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May 24, 2012

Does Nation Building Have a Future?
Posted by The Editors

This post by Johanna Mendelson Forman, a Scholar-in-Residence at the American University, School of International Service, and a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The opinions expressed in this note are those of the author and not of her organizations.

With the signing of the Afghanistan Strategic Partnership in April 2012 our government has started the process of hand-off in what has been a difficult and often unsustainable project in nation-building.  In spite of massive inputs of civilian and military aid, neither Afghanistan nor Iraq are capable states that can provide for security and economic well-being of their citizens.  Whether U.S. investments will pay off in the long-run is still unclear.  Metrics for success are not very informative.  They tend to measure what we have contributed to a specific country.  They do not take in what citizens on the ground actually expend in terms of their own local needs.

While knowledge about how we do nation-building abounds, a decade after two wars we are still learning about what it takes to create sustainable security on the ground.  No matter what the level of investment, nation-building imposed from the outside is unlikely to create the social capital on the ground to sustain stable institutions.  Time and again what we find is that local leadership, coupled with citizen engagement is the only way to ensure that our investments are catalytic in jump-starting good governance.  Even though we know that providing citizens with adequate security is essential, it is also clear that training security forces does not guarantee that such training will be used appropriately.  Just note the recent attacks on U.S. outposts by soldiers from the Afghan Security Forces who we had trained. 

A recent review of some of the post-conflict frameworks that were created to help ensure that our “whole of government” programs worked revealed that in spite of our deep knowledge about what it takes to rebuild war-torn societies, we have not yet succeeded in actually putting all the pieces in place.   We have all the pieces to do the job: government programs, a better inter-agency process, and a larger generation of trained professionals, civilian and military.  What we lack is an assembly manual for state building.  It is still a work in progress.  We have come to recognize, however, that prevention of violence is an important part of our work with fragile states.   We have come full circle in appreciating the value of diplomacy, conflict mediation, and the use of tools other than force to achieve what we need short of war.

Another fact about nation-building after a decade of U.S. investment is that the American people are still unclear about we actually do when we say we are stabilizing and rebuilding a state.  We send troops to foreign lands to run city councils, to rebuild infrastructure, and to support elections.  We have yet to get the American public to fully understand how foreign aid is used to promote our national interest.  Congress remains unconvinced about the value of reconstruction work, despite having appropriated billions of dollars toward helping states create professional police, hold democratic elections, rebuild infrastructure, or jump-start businesses.  And the appetite to do more after ten years of war is waning.  With budget deficits growing and no bi-partisan consensus on foreign policy it is unlikely that any new champions of nation-building will emerge in the years to come.

We often speak of burden sharing as an important component of stabilization and reconstruction efforts. Many European states are struggling through the worst economic crisis since the post-War period.  Relying on them to help us when the next crisis arises is somewhat risky.  And you can be sure that there will be another crisis of state failure that requires some form of intervention in the next five years.  Whether new actors from emerging global powers can be counted on to help is still untested.  Turkey, Brazil, China and India are still developing their own mechanisms to assist weak states and prevent conflict.

And what about the role of the United Nations will play in the future?   Peacekeeping operations are already strapped for funds, even though the number of peacekeepers has grown to over 100,000 soldiers in the last decade.  While the U.S. was fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the UN remained operational in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Sudan, Liberia and Somalia.  The UN became the default, the “go-to” institution for those cases of state failure in places that are not as high a priority to our national interests, it is impossible to think that the international community will be capable of sustaining this level of support for the long term.    

What does this mean for U.S. policy in the future?  If nation-building on the scale of Iraq and Afghanistan were anomalies in terms of size and duration, these types of civilian-military operations will not end any time soon.  In this time of reflection about nation-building in a more resource constrained world, we cannot ignore the risks we still face from the threats posed by weak and fragile states.  U.S. leadership will be required time and again in the years to come, hopefully with friends and allies, and with new emerging donor countries, to help maintain the peace.  What will best help to rationalize scarce resources will be a larger investment in conflict prevention, and even more crucial, creation of new tools that allow our diplomats, our aid workers, and our military to work together to protect our nation in the future.

May 23, 2012

Why Conservatives Keep Beefing with the Military
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

The rift between the U.S. military and the leadership of American conservatism has now become so broad that one issue area alone doesn't contain it. Today you had the spectacle of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs telling a U.S. Senator that claims other Senators had made about the alleged ill-effects of ratifying the Law of the Sea Treaty were without merit. But that's just the latest.  Let me give you a list:

Law of the Sea. The ratification of this treaty -- which gives legal footing to US navigation, exploration and commercial exploitation at sea -- is supported by all the current Pentagon brass, six former Secretaries of Defense and Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, five former Commandants of the Coast Guard, eight former Chiefs of Naval Operations. Today, the Pentagon sent Secretary Panetta and CJCS Dempsey to the Senate with Secretary Clinton to make their case -- and got a number of U.S. senators going out of their way to oppose the treaty -- or just assert that "there are a lot of other issues we should be addressing," Pentagon urgency notwithstanding.

Alternative Energy. The Pentagon is the world's largest consumer of fossil fuels; it has been estimated that every gallon of gas sent to troops in Afghanistan takes seven gallons to deliver, and neocon/former CIA Director James Woolsey, not someone easily tarred with the crazy enviro label, estimates the real cost of gas for operations in Iraq to have been about $100/gallon.  The Pentagon has in recent years sponsored ag reat deal of innovative research on efficiency and alternative fuels. Over at Grist, Dave Roberts has put together a list of ways House Republicans are trying to cut and block these programs.

Who Jails Terror Suspects? Career miltiary folks will tell you quickly that they are warriors, not jailors; that's why Panetta, Petraeus, and twenty-six retired military leaders opposed conservative efforts in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to require that anyone arrested on terror charges in the U.S. be handed over to the military for confinement and/or trial. After the Administration issued implementing regulations that effectively told the Pentagon "stay out" and the FBI, DHS and law enforcement, "keep up the good (and Constitutional) work, Congress fired back, both complaining that the Administration was not doing its will and acting to make sure that amendments to this year's NDAA that would have secured constitutional civil protections for anyone arrested in the U.S. failed.

Iran. The head of Central Command, General James Mattis, has cautioned the Senate that a military strike would "just delay" Iran's nuclear program; the LA Times' Doyle McManus has written, "It’s hard to find a high-ranking U.S. military officer who thinks war with Iran is a good idea." But today's talks between Iran and the P5+1 powers had barely opened before influential Senators were demanding that the U.S. show no flexibility and insteadi mpose further sanctions; during the GOP primary, candidates competed to implicitly or explicitly question military leaders' judgement on Iran.

Pentagon budget. Sure, we're used to the idea that Members of Congress might question Pentagon officials' judgement on whether this or that weapons system is really necessary, or working as well as the glowing press releases say. But in the last month -- the same month, mind you, that some Air Force pilots have refused to fly F-22s out of safety concerns --we've watched House Republicans reinsert into the 2013 authorization drones that the Pentagon wanted to retire and an East Coast missile defense system that the Pentagon doesn't want. They've also questioned whether the commanders are sincere in saying they can live within the Adminsitration's proposed 2013 budget.

What's going on? Roberts points to strictly financial motives for the fossil-fuel-related shenanigans, and there are certainly defense-industry dollars sloshing through Congress's budget debates as well. But this isn't only about money; it's about ideology. The military-industrial complex is small-c conservative -- and I'm using both those terms in a completely value-neutral, descriptive way. It looks for fights it can win, not fights -- like a land war in Iran, or endless, bank-breaking fuel bills -- that might fatally weaken it. It looks to consolidate.  It is a status quo power seeking to preserve the status quo. And these days, preserving the status quo involves fuel made from seaweed, talks with Iranians, and getting out of the prison business.

Whatever the conservative movement in America is at the moment -- conflicted, in a battle for its soul, looking to get its groove back -- it isn't a status quo power. That is producing the fascinating dissonance of conservatives who ritually stand up in front of the public and say they want to "listen to the commanders" ignore the commanders on issue after issue. That just may also have something to do with the percentage of military campaign contributions reported to be going to either President Obama... or ron Paul.

 

May 21, 2012

This Week In Threat-Mongering - The NATO Version
Posted by Michael Cohen

Scared faceThis weekend as the 28 NATO countries gathered in Chicago the focus has largely been on the future of the alliance's presence in Afghanistan. But there is of course a larger specter haunting the NATO summit, how does the alliance weather a growing era of budget austerity (on both sides of the Atlantic)? How can the burden of funding NATO military operations be shared by all 28 NATO countries?

Mitt Romney it appears has no interest in confronting these issues. Rather his campaign issued a statement that unsurprisingly featured an attack on President Obama for letting NATO down: "NATO's success requires strong American leadership," said Romney  "It also requires its member states to carry their own weight. Unfortunately, the Obama Administration has taken actions that will only undermine the alliance. The U.S. military is facing nearly $1 trillion in cuts over the next ten years. And President Obama has sent the message—intentionally or not—that the worth of NATO has diminished in America’s eyes. At this moment of both opportunities and perils, the NATO alliance must retain the capacity to act."

There are a couple of problems here. The first and most glaring is to blame the President for the fact that the Pentagon faces $1 trillion in cuts over the next ten years. This of course was agreed to as part of the debt limit deal from last summer - a crisis almost completely manufactured by House Republicans. If Romney wants to cast blame for the Pentagon and in turn NATO having to do more with less . . . he should talk to the leaders of his own party.

But the real issue is that accusing the United States of not carrying its weight in NATO is, well, ludicrous.  As it is, only 5 of the 28 countries in NATO exceed the agreed upon benchmark of 2% of GDP on defense spending - the US of course spends closer to 5%. The US currently provides between 20-25% of NATO funding; and during the recent Libya War without US military largesse the war would have simply been impossible to wage. Quite simply, Libya provided compelling evidence that without the US, NATO could not exist as a functioning military institution. On missile defense, which is intended to protect NATO allies from missile attack the US is underwriting close to 85% of the funding.

In other words, the biggest problem with NATO funding (and this has been true for quite some time) is not that President Obama is undermining the alliance with defense cuts here at home, but rather that America's NATO allies refuse to fully pony up their share of NATO's defense budget. And why they should they? Indeed, as long as NATO funding is used as a political football then the United States will continue to be played for a sucker by the Europeans who know that for all our complaining about their lack of financial support for the military alliance . . . we're never going to pull the plug.

At some point, it's worth asking whether this makes any sense at all. Why should the US be responsible for underwriting European security (and in turn the European welfare state), especially when European countries face not a single legitimate military threat to their well-being? Moreover, it Europeans don't think it's important enough to spend their own money on their own security why should America? Now granted, the Europeans are a little short on cash these days, but then so is the United States. But of course as the House of Representatives reminded us recently - as they eviscerated key social safety net programs to restore cuts made to the defense budget -- you can't put a price tag on a huge American military that does little to keep America safe and underwrites the security of other countries.

In Romney's statement he noted "NATO is a testament to the fact that the price of weakness is always far greater than the price of strength." If anything it's increasingly becoming a testament to how divorced from reality our own national security debate has become. The new American weakness is apparently when you don't let key European allies take enough advantage of you.

May 19, 2012

Dear Gov. Romney, John Bolton Is Not Serving / Will Not Serve You Well
Posted by David Shorr

BoltonBigThe arrival in New York today of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng and his family got me thinking about accountability in the foreign policy world, the subject of an interesting recent Stephen Walt post. Walt was scratching his head over the continued high profile of people associated with George W. Bush's foreign policy disasters. In a nutshell, why do these guys still have any credibility? 

Thanks to the Romney camp's exploitation  hyperventilation statements about US handling of Mr. Chen, we don't have to look all the way back to the Iraq War or detainee torture. We can have real-time accountability. What's more, we can point the spotlight at one of the most notorious far-right foreign policy figures of all: Ambassador John Bolton. And Mr. Bolton made it easy for us by publishing an op-ed on Chen Guangcheng in the Washington Times on May 7

A piece in last Sunday's New York Times by David Sanger exposed tensions among Romney's foreign policy advisers -- and concerns over Bolton's role -- which I'll address further down. (Short version: Bolton's advice is bound to hurt Romney more than help him.) But first, it will be my pleasure to parse for you Amb. Bolton's recent op-ed on China. The piece reads more like a series of Tourette's outbursts than a serious foreign policy critique.

In his lede graf, Bolton hedged his position by noting the possibility that China would indeed to let Chen and his family leave. Yet in the very same sentence, Bolton says "that deal is no more certain than the earlier, failed deal, announced just days before" under which the Chen family would stay. The last sentence in the lede reads:

Many basic facts remain unknown, but the historical tides sweeping across the Pacific will not wait until we have perfect information, if we ever do.

Translation: 'I can't restrain myself from molding this dramatic episode into my favorite narrative about what constitutes American strength and weakness, and talking about historical tides in the Pacific will make it sound gravitas-ey.'

Bolton then extends this big-strategic-thinkers-talk-about-history approach with an 18th Century anecdote about how the symbolic import of certain individuals can set larger geostrategic forces, including wars, in motion. Next comes this:

Washington-Beijing relations are hardly so strained and hopefully will not end so badly. Nonetheless, the skirmish over Mr. Chen reflects poorly on the United States.

Translation: 'Things aren't nearly so bad as that war I just told you about.'

We're only 2-1/2 paragraphs in, and some readers might start complaining about whiplash. But that's not the real problem with Bolton's argument. Major problem #1: the only issue basket of US-China relations mentioned in the entire piece is human rights. No context, no mention of other US interests, no explanation of the stakes, bupkis. Major problem #2: it isn't clear at all from Amb. Bolton's argument whether he wants good relations with China or not.

The middle of the piece tries to make some points about the specifics of how US diplomats handled Chen. Bolton reminds readers of how Chen came to be at the American embassy -- not by showing up at the door but by US diplomats collecting him in an official vehicle and provoking local security officers to make chase. Here's what Bolton says about this:

Our intervention was correct and consistent with prior U.S. practice in difficult refugee cases. Incomprehensibly, however, the State Department apparently failed to realize we were dramatically escalating the Chen matter, raising the political stakes by directly confronting China and also significantly increasing the risks to Mr. Chen, his family and dissident colleagues not under American protection.

Translation: 'American embassy staff somehow thought the Chinese would be cool with all this.'

When you're done choking on that one, I want to raise another question. Was Chen Guangcheng not aware of the stakes for himself and his family?  As Bolton takes his shots at President Obama's State Department, it's Chen's own wishes and decisions that get lost in the mix. Rather ironic in an article intended to affirm human rights and individual freedoms. 

Bolton's next point concerns the deal originally negotiated on Chen's behalf, to relocate from the countryside to a metropolitan area to attend law school. 

But the real issue is why responsible U.S. authorities had any reason to believe the Chinese government, which had imprisoned Mr. Chen and kept him under house arrest the past seven years, would cheerfully assent to freeing him to attend law school in China, thereby inevitably maturing into an even greater threat to Communist Party supremacy. Chinese human rights advocates did not believe Beijing’s assurances; why did our State Department?

Translation: 'Never mind what the human rights advocate in question wanted, nor the advocate / advisers who were working closely with Chen.'

This is the part where I ask what Bolton thinks should have been done. As with so much of the Republican argument these days, the op-ed is long on second-guessing yet the author doesn't have the guts to present an alternative course. Chen wanted to stay in the country and was actively engaged in negotiating the arrangement Bolton disparages. Would Bolton have refused to seek the deal Chen wanted? Should Chen have gone back to the home where he was being persecuted? Did it worsen matters for Chen to obtain an agreement with authorities, witnessed the United States, or did that put Beijing under some pressure to back off? As we know, Chen changed his mind, and the Obama administration kept on the case to reach the solution that was implemented today.

In the last couple grafs, Bolton lands on the same vacuous points he always does:

At a time of potentially enormous upheaval within China, America’s current foreign-policy leaders had no strategy to advance our interests and support those of like mind inside China. Instead, we find ourselves more vulnerable to China and other present and potential adversaries exploiting our weaknesses and inattention.

Translation: 'Weakness something something adversaries.'

Pardon the snark, but these words don't have meaning just because someone puts them in a sentence. Unless we're talking about specifics, alternatives, and likely impact, then it's an affront to serious foreign policy debate.

Which brings me back to the Sanger piece and Team Romney. There's no immutable reason that the Republican foreign policy platform has to be as ridiculous and weak as it's been thus far. I don't think the raw tally of Bush 43 alumni on Romney's foreign policy team does justice to the abilties of many of its members. (There, I just bolstered Walt's theory; but then I'm just an old-fashioned bipartisan kind of guy.)  It's not that there's a much more solid platform waiting to be put on the table; they'd have a lot of work to do. But they do have it in them.

I will say this, though, if Bolton's is one of the most influential voices, we'll keep hearing a lot of shrillness. And God help us if he's ever Secretary of State.

May 18, 2012

Defending the G8 Summit Against a Harsh Judgment
Posted by David Shorr

Given my quote in this Toronto Globe & Mail piece by Kevin Carmichael and David Ignatius' scathing indictment of the just-about-to-begin G-8 summit at Camp David, I wanted to draft a quick rejoinder. Ignatius focuses so much on the symbolism of the summit and the damnable state of recent European leadership that he loses sight of the practicalities. While agreeing with much of his assessment, I want to push back against his bottom-line calculation that the summit is a net negative.

The issue on the table is whether it would be better for the leaders not to meet at all, which is what I understand Ignatius as saying in his lede:

It would be bad enough if the G-8 summit was simply an irrelevant annual excuse for a photo opportunity. But it’s actually worse that that: It’s a symbol of an outmoded world order that actively gets in the way of solving problems.

Stipulating all the substantive failures and frustrations that he catalogues -- particularly noting the ever-gathering storm in the Eurozone -- does it worsen matters to hold this meeting? In other words, I want to apply economic reasoning and consider the alternative scenario of Camp David remaining unoccupied this weekend.

I think the question hinges on whether you believe the G-8 summit heightens pressures for the politicians to do better or alleviates those pressures. I absolutely believe it keeps the heat on the leaders rather than letting them off the hook. If Ignatius hadn't led his piece the way he did, I would've viewed most of the rest as a constructive goad to the summit's participants.  But I just can't argue against the leaders having another high-profile opportunity to hash over the Euro mess and the threat it poses to the global economy. 

As a rising powers guy and staunch G-20 advocate, I should talk about the G8-G20 connection.  If we didn't already have the G-20, the spectacle of the old-school economic powers enjoying a Catoctin retreat would indeed be totally anachronistic. But it makes a big difference that we do have the G-20.  

In fact, I think the main way to look at this week's G8 summit is precisely as a meeting in the run-up to the G-20 in Los Cabos, Mexico June 18-19. In line with my above comment about Camp David reinforcing the right kind of pressures, I think the economic agenda this week is about the Europeans getting their act together ahead of next month's meeting. As I've been thinking about this issue for the last several days, it seems more appropriate to view the two summits as part of a rolling process rather than a competition between rival multilateral bodies.  

Finally an Iran Commentary With Some Substance
Posted by David Shorr

WSJeditoriallogoThe reason I appreciate yesterday's Wall Street 
Journal column from United Against Nuclear Iran
isn't that I agree with it. What I like about the piece is that it's solid enough to offer a basis for disagreement. Whereas the Romney camp has given us nothing but faith in the magic of flinty resolve -- no matter how ill-defined or impractical -- and pot shots at a completely fictitious Obama policy, these US, Israeli, and German former senior officials have put a more concrete proposal on the table. It's a sign of the times and our low-quality debate when it is bold for conservatives merely to admit the possibility of a peaceful solution with Iran, but there we are.

Unlike President Obama's political opponents, the authors credit the most recent set of sanctions with having "a tangible impact" and say about the banking sanctions in particular: "the ripple effect has been staggering." (I have an article in the News Desk/G8 Research Group Camp David summit magazine detailing how the sanctions work.) Now, United Against Nuclear Iran does want everyone to know, by the way, that they've advocated such sanctions for a long time. But whenever I hear this question of 'what took Obama so long,' then I want to know why President Bush didn't put banking and energy sanctions in place?

The heart of the authors' proposal is a set of steps to ratchet up to "total sanctions": a cut-off of any flows between Iran and the global financial system, disclosure of all business investments and transactions in Iran, refusal of cargo ships that have carried goods to or from Iran, and sanctions against any insurance underwriting in Iran. Because when it comes to sanctions, too much is never enough. As the article puts it,

History has made clear that the regime will never change course due to half-measures; only serious steps like we've outlined have a chance of success. With Iran finally feeling real impact from international sanctions, now is the time to increase the pressure.

Half-measures? Those bank and energy sanctions you advocated weren't serious steps? What about the staggering ripple effect? More to the point, could you tell us more about how the peaceful outcome with Iran will be reached? 

Tellingly, the authors make no mention of diplomacy or negotiations to reach an agreement with Iran. Their shorthand way of describing a peaceful outcome is simply as a change in Iran's chosen course. In the end, the United Against folks are only marginally more sensible than all the other conservative critics. On the one hand, they consider the Iranian leadership to be rational and influenceable, as opposed to hell-bent on getting the bomb. Yet it's a peculiar notion of rationality that sees no need to reach a bargain with the Iranians or address any of their concerns -- besides avoiding economic devastation, that is.

[BTW, as the article itself implies, the sanctions will actually have to be eased at some point. Now isn't yet the time, but it can't be put off until everything all sewn up either. David Elliot of National Iranian American Council has written an excellent post on this problem over at HuffPo.]

The authors of this piece thus have the same blind spot as the rest of the right wing: a naive belief that problem-governments will cave into demands without getting anything positive in return. As I say, the article at least gives the basis for a more substantive debate on Iran; it helps clarify important contrasts with President Obama's policy. 

For one thing, the president and United Against have different immediate aims for the sanctions. The article basically argues for sanctions to be ratcheted up until the Iranians capitulate. The proximate objective for the Obama administration is to bring Iran to the table for serious talks -- with a recent P5+1 meeting in Istanbul and another soon in Baghdad, things are looking up. The operative word of course is serious, and the current sanctions trace back to the breakdown of talks in 2009-10 and the administration's assessment that the Iranians were just dragging out the process. (Obama's shift to the "pressure track" has itself prompted a debate; see articles by Trita Parsi and myself.) Bottom line: the critics are waiting for capitulation, President Obama realizes there has to be a negotiation.

The Obama administration has used pressure and negotiations in tandem. Now that Iran is back at the table, we gauge their seriousness about proving the civilian character of the nuclear program. It's a moment for, as the saying goes, giving the sanctions a chance to work. From reading the WSJ piece, the critics seem to say the time's always right for more sanctions. On the broader question of when to negotiate versus apply pressure, Shadow Government's Will Inboden and I exchanged blog posts (quite congenialy) 18 months ago. Just to summarize my view, the United States shouldn't let ourselves be played for a chump, but nor should we stay so aloof that we forget our own interests in reaching a solution. All well and good to note Iran's interest in adjusting to the international community's concerns, but this isn't going to be a one-way street.

As a general matter, the right wing is seriously tone-deaf when it comes to perceptions of the US in the rest of the world. As far as they're concerned, it's impossible to go overboard with toughness. They're oblivious to the reality that pushing too hard and making ourselves look unreasonable only creates sympathy for the other guy and erodes our international support. In fact, rallying support behind our efforts in Iran and elsewhere has been one of the signal achievements of Obama foreign policy, and one of its main objectives.

May 17, 2012

This Week In Threat-Mongering
Posted by Michael Cohen


Scared20womanThose who toil in the bowels of the threat industrial complex (trademark pending) have several tools at their disposal for hyping threats and spreading fear. There is the look at the "shiny thing in my hand method," there is the exclusive interview/leak with policymaker that suggests serious threats are being ignored; there is the bogus legislative proposal aimed to combat threats that don't actually exist and the list goes on.

But one of the tried and true methods of the professional threat monger is the "tossing lots of nasty countries into a scary word salad and sprinkle it with nuclear weapons and potential terrorism." Exhibit A: Peter Brookes of the Heritage Foundation writing today in the New York Post. In a piece delightfully titled, "Disarming US As Wolves Lie In Wait" Brookes offers some rather tasty nuggets of fear.

For example: "The Iranian threat is hardly diminishing. Few would dispute that Tehran will not only have nukes in a few years, but an intercontinental-ballistic missile to carry them."

Actually you know who would dispute that . . . the US government and the International Atomic Energy Agency both of which have concluded that Iran is not actively pursuing a nuclear weapons capability.  Moreover, few analysts believe Iran is anywhere close to building a workable ICBM. And so what if they did? Are they going to fire it against a country that has 2,000 nuclear weapons and thus risk national suicide? Over the past several months there has been significant evidence that sanctions against Iran are causing Iran's oil production to decrease - and notable was the positive nature of recent talks in Istanbul over Iran's nuclear program. Does this sound like a country that is becoming more aggressive or more dangerous to the United States.

Then there is this: "The Assad regime’s survival will certainly find Damascus committed to revenge — and even more wedded to its drive for the bomb."

Where to begin? 1) This assumes that the Assad regime will survive and that 2) after the difficult chore of putting down a domestic insurgency Syria will then look around the region (even the United States) for countries to take revenge upon and 3) it will continue to develop its presently non-existent nuclear program even under the likely specter of international sanctions. Nothing about this sentence has any relationship to reality . . . but it is scary!

Or what about our #1 geopolitical foe - Russia: "You have to wonder whether perceptions of US decline made the Russian chief of the general staff think it was OK recently to threaten to pre-emptively strike American missile defenses in Europe."

So to prevent Russian military offices from saying really dumb things in public that they can't and won't possibly back up with tangible actions the US must . . . not cut defense spending?This is always an element to the the threat industrial complex (trademark pending) that is so confusing - shouldn't the US have the ability to differentiate between words and actions; between threats and capabilities? Does every stray statement by a foreigner that even mildly threatens the US preclude any sort of reasonable cut in defense spending? It's reminiscent of the Bush line during the Iraq War that OBL and AQ sought to create a global caliphate in the Middle East. So what? It was about as likely to occur as me playing shortstop for the Boston Red Sox. 

When Khrushchev warned during the Cold War that the USSR would "bury" the United States that was a scary notion, because, well the USSR had actual nuclear weapons (although at the time the threat was far less severe then many realized). Today, the Russian chief of staff can talk a tough game - but ultimately his country faces a military alliance with several thousand nuclear weapons and more than a million troops. There's not much he can truly do about missile defense sites in Poland. Indeed, the more sober-minded might ask if it's worth developing these missile defense capabilities against a phantom enemy if it ends up fundamentally harming US-Russian relations. That whole #1 geopolitical foe can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Finally, Brookes has this to say about the Obama Administration's pivot to China, "Meanwhile, Team Obama’s strategic shift to Asia will be more of a dainty pirouette than a muscular pivot, absent the forces needed to project US power across the Pacific."

Because a shift to Asia is, like, so totally gay . . .

May 10, 2012

This Week In Threat-Mongering
Posted by Michael Cohen


Homer_the_screamNot surprisingly this week in threat-mongering begins in a usual place - Leon Panetta's mouth. Here he is last Thursday being interviewed by Judy Woodruff:

MS. WOODRUFF:  The U.S. military budget, I understand, is larger than the next 14 countries’ defense budgets combined.  Why does it need to be so big?  In 30 seconds.

SEC. PANETTA:  Judy, we’re facing a lot of threats.  We talked about a lot of those threats.  We’re facing threats from Iran, facing threats from North Korea, we’re facing threats from terrorism.  We’re still in war in Afghanistan.  We’re continuing to have turmoil in the Middle East.  We’re facing cyber attacks.  We’re facing a number of challenges.  We have to protect this country.  That’s my job.  That’s what I’m paid to do and that, thank God, is what the United States military does.

This is the classic 'here's a bunch of big scary words that are intended to convince you the world is really unsafe, but when you parse out what I've said my comment doesn't actually make any sense.'

On Iran, the most recent IAEA report on Iran's nuclear program suggests that Iran is not currently constructing a bomb, has not clearly decided to build one and even if they did would be years away from being able to deploy no less use it to attack the United States. In fact, here is Leon Panetta saying in February that Iran has not decided to build a nuclear bomb? Here he is in January saying that sanctions against Iran are working. So how exactly is the US facing "threats from Iran"? And might the effective use of international sanctions against Iran suggest that the US military budget doesn't necessarily need to be that big?

How about the threats from North Korea - the same country that saw its recent missile launch end in disaster and was caught displaying fake mobile missile launchers at a recent military parade. How is the United States currently facing a threat from North Korea? For 60 years, North Korea's territorial ambitions on the Korean peninsula have been curtailed. Why is that at risk of changing any time soon?

And while we are still at war in Afghanistan it was Panetta himself who revealed that the US would be ending combat operations in the middle of 2013. He is also the person who said that al Qaeda's demise was within America's reach. And as for cyber attacks . . . well perhaps the less said the better. Panetta is right that the US is facing challenges, but when it comes to actual threats, there's no actual there . . . there.

Even less compelling than the threat mongering of Leon Panetta is the case for building a defense shield to protect the East Coast from incoming missiles. Still that hasn't stopped House Republicans from pushing exactly such a plan:

A new Republican plan to set up a missile defense site on the East Coast has attracted election-year fireworks, with Democrats accusing the GOP of pushing the idea to undercut President Obama’s national-security credentials. 

Democrats say Republicans are playing politics, but GOP members hit back saying the site is necessary to get ahead of the rising threat of Iran’s missile development and to plug a gap in U.S. missile defenses.

Now this appears to be nothing more than election-year politics, which of course is what drives so much of the "threat-mongering industrial complex" (trademark pending). But the Hill article on this plan did feature this precious quote from Cong. Michael Turner:

“You cannot open a newspaper or turn on a TV … without seeing a story of the rising threat from Iran and North Korea to mainland United States,” said Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the Strategic Forces subcommittee that included the East Coast interceptor language.

“With these emerging threats it is inevitable that an East Coast site will be necessary in order to ensure we have the ability to lessen the threats from both Iran and North Korea,” Turner told The Hill.

Here's my public dare to Michael Turner - find me a single newspaper article or TV news report that details the "rising threat" that Iran and North Korea represent not just to the United States . . . but to the East Coast of the United States? If you currently cannot open a paper or turn on the TV without seeing such a story, I have no doubt that I will lose this dare.

Finally, there is word that shockingly, Adm. William H. McRaven, who heads the US special operation command . . . thinks we should be spending more money on US special operations forces. According to McRaven in a draft paper that is circulating at the Pentagon and mysteriously leaked to the LA Times:

"We are in a generational struggle. For the foreseeable future, the United States will have to deal with various manifestations of inflamed violent extremism. In order to conduct sustained operations around the globe, our special operations forces must adapt."

"Non-state actors, such as [Al Qaeda], will increasingly threaten our national security," notes an unsigned staff memo attached to the documents. "They will establish bases in places not under sovereign control. Moving easily across political boundaries and merging with indigenous populations, these non-state actors will seek to exploit our vulnerabilities."

This is so 2006-2007. Indeed this vision of al Qaeda's ability to operate with virtual ease, across borders and practically in perpetuity very much runs counter to what we currently know about al Qaeda's restrained capabilities and shrinking areas of operation. This isn't to suggest that terrorism will disappear completely, but rather the notion that such actors will "increasingly threaten our national security." 

But what is most troubling about McRaven's plan is that it would significantly expand the power of the special operations command and indeed place them outside the normal chain of command.

McRaven's aides insist that the elite teams would remain under the direct day-to-day control of Pentagon regional commanders once deployed. But under his plan, McRaven would have greater authority to move forces and resources instead of merely responding to requests from regional commanders.

"Who better to say where special operations forces should be than the commander of Special Operations Command, with years of experience behind him?" asked one aide, defending the plan.

I can think of a few folks. This is a terrible idea; but let's be clear it's an idea born out of an over-inflated view of the actual threat facing the United States. Ones that are hyped up from the Secretary of Defense on down.

May 05, 2012

Sorry Gov. Romney, the Foreign Policy Bar Has Been Raised
Posted by David Shorr

01Romney on flight_deck

This isn't a statement about how great Obama foreign policy is -- though I happen to think the policy's been awfully good. Instead I want to highlight an important trend trend in the politics of foreign policy. In a welcome development, campaign rhetoric increasingly is being held to a more rigorous standard.

Just taking pot shots no longer counts as a foreign policy platform; a campaign has to put its alternative on the table. As a result, the Romney camp will keep running into variants of the following: "Okay smart guys [and gals], what would you do?"

The old political adage says that parties out of power are free of the responsibilities of governing -- the nitty gritty of trade-offs and consequences. Seems to me, though, that the 2012 foreign policy debate is being brought down to earth. Through hard-won experience, the country has learned that knee-jerk toughness doesn't magically whip others into line, and rash military action can stir up more unintended consequences than intended ones.

That's why the Romney campaign has gained scant credit for its Iran position. The specifics are nitpicks rather than real differences with President Obama's efforts -- on some points the Romney position is actually identical to the administration's. And with only a half-hearted (and one-sided) passing reference to a peaceful solution, it leaves the distinct impression that Romney is poised for war with Iran.

The issue of oil prices is an even better sign that the foreign policy debate is, to quote a favorite source, "back in the garage with our bull**** detector." The flip side of the phony argument tying high gas prices to slack domestic drilling is a real driver of higher oil costs: worry over war in Iran. We've seen more news reports highlighting how fluctuation in the price per barrel tracks with war fears. There has even been news coverage noting that Republicans get a political "two-fer" here -- their saber rattling gives them gas price increases they can blame on the president.

And then there was the drama over Chen Guangcheng this past week. Even Bill Kristol understood better than the Romney campaign the folly of second-guessing the Obama administration's efforts in a fast-moving situation. But to get a really thorough treatment of Romney's craven response, read this Center for American Progress piece from Nina Hachigian and our own Jacob Stokes. 

Photo: US Navy

 

May 04, 2012

On Chen Affair, Stop Blaming Americans
Posted by Jacob Stokes

ChenI have a new piece, written with Nina Hachigian, up on the CAP Action Fund site. In it, we examine Romney's response to the Chen affair. Here's a sample:

This is not a time for partisanship. Turning Chen’s fate into a political issue here at home only distracts from the task of holding Chinese officials responsible for their actions and finding a workable solution. Additionally, the more Chen’s fate becomes about Sino-American relations, the more emboldened hardliners will become in order to avoid the appearance of kowtowing to American demands. Already, Chinese newspapers are suggesting that Chen is a tool of the United States. They are also snickering at the criticism of the Obama administration, saying they harmed themselves by harboring Chen.

Romney has chosen this moment to insert himself into this extremely delicate time in U.S. foreign policy. While the U.S. secretaries of state, treasury, and commerce were on foreign soil, negotiating with the Chinese, Romney was questioning the honesty of America’s representatives in China and their sincerity in wanting to help Chen. Romney called the affair a “day of shame for the Obama administration” if early reports proved true. Yet he offered not a word of condemnation for Chinese leaders for failing to keep their promises.

Read the whole piece here.

Image: CAPAF

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