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Nuclear North Korea's Next Nightmare: A Succession Crisis?

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Kim’s back on deck, albeit walking with a cane. His reappearance recently brought to an end a 40-day absence from public view, during which speculation ran rampant about what might have caused it. In response to his reappearance, international media seem to have set aside half-wishful thoughts that he might have been overthrown and returned to a theme of all’s-well-that-ends-well in Pyongyang. But it’s worth unpacking the issue of the missing Kim just a little more. True, no regime change occurred. Still, the absence was so poorly handled by the North there might well be other issues in play here besides Kim Jong-un’s health. Perhaps future absences beckon. In any event, Kim’s health matters—it’s tied up with both his authority in North Korea and the broader issue of the post-Kim North Korea.

During the leader’s absence from public view, North Korean media suggested that Kim was undergoing a course of medical treatment and had been experiencing “discomfort.” Speculation about the source of that discomfort ran thick and fast, including gout, diabetes, strained tendons, and ankle injuries. But given the unusual political circumstances of North Korea—Kim’s a young dictator trying to lock down his succession in a country about whose inner-circle politics we know almost nothing—it’s not entirely surprising that other, more sinister, explanations also received an airing. It’s probably true that if Kim Jong-un’s going to be toppled, that’ll occur while he’s still settling into the job—because if he makes it through the early years he’ll probably be there for decades. So any unexplained absence of the leader is bound to draw attention—hence the occasional bursts of black humor that Kim’s discomfort might have been caused by a “nine-millimeter headache.”

But there was always a large element of wishful thinking in believing that a regime change had unfolded in North Korea without anyone noticing. And throughout Kim’s absence, as Susan Rice, the US National Security Adviser said at the weekend, there was no actual evidence that he’d been deposed: no signs of a power struggle; no tanks in the streets of Pyongyang. Even the short-notice visit of a high-powered delegation to Seoul suggested that someone was in control and making the principal decisions.

But Kim’s absence matters in ways that go beyond the simple possibility of regime change. So far the image Kim Jong-un’s been building is of an energetic, youthful leader—a decisive personality able to wait out his enemies both foreign and domestic. Tennyson said that authority forgets a dying king, so it’s reasonable to conclude that it has at least some short-term memory lapses about a debilitated one. A prolonged absence—or repeated absences—will do more than feed international speculation about whether dark deeds have been perpetrated by Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with a candlestick. It’ll paint inside North Korea the picture of a vulnerable leader. That’d be a problem for Kim—and not especially helpful for the rest of us hoping to see clear North Korean decisions in relation to a resumption of talks about the North’s nuclear program and a “grand bargain” about the program’s dismantlement.

Moreover, we shouldn’t overlook the bigger questions concerning the future of leadership in North Korea. Here, I would recommend readers have a look at Scott Snyder’s excellent post. Kim’s young: he has no heir in the traditional line of succession, and won’t have one for at least a couple of decades. During his absence, media tended to focus a little more upon his sister, Kim Yo Jong. But most of her influence probably derives from her brother. In short, for many years to come Kim’s going to be staring down the barrel of a succession crisis, with no obvious successor.

Kim’s recent absence is a potent reminder of the political difficulties that a dictatorship like North Korea confronts. And yes, we’re talking here about the future leadership of a nuclear-armed country. The issue’s a serious and multi-layered one: thinking about Kim’s absence in the “Where’s Wally?” framework doesn’t quite capture it.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist where this piece first appeared

TopicsSecurity RegionsNorth Korea

The Air War Against ISIS: The Deciding Factor

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On the first night of airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, U.S. warplanes were not alone. They were accompanied by several others in the anti-ISIS coalition, including fighter aircraft from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This is a big deal.

Over several decades, the United States has provided advanced equipment and world-class training for partner nations, including the five mentioned above. These investments have been controversial at times, but now they are having significant payoffs. The continued participation of Middle Eastern states in anti-ISIS operations is crucial for their long-term success, and it has far-reaching implications for U.S. leadership throughout the world.

With U.S. help, these air forces have made tremendous progress. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE have purchased very capable aircraft from the United States. UAE F-16s, for example, are superior in many respects to the United States’ legacy F-16s. In addition to providing advanced equipment, the United States has encouraged participation in the most realistic training exercises, including the flagship Red Flag exercise in Nevada (where I had the opportunity to observe U.A.E. training personally).

Another major development is the Gulf Air Warfare Center in U.A.E., which has grown steadily since its establishment in 2000 to become a leader in tactical training. Its “Iron Falcon”exercise comes complete with dedicated aircraft that act as the enemy, excellent planning and briefing facilities, and tracking and debriefing technology that allows the participants to visualize how the battle unfolded—and identify what they could do better.

The payoff for these investments came last month when Middle Eastern air forces participated in airstrikes against ISIS in Syria. As a U.S. Air Force weapons and tactics instructor, I have helped to plan numerous raids and strikes similar to this one. Prior to my experiences with partner nations at Red Flag, I would have argued against having them participate on a first-night strike where precise execution is critical for both safety and mission accomplishment. I simply would not have trusted the Middle Eastern air forces to be where they were supposed to be.

My opinion of them changed as I watched their growth in realistic training scenarios. These air forces prepared well in peacetime, and when war came, they were ready. They have acquitted themselves well against ISIS, and their performance shows how much progress they have made since partnering with the United States.

Solid tactics cannot win wars in the absence of good strategy; this is another reason why these nations’ participation is critical. If we are to “destroy” ISIS, it will not be accomplished with military power. Instead, the ideology that fuels ISIS must be soundly rejected by people around the world, and most importantly, it must be disavowed by Sunnis in the Middle East. Having adherents of Sunni Islam participate in attacking ISIS sends a powerful message to the rest of the Sunni world that the teachings of ISIS are flat wrong. It also sent a message to others that Middle Eastern countries are willing to stand against ISIS, making it much more palatable to join a coalition that has now grown to over forty members.

As they participate in operations against ISIS, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE are also sending a very important message to Iran, their neighbor across the Gulf. These countries now have very credible air defenses—in many ways superior to Iran’s—that are interoperable with western countries such as the United States and France, as well as with each other. This creates a powerful balancing effect in the Gulf, one that works to stabilize the world economy.

This success also enhances U.S. credibility with our allies and potential partners. As we look forward to an increasingly interconnected world where instability in far-flung places can have global implications, developing effective partnerships is crucial, because the United States cannot be everywhere all the time. Over years of building partnerships around the globe, we have proven that the U.S. is a good “friend.” This year, U.S. Airmen have helped to increase the capabilities of air forces around the globe, including in exercises such as Max Thunder in Korea, Commando Sling and Pitch Black in Australia, Red Flag-Alaska in the Pacific, and the Tactical Leadership Program in NATO. In addition, the main Red Flag program in Nevada continues to host our partners. These programs have developed positive momentum, and they are working well.

Finally, several press reports highlighted the fact that the UAE flight leader on the first night of airstrikes was female. This brings up a more subtle point: it is not inconsequential that UAE military leaders have watched female fighter pilots from the United States perform on an equal level with their male counterparts in demanding training scenarios. Every time a member of the U.S. military interacts with our partners, it provides an opportunity to influence them for good. Our people provide living examples of how a professional military can show deference to civilian leaders, provide opportunities for its members, and treat all with dignity and respect. This potent combination of hard and soft power works to lift up others, which is both in our self interest and the right thing to do. We need to keep doing it.

Colonel Clint Hinote, U.S. Air Force, is a military fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He holds a PhD in military strategy, and he recently returned from Korea, where he commanded the 8th Fighter Wing at Kunsan Air Base.  The conclusions and opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. government.

This piece first appeared in CFR's blog Defense in Depth here

TopicsISIS RegionsUnited States

America's Real Pivot: Time For a Treaty Alliance With Vietnam?

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Last week, after the Obama administration’s decision to begin selling Vietnam limited amounts of lethal arms, a shift in the policy that has been in place since the end of the Vietnam War, I noted in a blog post that I believed the administration had made the right move, despite Vietnam’s serious—and worsening—rights abuses. Administration officials note that any further lethal arms sales, and closer relations with Vietnam and the Vietnamese military, will be contingent on Vietnam making progress in tolerating dissent of all types. Indeed, according to a report on the lethal arms sales in the New York Times:

The State Department emphasized that the policy change applied only to maritime surveillance and “security-related” systems and asserted that the decision reflected modest improvements in Vietnam’s human rights record.

I actually don’t think that there is any evidence of improvements in Vietnam’s human rights record at all in recent years; this is just a convenient fiction to placate those in Congress who are opposed to selling lethal arms because of Hanoi’s rights record. Indeed, the U.S. State Department’s own annual country report on Vietnam notes no real improvements in human rights in the past year, and summarizes the situation in Vietnam by saying that “the most significant human rights problems in the country continued to be severe government restrictions on citizens’ political rights, particularly their right to change their government; increased measures to limit citizens’ civil liberties; and corruption in the judicial system and police.”

Still, although I think that overall the administration has badly ignored human rights and democracy promotion in its strategy of re-engagement with Southeast Asia, I think Washington needs to build much closer ties with Vietnam no matter the country’s rights record. I am hardly a realist, but this is one time realpolitik should win out. For one, boosting lethal arms sales may help position the pro-United States faction with the Vietnamese leadership to gain strength vis-à-vis the more pro-China faction in the leadership. Several Vietnamese academics and officials say that the pro-China faction in Vietnam’s leadership is already on its heels, due to increasing China-Vietnam conflict over disputed areas of the South China Sea.

More specifically, the United States should build on its comprehensive partnership with Vietnam and work toward a formal treaty alliance with Hanoi. Besides ending the ban on selling lethal arms to Vietnam, the United States should work toward expanding access for American naval vessels at Cam Ranh Bay, expanding training programs for senior Vietnamese officers, and institutionalizing the annual United States–Vietnam strategic dialogue at a higher level, ensuring that the secretary of defense and his Vietnamese counterpart participates in the strategic dialogue annually.

Working toward a treaty alliance with Vietnam would be central to maintaining the U.S. presence in East Asia, protecting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and finding new ports and potential forward operating bases for the U.S. military as domestic political concerns in Japan and Thailand threaten military relationships with these states. For Vietnam, closer ties with the United States would allow the Vietnamese military to rapidly upgrade its equipment, would ensure close trade relations with Washington, and would provide the kind of security against an assertive China that, it appears, ASEAN could never offer.

Let’s drop the false rationale of an improving human rights record in Vietnam and call this relationship what it is: a strategic partnership that could be critical to both countries’ interests in Asia.

This piece first appeared in CFR’s blog Asia Unbound here.

Image: Department of Defense Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

Turkey's Crucial Role in America's Campaign against ISIL

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Two months ago, a medium-sized Yazidi village in Iraq called Sinjar was in desperate need of help. Surrounded and besieged by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant—a group that explicitly stated its intention to destroy those who practice the Yazidi faith—tens of thousands of men, women and children vacated their homes for a remote, dry and uninhabitable mountain range. Under siege with nowhere to go, thousands of men, women and children were forced to endure the hardship of living without food, water and shelter for days on end. Old men were starving to death, young children were dying of thirst and for the first time in a very long time, there was the possibility of an act of genocide occurring right under the world’s nose.

Thankfully for those Yazidis trapped on Sinjar Mountain, the United States took notice of their dire humanitarian plight. On August 7, in the State Dining Room at the White House, President Barack Obama stepped up to the podium and explained to the American people in a prime-time speech why the United States could not allow such a barbaric group of people to succeed in killing innocent civilians simply because of their faith. “When we face a situation like we do on that mountain—with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when we have a mandate to help—in this case, a request from the Iraqi government—and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye,” Obama said. “We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide. That’s what we’re doing on that mountain.”

The situation was eventually resolved: U.S. air strikes bombarded ISIL positions on the foot of the mountain, opening up a humanitarian corridor that allowed thousands of civilians to escape the horrendous conditions in which they were living. That act would come to represent the opening salvo of a broader and more comprehensive U.S. military campaign against the Islamic State group—as of August 8, over 400 air strikes have hit hundreds of ISIL targets, from artillery pieces and ISIL formations to armed vehicles and anti-aircraft weapons. A broad coalition of European partners has since joined the United States to conduct operations of its own.

If “degrading and ultimately destroying” the Islamic State within the borders of Iraq is hard, doing the same in Syria is harder. Unlike in Iraq, where U.S. airpower can be matched with forces on the ground like the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga, allies in Syria are in short supply. It will take an estimated twelve months for the training and equipping program established in Saudi Arabia to churn out the first batch of moderate Syrian fighters (which will number 5,000), and according to Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby, the vetting hasn’t even begun yet. Elements of the Free Syrian Army who are already on the ground wedged between Assad forces and ISIL are angry and bewildered as to why the United States is not coordinating the air campaign with them. The fact that the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobane is about to fall into the hands of ISIL, despite nearly eleven air strikes around the town in a 36-hour period serves as a perfect microcosm to the challenges and inherent flaws in Washington’s counterterrorism strategy in Syria: that is, without allies on the ground that can be trusted and are equipped with the weapons they need, air strikes will be limited to creating breathing space for fighters that are locked into their positions and unable to move.

Blaming America first is easy to do in this context. It is the United States, after all, that effectively drew up the campaign plan against ISIL, assembled the sixty-nation coalition and devoted far more combat aircraft, personnel and military resources to the fight than any other country. But that in and of itself is a significant problem, for it shows that despite claims from the Obama administration about the impressive breadth of the anti-ISIL coalition, its durability is severely tested by nations who are either unable or unwilling to do their share.

Turkey, a country that has the second biggest army in all of NATO, is perhaps the most critical player in the U.S.-led coalition. Yet, instead of President Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu doing what they pledged to do publicly, both men are reticent of using Turkish troops and artillery to push ISIL back from their own border. It was Davutoglu himself who declared that Turkey “will do whatever we can so that Kobane does not fall,” and yet the reality is far different: Turkish tanks, standing by, watching ISIL creep even closer to the center of Kobane without doing anything about it. Turkish leaders, like Davutoglu, are also choosing to complain about what is not happening (like a no-fly zone inside Syria), rather than using Turkey’s considerable resources to improve what is. It’s a divergence between words and deeds that is beginning to upset Washington. As one anonymous U.S. official confided to The New York Times, “[t]his isn’t how a NATO ally acts while hell is unfolding a stone’s throw from their border.”

What once looked like an air campaign that was effectively diminishing the command-and-control and financial capability of the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria, now looks like a campaign, two months in, that is impeded by a lack of ground troops in Syria and a set of supposed allies that are not buying into what the United States is trying to accomplish. Every military campaign has its troubles and pitfalls along the way—the question is whether the United States will convince its regional allies, like Turkey, to act on their pledges.

TopicsCounterinsurgencyMilitary Strategy RegionsIraqSyriaUnited StatesTurkey

5 Weapons from Star Trek That America’s Military Wishes It Had

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In Star Trek's vision of the future, humanity has ended poverty, hunger and racism. In fact, all the worst aspects of human existence have been swept away -- except war.

Warfare and weapons have been a prominent theme in Star Trek since the series debuted in 1966. Barrages of phasers and photon torpedoes erupt from starships traveling faster than the speed of light, only to be repelled by deflector shields that block their deadly energies.

Never mind that much of this is fantasy. Traveling faster than light is impossible, as far as we know (though not even the physicists are certain). Space is big, ships are small, and actual space combat would be closer to a game of hide-and-seek than the battle of Jutland or Leyte Gulf (for a fascinating interview I had with a real naval expert, see this).

Nonetheless, Star Trek and Star Wars have shaped popular perceptions of space warfare. Sometimes for good, sometimes for bad. But either way,  some of those Star Trek weapons would make the Pentagon's day. Consider these:

Cloaking Device:

Stealth has become the overriding design feature of America's most advanced warplanes, such as the F-22, F-35 and B-2. But invisibility -- the ultimate stealth -- was portrayed as a tactical system back in 1966, when Captain Kirk and the Enterprise first encountered the Romulan cloaking device in the episode "Balance of Terror.”

An invisible warship has enormous flexibility, not just as a weapons system but also as a transport or reconnaissance vessel. It can get close to a target, or evade enemy weapons. Because adversaries can never be sure of detecting a cloaked ship, they must work on the assumption that hidden ships may attack or are spying on them at any moment, thus creating a force multiplier effect far out of proportion to the actual battlefield capabilities of the invisibility screen.

At least that's how it works in theory. "Balance of Terror" is a perfect allegory for the worst fears about America's stealth aircraft. Remember that while the Romulan ship was cloaked, it could still be tracked well enough for the Enterprise to fire at it. Not with pinpoint accuracy, but well enough to damage the Bird of Prey. The Romulan ship also sacrifices much in capability to retain stealth, notably the fact that the cloaking device consumes so much power that it must uncloak to fire its weapons.

Critics say the F-35's stealth can be defeated, and that it has given up so many capabilities in the name of stealth that it will be a lackluster fighter at best. Perhaps the designers should have talked to the Romulans first.

Transporter Beam:

The Pentagon is spending billions to develop a Prompt Global Strike missile that can land anywhere in the world within one hour. But how about dropping a bomb instantaneously? That's exactly what the Star Trek transporter could do. An instantaneous delivery system that should be able to dispatch bombs as easily as people and cargo.

It would also seem to be a useful device for scattering mines in front of enemy ships moving at interstellar speeds. Curiously, Star Trek ships don't really scatter mines as tactical weapons on TV and the movies, though the ships in the Star Fleet Command computer and Star Fleet Battles paper wargame use mines quite readily.

Perhaps the people who would most love the transporter would be the Special Operations commandos, for whom just getting to a remote or heavily defended location is half the battle. Instead of slogging through the jungle or hoping some jihadi with a rifle doesn't shoot down your helicopter, wouldn't it be nice to have Scotty beam you down into the Al Qaeda base?

On the other hand, if Al Qaeda has transporters, the Department of Homeland Security's job becomes much more interesting.

Plasma Torpedo:

"Balance of Terror” was perhaps the most influential TV episode for space warfare. Not only did it unveil the cloaking device, but the Romulan plasma torpedo as well.

The plasma torpedo seems like a cross between those big Chinese missiles designed to kill aircraft carriers, and the massive U.S. bunker-buster bombs like the 15-ton Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP). Except that where the MOP destroys bunkers and tunnels, the plasma torpedo could disintegrate not just a Federation outpost dug a mile deep under an asteroid, but the entire asteroid as well.

Spock describes the torpedo as an "enveloping energy plasma, forcing an implosion." Its technical details aren't discussed in detail, but it obviously has a guidance system and faster-than-light capability to chase the Enterprise at warp speed. It does appear to be a short-ranged weapon (at least by interstellar standards); by the time it hits a fleeing Enterprise, enough of its energy has dissipated to allow the ship to survive.

Borg Cube:

The Borg Cube is in many ways the perfect weapon. Not only does it destroy enemy ships. It assimilates them and their crews, thus enhancing Borg military resources while reducing the enemy's. In that sense, it is not just a conventional warship. It is a psychological operations (Psyops) system, except that instead of converting the enemy through propaganda, the Borg convert them by implanting control units in their brains.

In a way, the Borg way of war harkens back to the days of Earth's Thirty Years War of the 17th Century, as well as Napoleon's armies. Those soldiers lived off the land by plundering supplies from farms and villages, preferably -- though not always -- in enemy territory. By assimilating the people and machines of their enemies, the Borg can essentially supply themselves indefinitely.

Doomsday Machine:

The most awesome and most insane of Star Trek weapons, the Doomsday Machine was a giant robotic ship built by a race in another galaxy. It was supposed to destroy enemy planets and then digest them for fuel, thus giving it infinite range. Unfortunately, it also destroyed the planets of the race that built it.

A 1967 allegory for the Cold War nuclear arms race, the Doomsday Machine was an example of a weapon too powerful for its own good. In this case, the capacity for destruction became the capacity for self-destruction.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy and a writer for Waris Boring. Follow him on Twitter:@Mipeck1.

Image: Creative Commons 2.0/Flickr/ Robert Young from the UK. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

Iran: A Bigger and Badder Threat than ISIS?

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Once alerted to the menace posed by brutal terrorists in Iraq and Syria, the world has swung into action with vigor and resolve—and enough potent military hardware to make even the most hardened terrorist think twice. Already ISIL’s decentralizing its main force elements to hide amidst innocent women and children. Truly, atrocity and cowardice are bedfellows.

But focusing excessively on ungoverned spaces in Iraq and Syria can distract from broader strategic priorities. Highlighting one dilemma can diminish our international peripheral vision, to the point where other pressing issues seem to have abated or disappeared.

Part of the challenge with ISIL is to degrade and contain it, while not constraining the international community’s broader focus. Admittedly, ISIL casts a long and fearful shadow, but there are potentially worse—albeit quieter—threats lurking, which also demand urgent attention.

They include the maverick trifecta of Iran, Russia and North Korea. Unlike ISIL, each of those international “problem-states” comes disproportionately better armed, including a ready-made or emerging nuclear capability, accompanied by an unpredictable senior leadership.

The first unresolved problem confronting the world is what exactly to do about Iran. The threat of a nuclear-armed Iran would dwarf that which is posed by ISIL, whose mayhem and carnage a coalition of nations is now working to suppress. For almost a decade, since September 2006, Iran has steadfastly and with contempt thumbed its nose at the international community, by remaining deliberately in breach of its nuclear arms control obligations.

It has taken that sustained and obdurate stance for three reasons. First, because of the prestige, power and authority which Iran believes such weapons would give it, both regionally and beyond. In some Iranian eyes it would be a much stronger player to be feared by all parties; even an equal to Israel. Second, Iran’s strategic leadership remains fundamentally and violently opposed to a world order in which both the United States and Israel continue to retain disproportionate influence. And, third, Iran probably interprets longstanding international inaction on their nuclear weapons program to date as a strong indicator of longer-term vacillation and weakness.

The issues of ISIL and Iran overlap in at least two ways. The international community’s focus on the former gives Iran more time and enhanced cover to develop its thinly veiled nuclear capability. And depending on how current to mid-term events unfold in the Middle East, Tehran might see a pretext, or reason, to initiate military action against ISIL in its own right, at least to further extend or expand proxy-military actions against the West.

Doubtless, those sensitivities and threats are well appreciated by the war’s principal leaders; including ISIS/ISIL’s own twisted hierarchy. But what’s perhaps less acknowledged, at least publicly, is the growing need now for ISIL to be degraded and contained, concurrent with a broad and holistic internationally agreed approach to Iran.

By having put Iran on the backburner for the last decade—for obvious and understandable reasons called Iraq and Afghanistan—the world, and especially the West, has forfeited the opportunity of solving the problems separately.

Now, the issues of both ISIL and Iran must be confronted and resolved closer together. At the least, it’s time for the international community to engage and agree upon an effective strategy to contain Iran.
Almost certainly, such a strategy will include multiple and complementary lines of engagement across the international community and with Iran itself. Those will embrace the broad sweep from diplomacy, to international consensus and coalition building, to economic sanctions, and in extremis, the possibility of military action.

By default, the US, as it has done with ISIL, must inevitably lead the way, notwithstanding its inherent national war-weariness. But whichever combination of the above is agreed, the time for action on Iran is now much closer than it has ever been.

The wider world was finally roused to the true menace of ISIL by its evil mix of malevolent atrocity exported by social media. But replace the ghastly specter of ISIL’s severed heads and slain thousands, with an Iranian nuclear device used somewhere in the Middle East—and the mind is concentrated wonderfully, about the broader potential for a worse crisis.
It’s time the international community took Iran off the backburner.

This piece first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist here. 

Image: Creative Commons. 

TopicsISIS RegionsIran

America's Secret Weapon in Space?: Behold the X-37B

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Since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011, the US has lacked its own vehicle for launching astronauts. This hasn't stopped America from launching its own mini-shuttle without a crew.

The X-37B spacecraft is roughly the size of a small car. It has flown in space three times on classified missions. After roughly 22 months in space, it seems that the latest mission is preparing to come home.

What is this mysterious vehicle doing? Nobody really knows, and that's quite remarkable in these times. Legions of amateur analysts track classified satellite launches. They can usually work out the true nature of a mission by studying its orbit and assembling other pieces of evidence. Thus satellites that are designed to act as secretive eyes in the sky are normally unmasked quickly.

The X-37B is different. We know it is an experimental space plane that was originally owned by NASA before it was transferred to the US Air Force. We also suspect that there's something secret underneath the clamshell doors of its small payload bay. But we don't know exactly what it is or what it is doing. Open sources and technical analysis doesn't yield many clues. There has also been no 'leakage' of secrets through whispers and gossip.

There's obviously a lot of technical wizardry at work with this spacecraft, but the absolutely hermetic nature of the program is also remarkable. When so many secrets have been leaked in recent times, this is one program that remains steadfastly under wraps.

This piece was first posted on The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Image: Wikicommons/Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

Kim Jong-un’s Vanishing Act: The Scary Reality if He Dies

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North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un has not been seen in public for over one month, failing to participate in a major Supreme People’s Assembly gathering and anniversary commemorations of the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party. These are the same sorts of events that his father, Kim Jong-il, failed to attend six years ago following a stroke from which it took months for him to recover. North Korea’s official media has publicly acknowledged Kim’s “discomfort.”

But perhaps what is more notable is that international media seem to “need” Kim Jong-un more than the domestic media, even while deriding North Korean media coverage of Kims pointing at things. The divergence in domestic and international media responses should give pause precisely because it reveals the way that the Kim cult of personality has distracted from our understanding of the underlying state of the North Korean regime: within North Korea, the people feel Kim’s presence even when he is absent; externally, North Korean propaganda has made Kim’s presence so critical that international media regard his absence as disquieting, even in without supporting indicators of instability or upset in Pyongyang. In this way, the cult of personality distorts our focus on the state and relationships among the underlying institutions (the party, the military, the state) as factors likely to influence the stability of the North Korean regime.

Likewise, publicly known international responses to Kim Jong-un’s absence can be grouped into three categories: whistling past the graveyard and alternately worrying or hoping that Kim will find his way into the graveyard. But no state has yet tipped its hand as to what it would do in the event of a real crisis of leadership in North Korea.

Kim Jong-il’s absence in 2008 was significant because his health crisis paralyzed North Korean diplomacy and accelerated succession planning that eventually unveiled and elevated Kim Jong-un as Kim Jong-il’s successor. But it did not ultimately have implications for the viability or continuity of the North Korean state. In contrast, Kim Jong-un’s absence has coincided with a period of unprecedented DPRK diplomatic activity under Kim Jong-un. Although Kim Jong-un’s relative youth mitigates against the likelihood that his health issues will debilitating, he does not have grown children, which underscores the potential complexities of succession and the need for a succession plan should something go wrong. Kim’s absence from public view by itself does not appear likely to shake the regime, but it reveals the vulnerabilities the regime faces as a result of its dependence on the “line of Mount Paekdu” as the overarching source of legitimacy behind Kim rule.

Kim Jong-un does not have a viable successor within his own line and is unlikely to have one for two decades. Moreover, as part of his own succession struggle, Kim Jong-il introduced the thought that “side branches” in the Kim genealogical tree constitute potential threats to legitimacy. But in so doing he introduced constraints on the viability of Kim Jong-un’s siblings (older brothers Kim Jong-chol and even the exiled Kim Jong-nam) or sister Kim Yo-jung (rumored to have already taken a central role in management of state affairs) as potential successors to Kim Jong-un. This circumstance heightens the possibility that Kim Jong-un’s demise could spark a complicated family battle for succession that could upend the viability of the regime. In this respect, the viability of Kim family rule in North Korea may appear more fragile than it has been in decades. Kim Jong-un’s absence points to this fragility.

This piece first appeared in CFR’s blog Asia Unbound here.

TopicsSecurity RegionsNorth Korea

Which U.S. States Win and Lose Most From Falling Oil Prices?

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Oil prices are plunging. Which U.S. states will benefit most – and which are most at risk?

A study that the Council on Foreign Relations published about a year ago looked at exactly this question. The research, by Mine Yucel of the Dallas Fed and Stephen Brown of UNLV, ranked Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Tennessee as the biggest potential winners, and Wyoming, Oklahoma, and North Dakota as those with the most to lose.

Oil prices have fallen by about twenty percent in the last few months. Brown and Yucel combined statistical analysis of the historical relationship between oil prices and employment with current data about state economies to estimate what a twenty-five percent price rise would do jobs. They note that the same analysis can generate insight into the potential impact of a price plunge. This map (also see above), which I’ve created by assuming that an oil price drop is as bad for jobs as an oil price rise is good for employment (Brown and Yucel discuss the value and limits of such an assumption in the paper), shows the results.

Brown and Yucel add some additional insight into the dynamics at work here:

“States like Texas and Louisiana that have downstream oil and gas industries that benefit from falling energy prices such as refining and petrochemicals would be less affected. In addition, states in which natural gas is more prominent than oil are likely to see less harm from falling oil prices. With the recent weakening in the relationship between oil and natural gas prices, a decline in oil prices does not necessarily imply as big a change in natural gas prices as it once did, lessening the effect of an oil price decline.”

They also provide historical perspective:

“When oil prices collapsed to near about eleven dollars per barrel in 1986, the Texas economy went into a deep recession for two years. Economic output contracted 5.6 percent and employment fell 1.1 percent…. Even though oil and gas extraction accounted for 19 percent of the Texas economy in 1981, that share was the second smallest among the eight oil-sensitive states (West Virginia was smallest). As a percentage of state GDP, the oil and gas sector accounted for 49 percent in Alaska, 37 percent in Wyoming, 35 percent in Louisiana, and 20 percent in North Dakota. The 1986 oil price crash also caused a recession in most of these states, with employment declines largest in Wyoming (-5.9 percent) and Alaska (-4.5 percent)—states with the largest oil and gas output shares.”

The historical record – both anecdotal and leveraged using statistics – is far from a perfect guide to the future, particular with massive changes in the U.S. oil and gas industry in recent years. And the fall in prices isn’t yet remotely comparable to 1986. Nonetheless, if you’re looking to see where and how falling prices might help or pinch economically, the Brown and Yucel study is a great place to start.

This piece first appeared in the CFR blog Energy, Security and Climate here.

TopicsEnergy RegionsUnited States

The World Needs More Nobel Controversies

The Buzz

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has abandoned its recent fondness for giving the Peace Prize to aseptic international bureaucracies, giving this year’s award to Malala Yousafzai, a human, and Kailash Satyarthi, another human. That’s a positive step, and the two clearly deserve recognition. The sort of work they do—advocating on behalf of children—also merits international notice, as many states around the world are experiencing massive “youth bulges.” This global bumper crop of young people will shape this century for good or for ill, and people like Yousafzai and Satyarthi are fighting on the side of good. The two are also from opposite sides of one of the world’s many bloody frontiers—Satyarthi is a Hindu from India, Yousafzai a Muslim from Pakistan. They’ve invited their leaders to join them at the award ceremony in December, prompting jokes that they’re already working on their next Peace Prize.

Both had already won a raft of international honors. Their cause and their heroism is almost universally acclaimed in fashionable circles. There won’t be a Nobel controversy this year.

And it’s a shame there wasn’t.

2014 has been a terrible year. A new European war opened up in Ukraine. Israel and Hamas were at each other’s throats again. The Syrian civil war, which didn’t seem like it could possibly get any worse, did, with a new barbarism emerging and spreading into Iraq. International tension is on the rise in East Asia and between the great powers. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Mexico, Nigeria, Libya, the Central African Republic and others became or remained bloody messes. That the people “who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations” (as Alfred Nobel’s will put it) in such a year would be a pair of children’s-rights advocates shows us just how far we are from peace.

Today’s international system is in serious disorder. We do not need prophets to scourge us or minor saints to rescue a few of us from the rising tide of blood. We need statesmen who are not afraid to wade into it, to be stained by it, but finally to stop it. War ends when the war-makers choose peace. And peace lasts when the war-makers shape it to reflect their interests and their mutual fears, so that the next generation of potential war-makers will be satisfied, too. Peace can be an ugly business. The pure in heart often play only minor parts.

That is reflected in the history of the Nobel. Some of the greatest steps for peace were taken by people your postcolonial studies prof would have called “problematic.” Anwar Sadat, anti-Semite, Nazi fanboy and author of a war of aggression against a neighboring state, won his alongside Menachem Begin, a retired terrorist who was no stranger to acts of aggression himself. The peace they made dramatically reduced the chances of another massive Arab-Israeli war—a war which, if the previous one is a guide, would introduce real dangers of nuclear attack and even great-power conflict. The humanitarian benefits of that peace were enormous, and continue to accrue to this day. The story’s similar elsewhere. We find a number of warring parties. We find the great imperialist Teddy Roosevelt, who helped settle the Russo-Japanese War. We find apartheid leader F. W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela, who long refused to give up armed struggle. Taken together, the grubbier winners of the Nobel could rightly claim that they saved the lives of hundreds of thousands—if not of millions.

So we should hope that this time next year, the salons are howling with outrage at the news of the Norwegians’ choice. We should hope, indeed, that the Norwegians found themselves with many equally ugly alternatives. That would be a sign that the world was back on the way to stability, that the bloodshed had slowed. And if they must once again give the Peace Prize to someone we could all agree on? I hope we’ll still be here to politely applaud.

John Allen Gay, an assistant managing editor at The National Interest, is coauthor of War with Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences(Rowman and Littlefield, 2013). He tweets at @JohnAllenGay.

TopicsSecurity RegionsPakistanIndia

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