The BuzzTNI's Daily Media Monitor
In his well-known book Special Providence, Walter Russell Mead laid out a typology that divided American foreign-policy thinking into four broad schools: the big-government, pro-business Hamiltonians; the Wilsonians, determined to spread U.S. values around the world; the Jeffersonians, concerned primarily with preserving America’s identity at home; and a group that he dubbed the Jacksonians. While the first three are readily identifiable—and well represented within the Washington elite (especially the the first two)—the Jacksonian school is at once the most difficult to describe and the most interesting. Mead calls it a “large populist school” that “believes that the most important goal of the U.S. government in foreign and domestic policy should be the physical security and the economic well-being of the American people.” Its adherents believe that America should not seek out foreign wars. But should it become involved in them, then “there is no substitute for victory,” in the words of Douglas MacArthur.
If you want to get a sense of how Jacksonian America sees international affairs, as good a place as any to start is the Pew Research Center’s latest version of its “America’s Place in the World” survey, released earlier this week. The quadrennial study polls both the general public and members of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). The full results of the 2013 survey show a strong current of Jacksonian thinking in the public across a wide range of foreign-policy issues.
The main headline that some observers have grabbed on to in the Pew poll is that the number of people who say both that the United States “does too much” in helping to solve world problems and that it plays “a less important role” as a world leader are at record highs. But it’s not quite that simple. The “less important role” that the U.S. public envisions its government playing abroad still involves doing quite a lot of things. 56 percent think “U.S. policies [should] try to keep it so America is the only military superpower,” and on average Americans want to preserve current levels of defense spending. Large majorities said that “taking measures to protect the U.S. from terrorist attacks” (83 percent) and “preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction” (73 percent) should be “top priorities” among U.S. long-range goals.
This is a public, in short, that cares deeply about maintaining an overwhelmingly powerful military and taking decisive action against what it sees as core threats to American security—both central tenets of Jacksonian thinking. What the public doesn’t see as top priorities are things like “helping improve living standards in developing nations” (23 percent), “promoting democracy in other countries” (18 percent), and “promoting and defending human rights in other countries” (33 percent).
In the Pew survey, the public breaks most decisively with CFR members on issues like economics, trade and immigration. The public is far more likely (82 percent) than CFR members (29 percent) to consider “protecting the jobs of American workers” to be a top priority. The same is true when it comes to “reducing illegal immigration” (48 percent versus 11 percent, respectively). These are deep and enduring divides that are reflected in how consistent these numbers have been over the past twenty years. This, too, tracks with Mead’s description of the Jacksonian school. As he wrote in Special Providence:
Jacksonian opinion is instinctively protectionist, seeking trade privileges for American goods abroad and hoping to withhold those privileges from foreign exports. . . . They see the preservation of American jobs, even at the cost of some unspecified degree of “economic efficiency,” as the natural and obvious task of the federal government’s trade policy.
Likewise, Mead says that Jacksonians “are also skeptical, on both cultural and economic grounds, of the benefits of immigration,” seeing it as “endangering the cohesion of the folk community and introducing new, low-wage competition for jobs.”
This doesn’t mean that the public is wholeheartedly opposed to immigration or trade. Indeed, one section of the Pew study found a significant level of enthusiasm for increased economic engagement with the rest of the world. What it does mean is that their views on these issues are often based principally on their concern for American jobs. One measure of this is that while the public believes that “more foreign companies setting up operations in the U.S.” would help rather than hurt the U.S. economy (by a 62 to 32 percent margin), they decisively oppose “more U.S. companies setting up operations overseas,” with 73 percent saying they thought it would hurt the economy. This is in direct contrast to the CFR members, 73 percent of whom think that more U.S. companies setting up operations overseas would benefit the economy.
All this suggests that the Jacksonian influence remains a powerful one in shaping Americans’ views of the world. Yet at the same time, it also helps to demonstrate the limitations of this influence. One might use the data above to try to argue that because there are these key issues on which public and elite opinion diverge, there would be potential political rewards for a party that better aligned itself with the Jacksonian sensibility. But it’s hard to imagine that either foreign policy in general or issues like trade in particular would rank high enough on the list of issues that concern the electorate for this to make much of a difference. More likely, candidates will continue to pander to Jacksonian America on the campaign trail and then ignore those promises once safely in office. As Daniel Drezner put it during the 2012 presidential campaign, “You campaign as a mercantilist; you govern as a free trader.”
In the end, one overriding fact is worth keeping in mind: Americans are perennially unhappy with the direction of world affairs. Nine times over the past twenty years, Pew has asked, “All in all, would you say that you are satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the world these days?” Every time, between 64 and 81 percent have said they were dissatisfied, with only 12 to 28 percent satisfied. This year was no exception, with only 16 percent satisfied and 78 percent dissatisfied. The reason for this is anyone’s guess. Maybe the U.S. public just has unrealistic expectations about the world. Or maybe it’s because international news coverage is dominated by crises and disasters, and not by long-term positive trends like declines in global poverty and violence. But there’s at least one other potential explanation: the persistent gap between the outlook of Jacksonian America and that of the (usually Hamiltonian or Wilsonian) representatives that generally make up the country’s foreign-policy establishment.
As events continue to unfold surrounding China’s declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), Vice President Joe Biden began his visit to Asia this week in Japan where he condemned China’s actions as “increase[ing] the risk of accidents and miscalculation.” His visit during these tense times in Northeast Asia demonstrates the United States’ vested interests in maintaining stability in the Asia-Pacific region. Yet the White House isn't making it clear it fully appreciates those interests.
This was on display on November 20, when White House national-security adviser Susan Rice outlined the future of U.S. policy toward the Asia-Pacific during a speech at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Ambassador Rice gave a comprehensive overview of current and future areas of cooperation between the United States and Asian countries in a variety of areas, from security to economic prosperity to ensuring human dignity. However, concerns remain that the United States a) is not committed to the region in light of ongoing crises in the Middle East and b) does not reliably to commit to foreign policy objectives in light of the recent government shutdown. Ambassador Rice failed to address either of these issues outright, calling the pivot’s viability into question by the very countries the Administration is trying to reassure.
Ambassador Rice reiterated the commitment that the Obama administration has toward the Asia-Pacific region, which remains a “cornerstone” of American foreign policy regardless of other “hotspots” that will emerge, stating that “nowhere are the challenges and the opportunities we face so great as in the Asia-Pacific region.” Expressing the administration’s disappointment that President Obama was unable to visit during the government shutdown in October, Ambassador Rice announced that the President will visit Asia in April “to continue strengthening our ties across the region.”
Ambassador Rice devoted the bulk of her speech to the security dimension of the rebalance. By 2020, 60 percent of the U.S. Navy fleet will be based in the Asia-Pacific, where it will continue to provide humanitarian assistance as well as deterrence against conventional and non-conventional threats. The United States is diversifying its alliances and strategic partnerships as well as encouraging those countries to cooperate more amongst themselves. Addressing the ongoing territorial disputes, she emphasized the need for a code of conduct on the South China Sea that would be a “harbinger of their ability to shape their shared security future.” Each of these statements were supposed to allay our allies' fears.
Thus far, the United States has had a mixed record of making good on these commitments. Its greatest recent triumph has been its rapid and comprehensive response to the natural disaster in the Philippines; to date, the United States has sent fifty ships and aircraft to the region for a humanitarian and disaster relief operation. Such commitment will not only strengthen ties between the two countries but also help reinforce the United States’ security framework in the region should military cooperation with the Philippines increase in the future.
Maintaining stability for the future is also on the administration’s agenda, with Vice President Biden meeting with leaders in Japan, China and South Korea to address the ongoing tensions in the East China Sea. In addition to joining in solidarity with Japan and condemning China’s ADIZ, Biden also met with Chinese president Xi Jinping to ease tensions in the meeting. During a meeting that took place today, Biden described the U.S.-China relationship as “hugely consequential” to affecting the course of world events. This timely and multifaceted approach to addressing tensions in the Asia-Pacific demonstrates that the United States remains concerned about the region and believes that it has a part to play in making sure its allies and partners can resolve this issue peacefully.
But the United States should not only use reactive events such as natural disasters or stability concerns to demonstrate its commitment to the region. There remain concerns that the United States will continue to remain more committed militarily to the Middle East rather than to mitigating threats posed by North Korea or the territorial disputes. Along with this “strategic neglect,” many countries see the planned U.S. defense budget cuts over the next five years as hindering any planned commitments the United States has made. When coupled with the recent government shutdown, there is pessimism in the region that the United States, in addition to having less passion for the region, is actually incapable of commitment given its inability to keep its own government running.
There can be little argument that the Asia-Pacific region remains vital to U.S. foreign policy as a whole and that relations with countries in the region are generally positive. However, such security agreements were around before the “pivot to Asia” and are unlikely to disappear if the pivot/re-balance proves to be a failure. The rise of the Syrian crisis coupled with the ongoing issues the United States is facing in Afghanistan, Iraq and in the post-Arab Spring countries has led many to question if the United States can truly afford to shift its security apparatus to focus more on the Pacific by 2020. Furthermore, the government shutdown in October made it abundantly clear that in the face of domestic turmoil, U.S. foreign-policy objectives take a back seat. The fact that Ambassador Rice took the opportunity to announce the President’s visit during her speech shows that the Administration was aware of the backlash that followed Obama’s cancelled trip. Biden’s visit is another attempt to demonstrate commitment to the region. But without acknowledging outright that there are concerns about the pivot/rebalance and making generally positive statements about U.S. policy in the region, the administration does not appear to be listening to its allies and partners’ legitimate concerns. Actions speak louder than words, and if the actions do not materialize in a timely fashion, the trips will not matter and the speeches will seem like little more than empty rhetoric.
Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s refusal to sign the bilateral security agreement (BSA) with the US has official Washington all but calling for his head. Senator Dianne Feinstein says he is “a cipher.” Tom Donilon, President Obama’s former national security adviser, says he is “reckless.” They’re right: Karzai is all of these things, and then some.
After Afghanistan’s traditional decision-making body, the Loya Jirga, gave the BSA their blessing, Karzai refused to sign it unless Washington moves to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table and guarantees that the U.S. military will no longer raid Afghan homes. On the former matter, Karzai is living in an alternative reality: the United States has been trying to get a recalcitrant Karzai to consent to peace talks for years. On the latter issue, he conveniently ignores that his own security forces and the Taliban represent the greatest threats to Afghan civilians. And, as recent events have shown, he is not too keen to criticize either party, preferring to instead turn his ire on the foreigners who have kept the lights on for his opium republic with their own blood and treasure since 2002.
Karzai has surrounded himself with mendacious, corrupt criminals and warlords, and indulges his government’s worst traits. It therefore fails to surprise this observer that the “zero option”—that is, the removal of all American and NATO troops from Afghanistan after 2014 and provision of little if any financial aid to Karzai’s government—is being seriously considered in Washington—and not just as a negotiating technique, in the wake of Susan Rice’s failed browbeating in Kabul.
Yet, as frustrating as it is to watch Karzai aim a pistol at his own country’s head, the United States must not let its ire for Afghanistan’s jester-in-chief jeopardize its main interests in the region: promoting stability and countering transnational terrorist networks. Unfortunately, neither of these objectives will be well-served by a hasty total withdrawal from the Hindu Kush.
The United States cannot expect to effectively counter and combat transnational militant groups without a special operations and intelligence infrastructure in Afghanistan—which the zero option would uproot—that provides physical and signals intelligence reach into Pakistan and other parts of the region.
As the last Department of Defense-issued report on security and stability in Afghanistan said, "Assessing whether the gains to date will be sustainable will be difficult to do until the exact size and structure of the post-2014 US and NATO presence is determined." In the absence of U.S. financial support and a U.S. military presence of some sort, the gains of the last few years will collapse. If the United States were to keep financial and military aid flowing to the Afghan security forces without some troops on the ground, our oversight mechanisms would thereby perhaps evaporate entirely, leading to even worse corruption. If financial support were cut, the Afghan National Security Forces, now numbering nearly 350,000 members, might fracture into a plethora of disgruntled, unpaid militias. True, as I have argued elsewhere, some fragmentation of the security forces may be inevitable, but with continuing U.S. support, fragmentation would likely be limited to the south and the east, and the army would be less affected than would be the police. The zero option could thus lead to chaos across all of Afghanistan.
Such instability would inevitably bleed over into Pakistan—a nuclear-armed power and a hotbed of anti-Americanism and extremism—and strengthen groups like the Pakistani Taliban in their quest to usurp the state. It would reinforce Islamabad’s reliance on armed non-state proxies, used by Pakistan to try to impose or negotiate a semblance of stability on their northwestern flank, as it attempted to do in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan when it favored the installation of its then-favorite son, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
So what good would the zero option bring? A sense of relief? If so, the reprieve would be ephemeral, for it would take little time for Afghanistan to become a regional—and likely a global—problem once again.
Mr. President: grit your teeth and work with Karzai to ink a deal before Christmas. Close political involvement in Afghanistan, respectful of Afghan sovereignty concerns, can assist in facilitating smooth presidential elections next year—the best way to get rid of America’s Karzai problem.
We Westerners love a good liberation. Whenever protests or rebellion spring up in an autocracy, we cheer on the underdog, the weaker party, the ones facing down the shock troops and riot police of the government—pardon, of the regime. It’s an attractive vision—after all, so much of Eastern Europe freed itself from Soviet-backed tyranny like this, turning their states into some of the West’s staunchest allies. Yet other underdogs we’ve loved have turned out to be less lovable. Egypt’s revolution saw liberals sidelined by the Muslim Brotherhood, which made cack-handed power plays until overthrown by a military dictatorship that’s turning out harsher than Mubarak—and less friendly to Washington, too. Protests in Syria turned over a rock, and found lots of bugs, Al Qaeda among them. Rwanda’s Paul Kagame turned out to be an autocrat and an exporter of violence. Ahmed Chalabi and the Free Iraqi Forces barely turned out at all, except when the chance to loot was involved. We usually ignored the awkward questions about all of them until it was too late, content in a belief that those against dictatorship are for freedom.
The same thing is now happening in Ukraine. President Viktor Yanukovych passed up the chance to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, a step that would have tilted the country toward the West and away from Russia. Yanukovych’s motives were impure: drawing closer to the EU would have required more political openness, potentially creating an opening for his opponents and a platform for jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. And so outraged Ukrainians have poured into the streets in the hundreds of thousands, calling for Yanukovych to step out and the EU to step in. Riot police responded with violence—and the demonstrations continued. The West knows whom it wants to win. The press is breathless. It’s easy to come away with the impression that we’re witnessing a struggle between freedom and tyranny, between European openness and Putinist autocracy, between peaceful protesters and jackbooted thugs.
But sometimes the jackboot is on the other foot. Western coverage of the protests has ignored or downplayed the role of the crypto-fascist All-Ukrainian Union party, “Svoboda.” Its presence, however, is obvious—banners with its three-fingered symbol appear in many photographs from Independence Square in Kyiv. A man in a Svoboda jacket can be seen (at 1:26) in footage of an attack on police protecting a statue. And Svoboda’s leaders have associated themselves with the protest’s most radical action—the occupation and barricading of the Kyiv City Hall. The press noted a Svoboda leader’s claim that the protesters were merely there to warm up, and helpfully pointed out that it was four degrees Celsius outside. Meanwhile, Svoboda head Oleh Tyahnybok declared the City Hall a “temporary headquarters” for the revolution, announced that similar headquarters should be set up around the country, and condemned alleged government plans to restore government control of government buildings. He’s called for “a total social and national revolution,” and urged his supporters to “block and sabotage the work of the local councils where most of the deputies are not patriots. We are starting to rock the boat of the regime. In order to oust this regime, we must lock the entire operation of the state.” All that might count as pertinent information in reports that Ukrainian prime minister Mykola Azarov’s claimed that the protests show “all the signs of a coup d'etat.” Yet it’s absent.
Media outlets also have been cagey about identifying Svoboda’s ideological aims—when mentioned at all, the party’s often branded as merely “nationalist.” Yet they can only be described as national socialists—that is, as members of the statist, ethnocentric, totalitarian family of political movements that have included Italy’s fascists and Germany’s Nazis. Indeed, they were founded under the name Social Nationalist Party of Ukraine, and their official political program should sound familiar to those versed in old fascist manifestos like the Nazis’ Twenty-Five Points. The ideological similarities are deeper than mere ethnonationalism—other fascist hobbyhorses like the empowerment of the military, recapture of irredenta, the return of the diaspora, a central role for the state in the economy and the public settling of old historical grievances are there, too. Svoboda’s logo until about a decade ago was a rune that had once appeared on the crests of several SS divisions, and which is now illegal to display in Germany.
Tyahnybok has tried to clean up the party’s image since his rise to leadership, pushing the most obvious neo-Nazis out (before allying with the groups they then formed) and drawing less attention to contact with other fascist groups. Yet he’s hardly made Svoboda cuddly. It’s rallied against Jewish pilgrims in the city of Uman and branded a gay-rights march “the Sabbath of 50 perverts.” Tyahnybok has complained of a “Moscow-Jewish mafia which today runs Ukraine” and warned of Jewish plans for “genocide” against Christian Ukrainians. And a Svoboda parliamentarian once ranted that Chernivtsi-born American actress Mila Kunis was a “dirty Jewess.”
Of course, the protesters in Kyiv aren’t all fascists, and they have legitimate grievances. Ukraine’s deep east-west split and its ethnic divisions are the real issue. A western Ukrainian has little reason to back Yanukovych; an eastern Ukrainian or an ethnic Russian has little reason to back Tymoshenko. The EU agreement is merely a proxy for this deeper fight. Yet the Western press seems only dimly aware of that. Ignorant of local politics or blinded by preconceived notions, we’ve reflexively cast Kyiv as a battle between East and West, democracy and dictatorship, good and evil. We hype violence by the police, even though they’ve sometimes shown restraint; we silently pass over violence by the demonstrators. We cheer for revolution without considering the value of the order, however troubling, that it aims to replace. And maintaining this simple moral universe sometimes requires us to pretend we don’t see the bad guys, banners streaming and Molotovs at the ready, right in the middle of the good guys’ parade.
As the world continues to wonder whether and when the so-called “Geneva 2” peace conference on Syria will take place, the Obama administration now views negotiations in Geneva as “really the only way to end this conflict,” in the words of Secretary of State John Kerry.
But given the slim chances of reaching a negotiated settlement anytime soon, the administration should recalibrate its Syria policy to reflect the enduring character of the conflict. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns acknowledged this in Geneva on September 30, when he stated that, “The hard truth is that the Syrian conflict is no longer just a humanitarian emergency – it is a protracted crisis. Our assistance should reflect the changing nature of the crisis.” Burns advocated increasing Washington’s support to governments hosting Syrian refugees, and urged “host countries to refrain from restricting or closing their borders, and to offer refuge to all those fleeing the conflict.”
For both strategic and moral reasons, the administration should do as Burns suggests, and more. Specifically, beyond just giving lectures and signing checks, Washington should also admit significantly more Syrian refugees to the United States.
In August, media reports indicated that the U.S. would admit two thousand Syrian refugees. In October, however, Larry Bartlett, director of Refugee Resettlement at the State Department, said that the US will share this two thousand number with several other countries. Bartlett recently told me that these reports that the US would admit two thousand Syrians were not accurate: "We said that UNHCR would refer two thousand Syrians to all resettlement countries by the end of 2013." In terms of how many of these two thousand refugees could or will be resettled in the US, "The United States does not establish specific quotas by nationality as some other resettlement countries do, but we normally accept more than half of UNHCR referrals worldwide," he said. Even this two thousand number, which would have been just a drop in the bucket, turned out to be too good to be true.
The five neighboring countries most affected refugee flows from Syria - Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon—together host about 97 percent of all UNHCR-registered Syrian refugees, pushing each of these countries to the limits of their capacity. Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq "are stretched to their limits," António Guterres, the High Commissioner for Refugees, said at UNHCR's annual Executive Committee meeting in Geneva. In Lebanon, for instance, the total number of refugees—registered and unregistered—is around 30 percent of the country’s total population. Jordan’s mushrooming Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees is now the kingdom’s fifth-largest city. Turkey has even demanded that the West take some of the Syrians it is hosting, going so far as to propose an airlift to fly them abroad. By the end of this year, UNHCR estimates that the Syrian refugee population will swell to 3.5 million.
A decision by Washington to take in larger numbers of Syrian refugees would signal to these and other countries hosting Syrians that the United States is willing to share in shouldering the refugee burden in a way that just writing checks cannot. Refusing to do so would makes U.S. calls, such as Burns’, for host countries to keep their borders open and offer refuge to Syrians smack of hypocrisy.
Despite being the leading international donor of humanitarian assistance to Syrians, the United States has admitted only a trickle of Syrian refugees since the conflict began in early-2011. Of the 69,930 refugees admitted for permanent resettlement to the US in FY2013, just thirty-six were from Syria, compared to, for example, 19,491 Iraqis and 661 Afghans. (In the past, Congress and the White House were reluctant to admit large numbers of refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan, citing terrorism-related concerns; nonetheless, the US has admitted many more Iraqis and Afghans than Syrians.) In FY2012, only thirty-one Syrians were admitted to the US. During FY2011, which encompassed the first half-year of the conflict, twenty-nine Syrians were admitted.
The Obama administration’s actions on Syria have also incurred a moral obligation for the United States to do more to help Syria’s refugees. After declaring that Assad had lost legitimacy and should step down, the administration declared the rebel Syrian National Coalition to be the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Soon, though, the administration pulled the rug out from under the rebels: efforts to provide higher-power weapons to the rebels stalled on the Hill, and Obama refused to enforce his “red line” against the use of chemical weapons in Syria by striking the regime. Today, the moderate opposition has been left “between Bashar al Assad’s militias and Iran and Hezbollah on the first side, and the extremist groups from ISIS and the other extremist groups who belong to al Qaeda on the other side,” as Louay Mokdad, spokesman for the Supreme Military Council (SMC), recently told me.
It’s difficult to argue against the claim that the administration, after creating great expectations of support, has essentially abandoned the rebels. Agreeing to admit more Syrians into the US, beyond being morally justified, would contribute to fighting the perception that Washington will be quick to abandon its foreign proxies when events turn sour.
The number of Syrians admitted to the United States of course pales in comparison to those hosted by Syria’s neighbors. But many EU Member States have also admitted far more Syrians than has Washington. For instance, France, which has accepted over three thousand Syrian refugees since 2011, agreed last month to an additional quota of five hundred Syrians. Germany has agreed to take in five thousand Syrian refugees from Lebanon.
Sweden, which has accepted at least 14,700 Syrians since 2012, has granted permanent residence to Syrian refugees, the only EU member state to do so. As the Washington Post's Lydia DePillis notes, “If a country with fewer than 10 million people can handle tens of thousands of refugees, surely the US can, too.” That the EU has taken in so many more Syrians than has the US, even though the US has both a greater obligation and interest in mitigating the ravages of the war, makes Washington's shortfall all the more shameful.
While State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki is correct that "the preferred solution for the vast majority of refugees is to return home once it is safe," many, like Nizar Al-Halbi (not his real name), want nothing more than to get as far away from Syria as they can, never to return.
When we spoke over coffee this summer in Amman, Nizar told me that he was imprisoned by the Assad regime for raising money to assist Syrians whose homes were destroyed in the fighting, and was brutally tortured during his half-year prison stay. He said that his foremost priority was obtaining political asylum in the West for himself and his family. Although he would occasionally visit Damascus from Jordan, he said that he can never go back for good because of the horrific memories that continue to haunt him.
Nizar expressed how profoundly painful it is for him to see Westerners and others from “normal countries”, as he put it, come to the region and go as they please: “How can coming here be a vacation?” he asked rhetorically. He said that, should he obtain political asylum, he would leave the region and never return. Fortunately for Nizar, he and his family have since been granted asylum in the EU. Countless others are unlikely to encounter the same good luck.
In Congress, support for resettling Syrians in the US is hardly robust. Kirk Johnson, founder of the List Project, which has pushed for domestic resettlement of Iraqi refugees, views obtaining Congressional support for resettlement of Syrians as a tough sell. Getting Congress’s buy-in would require strong advocacy and a mass of sympathetic lawmakers, yet Johnson doesn’t “see either of those necessary ingredients."
However, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), has pushed hard for resettlement of Syrians in the US. He has called for the granting of "humanitarian parole authority" to nearly six thousand Syrian nationals with approved immigrant visa petitions and families already living in America. In March, he and over seventy other members of Congress sent a letter to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano advocating refugee assistance to Syrians attempting to reunite with family members in the US.
On Friday October 25, 2013, Brian de Vallance, Homeland Security's Acting Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs, replied to the letter, writing that the U.S. government has entered "discussions" with UNHCR and "other governments on expanded resettlement of particularly vulnerable Syrian refugees." Rep. Schiff reacted by noting that such "discussions without action" merely show a "lack of decision." "They evidently don't want to say yes and they don't want to say no," he said.
When I asked Rep. Schiff whether he believes allowing more Syrians to settle in the U.S. has any positive implications for U.S. national interests, he said that “the request that I made would apply to Syrians with family members in the United States, so it has a very direct impact on the United States interest in reuniting families. But it also allows the United States to show it has taken a very personal interest in the safety and well-being of the refugees and gives us ‘skin in the game’ in a way quite distinct from providing weapons.” He added that he hopes “to win the support of the White House—a likely prerequisite to success on this issue.”
The time to act is now. In normal circumstances, the process of vetting refugees for admission to the United States can take a year or longer to complete. Heightened security concerns vis-a-vis Syrian refugees will likely lengthen the vetting period. However, as Morton Abramowitz has noted, Washington can and should expedite processing, as it has done with other refugee groups. It is past time for the Obama administration to move on this issue.
In a recent piece for Foreign Policy, Col. Scott Gerber once again demonstrates the widely held misconceptions surrounding Washington’s favorite defense punching bag: AirSea Battle (ASB). Col. Gerber repeats many long-held, factually inaccurate assumptions around ASB. He is not the first to make such points, and likely will not be the last. However, such a line of argument only damages the ability of the defense and security-studies community to debate important issues of military strategy and realistically confront the challenges posed by the rapid rise of anti-access/area-denial technologies (A2/AD) in a highly challenging budgetary environment.
First, let’s put to bed once and for all the talk of ASB as being some sort of strategy. To anyone who has followed the literature on the subject, it should be quite clear that ASB has no intentions of being a strategy. ASB has been defined multiple times and in various settings as an operational concept with limited objectives. An operational concept as defined by one scholar "is used to refer to the application of military power within a certain framework, regardless of the objective to be accomplished.” Clearly, ASB is not a global strategy for combating every conceivable challenge the U.S. military will face in the future. To make such an assumption is ill-conceived and quite dangerous. Could ASB form a battleplan or become part of a wider strategy even in combination with other contenders that ASB is constantly compared to—like offshore control? Absolutely. But to take ASB and give it the title of “strategy,” while flattering, is flat-out false.
So why does this well-worn narrative keep getting respun?
The simplest explanation could be the title itself. Great marketing and catch phrases create great expectations. Anytime you include the word “battle” in some sort of military jargon, scholars and pundits begin to make certain assumptions and the danger of overhyped analysis is always a strong possibility. Adding to this problem is the danger that repeating faulty assumptions over and over allows them to take on a life of their own thanks to social media, the blogosphere, and a relentless twenty-four-hour news cycle always in need of fresh blood, and hence to become tomorrow's fact. So while the true intent of ASB is there for all to see, its meaning is getting lost in all the noise. Scholars who are invested in this issue are robbed of a more meaningful discussion surrounding the operational concept—stuck in a straw-man debate that holds no utility for anyone.
And though only a few years old, the ghosts of early ASB concepts already haunt us. Back in 2010, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments debuted its own report on ASB. Many of the report’s ideas concerning supposed attacks on mainland China and deep-strike options have been overanalysed at nauseum. While the report, important as it was and still is, was not a government-sanctioned policy document. Three years on, ASB has evolved considerably. Reports like the Joint Operational Access Concept, various pronouncements from senior U.S. military officials, as well reports from the ASB office itself, we know once and for the extent of ASB, and it is clearly not a strategy.
In fact, for those who are looking for an exact definition of ASB, we have one we can point to. On October 10, I attended an open meeting of the House Armed Services Committee’s Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee. There, Rear Adm. James G. Foggo put to bed once again any false impressions concerning ASB:
The Air-Sea Battle Concept, approved by the secretary of Defense in 2011, is designed to assure access to parts of the “global commons” – those areas of the air, sea, cyberspace and space that no one “owns,” but which we all depend on – such as the sea lines of communication. Our adversaries’ anti-access/area denial strategies employ a range of military capabilities that impede the free use of these ungoverned spaces. These military capabilities include new generations of cruise, ballistic, air-to-air, and surface-to-air missiles with improved range, accuracy, and lethality are being produced and proliferated. Quiet modern submarines and stealthy fighter aircraft are being procured by many nations, while naval mines are being equipped with mobility, discrimination and autonomy. Both space and cyberspace are becoming increasingly important and contested. Accordingly the Air-Sea Battle Concept is intended to defeat such threats to access, and provide options to national leaders and military commanders, to enable follow-on operations, which could include military activities, as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster response. In short, it is a new approach to warfare.
The Air-Sea Battle Concept is also about force development in the face of rising technological challenges. We seek to build, at the service level, a “pre-integrated” joint force which empowers U.S. combatant commanders – along with allies and partners – to engage in ways that are cooperative and networked across multiple domains: land, maritime, air, space and cyber. And our goal includes continually refining and institutionalizing these practices. When implemented, the Air-Sea Battle Concept will create and codify synergies within and among the services that will enhance our collective warfighting capability and effectiveness.
Clearly, ASB is all about ensuring access to the global commons in areas where nations would deny U.S. forces access. What ASB does not seek to do is develop warfighting strategies for any and all situations. How could a limited operational concept do such a thing? This is where the difference between an operational concept and a strategy stand in direct contrast to one another.
So then if ASB is not a strategy, not some global warfighting doctrine for any and all scenarios, does ASB at least seek to massively constrain the role for our nations’ land forces as Col. Gerber seems to suggest? No. However, to be fair, the threats the United States faces are changing. With the rise of states developing A2/AD technologies, like in the cases of China and Iran, America has rightly begun a shift in focus to the threats and challenges of the future. Does this mean U.S. forces will never find themselves conducting land operations in some capacity in the near future? Certainly not. What it does mean is that just like after 9/11, U.S. forces surged towards capabilities for the times and in the areas where challenges presented themselves. In the current geostrategic environment a new surge of capabilities is needed to address the threats of the present—meaning a focus on defeating A2/AD battle networks. Not shifting focus towards the needs of the present ensures we will lose the wars of the future.
Indeed, when it comes to the topic of A2/AD, Chinese capabilities and American options for dealing with such challenges, Col. Gerber has some interesting ideas:
Something else should frighten us about easy war: The dated strategy relies on dated platforms whose time is passing, namely aircraft carriers and manned strike aircraft. These weapons are not an effective response to the Chinese anti-access threat that is driving current strategic thinking. Current open-source literature discusses how the Chinese are developing a complex, interconnected defensive web. Air-Sea Battle is intended to penetrate those defenses by using a carrier strike group, which represents unstoppable power almost anywhere in the world -- except within 1,500 kilometers of the Chinese coast, where over 500 cruise missiles and 2,000 aircraft protect the mainland.
Review the math. The Chinese DF-21D anti-ship missile can reach targets over a thousand miles away, while the troubled F-35 only has a 670-mile combat radius. The approach offered by Air-Sea Battle just reprises a failed idea from the past that makes no more sense today.
While I do agree with the Colonel that China is developing a complex A2/AD network, ASB does not intend to use only carriers or some narrow version of airpower to defeat such networks. ASB, as described in Foreign Policy’s own pages by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert and Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh is all about further integrating U.S. armed forces and waging combat across multiple domains to lessen the effectiveness of A2/AD. As Greenert and Welsh noted, “we will defeat missiles with electronic warfare, disrupt surveillance systems with electromagnetic or cyberattacks, and defeat air threats with submarines. This is ‘networked, integrated attack’ and it will require a force that is designed for -- and that regularly practices -- these kinds of operations.” There is no overreliance on battle in one domain, one military asset, or one type of warfare in current U.S. strategic thinking. U.S. forces would engage A2/AD networks across multiple domains. Chinese and Iranian A2/AD networks are developing abilities in an attempt to keep U.S. forces out of a potential combat zone. Fighting on our own terms across multiple domains allows U.S. forces to regain the advantage and not fight on someone else’s terms. As Gerber notes “the enemy gets a vote.” So do we.
Could it be that Col. Gerber is invoking dated assumptions on ASB as a defense of an Army that fears cuts in funding in an era of sequestration? As he explains, “History tells us that land wars simply can't be wished away” and that:
excessively small ground forces invite war. Regenerating land power takes years. Predicted mobilization of reserves takes months, and unexpected mobilization takes much longer. During that time, we cede initiative to the enemy. Potential adversaries know this and ruthlessly exploit such opportunities. If we want to avoid fighting on the ground, we had best build an army that can win today.
In today’s budgetary environment—created by political paralysis here in Washington—all branches of the U.S. military are under tremendous strain to ensure they have the resources they need to meet the challenges of the future. While surely after a decade plus of war America’s armed forces can be repositioned into a smaller force that can tackle the threats of tomorrow, sequestration’s axe to the defense budget is creating a poisonous environment. Yet, there is no need to recast old myths or discredited arguments to gain some ill-perceived advantage. Land power is a vital component of any military and anyone who suggests otherwise is foolish. However, the threats our nation face are changing. I would argue now is the time for our valued friends who advocate so passionately for our nation’s land forces to make powerful arguments on how they can make a strong contribution in countering the looming challenge of A2/AD. As noted in the piece in FP penned by Greenart and Welsh, “in September 2012 an Army Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) ashore successfully guided a U.S. Navy SM-6 surface-to-air missile to intercept an incoming cruise missile.” This is just one of many possibilities where service collaboration can foster innovation and tackle the challenges of the future. A leaner and refocused armed forces can serve the national interest without resorting to tired lines of argument that only weakens everyone’s objective—a strong U.S. military.
Not all is lost, however, in Col. Gerber’s argument. We both agree that America must begin to develop the next generation of unmanned weapon systems. A strong case can be made that future allocations of vital defense dollars should be spent developing assets that can fight from long-range, that are stealthy, and can fight in highly contested A2/AD networks in areas where guidance systems and GPS targeting equipment will likely be jammed or of limited utility. Such investments would be vital in maintaining America’s commitment to ensure access to all parts of the global commons while also negating the very real challenges posed by A2/AD that are only growing over time.
Clearly the real debate is not over AirSea Battle, but about the future orientation of America’s armed forces, the challenges they could face, and how best to prepare for such challenges. To that end, we must have an honest debate looking at all the available facts, challenging each others’ assumptions and creating a real strategy to confront the challenges of this century. Not all will agree. Some branches of America’s military could very well see larger cuts than others. Unfortunately, sequestration has turned what would have been a spirited debate concerning the future direction of our military into a internet-based screaming match that highlights untruths and falsehoods. This does nothing but drive us away from the real goal—matching ends to means and deploying in battle a military that can accomplish the tasks its civilian leadership as of it. It’s time we all refocus on the challenges ahead and seek to craft a real U.S. military strategy for the twenty-first century, instead of attacking operational concepts never intended to be a strategy in the first place.
The swarm of journalists killing time in the lobby of Geneva’s Intercontinental Hotel can finally go home. A deal has been reached between Iran and the P5+1 (Germany and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, including the United States) in the ongoing dispute over the Iranian nuclear program. It’s not a final deal--all sides say they want something more comprehensive--and it’s only set to last six months. Yet it’s a remarkable step forward. The Iranian nuclear issue had smoldered for a decade. The diplomatic process appeared useless, if not dead. Only three things changed: Iran enriched more uranium, the world imposed more sanctions, and the risk of war grew. The new deal stands in the way of all three, but its value is broader. American and Iranian diplomats were meeting openly, and were apparently able to hammer out their differences on an important issue. A little more trust between the two states could yield benefits elsewhere. And the deal itself isn’t so bad, at least according to details released by the White House.
Iran agrees to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent, and to “dilute or convert its entire stockpile” of 20 percent enriched uranium within six months. This is reassuring. Taking a unit of raw uranium and producing 20 percent-enriched uranium from it requires far more effort than getting that 20 percent up to the 90 percent or so needed for a typical nuclear device. A large stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium would let Iran create warheads (if it chose to do so) relatively quickly. Diluting or converting Iran’s stockpile makes that take longer, giving monitors and intelligence agencies more time to find them out and giving international leaders more time to craft an appropriate response. Iran had previously resisted restrictions on its 20 percent enrichment--a worrying indicator, given the few peaceful uses such uranium has. A step back from 20 percent enrichment sends a more positive signal about Iran’s intentions.
More importantly, Iran agreed to significant restrictions on the centrifuges it uses to enrich uranium. The faster-working centrifuges that Iran has been developing won’t be used, and Iran won’t be installing new centrifuges. Iran has a lot of centrifuges that have been installed but aren’t yet operating, and the deal appears to keep those from starting up (the White House’s statement isn’t entirely clear, but it is clear that the number of centrifuges enriching will stay roughly the same). And Iran agreed to not build new enrichment facilities, a reversal from what they had suggested was their plan. More enrichment facilities would have compounded the diplomatic disputes, and they’d have made monitoring more difficult.
The heavy-water reactor under construction at Arak, which could allow Iran to make a plutonium-based nuclear bomb, also faces significant restrictions. Meaningful construction will stop. This is a victory for the West--the previous round of talks had broken down after France took a tough stance on Arak, insisting that the interim deal include halting construction. Something like the French position appears to have prevailed, and while it might not have been absolutely necessary to get to this point as quickly as Paris wanted (there are other milestones later in the reactor’s deployment that could also have served as stopping points), it’s better than what we might have expected, even in a final deal.
Crucially, Iran made major concessions on international monitoring of its nuclear facilities. Observers now get daily access to the enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow, potentially giving swifter notice if Iran does decide to bolt for the bomb. They also get more access to Arak, including details of its design that had been kept under wraps. And Iran will make some disclosures that would be required if it signed on to the stringent Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a good omen since getting Iran to sign the Additional Protocol is a key goal of a final deal. But most importantly of all, the facilities Iran uses to make centrifuges will now be monitored, making the diversion of centrifuges to any hidden enrichment facilities harder. This will also allow verification of another element of the deal. Iran agreed not to build up a big stockpile of centrifuges while the deal is in effect, which would have allowed the nuclear risk to continue growing even as negotiators work.
What did we have to give up to get all this from Tehran? The U.S. will suspend key sanctions on Iran’s (already faltering) auto industry and on its trade in gold and oil; Iran will also get access to some of its money being held overseas. And some of the most controversial sanctions, such as restrictions on repairs to Iranian airliners, will also be lightened, while measures will be taken to increase Iran’s access to humanitarian goods like food and medicine. Lifting these restrictions could be win-win, since Iran and its apologists will have a harder time convincing the world that, a la 1990s Iraq, the sanctions are creating enormous human costs. Other governments will face less pressure to push back on the more effective parts of the U.S. sanctions regime.
The deal isn’t perfect. The West made major concessions on its old goals--once upon a time, the aim was “stop, ship and shut,” that is, that Iran would stop enriching uranium, ship its stockpile of 20 percent uranium abroad, and shut down the deeply buried enrichment halls at Fordow. In this deal, Fordow will still be running, Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent uranium will stay in-country, and enrichment will continue. But Iran’s nuclear program and politics had long ago created facts on the ground that made “stop, ship and shut” unrealistic. It’s a loss for the West--had those goals been realized, the risks to international security from the Iranian nuclear program would have been smaller.
There are also some gaps. Long-running concerns about a military facility at Parchin that may have hosted explosives tests needed for developing a nuclear warhead have been put off to the final deal. And it’s not clear whether Iran will still be able to design and test advanced centrifuges, provided it doesn’t use them to enrich. If it successfully does and the deal breaks down, it might begin manufacturing a new generation of more advanced centrifuges several times more productive than the rather primitive IR-1s in use now.
The deal also puts a lot of pressure on international monitors and intelligence agencies to ensure compliance. They’ll need to assure the world that there aren’t hidden enrichment facilities or centrifuge factories. Iran is unlikely to let inspectors traipse around the entire country looking for these things, so the world may have to rely on satellite pictures, spies, and other imperfect tools to monitor Iran’s compliance. There are already rumors of hidden sites--an affiliate of the terrorist group Mujahedin-e-Khalq (the MEK) announced one just last Monday. These can be hard to verify, and even unverified can be exploited by figures eager to wave the bloody shirt against Iran. It’s hard not to see a parallel to the period before the invasion of Iraq, where hard-to-solve factual questions became severely politicized, ultimately allowing a march to war.
And there’s another challenge with the rollout of the deal. President Obama, in an apparent sop to those who want more sanctions now, stated that if Iran reneges, America will “turn off the relief and ratchet up the pressure.” The official White House fact sheet on the deal expresses similar willingness to raise sanctions if things fall apart. While the sanctions regime did a lot to get Iran to this point, it’s not clear how much more it can be expanded in an internationally sustainable way. Things will be even hazier if last night’s deal breaks down in a way that doesn’t turn all the key countries against Iran. Obama’s move to appease his critics may merely box him in, forcing him to take a step in a future crisis that could either escalate it or inadvertently gut the sanctions regime. And either way, some of Obama’s critics don’t appear satisfied. The Senate can bring a House bill strengthening sanctions to the floor if it chooses, and Buzzfeed reporter Rosie Gray tweeted within hours of the deal’s announcement that a senior Senate aide told her “the sanctions...will be voted into law when Senate returns from recess.” The administration has threatened a veto--a weapon President Obama has been hesitant to wield, and which will be especially difficult to use now, with Obama at the weakest he’s been in his entire presidency. If worst comes to worst--say, if his veto gets overriden or the sanctions waivers he’ll have to issue to implement the deal face serious legal challenges--the White House text does leave some wiggle room: the Western countries agree to “Not impose new nuclear-related sanctions for six months, if Iran abides by its commitments under this deal, to the extent permissible within their political systems.” (Emphasis mine.)
Finally, what happens when something inevitably goes wrong with the negotiations process? While yesterday’s agreement gives plenty of cause for optimism, there are too many players, too many variables, and tremendous pressure for everything to go as planned. If a final deal can’t be reached, the indefinite perpetuation of the present arrangement wouldn’t be terrible, as it does put obstacles in an Iranian path to the bomb. Living with this deal forever would be easier for us than for Iran, which still faces painful sanctions like exclusion from the international financial system. Iran certainly has incentives to come to the table with a serious offer in the next six months. But Iran’s leaders might face sabotage from hardliners, or might see Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei again push for a tougher line. The comprehensive talks could also break down in a way that makes key countries blame America more than Iran, endangering the integrity of the sanctions regime and potentially letting Iran off the hook. And this isn’t implausible. Even if Iran tries to hold up its end of the bargain, bad or biased intelligence like I discussed above could make key Congressmen think Iran’s breaking its promises. And then, as a congressional aide told Buzzfeed, “Congress will move forward because Congress believes that, at the very least, after six months, if Iran doesn’t do what we need them to do, Congress will drop the hammer...When six months comes up, the administration will have no leeway with Congress.” Some on our end might be too ready to toss a deal that isn’t so bad.
Does Congress have the ability to scuttle a potential nuclear deal with Iran? White House Spokesman Jay Carney thinks so. During Tuesday’s press briefing, he declared that, if Congress acts in such a way that a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue is “disallowed or ruled out”, it could create “a march to war.”
Many Iran hawks have taken issue with Carney’s remarks, with John Bolton saying that "Neville Chamberlain would be proud.” However, a common feature of these critiques is that they mischaracterize Carney’s argument, by asserting that Carney believes that the imposition of any new sanctions on Iran would derail negotiations and prompt a march to war. Elliot Abrams, for example, wrote that Carney “called any effort to adopt additional sanctions against Iran ‘a march to war.’” Carney did no such thing.
Carney was not necessarily arguing against the imposition of any new sanctions; rather, he was taking issue with Congressional efforts to deny the president the ability to lift existing or forthcoming sanctions on Iran unless “a deal that is acceptable”, in the words of Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), is reached. And what would make a deal “acceptable”—to Congress, that is? Complete cessation of Iran’s enrichment activities, a hardline position that Iran has declared to be completely “unacceptable” and many observers consider incompatible with reaching a deal. Echoing Senator Menendez's position on zero enrichment, Senator Lindsey Graham recently told CNN that a forthcoming bipartisan resolution in Congress will require Iran to cease all enrichment activity and dismantle all of its centrifuges.
Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) has promoted a bill that would prevent any suspension of U.S.-imposed sanctions on Iran until the Islamic Republic completely ceases its enrichment program. In other words, rather than receiving gradual sanctions relief as a quid pro quo for taking positive steps regarding its nuclear program, Iran must do all that is asked of it before receiving anything that it seeks to obtain from the negotiations; forget the incremental process of give-and-take and compromise that are the fundamental basis of diplomacy.
The issue, then, is not so much the potential for new sanctions per se—although the administration has certainly lobbied for months against any new sanctions—but the fact that Congress is acting to tie the president’s hands as his administration attempts to reach a deal with Iran. Obscuring this distinction glosses over the fact that Congress is doing all it can to meddle in the President’s conduct of foreign affairs.
Of course, there will always be some inherent level of tension and contestation between the Executive and Legislative branches when it comes to foreign policy. But rather than playing a healthy game of political tug-a-war, Congress is trying to tie the President's hands, and the result could be a real war.
Many pro-Israel hawks, like Sens. Graham, Menendez, and Corker, have united around the position of zero enrichment and assume that, as the sanctions regime continues to take its toll on Iran and is even strengthened, Iran will eventually be forced to accede to this position. Their logic goes something like this: pressure from sanctions forced Iran to the negotiating table, and greater pressure will force Iran to make a deal, any deal—even one that merely reinstates the status quo ante after Iran has devoted enormous resources to its nuclear efforts and suffered tremendously from sanctions for years.
The problem with this logic—or illogic—is that it is remarkably ahistorical. It ignores that Iran, rather than being in the business of being forced to take actions it would rather avoid, has historically demonstrated tremendous resolution in the face of great pressure—far greater pressure than what Washington and others in the international community are currently exerting on Tehran. For example, in discussing “the last time we fought Iran”—during the so-called “Tanker War”—Bruce Riedel writes that by 1987, Iran
was devastated by the fighting; many of its cities like Abadan had been destroyed, its oil exports were minimal and its economy shattered. But it did not hesitate to fight the U.S. Navy in the Gulf and to use asymmetric means including terrorism to retaliate in Lebanon and elsewhere. Even when our navy had sunk most of theirs, Iran kept fighting, and the Iranian people rallied behind Ayatollah Khomeini.
Sen. Menendez has argued that imposing new sanctions that cannot be lifted until Iran abandons all enrichment activity is "an insurance that Iran complies”. Hardly. The target of this and similar efforts is the White House, not Tehran. How ironic it is that Carney’s critics decry his “march to war” comments, while attempting to impose constraints on the administration that make war more likely.
It’s getting harder to be a hardliner in Iran. President Hassan Rouhani is making overtures to the West, and while he’s hardly revolutionized government—executions continue apace, for instance—his nuclear negotiating team is meeting with the United States and its allies. Perhaps an interim nuclear agreement will be concluded this week in Geneva. And some are even questioning whether the “Death to America” slogan should be retired.
All this has the Islamic Revolution’s most committed loyalists quite worried, and they’ve been working overtime to pressure the new administration to back away from the United States. That’s why, earlier this month, they held a big rally at the former U.S. embassy in Tehran to commemorate the thirty-fourth anniversary of its 1979 takeover. There were chants, burning effigies, burning American and Israeli flags, posters of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, bored dignitaries, and lots of banners and fun headbands. A nice anti-American outing for the whole family—bring your grandma, bring your kids! And, par for the course when hardliners gather, there were insinuations of a sinister American-Israeli-Nazi alliance. Several attendees carried signs, apparently professionally designed and printed, depicting a Star of David with a Swastika inside it:
Look closely at that logo—does it look familiar? If you have an interest in oddball religions or in cloning, it should—it’s an old symbol of the Raëlians, a UFO cult that shot to international notoriety after their 2002 claim that they’d successfully cloned a human being. The Raëlians use the symbol to represent infinities of space and time, occasionally swapping it with a slightly less creepy spiral variation:
The Raëlians have several beliefs that probably wouldn’t appeal to Iranian Islamist hardliners—they tend to be in favor of sensuality, sexual openness and revealing clothing, for example. And one of their major organizational goals is the establishment of an interstellar embassy to greet the aliens when they come back—probably a tough sell for a country that doesn’t seem to like embassies of any kind, especially not ones with big Stars of David on top.
It’s hard to say if parading around Tehran with the logo of a UFO sex cult is the biggest hardline flub ever—there was, after all, that time they put up a mistranslated banner that read, in English, “America Can Do No Wrong”—but it has to be in the top ten. This is hardly the only time the hardliners have stepped in it lately, either—the same day, they released a pair of “Death to America” songs. You can hear one of them here. It’s not the best music, staggering through techno, trance, rock and, briefly, Latin-flavored pop. And hardline outlet Fars News has been scrambling, too—with France having broken up the last round of nuclear negotiations, its editorial cartoonists have struggled to find a consistent message. They’ve blamed French obstruction on manipulation by the Saudis, the United States, and mysterious Jewish hands, some of them with claws (paging Borat Sagdiyev!). If the nuclear negotiations succeed this week, we can look forward to even more delightful gaffes from Tehran’s most tone-deaf propagandists.
In the launch issue of Politico Magazine, Rosa Brooks discusses the tense relationship between the White House and its military commanders. Her piece covers somewhat familiar ground, but one section in particular captures an important dynamic regarding how foreign and defense policy is made. It covers the 2009 Afghan strategy review, which she calls perhaps the “single moment when Obama’s relationship with the military began to sour.” After General Stanley McChrystal’s request for forty thousand additional troops to pursue an expanded counterinsurgency approach leaked to the press, the White House was angered and began to feel boxed in. Obama eventually gave the military most of what it wanted on troop levels, ordering a surge of thirty thousand troops—but he also decreed that “after 18 months those troops would begin to withdraw.”
The way in which this incident played out created mutual mistrust, Brooks says. One White House official told her, “The White House was convinced that the military had a vested interest in escalating the conflict. They felt manipulated.” Pentagon officials, meanwhile, began to think that the White House assumed all of their requests for troops or resources were politically motivated. The result was a self-reinforcing cycle:
Over time, of course, a White House tendency to split the difference is bound to create perverse incentives for military planners, making mutual mistrust self-reinforcing. “If you believe the mission truly requires 50,000 troops and $50 billion, but you know that the White House is going to automatically cut every number in half, you’ll come in asking for 100,000 troops and $100 billion,” says the aforementioned former White House official. “The military eventually starts playing the very game the White House has always suspected them of playing.”
Playing games with the way that one presents options in foreign and defense policy is nothing new. Another is what’s sometimes called the “Option C” gimmick, in which one presents one’s own recommendation as the “sane” middle option between two extreme ones. In their book The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked, Leslie Gelb and Richard Betts described how this process worked during the Vietnam War:
Inside hawks and doves alike could be placated by the dynamics of “Option B” (or “C”—whichever was the option between opposite extremes). This is the technique of giving leeway to the bureaucracy to find its own common denominators. It meant policy papers loaded with false options—two patently unacceptable extremes of humiliating defeat and total war, and Option B.
The problem with an “Option C” approach is a familiar one: it leads to making significant choices without necessarily being aware that one is making them. In Vietnam, the middle option was usually a gradual increase in troops or commitment, couched between the alternatives of total withdrawal or dramatic escalation. Each time, it was framed as the only “reasonable” choice. But over time, the commitment of American lives and resources that the U.S. government made to Vietnam was absolutely enormous, whether or not the mission had a chance of succeeding or was worth the ultimate cost.
In Afghanistan, too, “Option C”-style presentation of options was prevalent. Former CIA officer Bruce Riedel used that model after conducting his initial review in early 2009. Likewise, McChrystal did the same in his request for forty thousand additional troops later that year, couching it between the alternatives of “10,000–11,000 to mostly train the Afghan forces” and “85,000 for a more robust counterinsurgency.”
The dynamic that Brooks highlights is more corrosive than this, however. When Riedel presented his version of “Option C” to Obama’s national-security principals, Bob Woodward writes in Obama’s Wars, “Everyone recognized this for the stunt it was.” When presidents or other senior leaders are presented with a series of options, they know that there’s a good chance they’re being primed to choose an intermediate one, and can correct against this bias accordingly. What Brooks is describing, by contrast, is a situation in which neither side believes that the other’s “Option C” actually represents its preferred option. In her account, the White House believes that the military’s middle option is itself inflated, and as a result the military then believes it has to inflate its own estimates in order to counterbalance this fact.
Is Brooks right? It’s difficult to say from the outside. But if she is, there’s no obvious answer to the problem she lays out. All government agencies are likely to want more resources for their projects, and the White House is always likely to be somewhat skeptical of those agencies’ requests. The stakes are just amplified when it comes to defense—both because saying “no” to the military is politically risky and because military decisions often have life-or-death consequences in a direct, visible way. All of which is to say that, while we should certainly hope for the relationship between the White House and the military to be as healthy as possible, these types of games are likely here to stay.
Image: Tim Green. CC BY 2.0.