Bad Idea of the Day: Bomb Syria to Save Ukraine

It’s not every day that you see a writer assert that the way to solve a crisis in one country is to conduct military strikes in a different one. However, that is precisely the argument that Anne-Marie Slaughter makes at Project Syndicate regarding Syria and Ukraine. According to Slaughter, the problem now is that Russian president Vladimir Putin feels as though he can act virtually without constraints in Ukraine. And so the answer is to use military force against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, as “shots fired by the US in Syria will echo loudly in Russia.” In her words:

It is time for US President Barack Obama to demonstrate that he can order the offensive use of force in circumstances other than secret drone attacks or covert operations. The result will change the strategic calculus not only in Damascus, but also in Moscow.

Leave aside the fact that Obama has done exactly that on more than one occasion: in the 2009 “surge” in Afghanistan, and in the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya. The more basic flaw is that there is no reason to think that bombing Syria would do anything to meaningfully change Putin’s calculus in Ukraine. Slaughter never even clearly describes the causal mechanism by which she thinks that it would. The closest that she comes is when she says:

Obama’s Tricky Balancing Act in Malaysia

This weekend, U.S. President Barack Obama will make a historic visit to Malaysia as part of his four-country, eight-day trip to Asia –a do-over of a regional tour he missed last October due to a government shutdown. While his visit, the first by a U.S. president in nearly half a century, is an occasion to cement cooperation with an emerging American partner, it is also an opportunity to speak honestly with Malaysian officials about the differences both countries have and to address the Malaysian people more generally in light of the country’s troubling domestic politics.

In 1966, when then U.S. President Lyndon Johnson visited Malaysia, the country was touted as a model nation which had successfully defeated a communist insurgency and embarked on the road to economic development. Secretary of State Dean Rusk, in a memo to the president prepared before the trip, called Malaysia “something of an economic and political showpiece in Southeast Asia.” Johnson himself, in a glowing tribute to the country at Subang International Airport, called it “a model of what may be done by determined and farsighted men in Southeast Asia and in other parts of the world.”

China's Taiwan Reality Check

Beijing has long needed a reality check on its Taiwan policy. Recently, that is what it got from both Taipei and Washington.

Massive Taiwanese protests against closer economic ties with China make it clear that peaceful unification under Beijing’s present rule will never be acceptable to the Taiwanese people. Having discarded an anti-Communist dictatorship, they have no intention of welcoming the Communist Party variety.

At the same time, the U.S. Congress celebrated the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). It reaffirmed America’s commitment to Taiwan’s security and continued existence as a free, democratic country. While the resolution does not have the force of law the iconic TRA does, it reflected Americans’ deep emotional and strategic connection to Taiwan. No U.S. Congress, with the power to authorize war, will ever tolerate a Chinese attack on Taiwan without mandating an overwhelming American response. Even a reluctant U.S. administration would be under enormous pressure to react with decisive military action—which, despite current budget constraints, it has the full capability to execute.

Strategic thinkers in Beijing—who are known for looking back centuries while planning decades ahead—need to return to the drawing board on China’s long-term relationship with Taiwan. The bottom line: China cannot be both “reunified” and authoritarian. It can choose to retain its current style of government and write off Taiwan as anything but a limited economic partner. Yes, that would be contrary to sixty-five years of Chinese dogma about Taiwan as an integral part of the People’s Republic.

The Need for Iranian Oil and Gas

Deliberations about imposing costs on Russia for undesirable behavior in Ukraine quickly run into several snags, among which is that any sanctions that would significantly hurt Russia would also hurt countries that impose them. Potential sanctions that immediately come to mind involve energy, given that exports of oil and gas provide Russia with nearly two-thirds of its export earnings and about one-half of its government revenues. But interference with those exports would also interfere with the energy supply of countries of the European Union, which get about one-third of their oil and gas from Russia. The United States, no matter how much shale it fracks, could do little to help, such as through exporting liquid natural gas (LNG).

Aleppo: Syria's Stalingrad?

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The battle for Syria’s biggest city has entered a new phase. In the last few weeks, the situation in Aleppo has rapidly changed. Under a newly unified command, a new alliance of rebel groups now threatens to cut off the half the city that the Assad regime controls. This fight won’t be over soon, but for the first time since the start of the battle for this city in July 2012, one side may be gaining a clear upper hand. The key to the recent rebel successes has been the formation of the “Ahl Al-Sham Operations Room”, a joint command of all the main rebel groups fighting in the city. Ahl Al-Sham commands some of the most powerful rebel units in Syria: Aleppo –based units of the Islamic Front (a coalition of Islamist rebel groups), the large, well-equipped Jaish Mujahideen, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Chechen foreign fighter group Jaish al Muhajireen wa al-Ansar (JMA). The Syrian Revolutionary Front, a more secular-nationalist group of independent brigades, has been cooperating closely with Ahl Al-Sham command. Since the creation of the Ahl Al-Sham joint command in February 2014, the size and sophistication of rebel operations in the Aleppo theater has clearly increased. Combined with the expulsion of ISIS from the city, and the consequent end of debilitating tensions between ISIS and rebel groups, the strategic situation has improved for the rebellion in Aleppo.

Obama's Trip to Asia: What to Watch for and a Recommendation

During his trip to Asia this week, President Obama will make stops in Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines to emphasize the United States’ commitment to the Administration’s pivot/re-balance strategy. Below are two issues that will likely come up during the visit and a recommendation to strengthen the pivot/re-balance further.

1. The Enhanced Defense Cooperation (EDC) treaty between the United States and the Philippines

Twists of History and Interests in Ukraine

Imagine that the collapse of Soviet communism more than two decades ago had taken a different form than it did. It might have done so, if the dramatic and fast-moving events of 1991 and key people who participated in them had taken a few different turns. Today we associate the collapse with the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. and its replacement by fifteen independent republics. But the break-up of that union did not need to be part of the failure and demise of the Leninist method of organizing politics, economics, and society that we came to know as Soviet communism.

It is true that separatist sentiment had become by early 1991 a significant part of the growing political crisis in the Soviet Union, with the Baltic republics and Georgia making declarations of independence. Even then, however, the break-up of the union was by no means certain. The center was using military force to try to bring the Lithuanians back in line and Mikhail Gorbachev was supporting the adoption of a new charter, to replace one from 1922, aimed at mollifying sentiment in the non-Russian republics while preserving some sort of union.

The Prize for Fencing Stolen Goods

Prize-awarding committees sometimes use their decisions to make some sort of political or policy statement. The committee that bestows the Nobel Peace Prize seems to have done so with increasing frequency in recent years, giving the prize to recipients who represent current aspirations more than past accomplishments. One risk of this practice, beyond any controversial or questionable aspects of the particular statement being made, is that it debases the award itself by moving it farther from any connection with actual accomplishment. Those who award Pulitzer prizes have now done so by giving this year's prize in the public service category to the Washington Post and Guardian US for publishing purloined secrets about the National Security Agency. And the Pulitzer people have done so for motives less noble than those of the Nobel people.

The Rand Paul Threat

Sen. Rand Paul should be pleased by the wilding that conservatives have attempted against him in the past week. Paul is attracting numerous brickbats from the likes of Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, Bret Stephens, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, and Rep. Peter King. The attention suggests that his opponents are worried—worried that Paul may be making friends and influencing people both inside and outside the GOP.

Lowry weighed in to accuse Paul of "dewy-eyed foolishness" and "blame America first libertarianism." Stephens complains that he might well lead the GOP to a "landslide defeat." And King says his views are "disastrous."

What's all the fuss about? 

The proximate cause of the latest fusillade against Paul are his recent comments about the possibility of the containment of Iran. To even suggest that containment might be a viable strategy is apparently heresy inside the GOP, or at least that's the way it's supposed to be. Paul himself says that he wasn't endorsing containment, in a Washington Post op-ed. He says he hasn't precluded anything. "Nuance," he says, is what he's after. Connoisseurs of the Bush presidency may recall that 43 famously declared, "I don't do nuance." Look where that got him.

China's Stealth Fighters: Ready to Soar?

The test pilots of China’s state-run Shenyang Aircraft Corporation have been joyriding in a high-tech new aircraft. Does China already have a multi-role fighter in the works to challenge the F-35? Or is this new aircraft really “all about the program?” Chinese military research and development is notoriously secretive, so Chinese and international People’s Liberation Army (PLA)-watchers were surprised by the October 2012 appearance of the J-31, a fully-fledged, advanced fighter prototype, deployed by the Shenyang Aircraft Company. It’s similarity in shape to the F-35 is noteworthy. In recent months there has been a great deal of speculation about successful Chinese espionage against the F-35 program, although most of it has focused on the appearance of certain sensor systems on China’s prototype air-superiority fighter, the J-20. The J-20 might very well have been influenced by the F-35, but the J-31 almost certainly was.

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April 24, 2014