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A U.S.-China War in Asia: Could America Win by Blockade?

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Is it viable for the United States to impose a naval blockade against China in a potential conflict? That’s a critical question in the study of China’s maritime and energy strategies.

China’s crude oil dependence is obviously the key variable determining the success and failure of a blockade. Although China can produce many of its vital goods, such as grain and coal, in 2013 China imported 64.5% of its crude oil consumption. Oil-based liquid fuels, such as gasoline and diesel, are vital for vehicles. And an overwhelming proportion of China’s crude oil imports—with the exception of imports from Russia and Kazakhstan—rely on seaborne transportation.

But China’s reliance on seaborne oil imports isn’t matched by its naval capability. It doesn’t have overseas bases to support regular operations in distant regions. By contrast, the US Navy not only possesses formidable ocean-going capabilities, but also quantitative and technological advantages. That asymmetry between China’s high level of reliance on seaborne oil imports and its low level of naval capability to protect those imports means the US Navy could successfully interdict China’s seaborne oil trade.

Although China’s concern about a US blockade is often mentioned, few studies have attempted to provide a quantitative estimate of the consequence of a blockade. Using the inverse formula of energy intensity, drawing on statistics published by British Petroleum and the US Energy Information Administration, I produced a preliminary estimate that an energy blockade cutting off all 87% of oil imports that came by sea (that is, rather than overland or by river) would cause a direct reduction of 6.6% to the Chinese GDP (as measured by purchasing power parities), a figure equivalent to the size of the Australian economy. The indirect damage of a blockade in terms of reducing commercial/industrial efficiency would likely be even more serious. Therefore, I found a naval blockade could produce economic devastation and consequently a viable strategy for the US in a conflict with China.

Having concluded that the potential threat of oil blockade is serious, I then investigated the effectiveness of China’s counterstrategies to such hypothetical threat. I classify China’s counterstrategies to a US oil blockade into two categories: vulnerability-reduction strategies aiming at the protection of oil supply; and conflict-prevention strategies aiming at the avoidance of US blockade via the prevention of conflict with the US.

The two most discussed vulnerability-reduction strategies are the development of the PLA Navy to safeguard the seaborne oil imports and the construction of overland oil pipelines. But because of the large volume of China’s oil imports, and the distance between China and the oil producers in the Middle East, naval convoys would hardly be practical as a means for ensuring secure supply. A hundred-ship oil convoy, either during its 35-day trip, or during its fuelling and refueling, is an easy target for air/missile/submarine attack. Likewise, thousand-mile pipelines connecting China with Russia and Kazakhstan could be cut off by a single air strike. The protection of pipelines is virtually impossible. And complex oil refineries—difficult to rebuild—could also be targeted. Thus, I conclude that vulnerability-reduction approaches are costly and largely ineffective.

Nevertheless, it‘s more realistic for China to seek conflict-prevention strategies to counter a possible US blockade. There are many ways to prevent conflict with the US. For example, there can be ‘soft’ conflict-prevention strategies, such as diplomatic reassurance, and inter-military exchange programs. The key dilemma is that the pursuit of conflict prevention mustn’t hamper Beijing’s core security interests. In this sense, “hard” conflict-prevention approaches—especially more robust nuclear deterrence—might be an essential part of conflict prevention.

Because most contemporary US “war-winning” strategies, including Air-Sea Battle and naval blockade, aim at capitalizing on US conventional advantage, they downplay the “unwinnable” nuclear war. The US can conceptualize a conventional war with China because China, with a much smaller nuclear force can’t initiate nuclear exchange in a war with the US. China needs to transform its strategic nuclear force from one of minimal sole-purpose deterrence to a more robust multi-purpose deterrence. A robust Chinese nuclear deterrence could contribute to war prevention by replacing the option of “winnable conventional war” with “unwinnable nuclear war.” But, in order to construct a nuclear deterrence sufficiently robust to deter the US from engaging in a conflict with China, Beijing must make two major changes: it must renounce its No-First-Use declaration, and build up a strategic nuclear force more comparable to that of the US.

Xunchao Zhang is a student from the PRC who studies at the ANU. Earlier this year he was an intern at the Sea Power Centre-Australia. This article first appeared in ASPI’s Strategist here.

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

Obama’s Rebalance to Asia in His Own Words: Where Does it Stand?

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President Obama had a better than expected visit to Asia for annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), East Asia Summit (EAS), and G-20 gatherings, due largely to a productive summit with Xi Jinping. At the end of his trip in Brisbane, Obama gave his second major speech on the US rebalancing policy to Asia, coming almost three years to the day following an address to the Australian parliament on his previous visit to Australia. A side-by-side reading of President Obama's two major Australian speeches on the subject (he has yet to give a major policy speech on the rebalance in the United States) provides a useful benchmark for assessing the administration's progress in implementing the policy. I found the following takeaways from my reading of the two speeches:

-The fundamental goals of the rebalance to Asia have remained consistent, focusing around the goals of shared security, shared prosperity, and commitments to advancing universal human rights in Asia. The Obama administration can justifiably point to progress in deepening alliances with Japan, Australia, South Korea, and the Philippines and strengthened partnerships with Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, and India, but fallout from a coup d'état has taken Thailand out of the mix (and out of Obama's Brisbane speech). Modernization of U.S. military forces in Asia has made slow and steady progress.

-The Obama administration's rhetorical commitment to energizing institutions such as the East Asia Summit as vehicles for applying international norms to regulate regional behavior remains constant. The United States has reiterated the importance of maritime security, freedom of navigation, and peaceful resolution of territorial disputes, but the Obama administration's words are at risk of being hollow if China takes actions to change the facts on the ground. As a vehicle for upholding mutual restraint among its members, the capacity of the East Asia Summit remains limited. There is clearly more work to be done on this front.

-On the goal of sustainable and shared economic growth, evidence of progress remains slim. Obama's claim that "the United States has put more people back to work than all other advanced economies combined" rings hollow in Asia, which features growth rates that rival the United States. China's slowing growth rate at 7.5 percent still doubles that of the United States. Moreover, the economic pillar of the rebalance depends wholly on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). This is especially the case now that China appears to have overtaken the United States rhetorically in its support for the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP) concept that US officials in the Clinton administration had championed. Without TPP, there will in effect be no rebalance.

-The Obama administration turned allegations of distraction into a virtue by bringing the global agenda to Asia, arguing that the rebalance is "not only about the United States doing more in Asia, it's about the Asia Pacific region doing more with us around the world." In fact, the Obama administration's major successes in Beijing involved catalyzing China to show greater responsibility on global issues such as climate change, the Ebola crisis, and cooperation on countering violent extremism.

-Some Australian commentators have taken offense at Obama's touting of climate change policies in his Brisbane speech that are at odds with the Abbott administration. But a comparison of Obama's Brisbane speech with the one he gave three years ago in Canberra shows that it is not Obama's policies that have changed but those of the Abbott administration compared with its predecessor. Despite policy differences on this issue, security cooperation between the US and Australia has grown closer.

-While pursuing a "constructive relationship with China" and welcoming "the continuing rise of a China that is peaceful and prosperous and stable and that plays a responsible role in world affairs," President Obama insisted that "China adhere to the same rules as other nations," drawing a sharp line against Chinese exceptionalism or efforts to bend international rules to China's favor. In practical terms, the US response to new Chinese initiatives such as the BRICS bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is simultaneously testing both the Obama administration's ability to accept China's rise and whether new Chinese initiatives will abide by or challenge international practices and standards of good governance.

-Despite expanded functional cooperation with China on global issues, the rebalance to Asia continues to draw stark lines between the United States and China on universal human rights and rule of law. The Canberra speech in 2011 highlighted those values by pointing to the failure of forms of nondemocratic "rule by one man or rule by committee" that "ignore the ultimate source of power and legitimacy - the will of the people." This time around, in Brisbane, Obama argued for independent judiciaries and open government "because the rule of force must give way to the rule of law." The universality of human rights has not generally been perceived (or advertised by Obama administration officials) as a centerpiece of the US rebalance to Asia, but it may offer the strongest justification for the policy, even if it is also the most starkly divisive issue with which the region must grapple, as well as the most sensitive issue in the US-China relationship.

So where does the rebalance to Asia stand? The consistency of Obama's two speeches in Australia makes the case that the rebalance is real and credible. But whether or not it is sustainable or sufficient will not depend only on the Obama administration's continued commitment to the policy. It will also depend on the ability of the next American president to carry forward the rebalance in an Asian and global environment that will undoubtedly pose new and even more difficult challenges to US leadership.

Scott Snyder is Senior Fellow for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and co-author with Brad Glosserman of The Japan-Korea Identity Clash (Columbia University Press forthcoming, 2015). This piece first appeared in CSIS:PACNET newsletter here.

Image: White House Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

Speaking Honestly about China's Rising Military Could Get You in Hot Water

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Did China pressure the White House to fire U.S. Navy Captain James Fanell as the top intelligence officer in the Navy’s Pacific Fleet? Or did a self-censoring Pentagon simply do the deed on its own, based on trumped up charges of “revealing classified information.” Methinks Congress—and this nation—needs to get to the very bottom of a shortsighted decision that has profound, long-term implications for the Obama administration’s much-ballyhooed Asia “pivot.”

In fact, Fanell was one of the few top-ranking officers willing to blow the whistle on China’s own ongoing “Crimea moment” in the East and South China Seas. His sin was to go public last February in San Diego at one of the largest annual conferences attended by military personnel and scholars.

Ironically, this WEST 2014 meeting of the minds was sponsored by the U.S. Naval Research Institute. Its stated mission is “to provide an independent forum for those who dare to … speak… to advance …understanding of … issues critical to national defense.”

As to exactly what the good captain “dared to say” that got him fired, he quite accurately pointed out China is aggressively seeking to expand its territory and maritime rights in the East and South China Sea at the expense of virtually all its neighbors—and the U.S. military. In addition, based on his analysis of a Chinese amphibious exercise involving some 40,000 troops—one widely reported in the press—Fanell also stated China was preparing for “a short, sharp war” against Japan.

There is no question about the veracity of Fanell’s statements. Nor is anything he said “classified information,” as anyone can come to exactly the same conclusions from reports in this publication and in many others.

Indeed, the only thing Captain Fanell appears guilty of is telling a hard truth in an administration that apparently believes taking a soft line on Chinese expansionism is a better strategy. While that is debatable, firing an officer for speaking the truth at an academic conference is not just plain stupid; it also runs directly against the grain of the kind of free and open democracy the United States is supposed to be.

Here are two chillingly practical implications based on the Fanell situation. First, no military officer is ever going to tell uncomfortable truths to the American public while in uniform if he or she wants to keep adding stripes to the sleeve.

Second, no future conference putatively pledged to daring to speak the truth will ever have any credibility. Instead, such conferences will be seen, and rightly, as forums for the propaganda and spin of whoever is sitting in the White House or running the Department of Defense.

That said, here’s the far bigger implication: In firing Fanell, the Pentagon—already under the siege of sequestration—has shot itself in the budgetary head. Indeed, if American taxpayers are going to be counted on to foot the defense-budget bill, they certainly must be kept in the national-security loop. Absent candor on the growing China challenge, it will be impossible for the U.S. Navy to ever get the kind of budget support it is will need to truly pivot to Asia.

To this point, the putatively pivoting White House is doing a dandy version of “Honey, I shrunk the navy.” The U.S. fleet is down from a peak of 600 ships during the Reagan years to well below 300; and could be on its way to breaking the 200-ship barrier—unless you pad the count with hospital ships as the Pentagon has started to do.

To understand the looming problem, just work through this “pivot math”: President Obama has pledged to shift 60 percent of the fleet to Asia from an original 50 percent. However, 60 percent of a shrinking fleet will mean that by 2020 the United States will have fewer ships in the Pacific than it does now. That sounds more like a retreat than a pivot.

So how about we get to the bottom of a seemingly small story that might otherwise quickly die? There is indeed far more at stake here than one man’s career. Let the Congressional hearings begin.

Peter Navarro is a business professor at the University of California-Irvine and director of the Netflix documentary Death By China.

Image: Flickr/Official U.S. Navy/CC by 2.0

TopicsDomestic PoliticsDefense RegionsChinaUnited States

Post 9/11 Stat You Should Know: America has now Conducted 500 Targeted Killings

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The most consistent and era-defining tactic of America’s post-9/11 counterterrorism strategies has been the targeted killing of suspected terrorists and militants outside of defined battlefields. As one senior Bush administration official explained in October 2001, “The president has given the [CIA] the green light to do whatever is necessary. Lethal operations that were unthinkable pre-September 11 are now underway.” Shortly thereafter, a former CIA official told the New Yorker, “There are five hundred guys out there you have to kill.” It is quaint to recall that such a position was considered extremist and even morally unthinkable. Today, these strikes are broadly popular with the public and totally uncontroversial in Washington, both within the executive branch and on Capitol Hill. Therefore, it is easy to forget that this tactic, envisioned to be rare and used exclusively for senior al-Qaeda leaders thirteen years ago, has become a completely accepted and routine foreign policy activity.

Thus, just as you probably missed the tenth anniversary—November 3, 2012—of what I labeled the Third War, it’s unlikely you will hear or read that the United States just launched its 500th non-battlefield targeted killing.

As of today, the United States has now conducted 500 targeted killings (approximately 98 percent of them with drones), which have killed an estimated 3,674 people, including 473 civilians. Fifty of these were authorized by President George W. Bush, 450 and counting by President Obama. Noticeably, these targeted killings have not diminished the size of the targeted groups according to the State Department’s own numbers.

This piece comes courtesy of CFR's blog Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

America's Immigration Nightmare Continues

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I disagree with the president’s use of executive power to protect illegal immigrants who have openly defied our laws for years. But he’s right to say that our immigration policy is “broken” and we have “de facto amnesty.” Neither party wants to deport them. Illegal immigrants eventually become Democratic voters. If they do not attain citizenship, their children get it automatically by birth and will likely vote Democratic when they are eighteen and throughout their lives. What’s more, a number of Republicans, ignoring these long-term political effects, like immigration because it depresses wages, thereby helping businesses.

Republicans have given us de facto amnesty by executive inertia for decades. President Reagan signed the first amnesty law (the Immigration Reform and Control Act) in 1986. The other part of that law was supposed to crack down on employers who knowingly hired illegal workers. This was never enforced. The law is a farce. When Republicans controlled the White House, they did nothing to beef up enforcement. The only difference between that and what President Obama has done is a formal announcement. And if I had to choose between an announced amnesty and a stealth one, I’d rather have it announced. At least the public knows who to blame when they suffer the unintended consequences—lower wages for high-school graduates, more people on entitlement programs and so on.

Every Republican member of Congress knows we don’t enforce the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). They also know that millions of illegals work every day in agriculture, food processing, construction and other low-wage jobs. They could have held hearings, subpoenaed the owners of the major ag and poultry processors to testify, humiliated them on national television, enlarged the budget for workplace enforcement of IRCA and all the other tools that make for high Washington drama. When Congress gets its blood up, things change.

But the opposite occurred. When the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) raided a major Georgia onion farm and arrested hundreds of illegal workers, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), a conservative who says he is against illegal immigration, demanded the DHS stop raids in his state. They stopped. The same thing happened in Nebraska when meat processors were raided, and in Texas when chicken processors were briefly put on the spot. Republicans came to the rescue of business.

Is President Obama’s executive “action”—more aptly, inaction—any worse? I think not. He is essentially doing two things: exercising discretion in who gets deported and issuing work permits to millions of illegal immigrants. He has the authority to do the first. Congress has not appropriated enough money to deport all the illegals in the country. So someone has to prioritize who gets removed. That someone is the federal agency in charge—the DHS.

So the president can effectively promise the illegals in the country who have not committed a subsequent crime that they won’t be deported. They can’t all be deported, unless the Republicans in control of Congress seriously want to purge the nation of illegals, and as I’ve said, they plainly don’t want that. President Obama was correct to point out in his speech that Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush had issued executive orders to protect groups of illegals from deportation. Republicans at the time did not oppose it. He made his actions sound like they were being reasonable and humane, rather than usurping of congressional prerogatives.

Speaker Boehner’s speech deplored Obama’s executive actions. But listen closely and you will not hear a single Republican advocate deporting the millions of illegals the president will protect. They apparently agree with the president that deporting long-term illegal is is “not who we are.” They are merely angry that the president is acting “unilaterally,” just as they have done for decades when they held the presidency.

Republicans also say they will deny funding for the executive action. I fail to see how deferring deportations costs anything. Rather, it saves money. And as for the issuance of work permits, I read in the New York Times that Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the part of the DHS that issues them, is self-funding—that is, it generates money from fees it charges for documents, rather than by appropriations. If so, then the talk of a cutoff is simply bluster. The president ended his speech by saying immigrants are a “net plus.” Many economists disagree, pointing out that the effects of the last two decade’s historic levels of immigration are lower wages for American workers with high-school educations. And almost all of the new jobs created by immigrants went to the immigrants themselves. So it’s a net minus. The only political figure to make this point is Sen. Sessions (R-AL). I hope that those Republicans who say they deplore the president’s actions will soon outline an alternative immigration point of view.

Howard W. Foster is a lawyer specializing in civil RICO cases involving the employment of illegal immigrants.

TopicsImmigrationDomestic Politics RegionsUnited States

Understanding Georgia's Evolution

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The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has kept reignited Western attention focused on the former Soviet republics, a varied group of countries often misunderstood by outsiders. Last week Georgia returned to the news due to perceived tumult within the government. On November 5, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili dismissed the Defense Minister, Irakli Alasania, following the latter’s comments regarding the arrest of employees of his ministry. Two other ministers then resigned in solidarity. Commentators were quick to emphasize Mr. Alasania’s pro-Western credentials, and to cast into doubt the commitment of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition to its Euro-Atlantic trajectory. A domestic political dispute was contrived to suggest that Georgian Dream is not Western in orientation and is using the judicial process to punish its political rivals.

These suggestions are unfounded. The recent dismissal and resignations are domestic political issues and have no connection to the course of foreign policy.  It is not surprising that this dispute allowed some opponents to accuse Georgian Dream of being secretly controlled by anti-Western forces, as this is a frequent albeit unfortunate feature of our politics. Political disagreements erupt for many reasons and are a natural part of democracy, and in parliamentary democracies like Georgia’s—as is true of most European countries—political movement at these times often seems excessive.  For Georgia, a more experienced democracy might have explained the events of last week more coherently, but even so the explanation would not have focused on judicial overreach or the judiciary’s meddling in politics.  Parliament and the government have in fact worked to improve judicial independence and to ensure the proper tools are in place to prevent the judicial process from being politicized, preventing the law enforcement system, specifically the Prosecutor’s Office, from becoming pulled into the epicenter of the political process, to introduce certain legal tools to protect the Prosecutor General and his/her deputies from having to take a position on political issues. The law enforcement system, including the Prosecutor’s Office, must be kept out of the political epicenter. This is one of the most important lessons we have learnt from recent events. We must consider this and improve our work.

Georgia’s ambitions to join NATO and the EU are as strong as ever. No political party would seek to change this course, not least because of the inevitable backlash from voters, who overwhelmingly favor integration with NATO and membership in the EU. Only this summer Georgians celebrated the ratification of an association agreement with the EU, and in September they welcomed the package for enhanced cooperation that was offered at the NATO summit. Overwhelmingly, Georgians support their country’s European and Euro-Atlantic integration. This is a firmly-grounded conviction, which is impossible to change or reverse overnight.

Despite Georgia’s commitment to its Euro-Atlantic trajectory, it also needs relations with Russia, its largest neighbor and an important trade partner. NATO and the EU support the improvement of Georgia’s relations with Russia, as does the American government. Vilifying the current government’s difficult work to improve certain aspects of that relationship is not only unhelpful for Georgia, but damaging to the stability of the wider region. Furthermore, as many commentators seem to have forgotten, there are strict and inescapable domestic limits on any Georgian government regarding rapprochement with Russia: relations cannot be normalized until Russia ceases to recognize the independence of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and withdraws its forces from Georgian territory.

The current government has worked to lessen tensions, to reduce the danger of conflict, and to improve less-politicized areas such as trade and visas. Neither NATO nor the EU is prepared to bankroll Georgia or defend it militarily if another conflict erupts with Russia. This was made eminently clear in 2008 and more recently when conflict broke out in Ukraine. It is illogical to suggest that Georgia’s government is anti-Western simply because it understands this reality.

A Euro-Western trajectory has been pursued by Georgian policy makers for over twenty years; it was neither the discovery of former president Mikheil Saakashvili, nor is its continuation dependent upon individual politicians like Irakli Alasania. Many generations of Georgians since 1990s have contributed to Georgia’s Western trajectory, I need to admit that President Saakashvili and Irakli Alasania did their best in that regard. In spite of the exact balance of power in Parliament and the government, the country’s direction remains unchanged.  A stronger political opposition may emerge in our parliament as a result of last week’s events, but this is a positive development. An opposition willing to work constructively with the majority, and ready to hold it  accountable, will foster a political landscape in which parties compete for the mandate to build a strong, secure, democratic Georgia, able to stand independently as an ally and member of NATO, the EU, and the transatlantic partnership.

Tedo Japaridze is the former Georgian foreign minister and current chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Georgian parliament.  

Image: Wikicommons/Creative Commons 2.0. 


The ISIS Challenge Online: When Twitter Becomes Anti-Social Media

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The so-called “Islamic State” owes more to Stalin than to Muhammad.

For the millions of Arabs suffering under its rule in Syria and Iraq, IS (also known as ISIS) publicly beats women for accidentally exposing a stray strand of hair, cuts off the fingers of old men caught smoking cigarettes, marks the houses of Christians and other religious minorities so that they can be killed.

No offense seems too small for ISIS not to punish harshly. Merely uttering of the word “Da’ish” — the Arabic acronym for “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” a nomenclature the organization rejects — is punishable by stoning.

While the reality on the ground is harsh, the view of cyberspace is oddly attractive to too many Westerners.

ISIS has won hundreds of thousands of followers and fans on Twitter and Facebook. Its seventh-century views are promoted through a deft social-media campaign: Jihadists from all over the world now holed up in ISIS territory transmit Tweets calling for new recruits in their respective native tongues. YouTube clips of masked men beheading Western hostages give the group an outlaw allure among young people in Europe and America.

And it works. Hundreds of British subjects and French citizens have left their comfortable lands to make dangerous journeys into war-torn Syria, where more than 200,000 civilians have been killed and millions displaced since 2011.

How can a free society counter such a cyber campaign?

Part of the answer lies beyond the realm of social media itself. Governments must wage information campaigns to dissuade Westerners from joining ISIS in the first place and police and intelligence services must track down those who do join nevertheless.

Social policy is also part of the solution. Studies of the life stories of Europeans and Americans who eagerly join ISIS point to a range of factors that made them vulnerable to the group’s call. They are desperate for the sense of meaning that comes from being part of a larger struggle. Western society has taken away so much responsibility from school- and college-aged youth; many Western recruits talk about wanting to make their own decisions and do something that they choose. Others report that they feel comforted by the total ideological embrace of radical doctrines. The creed’s severity—in direct opposition to liberal society’s notion that the individual can do whatever he chooses provided he doesn’t harm others—is part of the attraction. Still others report that their immigrant statuses make them feel as if they don’t belong in the Muslim lands that their parents left and don’t belong in the wild Western lands in which they now live. Joining ISIS takes them out of the uncomfortable middle ground. So a radical imam’s incendiary exhortations give them a sense of belonging, a side.

Addressing these matters requires cultural, political and social interventions that will entail coordination among government, domestic religious leaderships and mental-health institutions.

But the biggest part of the solution to anti-social social media lies not on the ground, but in cyberspace itself, where old-fashioned tools of warfare need to be reimagined. Traditional notions of deterrence do not have obvious utility in a campaign to counter social-media activity by a terror group.

Still, Western intelligence agencies appear to have stumbled upon one possible solution—a way of using advanced hacking techniques to force ISIS activists to pay an intolerably high price for some of their Tweets. Among the many boastful Tweets and blog entries posted from ISIS territory, some appear to have provided valuable intelligence to Western governments at war with ISIS, including the locations of hidden military targets.

Many of these telltale admissions were unconscious ones by ISIS recruits. Darien Kindlund, director of threat research at the American cybersecurity company FireEye, notes that metadata available through social media “… can contain information about the identity of the author, when the content was created/modified, and potentially reveal location information around where the content was authored.”

ISIS has noticed that its online sword is indeed double-edged. ISIS now warns its followers that the amount of documents and files that they are posting via social media could expose ISIS targets and, as ISIS leaders put it, the “data that could turn your hair gray.”

To the extent that some of ISIS’ “soldiers” of social media have grown fearful and reluctant to post new material—which appears to be the case—the siphoning of intelligence information from a social-media campaign does constitute a form of deterrence.

There also needs to be an offensive campaign via social media. It would necessarily include, on the one hand, a campaign of videos, Tweets and other postings that expose the hypocrisy of the ISIS ideology and how it strays from normative Islamic teachings. But truly regaining the initiative would entail the use of social media to reframe the broader discussion of Islam and Jihadism.

The United States has new technological capacities to analyze hundreds of millions of social-media messages by jihadists dating back to 2001, according to recent congressional testimony by Dr. Dafna Hochman Rand of the Center for a New American Security. Such analysis would enable the United States and its allies to more thoroughly understand the flow of ideas and map the successes and failures of competing arguments and narratives about religion and political violence online.

Once the patterns are analyzed, a new creative campaign could be organized to bring moderate religious leaders together with artists, writers and musicians. They would collaborate to construct a new narrative about the role of Islam in the future of Syria, Iraq and the broader Arab region. Where ISIS butchers tweet the joys of carnage, their opponents would tweet the virtues of civil society and understanding. Where ISIS beheads an innocent, its opponents would use art to breathe new life into the true teachings of Islam’s beloved prophet. And where ISIS spews hatred of all non-Muslims, as well as Muslims who disagree with them, its opponents would make the case that peaceful coexistence is the only answer to the turmoil of the Arab world today.

Singapore offers a compelling model upon which to build. When that city-state saw a substantial influx of radical religious teachers, its intelligence services quickly realized that they were too numerous to monitor or to arrest, and instead sparked a backlash. Instead, they launched a public-information campaign to demonstrate how radical groups have strayed from Islam. Osama bin Laden gave his fighters permission to drink alcohol, they pointed out, when Islam teaches no one has the power to ignore divine commands. They connected radical groups to dictatorial and unpopular nations. And so on. Calling on people to be good citizens or avoid violence simply won’t work. Engaging radical Islamic ideology directly and pointing out its internal contradictions and flaws does work.

Other models come from the Arab world. The so-called “prison debates” in Egypt—in which former radicals openly argued with active terrorists—and the televised debates in Tunisia between Jihadists and genuine Islamic scholars show that the radicals usually lose these intellectual fights. Why not host such debates online?

If we do nothing, Westerners will keep getting on planes to join ISIS and civilians in both the West and East will keep getting killed.

Ahmed Charai is publisher of the weekly Moroccan newspaper L'Observateur and president of MED Radio, a national broadcast network in Morocco, MEDTV network and chairman of the board of Al-Ahdath al-Maghrebiya Arabic daily newspaper. As an expert on Morocco and North Africa, he sits on the Board of Trustees of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He is a member of The National Interest's Advisory Council.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 


Australia Can Lead the G20 Back to Economic Freedom

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President Obama and other G20 leaders should listen carefully this weekend (Nov. 15-16) in Brisbane, because Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has a powerful story to tell them about economic revival.

Abbott hopes to focus the gathered heads of state— representing some 80 per cent of the world’s Gross Domestic Product—on how to boost economic growth because, as he says, stronger economic growth is the key to addressing almost every global problem.  Growing economies tend to produce more jobs, better infrastructure, freer trade and greater international co-operation.

Australia is already leading by example, inking job-creating free trade agreements with Korea and Japan.  Abbott took office just 14 months ago. Since then, Australia—a country of fewer than 24 million—has created 110,000 net new jobs. Meanwhile, gross domestic product (GDP) has grown at an annualized rate exceeding three percent.

While the Abbott government actively pursues free trade, the Obama administration has dragged its feet. It blocked approval of Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) negotiated in 2007 with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, then spent nearly four years renegotiating them. It has also dragged out negotiations for Trans-Pacific and Trans-Atlantic FTAs, and made no attempt to push an FTA for Brazil. Its support of the pro-market “Pacific Alliance” trade area of Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama and Peru has been lukewarm at best.

On the home front, President Obama has followed the EU mega-welfare-state model, ramped up government spending, and added onerous layers of regulation. In the latter area, the U.S. president has far outdone the Europeans.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute reports that the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations (CFR)—the "codification of the general and permanent rules published in the Federal Register by the departments and agencies of the Federal Government"—filled 175,496 pages by the end of 2013.  In Brussels, the “Acquis”—the European Union’s rough equivalent to the CFR—tops out at roughly 170,000 pages.

What’s worse, under Obama the CFR has been growing. According to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, 63 Federal departments, agencies and commissions issued 3,659 rules last year, yet Congress passed and the President signed just 72 laws. That’s a ratio of 51 new regulations for every new law!  Overall, in his first five years in office President Obama added 17,522 pages of regulations to the CFR, an 11 percent increase in the size of the regulatory state.

The Abbott government, however, has gone in the other direction.  Under its twice-yearly “Red Tape Repeal Day” it has now eliminated more than 57,000 pages of unnecessary red tape under a plan expected to save Australian taxpayers at least $2 billion per year.  Although the mechanics of regulation are different in the U.S. and Australia, there can be no mistaking the starkly different approaches of the Obama and Abbott governments.  Obama wants to grow the administrative state, while Abbott wants to rein it in.

Perhaps PM Abbott’s most exciting move to date has been his government’s repeal of carbon and mining taxes.  Such regressive taxes destroy jobs, retard economic growth, and fall most heavily on the poor. Even sadder, they don’t make a dent in global greenhouse gas emissions and therefore have no noticeable impact on global temperatures.

In short, the Aussies are busily taking steps to grow their economy. Meanwhile, the U.S. economy remains hamstrung by the unworkable complexities of Obamacare, a heavy-handed, top-down approach to financial regulations, wrong-headed energy and environmental policies, and a whole host of other problems that have resulted from too much government.

Much of the EU faces the same problems, and for the same reasons.  A voracious appetite for spending by EU governments is eating up nearly 45 percent of GDP.

Prime Minister Abbott wants other G20 countries to send the same message to their citizens that he is sending to Australians, that the country is open for business—not hostile to it.

After last week’s midterm elections, President Obama said that he had heard the message delivered to him by the American people.  Let’s hope he listens to our friends down under, too.

James M. Roberts is a Research Fellow For Economic Freedom and Growth at the Heritage Foundation. Before joining Heritage in 2007, Roberts served in the State Department for 25 years. As a Foreign Service Officer, he completed tours of duty at U.S. embassies in Mexico, Portugal, France, Panama and Haiti. He also worked on a wide variety of international trade issues and helped to coordinate major U.S. assistance programs, including efforts to reform Eastern Europe economies and to reconstruct Iraq.

TopicsG20 RegionsAustralia

Green Politics: Could This Be the Secret to Saving Obama’s Legacy?

The Buzz

Judged by his achievements to date, President Obama will not be remembered as a successful foreign policy president.  Yet there are signs that administration officials still hope to rescue a positive legacy for the president in the guise of energy and environmental policy.  Through a combination of domestic policies and international agreements, the White House might yet bequeath some policy triumphs of lasting significance.  Unfortunately, however, the political pathway to success will not be easy for Obama’s team even in this chosen area of focus.

It is a truism that presidents in their second term turn to foreign policy as a way to cement a legacy for themselves.  Partly, it is argued, this is because second-term presidents suffer from waning influence in the domestic arena as their political capital dwindles and attention gravitates towards who will be the next to occupy the White House.  Six years into his presidency, President Obama certainly lacks the kind of clout in domestic politics that he began with, the Democrats having lost control of the House in 2010 and the Senate in last week’s elections and with Obama’s personal approving rating leaving much to be desired.

Chief executives looking to inject some energy into their presidencies are also said to be inclined towards international affairs because of the supposed leeway that the commander-in-chief enjoys over matters of foreign policy.  This notion was best captured by political scientist Aaron Wildavsky in his 1966 article, “The Two Presidencies,” in which Wildavsky argued that U.S. presidents are severely constrained by constitutional checks and balances when it comes to domestic policy-making but are veritable Caesars when it comes to their authority over the country’s conduct on the world stage.  How else to leave an imprint on the political landscape when gridlock in Washington prevents progress on domestic issues?

Is Obama trying to leverage this fabled outward face of the presidency to craft a lasting legacy for himself?  There are signs to suggest that he is.  Earlier this year, for example, the White House used executive orders to expand the scope of federal conservation zones in the Asia-Pacific in a move that was explicitly framed in terms of the Administration’s broader policy on climate change: “The pristine waters [of the U.S.-controlled Pacific Remote Islands] provide a baseline comparison for important scientific research that monitors and evaluates impacts of global climate change,” the Administration insisted, “including benchmarking coral bleaching and ocean acidification.”

More dramatically, the president this week revealed a quietly negotiated deal with China over cuts to carbon emissions.  While skeptics have pointed out the underwhelming scope of China’s commitment under the new agreement, the size of America’s undertaking is ambitious and headline-grabbing, sure to appease the president’s supporters at home and likely to buoy his relevance as an international leader amid criticism that the Administration is a spent force.

All of this pales in comparison to the lucrative opportunities on offer next year at the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference to be held in Paris.  After the failure of Copenhagen, the Paris conference will represent a somewhat last ditch opportunity for President Obama to inspire, coordinate and close a broad-based and far-reaching deal on climate change.  The result could be an international agreement more significant than even the Kyoto Protocol, especially if Obama is able to fully invest the United States in the agreement and ensure the compliance of other large-scale emitters of greenhouse gases.

The problem for the White House, however, is that Wildavsky’s “two presidencies thesis” is somewhat overblown.  That is, U.S. presidents do not wield unlimited power when it comes to foreign policy.  Instead, and as James Lindsay among others has pointed out, Congress possesses several important levers with which to interfere with and even overrule a president’s foreign policy agenda.  The Administration’s abject nervousness that Congress might initiate legislation to undercut negotiations with Iran is testament to this fact.

As Paul Pillar has already noted, the domestic process of converting international agreements on climate change and energy will throw up some “formidable” obstacles to Obama making good on his pledges regarding energy and environmental policy.  Public spending on renewable energy technologies and new measures to restrict the use of fossil fuels will not be slam dunks with Republican lawmakers, and not every roadblock in Washington can be circumnavigated via executive action.  The bottom line?  President Obama will need to work across the aisle if his climate change agenda is to amount to more than restricting tuna fishing in the Pacific Remote Islands.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsEnvironment RegionsUnited States

Breaking Down Obama’s Big China Win at APEC: It's Not What You Think

The Buzz

Let’s be clear, the United States won big this week, but not for the reasons most people think. The media and China analysts have focused overwhelmingly on the climate deal, touting the new commitments from both the United States and China as exceptional, even “historic.” But this is missing the forest for the trees. The real win for U.S. President Barack Obama is keeping China in the tent or, in political science speak, reinforcing Beijing’s commitment to the liberal international order.

To be sure, the climate “deal” is no small deal. The joint announcement—and for the sake of clarity, let’s note that there is no real deal here, just two separate pledges presented together—represents an important step forward for both countries. President Obama has committed the United States to deeper cuts in CO2 emissions than previously put forth, and Chinese President Xi Jinping has promised that China’s emissions will peak around 2030. But it doesn’t get the world where it needs to be with regard to climate change, and many climate experts in both countries appear to agree that much more can and needs to be done by both countries.

The real takeaway from the Obama-Xi meetings at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit is that China has put itself back in the U.S. game. The entirety of the package—extending visas, establishing rules of the road for maritime and air encounters in the western Pacific, reducing or eliminating tariffs on as many as two hundred information technology goods, and pledging to do more on climate change—is a win for the United States. That doesn’t mean it is not a win for China too; it is. It is just a win that binds China more deeply to U.S.-backed international security, trade, and environmental regimes.

Keeping China in the tent is no small achievement. Over the past two years, since he assumed power, President Xi has pursued a China vision of world order, evincing much more interest in flouting established rules of the road than in buttressing them. He has moved to enforce China’s maritime claims—recognized by no other party—in the East and South China Seas; proposed an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank that could compete with the World Bank and Asian Development Bank; offered up a new regional security architecture in Asia that would exclude the United States; and initiated an Asia-Pacific–wide free trade agreement that threatens to upend President Obama’s drive to complete the U.S.-backed trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The APEC summit does not represent a strategic change for China but a tactical one. Xi is not stepping back from any of his own efforts to establish competing institutions; indeed, he underscored his plans during his joint press conference with President Obama. The U.S.-China relationship will thus continue to be a challenging one underpinned by two competing visions of global order. Nonetheless, the White House can rightly claim a significant win for its China and broader Asia strategy. The pivot has proved its worth; it is here to stay.

This piece appears courtesy of CFR's Asia Unbound blog. 

Image: White House Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina