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China, America and the "Appeasement" Question

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In February 2014, Philippine President Benigno Aquino warned that failure to challenge the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) territorial seizures in the South China Sea would be repeating the 1930’s era appeasement of Hitler’s Germany. The Chinese were predictably outraged while the rest of the world mostly ignored President Aquino.

“Appeasement” is still a dirty word. But in the 1930’s, until the Nazi’s invaded Poland in September, 1939, European and American elites considered appeasement to be a sophisticated, nuanced approach to dealing with increasingly powerful authoritarian regimes.

To these elites, appeasement was more than simply disarming and letting unpleasant people have their way. Appeasement actually had a coherent logic.

The elites believed that aggressive, authoritarian regimes act the way they do out of fear, insecurity, and at least partly legitimate grievances – such as German resentment of the harsh Treaty of Versailles. Understand and address these issue, remove their fears, and the regimes will become less aggressive and transform into responsible members of the international community and operate under international norms.

Or so the elites argued.

Challenging these regimes could dangerously isolate them and even needlessly provoke them into “miscalculations.”

The elites thought “engagement” and “transparency” were beneficial in their own right, as only good things could come from familiarity with one another. In the 1930’s, the major Western powers all attended each other’s war games. The US Marine Corps even took the German World War I fighter ace, Ernst Udet on a ride in a USMC dive bomber. This “engagement” and “transparency” did not make the Nazis nicer, but perhaps gave them some ideas about dive bombing and “Blitzkreig.” Even the Soviets and Germans had close ties with joint training, military technology development, and raw material shipments to Germany.

There was also extensive political and diplomatic interaction. Close economic ties were believed to be a further hedge against conflict breaking out, and companies such as Ford, IBM, and many others did profitable business in Germany.

The elites believed anything was better than war. Preserving peace, even if sacrificing principles – and certain small nations – was considered wise and statesmanlike. People who criticized appeasement policy in the 1930’s, most notably Winston Churchill, were ridiculed as dolts and war mongers.

We know how this turned out.

Curiously, appeasement (by another name) reappeared even before the end of the war in calls to address Stalin’s ‘fears’ and allow him to dominate Eastern Europe. And throughout the Cold War, in Western academic and government circles it was argued that Soviet behavior was simply a reaction to fears of Western containment. The appeasers protested the peacetime draft as threatening the Russians. They also pushed for unilateral nuclear disarmament, and opposed the Pershing missile deployment and the neutron bomb well into the 1980’s.

Even President Jimmy Carter, once he overcame his “inordinate fear of communism,” tried something akin to appeasement as national policy. It was not until the Soviets invaded Afghanistan that Carter learned his lesson.

It perhaps will take another case of an authoritarian regime rearranging its neighborhood to understand the cost of modern appeasement.

US policy towards China over the last 30 years, and particularly in recent times, seems familiar. The United States does its best to understand the PRC’s concerns and its resentments going back to the Opium Wars and the ‘century of humiliation’, to accommodate these resentments, and to ensure China does not feel threatened. Defense and State Department officials enthusiastically seek greater transparency and openness – especially in the military realm – as such openness is perceived as inherently good.

In return, the PRC is expected to change, to show more respect for human rights and international law and to become a “responsible stakeholder” in the international community.

We now have several decades of empirical evidence to assess this concessionary approach. It has not resulted in improved, less aggressive PRC behavior in the South China Sea or the East China Sea, or even in outer space. Indeed, it seems to have encouraged Chinese assertiveness as manifest in threatening language and behavior towards its neighbors.

Nor has the PRC regime shown more respect for human rights, rule of law, consensual government or freedom of expression for its citizens. Serial intellectual property theft continues unabated, as does support for unsavory dictators.

Nonetheless, we invite the PRC to military exercises and repeat the “engagement” mantra – expecting that one day things will magically improve. Some argue that letting the PRC see US military power will dissuade it from challenging us. Perhaps, but we are just as likely to be seen as naïve or weak. From the Chinese perspective, there is no reason to change since they have done very well without transforming and the PRC has never been stronger. Indeed, the PRC frequently claims that human rights, democracy, and the like are outmoded Western values having nothing to do with China.

This is also demoralizing our allies, who at some point may wonder if they should cut their own deals with the PRC.

Some revisionist historians argue that Neville Chamberlain’s 1930’s era appeasement was in fact a wise stratagem to buy time to rearm. This overlooks that even as late as 1939 when Hitler seized all of Czechoslovakia, the Western democracies still had the military advantage. One can appease oneself into a corner. And the beneficiary of the appeasement usually strengthens to the point it is too hard to restrain without great sacrifice.

One worries that the Chinese seizure of Philippine territory at Scarborough Shoal in 2012 – and the US Government’s unwillingness to even verbally challenge the PRC - might turn out to be this generation’s “Rhineland”. Had the West resisted Hitler in 1936 when he made this first major demand, there would have been no World War II, no Holocaust, and no Cold War.

Our choice about how to deal with the PRC is not simply between either appeasement or treating China as an enemy. Our policy must accommodate options ranging from engagement to forceful confrontation.

Who would not be delighted with a China that stopped threatening its neighbors and followed the civilized world’s rules? While ensuring we and our allies have a resolute defense – both in terms of military capability and the willingness to employ it – it is important to maintain ties and dialogue with the PRC and to provide encouragement and support when it shows clear signs of transforming to a freer, less repressive society.

We should constantly stress that China is welcome as a key player in the international order – but only under certain conditions. The US and other democratic nations have not done enough to require China to adhere to established standards of behavior in exchange for the benefits of joining the global system that has allowed the PRC to prosper.

Human nature and history are a useful guide to where appeasement (by whatever name) leads. And they also show that a strong defense and resolutely standing up for one’s principles is more likely to preserve peace.

Grant Newsham is a Senior Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies. The views in this article are his own.

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

The Economic Engine of America Is...The South

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There is something strange happening in the South—it is beginning to look like the economic engine of America. The South region (defined by the Census Bureau to go as far west as Texas and Oklahoma, north to Kentucky, and east to the District of Columbia and Maryland, down to Florida and everything in between) has come to dominate nearly every economic measure. The South is where the homes are being sold, and the jobs are being created. Somehow, while few were watching, the South has become the center of US growth.

As of the end of 2013, the South makes up around 35 percent of the US economy, or $5.4 trillion using the Bureau of Economic Analysis’ State GDP tables. Not even the West with Silicon Valley contributed as much to GDP as the South. The South generated 39 percent of economic growth in 2013, not quite as strong as 2012, when 42 percent of all US growth was generated there. The South is the largest generator of both GDP and GDP growth.

In 2013, the South represented 50 percent of all housing starts—more than 50 percent of all single family homes and 45 percent of multi-family are started in the South. In 2013, 54 percent of annual new home sales occurred in the South, continuing a long rise from the middle of the 20th century (the South accounted for 36 percent of new home sales in 1963). Existing home sales are much the same story. The South has regained 70 percent of its 30 year trend in new home sales since the recession. Other regions remain well below this figure.

Though no region created enough employment to keep up with its labor force growth, the South also generates a relatively high number of jobs. The labor force pool for the South grew 10 percent over the past decade (2004 through 2013) and its employment growth, the engine of economic activity, was 9 percent.

Labor force dynamism is difficult to summarize in a singular statistic, but one useful metric is the quit rate. While the West and Northeast lag, the Midwest and the South are pushing the quit rate higher. In fact, long-term rate for the US is a 2 percent quit rate. The South is the only region above this line. The same can be said of hiring—with a 4 percent hires rate, the South is the most dynamic on the hiring side as well.

With around 120 million people, the South is the most populous region. While the populations of the Northeast and Midwest regions began to stagnate mid-century, the South and West never stopped growing their headcounts. The South grew its population 49 percent over the past two decades; representing 47 percent of US population growth—more than any other region (the West grew at a faster clip, but contributed less to population growth).

The fact that the South is where people want to live may have something to do with how far a dollar goes. In 2010, the Census Bureau released its cost of living index, and 8 of the cheapest 10 urban areas were in the South (4 were in Texas). All 10 of the most expensive cities were in the Northeast and the West with New York and California producing 4 each. As real wages have been squeezed for the past couple decades, people are searching for a place where their earnings and savings can go further.

The average new house is larger and cheaper in the South than in any other region—both average and median home prices are below the other regions. Only the Midwest is close. A slowdown in Southern housing would ripple through the country, causing overall housing starts to be negative—the South is 50 percent of the market. The health of the US economy may be more closely tied to the South than many observers care to acknowledge—especially those with a “bi-coastal” view of economic activity. In many ways, the US has become reliant on the South to drive the growth for the country—especially post financial bubble as small fluctuations in demand for housing employment creation could have ripple effects across the entirety of the US economy.

Texas is the principal driver of the Southern economy, and oil is the primary driver of Texas. Texas alone was responsible for about 50 percent of the economic growth in the South in 2013 and 2012 (45 and 55 percent respectively). And the Texas economy is contributing about 20 percent of the growth for the US. With the shale revolution showing few signs of slowing, there may be nothing to worry about in the near-term. But the South and the US are vulnerable to any slowdown in the Texas economy.

The South is cheap and capitalist—at least, relative to its counterparts in the Northeast and in the West. And sure, the South’s economic performance is being lifted by an outsized contribution from the Texas oil boom. But the South is winning jobs and population and has quietly become the economic driver for the country. The South is rising.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsEconomics RegionsUnited States

Ukraine's Dilemma: Who’d Want to be a Buffer State?

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The recommendation that Ukraine be turned into a “buffer state” has been made several times over the past several weeks, and indeed months.  Russia has legitimate fears about the eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union, the argument goes, and so in order to allay these fears—and reduce the overall level of geopolitical tension between Russia and the west—it makes sense to convert Ukraine into a permanently neutral state, one that does not belong under Russian control or western influence.

While this argument might appeal to some because it purports to eliminate the proximate cause of disagreement between Russia and the West, the idea promises to be much more difficult to implement in practice.  The problem, of course, is that Ukraine—its leaders, its people—might not want to be consigned to life as a buffer state.

Indeed, who would?  By definition, a buffer state is a political entity that exists to physically divide rival powers or blocs who do not trust themselves to live side by side with one another.  Buffer states are attractive from the perspective of rival camps because they offer strategic depth—that is, the territory of a buffer state allows each side to keep the other’s forces at arm’s length, thus giving both adversaries confidence that they would enjoy the time necessary to rally a military response to any act of aggression.  Being surrounded by buffer states is a good thing in a dangerous world.

Life in a buffer state, however, is far less rosy than life adjacent to one.  Insecurity is endemic to buffer states.  In the past, Great Powers have militarily violated the neutrality and territorial integrity of supposed buffer states when it has suited them—consider the fate of Belgium in World War I, Poland in the interwar period or Afghanistan in the nineteenth century, for example—and intrigues into the domestic politics of buffer states has been a common occurrence.  To be useful, buffer states must be unthreatening to those that create them, something that can only be ensured through constant monitoring and the threat of interference.  Iranians today harbor great resentment towards Britain and the United States for historical actions taken to keep Iran prostrate.

There are exceptions, of course.  Finland, Sweden and Austria were (it turned out, although it was not so clear at the time) relatively secure during the Cold War despite not formally aligning with either the western or eastern blocs.  Switzerland has been neutral for centuries.  Nevertheless, it is at least possible the people of Ukraine might take one look at the job description for buffer states and decide that life as a demilitarized zone is not for them.  Much better, Ukrainians might reasonably conclude, to join a powerful alliance or acquire the means of national defense that will allow their country to defend itself against a potential aggressor.  Even more likely, Ukrainians of different stripes might continue to see their country’s future in different ways, refusing to accept guarantees that neutralism is a pathway to peace and security.  A popular demand to become a buffer state is unlikely to emerge.  What then?

The implication of arguments made by Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer and others seems to be that Ukraine will have to have neutrality foisted upon it by external actors.  That, in turn, will require some serious intervention into the domestic politics of Ukraine—meddling that is likely to have unintended and unwanted consequences, as the British and U.S. experience with Iran amply demonstrates.  Even if Russia and NATO do have the clout to force a settlement upon the leaders of Ukraine’s various groups, ensuring the stability of such a settlement will require constant—and perhaps costly—maintenance.

Fidelity to balance of power logic may well mean that Ukraine should accept its fate as a neutral buffer between east and west as a noble sacrifice in the name of European security.  Yet in a world in which the principle of self-determination still matters, and given the intense distrust and insecurity felt by people on the ground in Ukraine, creating the conditions for a stable balance of power between Russia and NATO will not be straightforward.  Do not be surprised if the people of Ukraine insist upon a say in their own future.

Image: Wikicommons/Flickr/Creative Commons License. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUkraine

Why More Immigration Is Bad for America

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Why do we have immigration when unemployment is high? Nobody in Washington will give the honest answer. Employers want cheap labor. They benefit tremendously from legal and illegal immigration in the current slow-growth economy. We have a million legal immigrants per year, and the vast majority of them enter the labor market competing with Americans for scarce job opportunities. The result is wage depression, though there are other factors that restrict wage growth, and persistently high unemployment above the 5 percent level that most economists believe is unhealthy.

Rather than have a million legal immigrants plus more than three hundred thousand more job seekers coming over on temporary work visas year in and year out without a pause, we should ask the simple question, do we need any immigrants? The only constituency that claims there is such a need is employers. And they have essentially written U.S. immigration law for a very long time.

The primary type of immigration is for “family reunification.” That means a U.S. citizen can sponsor their immediate relatives for permanent residency and then citizenship. This sounds like a perfectly reasonable basis on which to base an immigration policy. But it makes no economic sense and has disastrous consequences. Spouses, children and parents of citizens may be unskilled, uneducated, and thus likely to become “public charges,” the bane of immigration. Economists agree that the U.S. has ample unskilled labor. (The Department of Labor, which is supposed to protect the interests of U.S. workers, has said this for more than twenty years.) But the exception is companies that rely on this labor, particularly food processors, cleaning companies and agriculture. They always want more because more means less pay. These companies could care less about public benefits, unemployment rates and rest of the pathologies that an excess of immigrants can bring. And they turn very nasty when criticized. Anyone who brings up the unemployment is a racist. Or they roll their eyes and tell you American won’t do nasty jobs. Tell that to the nation’s sewer workers who are mostly unionized, well-paid and American.

There is currently no numerical cap in the number of spouses and children that immigrants can bring over. There needs to be, and that cap must reflect economic reality, the skill level of the immigrants, the unemployment rate in the labor market where they will live, and the likelihood they will become a public charge. If it’s likely, then the sponsors should be required to sign surety bonds to reimburse the government for any welfare benefits the immigrants incur. It might seem callous to policy makers to restrict family reunification, but the current system is callous to Americans at the bottom of the labor market. The only beneficiaries are employers.

Noncitizens should not be permitted to sponsor anyone. The idea that green card holders, people in this country on a probationary basis, should be allowed to bring over their children and parents is nonsensical as an initial proposition (if they want to be with their relatives, then why are they here?), but in a tight labor market, without any justification except to employers. We currently allow this.

Our experience with Mexican immigration highlights the domination of immigration policy by employers of cheap labor. In 1907, the country was reeling from three decades of mass immigration, and Congress appointed a blue-ribbon commission to make recommendations for reform of the nearly open-border policy (only Chinese were excluded). The Dillingham Commission recommended quotas limiting immigration by country of origin—but not from Mexico. It found that they were “indolent” and “nonassimilable” but also “a source of labor to substitute for the Asiatics in the most undesirable seasonal occupations.” The demand for cheap labor carried the day.

Mexicans have been used to lower wages ever since. The government encouraged this for twenty years with the Bracero program. It only ended when Mexico complained that too many of its citizens were leaving the country, thereby raising the price of labor on that side of the border. That legitimate complaint, not the poor treatment of the Mexican braceros, ended the program in the 1960s. But there have been other guest-worker programs since then, and all are justified by the simple fact that growers don’t want to pay Americans market wages to work in the fields. Are fields worse than sewers?

Last week I spoke to an aide to a Republican Congressman who was a member of the “Gang of Eight” that tried to negotiate an immigration bill, which could pass the Republican House. This never materialized, and this particular Congressman dropped out of the group. I asked him why we need immigration when we have high unemployment. He told me it would be un-American not to allow citizens to bring their foreign spouses and children to this country. I asked if there should be any numerical limits on this type of immigration when unemployment is high. He said no. I asked if there should be any numerical limits on immigration at all, including by employers. He said labor market conditions should be considered, but the Congressman does not believe in limits. I asked how immigration helps anyone except employers. He gave me this example. Suppose someone wants to open an Indian restaurant in a rural area and needs a chef. (The example is farfetched. How much demand is there for Indian cuisine in rural areas.) The owner should be allowed to sponsor an Indian chef as an immigrant. And if he does, it creates employment, for others, waiters and busboys. I asked why the owner could not find an Indian chef in the U.S. He responded that there might be some looking for work in cities, but would they relocate to this rural community? I wondered why someone from India would relocate to that community. And then he gave me a candid response, perhaps unplanned. He said the restaurant owner might not be able to pay for an American citizen chef to take the job in the small town. So it comes down to cheap labor.

There might be a few jobs that cannot be filled by three hundred million Americans, but one has to strain to think of such a job. A labor economist I spoke to gave the example of a university in North Dakota needing a professor to teach Farsi. That sounds just like the Indian chef example, and is just as silly. Are there any Farsi-language professors in the United States? If so, how about making one of them an attractive employment package to relocate to North Dakota? Or will they be unable to find a local Persian restaurant to serve them? Then, do we need to bring over a Persian chef, and more Persians so the professor won’t be lonely? Perhaps the North Dakota University just won’t be able to entice any qualified Farsi professor to move there. That suggests there may actually be very little demand for studying Farsi in North Dakota. And there are perfectly good reasons for that, given the ethnic mix of the state. The case for an immigrant worker makes no sense.

We are the only major country in the world to confer citizenship on everyone born here even if the parents are here illegally (“birthright citizenship”). At least that is the current interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment, enacted after the Civil War to prevent the southern states from denying citizenship to freed slaves. Why this should apply to the children of illegal aliens is bizarre, and, in a sense, suicidal. A nation that encourages foreigners to enter its territory illegally can hardly be considered a sovereign nation.

In 1898 the Supreme Court decided that a Chinese son of legal aliens was an American citizen by birth. Does this decision apply to people in the country illegally? The Supreme Court has never faced the question. Surely, if there is to be immigration reform, we want to close this loophole. It draws thousands of illegal immigrants to the country, and has spawned the “birth tourism” industry. But the “reform” bill passed by the Senate last year did not address it at all. The congressional aide said his boss would not support any change. I asked why not. He said tinkering with the Fourteenth Amendment was a bad idea.

In 1986, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which for the first time made it illegal to hire an illegal immigrant. But the law was to be carried out by employers. They, the beneficiaries of cheap immigrant labor, were supposed to inspect the documents tendered by job applicants and refuse to hire those whose documents looked fake. But the law also contained an “antidiscrimination” provision that made it illegal to refuse to hire on the basis of foreign appearance or accent. Many illegal immigrants look or sound foreign, just as we do when we’re abroad. That plus the natural inclination of employers to want to hire illegals gutted the law, which was not a surprise. A different provision of the same law established a new guest-worker program for agriculture.

All of this brings us back to where I started. Why do we have immigration? The single principle underlying every category in the very complex web of statutes and regulations comprising modern immigration law is that it’s good for employers. It might be nice to unite families. But that benefits only the immigrants themselves. It’s not a national policy. Cheap labor is, and every employer understands it well. They all support more immigration.

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

TopicsImmigrationDomestic Politics RegionsUnited StatesMexico

A Troubling "World Island" Grand Tour: A World on Fire

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Even though President Obama did an about-face and militarily reintervened in Iraq, one still gets a sense that he does not apprehend the gravity of security events in the world. As the world’s security erodes at an alarmingly fast rate, now is a good time to step back from the liberal philosophies of international relations that capture the American worldview and the Obama administration and look anew at the world through conservative-realist lenses.

Geopolitics has fallen out of fashion in the study of international relations and foreign policy in the United States, but it is an intellectual foundation for realism. Few observers today notice the absence of geopolitical discourse save a few. A return to geopolitical analysis would help make sense of the spreading and sprawling international anarchy from which the world suffers.

One shining reference point in geopolitics is the work of British geographer Sir Halford John Mackinder, who died in 1947. When most people look at a world map, they see oceans populated by continents. But Mackinder looked at the world differently and saw Africa, Europe and Asia as a single landmass stretching from Europe through Russia, into the Middle East and over to South Asia and Asia. He called that landmass the “World Island.” Mackinder reasoned that any power that could control East Europe would command the heartland of the World Island, and, in turn, command the entire world. As distinguished military historian Lawrence Freedman reflected, “What Mackinder offered was a way of rooting the higher-level strategic discourse in the interaction between states and the enduring features of their environment.”

The World Island today is ablaze with fires of conflict. And these fires mingle and combine in today’s globalized world to an extent unprecedented in human history. Events at the western coast of the World Island impact events in the central and eastern coasts, and vice versa. The cascading effects of conflict travel across the World Island at the speed of Internet and into the minds of rivals, friends and foes.

The World Island’s coast in North Africa is on fire with political instability. Libya is torn by war between tribal militias and Egypt has resorted to an authoritarian dictatorship masquerading as a democratically elected government. Militant Islam is fueling violence beneath the Sahara, causing massive refugee flows up into northern Africa and into Europe. These refugees add to others fleeing violence and economic turmoil from the Middle East and South Asia. These increasing immigration flows are placing acute demographic pressures on European states. Refugees in the world today number some 50 million people, the greatest number of refugees since World War II.

Close to the heartland of the World Island, Russia has started a fire and Europeans are paralyzed with shock and apologetics that war has returned to Europe. While European states and NATO over the past two decades triumphantly celebrated the “winning” of the Cold War, they imprudently allowed their military prowess to disintegrate. Russia, meanwhile, nurtured its bitter, wounded pride and began rebuilding its military forces. Russia used a cunning mixture of intelligence, propaganda, duplicitous diplomacy, paramilitary, special-operations forces, threats of conventional military power and coercive economic power to conquer Crimea. Moscow is using the same toolkit—with the deadly addition of medium-range surface-to-air missiles that undoubtedly downed a Malaysian passenger aircraft—to dismantle what is left of Ukraine. Russia threatens to employ the same arsenal to intimidate (or worse) the Baltic States, and states in the World Island’s heartland. European nations are intimidated by a Russia that could retaliate against them economically with restrictions of energy supplies and investment, should they move to implement more assertive economic sanctions on Moscow.

In the center of the World Island, the Middle East is ablaze with the upending of governmental authorities and the degeneration of nation-states formed out of the post–World War I rubble. While the collapse of the Ottoman Empire led to the redrawing of political maps in the Middle East, the rapid regeneration of militant Islam is redrawing states on the World Island today. Osama bin Laden was put into a body bag and his old Al Qaeda leadership has been eclipsed by a variety of metastasized militant Islamic movements located around the World Island from Boko Haram, to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, to al-Shabaab and to the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS), which essentially erased the border between Syria and Iraq.

ISIS, or the Islamic State as it now calls itself, has ushered in a new era of sectarian warfare between Sunni and Shia Muslims, each backed by regional rivals. Al Qaeda’s founding fathers sought the capture of a nation-state, the pinnacle of power in international politics, but they never managed to gain control over Egypt or Saudi Arabia. But what the old Al Qaeda leadership tried to do and failed, the Islamic State might yet accomplish in Syria, Iraq and beyond. What was once sub-rosa and proxy warfare is now open war between Islam’s sects, the central battle space is in Iraq, where one of the schism’s culminating moments, the Battle of Karbala, took place more than a millennium ago.

While the post–World War I borders go up in smoke, Iran is using negotiations to come out from under international sanctions while preserving its robust nuclear infrastructure. Tehran wants to eventually emerge as a nuclear-weapons state to aid its bid for regional domination over Arab Gulf states and for counterbalancing the power of the United States and Israel. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab states will not stay idle and will look for their own nuclear weapons to balance Iran, not trusting the United States for security backing. The Arab Gulf States judge that Washington is much too eager to protect Iraq’s Shia and to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran. The Arab Gulf states fear that at their expense, Washington and Tehran are pushing to reestablish the American-Iranian strategic partnership that was severed by the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Farther to the east along the southern coast of the World Island, South Asia is smoldering. Afghanistan looks poised to return to higher levels of violence as the Taliban grows in strength in anticipation of the eventual withdrawal of American and international forces. Across the border, the Taliban is striking Pakistani forces with increasing intensity to shame the civilian government and military and security services that for too long nurtured the Taliban fighters now setting fires in Pakistan. The Pakistanis, meanwhile, harbor conspiratorial fears of India and compensate for their conventional military inferiority by building up already-large nuclear-weapons inventories. The toxic mix of political instability, militant Islamic terrorism and insurgency raises dangers that Pakistani nuclear weapons could someday fall into the hands of Al Qaeda, the Taliban or the Islamic State.

At the eastern coast of the World Island, China is pressing its geopolitical weight against smaller neighbors. Beijing is building up its military power and is increasingly flexing it by asserting sovereignty over disputed islands in the South China Sea, intimidating Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan. At the same time, China’s troublesome ally North Korea continues to erratically threaten war as it assiduously works on its ballistic-missile and nuclear-weapons programs. If China’s Pacific neighbors are jittery about Beijing’s growing military matched by increasingly belligerent nationalism, India is also taking notice and building up its military to counter China. Meanwhile, Pakistani military officers endlessly worry that India’s military modernization is aimed at them. This acute security dilemma could yet bring Pakistan and India over the brink and into nuclear war, a scenario that neither side wants, but, more alarmingly, that neither side thinks possible.

The tour of the World Island’s fires exposes the weaknesses of many liberal visions for international politics that are shared by Obama-administration officials whose minds were incubated at the Cold War’s closing. Globalization appears not to have fostered the mutual economic interdependency between states that Joseph Nye and Robert Koehane argued (in Power and Interdependency) would lessen the role of force in relations between states. Russia and China today are much more economically integrated into the global economy than they were during the Cold War. Yet, that integration has not stopped Russia from militarily occupying Ukraine’s territory. Nor has China shied away from a military buildup and “salami-slicing tactics” to broaden its sphere of influence and control in Asia at the expense of American security partners in Asia. Democracy has not triumphed and ended history in a Hegelian sense, as envisioned by Francis Fukuyama's End of History. Not all peoples of the world acknowledge Western democracy as the destiny of mankind as evident by the rise of Russian and Chinese militant nationalism and the Islamic State’s march to break nation-states and establish unity between mosque and state under Sharia Law, just as Iran has rejected Western civilization’s separation of church and state. History, to the contrary, seems to be accelerating at a breakneck pace. The world has not ignored political squabbles to exclusively pursue rational economic interests as Thomas Friedman argued in Lexus and the Olive Tree, and as painfully evidenced by another round of war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Contrary to liberal hopes, the World Island is not breaking out into a Kantian democratic peace, but rather, a Hobbesian state of war in which there is a general inclination of all mankind toward a perpetual and restless desire of power that ceases only after death.

The challenge is to use American statecraft to manage and contain the World Island’s descent into a Hobbesian state of war. That daunting task is made even harder by the broad and deep perception in the world today—by friends and enemies alike—that the United States is withdrawing from its role as the World Island’s balancer of power. American statecraft played this role—sometimes by design and at other times by happenstance—under both Republican and Democratic Party presidents during the World Wars, the Cold War and post–Cold War periods.

The American duty now is to again take up the mantle of global leadership to contain the World Island’s fires. Washington will have to balance the Sunni, Shia and Kurdish parts of Iraq. America must also focus on the “bull’s eye” of the World Island where Israel and Jordan vulnerably sit. Washington must put in place a firebreak at Jordan’s borders. Should the Jordanian monarchy fall victim to the expanding Islamic State, Israel’s security would be gravely jeopardized. Washington, meanwhile, will have to resuscitate NATO’s military power and arm Ukraine and other states threatened by Russia to keep Moscow’s reach contained. Likewise, the White House will have to ensure that “redlines” in Asia are enforced—rather than abandoned, as President Obama did in Syria—with viable preparations to militarily challenge Chinese aggression and to reassure nervous Asian allies. At both the western and eastern coasts of the World Island, Germany and Japan will need to shed their pacifist post–World War II mindsets and reassert themselves as “normal powers” to work hand-in-hand with American statecraft to stop the spreading of the World Island’s fires.

Richard L. Russell is Non-Resident Senior Fellow for Strategic Studies at the Center for the National Interest. Follow him on Twitter: @DrRLRussell.

Image: Flickr/U.S. Army/CC by 2.0

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle EastAsia

Top Gun With Chinese Characteristics: Time to Clip the Wings of China’s Mavericks

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Last month’s near miss between a U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane and a Chinese fighter jet in international airspace some 130 miles off the Chinese coast has been described by many pundits as evidence of Beijing’s increasingly aggressive military posture. The incident, however, isn’t necessarily indicative of an officially sanctioned Chinese policy of belligerence. Instead, the recklessness of the pilot, who reportedly barrel-rolled his 26 ton jet around the larger American plane, may be more representative of the risk-seeking behavior of relatively junior yet ego-driven commanders acting largely on their own accord. Indeed, Pentagon officials recently revealed that they believe a lone Chinese officer could be responsible for ordering several recent aggressive intercepts.

The possibility that these brazen intercepts are decisions of individual commanders rather than Beijing-directed policies doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be concerned. Botched intercepts could quickly result in inadvertent escalation and heighten tensions between Washington and Beijing, especially if there is a repeat of an incident similar to the deadly 2001 collision between a Chinese fighter and an American reconnaissance plane. To prevent routine patrols from spiraling into conflict, both the United States and China must take steps to check and marginalize Chinese incarnations of Maverick, the brash naval aviator portrayed by Tom Cruise in the 1986 blockbuster Top Gun.

While Chinese military aircraft and ships have taken a far more active role in intercepting and shadowing their American counterparts in recent years, a vast majority of these interactions are professional and entirely in accordance with international law. Just last month, for instance, a Chinese intelligence gathering ship monitored an American naval exercise in the Pacific.

Customary international law allows states to monitor ships and aircraft operating in international waters and airspace so long as the vessel of interest’s safety is not jeopardized. When intercepts endanger American military assets, they generally make it into news headlines. In 2009, for example, several Chinese government and civilian vessels harassed the USNS Impeccable, an American surveillance ship, forcing it to conduct an emergency stop to avoid a crash. More recently, a PLA Navy amphibious ship blocked the path of the USS Cowpens as it attempted to observe China’s recently commissioned aircraft carrier operating in international waters; the American cruiser was forced to take evasive maneuvers. Perhaps the most notable incident, which shares many parallels with last week’s intercept, occurred in 2001 when a Chinese J-8 fighter clipped the wing of a US Navy EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft. The Chinese pilot was killed and China detained 24 American crewmembers.

In each of these cases, China accused the United States of infringing on its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), a 200 nautical mile stretch off a state’s coast in which the state holds rights to marine and energy resources. While most states acknowledge the right of others to collect intelligence in the EEZ, China disagrees with this notion and considers reconnaissance in the zone to be illegal (while not-so-quietly launching its own intelligence gathering operations in the EEZs of other regional actors).

Despite Beijing’s opposition to intelligence gathering in its EEZ, the Department of Defense routinely patrols the zone with both ships and aircraft. The relatively small number of cases where Chinese intercepts endangered American assets suggests they are anomalous events, potentially directed by low-level commanders, rather than formalized state policy. These commanders may be driven by a variety of factors: nationalism, careerist cravings for promotion, or simply ego-based desires to enhance personal reputations and impress colleagues. Regardless of motivation, Beijing and Washington have a shared interest in preventing the decisions of individual commanders from dictating interstate relations.

The onus to halting reckless intercepts lies in Beijing’s hands, although Washington can take steps to help. Given that inner-workings of the Chinese military are shrouded in secrecy, it is difficult for outside observers to identify what, if any, measures China has already taken to reel in its military officers. If they haven’t already done so, Beijing must establish regulations that discipline officers who participate in or order brash and dangerous behavior. The fear of punishment may lead some ambition driven officers to think twice before partaking in potentially risky behavior. Inaction on Beijing’s part may tacitly condone a continuation of dangerous intercepts.

Beijing should also incorporate lessons on risk management from events like the recent intercept and the 2001 EP-3 incident into the curriculum of its burgeoning officer training programs. Debriefings and lessons learned have long been a central element of US military leadership and technical training. The U.S. Air Force, for instance, employs a historical case study about a B-52 bomber pilot who killed three fellow aviators while performing a prohibited maneuver at an airshow to teach its officers about the dangers of poor operational risk management and ineffective leadership.

Eventually, however, China must accept international norms that allow for foreign intelligence gathering in its EEZ. Beijing will maintain the right to professionally intercept snooping ships and aircraft, but this less restrictive interpretation of EEZs may offer less motivation to officers eager to defend China’s interests. Beijing may have started quietly taking steps in this direction. Indeed, the Chinese Defense Ministry recently claimed that the deployment of a Chinese Navy spy ship to monitor an American-led naval exercise in the U.S. EEZs was “in line with international law and international practice.”

Washington can likely make it easier for Beijing to reel in its overly brash officers by not publicly broadcasting information about China’s reckless intercepts.  The Pentagon’s highly publicized criticism of the August incident highlights the ongoing presence of American military assets in China’s EEZ; this may present Beijing with a fait accompli in which it is forced to condemn America’s “close-in reconnaissance” in order to assuage a highly nationalistic population that fears American encroachment.

Instead of a public response, the Pentagon should concentrate its efforts on quiet diplomacy and engagement that avoid drawing in emotional citizens in both countries. Diplomatic demarches, like the ones that reportedly followed earlier intercepts, are not sufficient; both nations must work collectively to develop processes to ensure professional interactions between air and maritime assets. The code of conduct talks held last week are an ideal first step.

Halting reckless intercepts and preventing inadvertent escalation is critical for regional stability, but it won’t happen overnight. Changing the mindset of military officers takes time and only a concerted effort by Beijing can clip the wings of China’s Mavericks.

Erik Lin-Greenberg is a PhD student in political science at Columbia University. He previously served as an active duty Air Force officer.

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

Strategic Ambiguity: Speaking Putin’s Language

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Adding a personal touch to the backdrop of this week’s NATO Summit in Wales, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that “If I want to, I can take Kiev in two weeks.” As the Alliance struggles with finding an effective response to Russia’s aggression on its eastern border, NATO should take a page from the Kremlin’s own playbook. Instead of warning that there is no military solution to Europe's biggest crisis in decades, suggest to Putin that there might indeed be an armed response and mobilize military power as a demonstration of will. As geopolitical competition intensifies in both Eurasia and the Pacific, it is time to pull the art of strategic ambiguity off the Cold War shelf.

The opportunity to save Ukraine might have indeed passed, but it was once within reach. What if the West responded to Russia’s initial para-military invasion into Crimea with statements and actions suggesting a possible military response? Instead, Washington and Europe stated that that there was no military response to Russian aggression in Crimea. This position only served to embolden Moscow to take increasingly violent and provocative actions as each escalation was met with the same Western response.

Statements alone from Washington and European capitals suggesting the possible use of force are unlikely to have altered Putin’s course. But combined with a rapid deployment of the NATO Response Force to a base in Eastern Europe and immediate repositioning of a credible NATO maritime capability to the Black Sea, the West may have changed Moscow’s calculus. Even if unable to prevent the annexation of Crimea, the West may have deterred Russia’s continued military efforts in eastern Ukraine.

Strategic ambiguity is the practice of being intentionally vague on certain aspects of foreign policy or intended actions and carries a deterrence aspect involving will and capacity. Great or aspiring powers are unlikely to be deterred by statements alone, nor by the threat of actions requiring nonexistent capabilities. For strategic ambiguity to succeed, it must be accompanied by a credible demonstration of the possible use of force.

Strategic ambiguity is not a red line but rather an option that permits flexibility in a government’s response, potentially delays an opponent’s action, and reduces the risk of damaging credibility by not adhering to a specific course of action. Neither can it be in lieu of, or isolated from, clear political objectives. Instead, the threat of a military response may provide time to develop and pursue diplomatic options that reduce the likeliness of the use of military force. Credible strategic ambiguity creates uncertainty in the adversary by increasing the potential risk involved in a particular course of action. 

With the myriad number of crises facing governments, any additional time to build a coalition, generate consensus, gather more intelligence, or develop a comprehensive strategy is essential.  Consider the time and effort necessary to form the coalition to enact economic sanctions on Russia following its invasion of Crimea. Nearly a month passed between Moscow’s invasion and Western sanctions, which came only after Crimea’s annexation and Russian para-military force deployments into eastern Ukraine.

Strategic ambiguity is not without risk. A fundamental aspect of creating uncertainty is messaging, which is often the most difficult aspect of foreign policy in that it requires navigating the labyrinth of pitfalls with allies, domestic constituencies, adversaries, and selecting the appropriate diplomatic verbiage to convey a specific policy. In the case of Russia and Ukraine, deliberations between the United States and its allies and partners, including any options not agreed upon, need not immediately become part of public record. Instead, statements presenting a unified position which leaves all options available, combined with credible initial actions, would give the adversary reason for pause and possibly permit the opportunity for a diplomatic solution.

Russia has demonstrated that the era of geopolitical competition has returned, and the West’s military strategy must incorporate an art of coercion, intimidation, uncertainty and deterrence.  The NATO rapid-response force is a good start, but it must be part of a comprehensive effort as Ukraine is far from Putin’s last foray into Eastern Europe.

Chris Musselman is a US Navy Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. These views are his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense

Image: Office of the President, Russian Federation. 

TopicsSecurity

Iran's Tango with Latin America

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Machiavelli warned centuries ago in his seminal work The Prince: When threats are identified well in advance, they can be quickly addressed—but “when, for lack of diagnosis, they are allowed to grow in such a way that everyone can recognize them, remedies are too late.”

There is perhaps no better example of the dramatic consequences of such a failure than the current situation with the Islamic State (also known as IS, ISIS or ISIL). Symptoms were overlooked or dismissed. No regimen was implemented to prevent the disease from spreading. ISIL metastasized into a global threat.

Boko Haram in Nigeria, which just declared its own Islamic caliphate and is wreaking havoc beyond Borno and Yobe, also illustrates Machiavelli’s point. By late 2012, it had carried out numerous deadly attacks, prompting Congress to highlight the escalating danger Boko Haram posed and the need to designate it as a foreign terrorist organization. It took more than a year and many more victims for such a determination to take place.

Regrettably, the United States appears intent on repeating the same mistakes with Iran.

July 20 came and went without an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. The multiparty talks were extended for four months and additional sanctions relief provided to the Iranian regime. This marks yet another victory for Tehran. Once again, Iranian negotiators fooled the rest of the world into believing that it is a responsible stakeholder, rather than a gross human-rights violator and state sponsor of terrorists determined to be nuclear-weapons capable.

The regime’s immediate priority is influencing or dictating developments in its neighborhood—Iraq, Gaza strip, Syria, Lebanon and certain Gulf states. However, it is expanding alliances elsewhere to encircle and threaten perceived enemies, while mitigating actual or potential costs resulting from its policies. One of the regions that Iranian officials and agents consider fertile ground and that the regime has been tilling for some time is the Western Hemisphere.

Iran-Western Hemisphere

Iran’s first vice president Eshaq Jahangiri recently met with Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro. As many other Iranian leaders have done before in visits to the Americas, Jahangiri described Iranian-Venezuelan relations as “fundamental” and emphasized Tehran’s continued willingness to expand ties at all levels. Venezuela’s Ambassador to Tehran told Fars News last month that Venezuela is prepared to become a hub for Iranian exports to other Latin American nations. While the specifics may differ, this is not surprising. The Iranian regime has sought to “export” its radical ideology, using all means necessary, since the onset of its Islamist revolution.

Iranian-backed entities, such as The House of Latin America in Iran, continue to sprout throughout the region with the seemingly benign aim of “boosting relations between the Iranian people and those of Latin America.” However, their true objective appears to be promoting violence and repression and damaging U.S. interests.

The House of Latin America has hosted Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, a visit to Iran by the son and daughter of one of the butchers of Latin America, Che Guevara, and has translated books into Farsi by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro. In fact, The House of Latin America in Iran recently announced it will be publishing a compendium of articles and other papers by the former Cuban dictator and, in conjunction with the “campaign of solidarity between Iran and Cuba,” a book on Cuba and international affairs.

The bilateral relations between these pariah states entered a new phase after a May 2001 visit by Fidel Castro to Iran. During a meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Castro declared: “Iran and Cuba, in cooperation with each other, can bring America to its knees.” For his part, Khamenei affirmed: “The United States is weak and extremely vulnerable today…US grandeur can be broken.”

International experts and the U.S. Congress have documented a decades-long systematic effort to establish clandestine intelligence stations and operatives, using official Iranian diplomatic facilities, as well as educational, religious and cultural institutions as cover for their terrorist network. And U.S. intelligence and military officials have in recent years, expressed concerns about a growing presence in Latin America, particularly in Venezuela, of members of Iran’s elite Qods Force, which spearheads Tehran’s global terrorist efforts and is involved in the regime’s missile and nuclear activities.

Networks have been uncovered operating in Latin America that benefit Iran and its partners in terrorism including narcotraffickers, smugglers of consumer goods, counterfeiters, money launderers using front businesses, exchange houses and U.S. financial institutions. In the United States, sanctions have been imposed on individuals or entities in the region believed to be violating Iran-related sanctions. Criminal action has also been undertaken when activities cross into the U.S. homeland. And investigations continue to this day. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that Latin America, as a national-security priority, barely registers with the Executive Branch when decisions are being made on strategy, assets, resources and funding to counter vital threats, such as terrorism and proliferation. The Quadrennial Defense Review for 2014, for example, placed greater emphasis on global climate change than on security developments in the Hemisphere.

Latin America and the Caribbean tend to be looked at through the prism of drugs, criminal violence or illegal immigration. Anything that challenges this myopic view, such as Iran expanding its operational reach into the region, is either ignored or the threat minimized to justify the way things have always been done. On numerous instances, U.S. agencies responsible for an avalanche of data about the transnational, cross-regional nexus between narcotrafficking, arms networks and terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah, have been marginalized and the Western Hemisphere links to these particular security risks erroneously set aside or treated solely as “law-enforcement matters.”

The Western Hemisphere, at minimum, must be integrated into broader national-security discussions.

The original 9/11 Commission report warned against compartmentalizing and ignoring potential dangers or signs of escalation. It highlighted as a key lesson from the 9/11 attacks the need to deny sanctuaries to terrorist groups. This was reaffirmed in the ten-year review released by leading members of the Commission. “Geographic sanctuaries,” the Commissioners recently stated, “enable terrorist groups to gather, indoctrinate and train recruits, and they offer breathing space in which to develop complex plots.” While referring primarily to the broader Middle East, they noted the evolution of terrorism in other areas and the need to prepare for both current and emerging threats. It is a warning that applies globally as terrorism knows no boundaries.

Refocusing on a national-security-based approach to terrorism and Iranian activities in Latin America

The Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States noted a complex international terrorist operation aimed at launching a significant or “catastrophic” attack cannot do so with just anyone, at any time or from just anywhere. A number of components would be required: “time, space” for adequate planning; “a command structure…possessing the…contacts to assemble needed people, money, and materials”; “opportunity and space to recruit, train, and select operatives with the needed skills and dedication”; “a logistics network able to securely manage the travel of operatives, move money, and transport resources (like explosives) where they need to go”; “reliable communications between coordinators and operatives;” and “opportunity to test the workability of the plan.”

When it comes to Iran in the Americas, we have several starting points or events that pre-date the 09/11 terrorist attacks and help build the case that Iran and its surrogates have, or are building, the capability cited in the 9/11 report to inflict harm on the United States, our interests and allies. Seven years before 9/11, the July 18, 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA) in Buenos Aires, Argentina clearly demonstrated that the region provided Hezbollah with all it needed to carry out a complex operation in the United States’ backyard.

Was AMIA an isolated incident or part of a broader strategy? Could the United States, Israel or regional allies have anticipated the AMIA attack? Were tripwires or warning signs missed?

AMIA attack as test for future operations targeting the United States and its interests

On March 17, 1992, a suicide bomber drove a pickup truck filled with explosives into the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires. The attack was a prelude to more attacks just two years later. This explosion destroyed the embassy, a Catholic church and a nearby school building. Twenty-nine people were killed and over 200 wounded. A group identifying itself as Islamic Jihad Organization claimed responsibility for the attack, but many experts believe this group had backing from and ties to Iran and Hezbollah.

The destruction caused by the 1992 attack on Israel’s diplomatic mission would pale in comparison to the death toll and injuries that would come two years later with the AMIA bombing. Many years of meticulous investigations by Argentine prosecutors have definitively concluded that the AMIA attack was “decided and organized by the highest leaders” of the Iranian government who, in turn, “entrusted its execution to the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah.” It was approved in advance by: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's then foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran's then minister of security and intelligence Ali Fallahijan and Iran’s then so-called president, described as a “moderate” by the international media and some Western leaders, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

On November 9, 2006, Argentine Judge Rodolfo Canicoba Corral, pursuant to the request from AMIA special prosecutor Alberto Nisman, issued arrest warrants for Rafsanjani, Fallahijan and Velayati, as well as:

·  Mohsen Rezaei, a former commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC);

·  Ahmad Vahidi, a former commander of the elite Al-Quds Force of the IRGC;

·  Hadi Soleimanpour, a former Iranian ambassador to Argentina;

·  Mohsen Rabbani, a former cultural attaché at the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires;

·  Ahmad Reza Asghari, a former official at the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires; and

·  Imad Moughnieh, a leading operations chief of Hezbollah.

Soon thereafter, INTERPOL issued Red Notices for Hezbollah operative Moughnieh and for Iranian officials Fallahijan, Rezaei, Vahidi, Rabbani and Asgari. This allows for the global circulation of warrants for the arrest and extradition of these individuals. To date, none have been detained and arrested. There has been no accountability. Meanwhile, the Iranian regime has rewarded many of the AMIA terrorists with more senior and influential posts throughout the years.

A great deal more must be done to bring these terrorists to justice, including by the United States and its allies. For example, only Vahidi is listed on the U.S. Treasury Department’s watch list or SDN list. This oversight must be immediately corrected and terrorism-related sanctions imposed on all AMIA perpetrators. International collaboration is also needed to bring these individuals to justice, including, but not limited to, arrest and prosecution. This would send a strong message to Iran, Hezbollah, other global terrorists and their state sponsors, that they will be made to suffer the consequences of their actions.

Target: The United States

Based on his experience investigating Iran’s activities leading up to and following the AMIA attack, Alberto Nisman has stressed that the Iranian regime uses “terrorism as a mechanism of its foreign policy” in support of “its final aim…to export its radicalized vision of Islam and to eliminate the enemies of the regime.”

Iran’s mullahs deemed the United States an enemy long before the 1990s attacks in Argentina. The regime made its intentions abundantly clear at the onset of the Iranian Revolution. In November 1979, it seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held Americans hostage for over a year, subjecting them to psychological and physical torture. This initiated decades of terrorist attacks, directly or through its proxies, that claimed the lives of Americans and other victims. This was more than just a symbolic event. Many, including a former CIA official and former hostage, believe the global war on terrorism began then. The West just did not begin to notice until much later. The same is true of AMIA and the Israeli Embassy attacks.

To Iran, the United States is the “Great Satan” and must be destroyed. The regime will attack our friends, allies, and interests until it can strike in the U.S.

The 2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States with a bomb at a busy Washington, D.C. restaurant may be an indication of what is to come. The federal complaint filed by U.S. prosecutors in this matter, as well as statements by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, referred to Iran’s role in conceiving, sponsoring and directing the plot.

One of the men charged, Gholam Shakuri, has a direct link to the Iranian regime. Shakuri was described in Department of Justice documents on the case as an Iran-based member of the “Qods Force, which is a special operations unit of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).” The investigation into this foiled plot revealed that the co-conspirator, Manssor Arbabsiar, met on a number of occasions in Mexico with a DEA confidential source posing as part of a drug cartel. According to the indictment, the Iranian-orchestrated plan was to hire violent narcotraffickers to carry out the assassination using deadly explosives, “without care or concern for the mass casualties that would result.”

This case was one of many developments prompting the passage and enactment into law of the Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act. The Act declares U.S. policy as countering Iran’s growing presence and activities in the Hemisphere. It called for the development of a comprehensive strategy to address this problem and for Congress to be kept regularly informed of developments pertaining both to the threat and U.S. approach.

Report to Congress

The Department of State submitted to Congress in July 2013 the report and strategy required by this Act, claiming that Iranian influence in the Hemisphere was waning and suggesting that there was no need to alter the U.S. approach. Members of Congress, U.S. and international experts disputed the conclusions in the report based on mounting evidence to the contrary, including increased bilateral agreements and diplomatic missions; greater presence of agents from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), the IRGC and Qods Force.

An in-depth 2012 study on the MOIS, for example, conducted by the Library of Congress’ Federal Research Division under an Interagency Agreement with the Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office’s Irregular Warfare Support Program, described some of the methods and tactics the Iranian spy service employs to expand its operational reach and capacity. Agents “may operate undercover as diplomats in Iranian embassies or in other occupations in companies such as Iran Air, branches of Iranian banks, or even in private businesses. It is thought that many Iranians who are employed in foreign educational organizations such as universities also may work for MOIS.” The joint Congressional-Pentagon report described how Iran’s intelligence and security agency operates “in all areas where Iran has interests, including…in the Americas” with the United States included in the regional reference.

Yet, the report submitted a few months later by the Department of State, pursuant to the Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act, did not take this into account or integrate into the assessment incidents directly related to the U.S. homeland or that involved Iran or Hezbollah—such as the plot to assassinate a foreign ambassador on U.S. soil and which had a Mexican connection.

Based on Capitol Hill testimony provided by U.S Government officials, as well as private experts from diverse backgrounds, it is easy to deduce who takes the matter seriously and who does not. However, the goal is not to place blame. The focus must be on putting in place an integrated strategy to address Iran-related and other hemispheric security challenges.

A holistic approach would have considered the role of illegal drug networks in facilitating terrorist financing activities in and through the region. Former DEA Chief of Operations Michael Braun testified before Congress that terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah “understand that the Mexican drug trafficking cartels now dominate” this illicit infrastructure in the United States. These terrorist groups, “most assuredly recognize the strategic value of exploiting that activity…for moving their vision forward in this part of the world.”

Drug trafficking routes are also being used by Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies to smuggle “contraband and people” into the U.S. In 2002, for example, Salim Boughader Mucharrafille, was arrested for smuggling hundreds of individuals into the United States, including Hezbollah and Hamas supporters. A footnote in Chapter 3 of the report by the 9/11 Commission staff confirms these ties, adding: “Boughader-Mucharrafille…relied on corrupt Mexican officials in Beirut, Mexico City and Tijuana to facilitate their travel. Specifically, Boughader obtained Mexican tourist visas from an official at the Mexican embassy in Beirut…” Mahmoud Youssef Kourani, who pleaded guilty in 2006 to conspiracy to provide material support and resources to Iranian-backed Hezbollah, crossed into the United States via the border with Mexico before proceeding to Michigan to carry out his mission for the terrorist group. According to the indictment, “Kourani’s activities within the U.S. were overseen by his brother…who, at all times relevant… was the Hizballah Chief of Military Security for Southern Lebanon.”

General John Kelly, who heads the U.S. Southern Command responsible for the Caribbean, Central and South America, recently confirmed that Hezbollah is already tapping into the “crime-terror convergence”.

The 2013 State Department report to Congress, however, treated Iran and Hezbollah as distinct or isolated from each other and de-linked their activities in Latin America and the Caribbean from those in the United States.

A year later, the administration has not reviewed its findings, as it promised Congress it would do. There are no indications U.S. intelligence agencies have been tasked with delving further into Iranian activities in the Hemisphere, nor that additional resources have been provided. The lack of cross-regional coordination or integration continues in large part. These deficiencies must be immediately addressed and developments in the Americas must be given a higher priority.

Integration and Prioritization

The Western Hemisphere should be factored into calculations of how to counter Iran globally and in more ways than applying limited, cosmetic sanctions on a handful of Tehran’s enablers. Information gleaned from Iranian regime operations in the Americas and those of its surrogates could not only help protect the U.S. homeland, but could generate information useful to other countries in the region and beyond. The full range of resources should also be made available to U.S. officials tasked with preventing the Americas from becoming a sanctuary, operational center or launching pad for Iran, its surrogates and other terrorists seeking to harm the United States, our interests or allies.

Distant history, as well as recent events with IS/ISIS/ISIL, has proven Machiavelli correct. Policy makers should heed his warning and not make the same mistakes with respect to Iranian activities in the Western Hemisphere. Hopefully, the soon-to-be-released report on this matter by the Government Accountability Office will help galvanize the Executive Branch and Congress into action.

Yleem D.S. Poblete, PhD is former Chief of Staff of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Foreign Affairs. During her almost two decades of government service, she worked on the Committee’s investigative and legislative efforts concerning the AMIA attack, on post-9/11 legislation, and was responsible for several bills enacted into law pertaining to Iran.

Image: Iran president website

TopicsForeign PolicyTerrorism RegionsIranSouth AmericaUnited States

A Big Deal: Japan’s Pivot to India

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India’s newly elected prime minister, Narendra Modi, made his first geostrategic move in Asia’s complex new dynamics this week, and together with Prime Minister Abe, catapulted the Japan-India relationship into a “special strategic and global partnership.”  Two goals focused their attention: bolstering their national economies and contending with China’s growing influence.

While their ambitions for their partnership may be global, it was their regional message that had the most profound implications.  At their meeting, Abe spoke of the “untapped potential of Asia’s two largest democracies,” while Modi referred to the “uncertainty ahead in Asia,” an uncertainty that brought with it even “greater responsibility for Japan and India.”

India and Japan have much to gain by deepening their economic ties. Modi’s interest in new and expanded Japanese investment in India was clear.  At a luncheon hosted by the Keidanren (Japan Business Federation), attended by 220 business leaders from both countries, Modi began his remarks (impressively, speaking in Japanese) by thanking Japan’s business leaders for their interest in his country, and promising that he would address their concerns over the labyrinth of regulatory barriers to Japanese direct investment.  Japanese interest in helping New Delhi improve its national infrastructure is high, including the potential for sales of Japan’s famed high-speed rail systems. The joint communiqué did not disappoint, either.  Abe promised five years of generous economic assistance to India’s economic transformation, with ODA and private capital totaling thirty-five trillion yen, or around $33.4 billion. Modi openly expressed particular interest in Japan’s clean energy technology.

On the security side of their agenda, the two leaders were clearly speaking from one script on their concerns over China’s growing maritime reach.  India and Japan both have territorial differences with China, and Chinese maritime influence in and around India, including Sri Lanka, is growing. Modi and Abe agreed to regular naval consultations between the Indian Navy and the Maritime Self Defense Force, as well as to consider how to expand their defense technology cooperation.  India has shown keen interest in Japanese seaplanes and other coastal defense systems.  For his part, Modi spoke also to one of Japan’s strategic concerns – access to rare earth materials, promising to help Tokyo diversify its supply. Going forward, the foreign and defense ministers of both nations will meet regularly to discuss how to expand their strategic cooperation.

Modi called his visit “a new start” for relations with Tokyo, and Abe was clearly happy to see India’s new prime minister explore the opportunities for deepening their ties. Modi had visited Japan twice before he was elected this spring, and both times met with Shinzo Abe. Abe has long taken a special interest in India, and was the chief guest of the Indian government at their Republic Day celebration last January. Modi’s election in May has brought even more energy to the relationship. As the television footage suggested, the two leaders seem to have a good chemistry, and enjoyed their time together. Modi even sent out messages of thanks to Abe via social media as he visited Kyoto and other spots in Japan.

Abe too must be satisfied to see one of his main diplomatic efforts take root. He has put considerable energy into developing new partners and opportunities for balancing China’s rise, and India has long been an option that Tokyo’s strategic thinkers have looked to develop. Since coming into office in late 2012, the prime minister has been energetically promoting Japan’s diplomacy, diversifying energy and economic ties, and personally tackling some of the thornier challenges, such as the territorial dispute with Russia and the fate of abducted citizens in North Korea. Events in Ukraine have complicated the former, and it is still far too early to tell what might come of the latter. The territorial dispute with Beijing has brought ties with China to a virtual standstill, and the estrangement with Seoul has been an unexpected setback.

Japan’s perspective on the geostrategic balance in Asia had already begun to change even before Abe returned to office in 2012, and the strategy of building new strategic partners in Asia hedges against increasing uncertainty in Asia’s future.

In his five-day visit this week, Narendra Modi has made Japan’s pivot to India even more enticing – and far more likely to succeed.

This post appears courtesy of CFR.org and Forbes Asia.

Image: Office of the Prime Minister - Japan. 

TopicsJapan RegionsIndia

Is Germany's Green Energy Revolution Going Black?

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They have a saying in Lausitz, a region in eastern Germany near the border with Poland: "God made Lausitz, but the devil gave us coal."

The particular variety of coal here is called lignite, or brown coal. It lies close to the surface. To mine it, you must dig a vast open pit. Lausitz is scarred by these pits, some as large as Manhattan. They appear out of lush forests of spruce and pine, vast alien landscapes of dust and dirt and high wire fences, hundreds of feet deep and stretching into the distance. Adding to the environmental destruction lignite causes, burning it is a particularly dirty affair. A lignite-fired power plant emits three times as much carbon dioxide than one that runs on natural gas.

Grabko, a tiny village in Lausitz, has one street, one restaurant, and about three dozen houses that Vattenfall, a Swedish energy company, would dearly like to bulldoze to get at some of that lignite. Vattenfall wants to expand its mining operations here, and in June the regional government in Brandenburg gave the company permission to start the planning process that will eventually wipe Grabko and two neighboring villages completely off the map.

Needless to say, the threatened villagers—roughly 1,000 people in all—don’t want to leave. Last weekend they had some help. Greenpeace mobilized 7,500 activists from as far away as London to form a human chain from one of the threatened towns across the River Niesse and into Poland, where PGE, the state-owned energy company, plans to raze a further fifteen villages.

"Burning coal is wrong in so many ways," Manuel Marinelli, a veteran Greenpeace activist, said a few hours after the protest. What makes activists like Marinelli especially livid is that there is enough lignite in the existing mines to keep the local power plants running until 2030. The new mining areas Vattenfall wants to open will be producing lignite until 2050 and perhaps longer. So by the time Germany wants as much as 80 percent of its electricity to come from renewable sources, Vattenfall’s lignite mines and lignite-fired power plants in Lausitz will still be going strong.

The thriving lignite industry in Lausitz runs counter to Germany’s image as a green paradise. Surprisingly, the dirty fuel is widely popular there. A petition circulated by a pro-coal lobby group garnered 60,000 signatures in favor of the expanding mines. “The lignite industry is still an important, indispensable economic factor in this state,” said Dietmar Woidke, the Brandenburg’s Minister President.

The conflict between the pro- and anti-lignite camps in Lausitz is one facet of a larger conflict going on in Germany. There is a growing chorus of voices saying that the Energiewende, or energy revolution, is failing.

In the beginning, the Energiewende, Chancellor Merkel’s biggest domestic policy priority, was an ambitious and wildly popular initiative. More of a set of guidelines than a policy, it aims to close all nuclear power plants by 2022, increase renewables’ share of the national electricity generation to 80 percent by 2050, and slash greenhouse gas emissions to well below 1990 levels. Germans cheered.

The Energiewende’s champions can claim some striking successes. Last year renewable energy’s share of the country’s electricity reached 25 percent, an all time high (in the US, it’s only 13 percent). Organic food, solar panels, water-saving shower heads, old-fashioned hand-cranked washing machines, and vibrators made without toxic chemicals are all in vogue. Recycling is a highly organized affair, akin to a national pastime, with color-coded containers for paper and plastic and valuable materials and compost. Windmills churn on the horizon no matter which part of Germany you’re in, and one recent study concluded that offshore wind farms encourage ocean wildlife rather than harm it. The Bavarian town of Wildpoldsried, population 2,600, went above and beyond the spirit of the Energiewende: the village produces so much electricity from wind and sunlight and biomass that it can sell the surplus back into the grid, earning €5m each year.

"No country of Germany's scale has pursued such a radical shift in its energy supply,” Merkel said in a recent speech. "I'm convinced that if any country can successfully implement the Energiewende, it's Germany."

But many of the initial hopes and successes of the Energiewende have started to turn sour. Forests are being clear cut to be burned in biomass generators (to the dismay of many environmentalists, trees count as a renewable energy). Fields of solar panels have taken over bird sanctuaries. Activists warn that the five-foot-thick cable that will transport high-voltage electricity from the coast to the industrial heartland causes harmful electromagnetic radiation. Efforts to conserve water in cities like Berlin in Hamburg resulted, in 2012, in a foul fecal stench hanging over the city streets. Not enough water was running through the sewer system to wash away the sludge. Panicking, city officials flushed most of the water they’d saved down the drain.

Electricity is now 60 percent more expensive than it was five years ago, according to the Wall Street Journal. Industry is complaining. In a recent poll, seventy-five percent of small and medium businesses, which don’t qualify for the cost-saving exemptions that benefit the big companies, said rising energy costs are a “major risk.” Even the big companies are worried. Some are threatening to decamp to countries where electricity is cheaper; BASF, which employs 50,000 people in Germany, already announced plans to downsize its domestic operations. SGL Carbon will invest an extra $100 million in its plant in Washington, where electricity costs are less than a third what they are in Germany.

Germany is occasionally held up by American pundits, journalists, and politicians as an environmental success story that the United States ought to copy. But the Energiewende is a complex affair, and certainly not an unqualified success. At best it’s a work in progress. Greenhouse gas emissions rose for the third year in a row in 2013 to the highest level in five years. Coal is enjoying a revival. In late July, the Environment Ministry admitted Germany was unlikely to reach its 2020 emissions target. And, meanwhile, centuries-old medieval villages are being destroyed to open up new areas to mine and burn one of the dirtiest fossil fuels known to man for decades to come.

Solar panels on the roofs of the homes in one of those villages produce enough power for 5,000 homes, Bloomberg reported earlier this year. The nearby lignite power plant produces enough for 2.4 million. As long as renewables remain costly and unreliable on a national scale, fracking continues to be the stuff of nightmares, and coal provides a cheaper option than natural gas, Germany’s energy revolution will be an elusive dream.

Peter Mellgard is an Arthur F. Burns fellow at Süddeutsche Zeitung in Munich.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons License. 

TopicsEnergy RegionsGermany

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