial point. There is a clear logic for Iran to hone uranium enrichment techniques that would make it a near-nuclear power, yet still remaining a non-nuclear weapon signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty -- which is Tehran's stated policy. Of course that leaves the questions of how far down the nuclear technology road Iran goes and how the outside world will verify that Iran's nuclear activities are civilian, questions that will have to be addressed as part of any diplomatic solution. 

Now let's look at the logic for Sen. Graham to assume the worst about Iranian intentions. I can only assume Graham reached his conclustion through an assessment of Iranian governmental players and his information on the nuclear program. And yet ... I can't help noticing that Graham's position fits the familiar Republican tougher-than-thou formula as most GOP foreign policy positions.

So with this view of Iranian intentions, Lindsey Graham presumably dismisses Iran's official line about a keeping on the civilian side of the nuclear line. My question, then, is whether it's smarter for the United States and others to toss aside Iran's promise not to build a bomb, or hang onto that pledge as the standard by which we measure their behavior. Aside from political posturing, is it really in America's interests to completely discount Tehran's stated intentions?

Let's be clear about what our alternatives are here. When I argue against assuming the worst, I'm not saying that we take Iranian statements about remaining a non-weapon state at face value. Like I said a few paragraphs ago, the point of diplomatic negotiations is to define -- and verify -- the parameters of Iran's civilian nuclear activities. In fact, I look at President Obama's policy on Iran as an effort to keep the burden of proof on the Iranians. Now over on the side of assuming the worst, that seems to me like a conclusion that diplomacy is futile. If Senator Graham and other conservatives believe Iranian leaders are determined to build the bomb, does that mean war is inevitable?  I think so.

And this is the point of the other quotation from the national intelligence director cited in Eli Clifton's Think Progress post, that Iran's course is not yet set and still susceptible to diplolmatic pressure: 

We judge Iran’s nuclear decisionmaking is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran. Iranian leaders undoubtedly consider Iran’s security, prestige, and influence, as well as the international political and security environment, when making decisions about its nuclear program.

The very possibility of a peaceful solution hinges on whether you believe an Iranian n-weapon is still an open question in Tehran.

But the issue at the heart of legislative efforts by Senator Graham and others is a different one. Recalling once again, negotiations with Iran must specify how far down the nuclear technological road they are, i.e. the fate of Iran's uranium enrichment activities. For the hard-liners in the Senate, the only acceptable answer is that Iran will be not one step down the nuclear road -- that they must walk their technical efforts all the way back. It is a Boltonesque approach that insists on the other side's total capitulation. 

As the clamor for war with Iran grows louder and louder, we must be clear what's at stake. If you were paying only faint attention to this debate (as most voters probably are), you'd think it's about keeping Iran from building nuclear weapons. But senators have been pushing to set the bar much higher, the kind of stringent requirements that make diplomacy impossible and war inevitable. Americans need to know the real question here: are you willing to go to war in order to stop Iran from spinning their centrifuges to enrich uranium?

February 16, 2012

Doing Your Homework on Nuclear Weapons Policy
Posted by The Editors

This guest post by Stephen Young, senior analyst in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. It is reposted from

The Pentagon is working on finalizing nuclear weapons policy options for the president, who is preparing to make decisions that will set the size, structure and roles of the U.S. nuclear stockpile and set positions for future potential negotiations with Russia on force reductions below New START. The media was abuzz in the last 36 hours with reports that the options under consideration were 300-400, 700-800 or 1,000-1,100 deployed warheads.

At a hearing of the House Armed Services committee on Wednesday where Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta testified, Republican members were clearly distressed by the thought that the administration would even consider such reductions, calling it “reckless lunacy” and a “preposterous notion.” 

In that light, you may recall the committee’s attempt last year to constrain the Obama administration’s prerogative to set U.S. nuclear policy, an attempt that was essentially neutered in the final FY12 Defense authorization bill.

A few thoughts on this latest kerfuffle:

1. The new study falls well within the normal range of activities any administration undertakes. Time and again, the Pentagon, its various defense boards and affiliated think tanks have been tasked with looking at a range of stockpile sizes. Those who think it is surprising simply do not know the history. In fact, the congressionally mandated 2009 Strategic Posture Commission, often cited by Republicans as an unimpeachable source on nuclear policy, specifically set out options for deep cuts that it thought should be studied in the future. The person selected by the Commission to lead that effort to establish the options to study was none other Jim Miller, who now is directing the Pentagon’s study for the Obama administration. (See Chapter 12 of the Commission’s In the Eyes of Experts.)

2. As Secretary Panetta testified yesterday, one option that will be presented to the president is maintaining the current stockpile, in its current size. Cuts are not a foregone conclusion. 

3. Those criticizing these options act as if the president will unilaterally make these reductions tomorrow. That is not the case. As mentioned above, one of the mandates for the Pentagon study is to develop the U.S. position in the next round of arms controls with Russia. The Senate mandated that the administration seek such an agreement when providing its consent to the New START agreement in 2010. Would critics prefer that the administration approach such negotiations from a position of ignorance?

4. In 1991, when President GHW Bush unilaterally cut thousands of deployed U.S. nuclear weapons, there was nary a hit of concern from the Congress. Even more interesting, in 2001, President GW Bush simply told the Pentagon that they needed to develop a nuclear strategy based on maintaining 2,200 warheads, without asking them to first study what the implications of such a decision would be. Coming down from the then stockpile of 6,000 strategic warheads, it was a fairly dramatic call, but made without critical comment from the Congress. 

5. More importantly, if this story is accurate on the ranges of options under consideration, it is certainly true that moving to 300-400 warheads would be a major shift in U.S. nuclear policy, but it would not reduce our security. It would end the current focus, maintained since the end of the Cold War, on fighting and winning a nuclear war. Instead it would require a focus on what the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review identified as the fundamental role of nuclear weapons: deterring a nuclear attack on the US and its allies.

6. Such a policy change would truly reflect the “end to Cold War thinking” that President Obama has called for, and would allow the U.S. military to increase its focus on the threats that we do face today, rather than the threats of the past. The fact is, nuclear weapons are now a security liability for the United States, rather than an asset for our defense.  More and more military leaders, foreign policy and defense experts are recognizing that not only can we reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons, but for our own security we must.

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