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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. 


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

The Buzz

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 and Forbes Asia.

Image: Office of the Prime Minister - Japan. 

TopicsJapan RegionsIndia

Is Germany's Green Energy Revolution Going Black?

The Buzz

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

When Should Governments Intervene to Prevent Human Suffering in Other Countries?

The Buzz

When should governments intervene to prevent human suffering in other countries and when should they exercise restraint?  Is there anything that should stand in the way of the will to save?  The Journal of Genocide Research recently published a special issue on the Nigeria-Biafra War that helps to address some of these questions.  One article by Brian McNeil, which charts the history of the American Committee to Keep Biafra Alive (ACKBA), is particularly instructive, even if the conclusions reached offer little hope for today’s beleaguered civilians in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.

The ACKBA was a pressure group founded in the U.S. to advocate on behalf of the civilian population of Biafra—a province of Nigeria that, in the late 1960s, declared its independence from Lagos and became embroiled in a bitter civil war against the central government.  All wars lead to human suffering, but the Biafran people endured a particularly harrowing fate because the Nigerian government imposed a blockade upon the breakaway region, including the restriction of aid deliveries, in an attempt to starve the Biafrans into submission.  While estimates vary, the Biafran War resulted in the deaths of at least 1 million civilians.

In response to the slaughter, humanitarian groups formed the world over.  For its part, the ACKBA focused its efforts upon persuading the U.S. government to intervene in the conflict, believing that U.S. influence could be used to break the blockade and bring relief to the civilians of Biafra.  Nigerian sovereignty, the ACKBA argued, should not be an impediment to humanitarian relief.  In 1968, presidential hopeful Richard Nixon appeared to agree.  As McNeil notes, Nixon-the-candidate even used the label of “genocide” to describe Nigeria’s treatment of the Biafrans and backed a role for the United States in making sure that the region’s civilians were given proper access to aid—even if this meant violating the Nigerian government’s claimed sovereignty over Biafra.

In the event, however, President Nixon shied away from violating Nigerian sovereignty.  The well-worn norm of non-intervention trumped the humanitarian impulse to intervene.  As a result, the man-made famine in Biafra persisted, leaving the ACKBA scrambling to find a new political strategy.  What the ACKBA membership settled upon was a dramatic policy of urging recognition of Biafran sovereignty—that is, instead of violating Nigerian sovereignty in order to bring relief to the Biafran people, the U.S. should deny the existence of Nigerian sovereignty altogether by recognizing Biafra’s sovereign statehood.  In the short-term, Biafran statehood would open the door to much-needed aid deliveries; in the long-term, a Biafran state was the only guarantee against Biafrans being persecuted by Nigerian forces.

What this shift in approach highlights is that ACKBA, like so many humanitarian organizations today, viewed the notion of sovereignty—one of the veritable pillars of the international system—as malleable, something that should be overridden where an impediment to humanitarian objectives but embraced (in this case, for Biafra) if that would result in lives being saved.  International rules existed to serve human beings, not the other way around.  Governments should bend rules in the service of saving lives, whatever it might take.

In the event, Washington was not persuaded to recognize Biafran sovereignty.  The Biafran people waged their struggle in relative isolation until, in 1970, Nigeria won the civil war and the secessionist movement was finally suppressed.  The cost in human lives and suffering had been enormous.  While outside powers had been active in arming both sides of the civil war, the ACKBA and other concerned organizations had failed to galvanize the international community into providing meaningful humanitarian relief.  Why?

The impulse to save the people of Biafra was thwarted by some cold realities about international politics and foreign policy—all of which persist into the present day.  First, governments take state sovereignty extremely seriously (even if selectively so) and generally are reluctant to sanction the breakup of other states.  Sovereignty, in turn, stubbornly exists to buttress the control of governments over territories and populations; it is commonly the enemy of those who advocate humanitarian interventions and rarely the ally.  The abject failure of the so-called Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in the wake of the ongoing violence in Syria shows how far this remains true.

Second, Biafra shows what can happen (and what will not happen) when the leaders of powerful states are under pressure to retrench.  In his article, McNeil hints that Nixon was inclined against intervention in Biafra because he governed at a time when the U.S. public was suspicious of foreign entanglements (the Vietnam War still raging).  Some would argue Biafran lives were lost as a result.  The parallels with what is happening today in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere—and with Bill Clinton’s failure to respond to the genocide in Rwanda—are obvious.

Most of all, the Biafran episode highlights the crushing tragedy of humanitarianism as a global phenomenon.  The desire to protect human lives and human dignity is not lacking in the world but the organization of international politics is hardly set up to facilitate the timely and adequate provision of humanitarian relief.  Too many enduring power structures exist to frustrate the will to save.  In Syria, Iraqi and elsewhere, civilians in warzones continue to pay the price.

Image: U.S. Army Flickr. 

TopicsHumanitarian Intervention RegionsUnited States

The Shortsightedness of NATO's War with Serbia Over Kosovo Haunts Ukraine

The Buzz

Today it seems the past is just history. US president Barack Obama and secretary of state, John Kerry, have lamented the return to "19th century politics," with its outdated "spheres of influence" in Eastern Europe.

Dismissing Russian hostility to Ukraine's drift towards the West, German chancellor Angela Merkel has claimed that Russian president Vladimir Putin is living "in another world."

"The Cold War," she has said, "should be over for everyone."

"Russia," says Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott in his assessment of Eastern European geopolitics, "is a big country trying to bully a small one."

With the conflict still boiling, NATO now appears ready to go further than ever before in its commitments to Kiev. On Wednesday The Guardian reported that Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko will be "the sole non-NATO head of state to negotiate with alliance leaders" at their Cardiff summit next week.

They're expected to create four "trust funds" to modernize the Ukrainian armed forces, including its command and control structures. By degrees Ukraine is being drawn into the Western alliance.

Since nothing suggests that sanctions have changed Russia's calculus - note Wednesday's other report of up to 100 Russian tanks on the Ukrainian side of the border - looming more than ever now is a lasting estrangement. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO's Secretary-General, is nonplussed:

“We have to face the reality that Russia does not consider NATO a partner. Russia is a nation that unfortunately for the first time since the Second World War has grabbed land by force ... It is safe to say that nobody had expected Russia to grab land by force.”

For the first time, NATO forces will be permanently stationed in Eastern Europe, probably the Baltics, on Russia's own borders.

At best, this strategy will intimidate Russia into a humiliating backdown. At worst, it could inaugurate a lasting rebalancing of the global order.

Now 91 years old, Henry Kissinger, Nixon's secretary of state, has just published his latest book, World Order. It reiterates, for a new age, the classically realist principle that a stable international order lies in equilibrium among the world's great powers.

The reviews will come—and some already have. But, especially relevant today is his warning, in a 1999 Newsweek article, about the shortsightedness of NATO's war with Serbia over Kosovo:

“The rejection of long-range strategy explains how it was possible to slide into the Kosovo conflict without adequate consideration of its implications ... The transformation of the NATO alliance from a defensive military grouping to an institution prepared to impose its values by force ... undercut repeated American and allied assurances that Russia had nothing to fear from NATO expansion.”

Those who believe Putin's Russia a corporatist, nationalistic state with scant regard for the rule of law will find Kissinger's prescience remarkable:

“The tribulations of Yugoslavia ... emphasized Russia's decline and have generated a hostility towards America and the West that may produce a nationalist and socialist Russia - akin to the European Fascism of the 1930s.”

Now, Putin is no Hitler. But he is a "Great Russian" nationalist. Since Russia annexed Crimea in March, Putin has repeatedly invoked the war, and Serbia's partition that culminated in the establishment of an independent Kosovo, as both a legal precedent for Russia's actions and as a demonstration of the alliance's aggressive intent.

Kissinger began his career as a historian of 19th century diplomacy. His first book, A World Restored: Castlereagh, Metternich and the Problems of the Peace, analyzed the rebuilding of the European order after the chaos of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815). It's Kissinger's "19th century logic" that puts paid to the idea that that Russian "bullying" in Ukraine is all a one-way street.

The same logic suggests that, instead of promoting a return to equilibrium, NATO's latest moves will merely confirm its nefarious purposes in Russian eyes. Combined with sanctions, they will "prove" that the only interests that count are the West's, spurring Moscow into making common cause with other capitals frustrated by what they perceive to be the West's blinkered vision.

It's a notably shortsighted way to handle foreign relations. Indeed, Kissinger's judgment on the Clinton administration's policies in Kosovo in 1999 could be made of Washington and Brussels today:

“(They) have little concern with notions of international equilibrium ... (and) are ever tempted to treat foreign policy as an extension of domestic politics. Their diplomacy is quite skillful in dealing with short-term issues but obtuse with respect to strategy.”

Where does all of this leave Australia, formally a NATO "global partner", with deep political, defense, and intelligence links with its two most important military contributors (the US and UK), but not itself a member?

The easiest answer is to shrug our shoulders and get on with the "Asian Century." Officially on ice, it's still the bedrock of Australian thinking. (Though, of course, Russia is an Asian country too.)

The problem is that as an increasingly frequent participation in extra-regional fora - not only is Australia a NATO "global partner," but an OSCE "partner for cooperation," member of the G20, and a non-permanent member of the Security Council for 2013-14 - is making an account of Australian aims beyond littoral Asia, and strategy for pursuing them, more important than ever.

Indeed, as a country usually able to produce sharp-eyed assessments of its interests (think of recent agreements with Washington and Tokyo as part of a strategy aimed at balancing China), Australia's role could be to work through with NATO partners closer to Russia - geographically, economically or politically - the high stakes involved for the West as a whole when it comes to getting policy with Russia right. As Kissinger said in 1999:

“Russia's image of itself as an historic player on the world stage must be taken seriously. This requires less lecturing and more dialogue; less sentimentality and more recognition that Russia's national interests are not always congruent with ours.”

Today, that might be too late: "History in its perversity," Columbia University's Robert Legvold has recently written, "often ... locks key actors inside the events they are struggling to master and obscures from them the larger implications of their actions."

All the same, Kissinger's career shows that it's precisely the study of the past that means that that doesn't have to happen. To help revive, so to speak, the "art of grand strategy," we need to be thinking more about history, not less.


Now that NATO appears to have photographic evidence that the Russian army is operating on Ukrainian territory, one last extract from Kissinger's essay seems pertinent:

“It was conventional wisdom in Washington that Serbia's historic attachment to Kosovo was exaggerated … But what if Serbia did not yield? How far were we willing to go?”

With Obama affirming that the US is "not taking military action to solve the Ukrainian problem," that question, and the gap in ambition between means and ends it points to, appears as open now as it always has in this crisis.

Matthew Dal Santo is a freelance writer and foreign affairs correspondent. He previously worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. This piece first appeared in ABC’s The Drum here.

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsRussia

China's Real Goal: A Monroe Doctrine in Asia?

The Buzz

Recently when a Chinese fighter jet pilot harassed a P-8 U.S. reconnaissance plane in the skies over the South China Sea, he wasn’t just displaying China’s growing military might.  He was also taking dead aim at two of the most sacrosanct principles of the international global order – freedom of navigation and overflight.

According to the Pentagon, the Chinese pilot’s intimidation included a barrel roll over the P-8, a 90-degree pass across the P-8’s nose with weapons bared, and a fly along within 20 feet of the P-8’s wingtips.  That this is extremely dangerous is underscored by an eerily similar event in 2001.

In this “EP-3 Incident,” a U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane flying about 70 miles from Hainan Island was struck by another “cowboying” Chinese fighter pilot and plunged more than 14,000 feet before its pilot, Lieutenant Shane Osborn, got the nose back up.   After an emergency landing on Hainan Island, the plane was stripped of sensitive data while the crew of 24 was held--and only released after the White House issued a humiliating apology.

As for why Hainan Island is the common denominator in these two incidents, the vast underground caverns of the Yulin Naval Base hide a growing fleet of Jin-class ballistic missile submarines now capable of delivering nuclear weapons to U.S. territory.  It’s not for nothing the U.S. military wants to keep close tabs on Hainan Island.

For its part, China wants no part of any such U.S. surveillance.  In fact, the EP-3 and P-8 incidents are just two in a string involving freedom of navigation and overflight.  Others include the harassment of the USNS Impeccable in 2009, the establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone in 2013 over the skies of Japan’s Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, a near collision with the USS Cowpens guided missile cruiser, also in 2013, and now, as the Pentagon has revealed, numerous other recent incidents similar to the P-8.

That this is a story about much more than just two big military powers jockeying for position is evident in the parallel legal war China is fighting over how freedom navigation and overflight should be redefined. This larger story begins in 1986 with the passage of the United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty; it established an “Exclusive Economic Zone” extending a full 200 miles out from a nation’s coastline and further gave nations the fishing and natural resources rights within their EEZs.

Since passage of the treaty, China has taken the novel position that both freedom of navigation and overflight are also restricted within a nation’s EEZ.  It now insists that any nation’s military aircraft and vessels wishing to pass through its EEZ must seek its permission; and it is on this legal basis that it justifies its harassment of foreign military planes and ships in the region.

To be clear here, nothing in the actual treaty supports China’s position.  If, however, China’s new definitions of freedom of navigation and overflight were accepted within the tight confines of the East and South China Seas, this revisionist rule would be tantamount to a new Monroe Doctrine for China in Asia.  Indeed, it would effectively give China control over two of the most important and lucrative sea lines of communication in an area of the world where over 60% of future economic growth is forecast to occur.

Given the high economic and national security stakes involved, we can expect China to continue its challenge to freedom of navigation and overflight.   As to how America should respond, here are five first steps:

The White House must stop believing economic engagement will eventually turn China into a peace-loving democracy and start treating it like a serious threat.  The Pentagon should equip all U.S. military aircraft in the region with video cameras to document  aggressive behavior so China can’t keep plausibly denying it.  American companies should start bringing their production back home, if not for patriotism’s sake then because their factories in China will be at increasing risk as military friction between America and China rises.  The media must do a better job framing incidents like the P-8 in their larger context rather than relegating them to the back pages.  Finally, consumers must realize whenever they buy “Made in China” they are helping to finance a military buildup increasingly threatening to America’s economic and national security interests.

Peter Navarro is a public policy professor at UC-Irvine.  His documentary film and book “Will There Be War With China?” is scheduled for release in 2015.

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

America's Nuclear Arsenal is Back

The Buzz

Given the intensity of media focus on a series of crises this year—Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Ebola, and the South China Sea to name just a few—readers may be forgiven for having failed to notice that another important, though more incremental, development has also occurred. With each passing month it becomes clearer that a mood of nuclear realism is unfolding in US strategic policy. While President Obama is still remembered most clearly in the public mind for the anti-nuclear language in his Prague speech of 2009, a string of events in 2013–14 suggest that a shift of emphasis is occurring in relation to nuclear weapons.

First, the administration has committed to the long-overdue modernization of the US nuclear arsenal. True, the initial funding decisions are merely the opening salvoes of a program that will take decades to unpack, and key decisions about the shape and size of the arsenal remain unresolved. But the administration has signaled a commitment to renovate the strategic triad, and even to modernize its principal tactical weapon, the B-61 bomb.

Second, Washington has been busy putting its nuclear “house” in order. By January of this year, almost 20% of US Air Force officers in its nuclear weapons corps had been implicated in a proficiency-assessment cheating scandal. The Navy wasn’t immune either—earlier this month it expelled 34 sailors caught up in the nuclear cheating scandal. A senior naval officer was dismissed in October last year for inappropriate behavior in Moscow. Some might even see the sacking of James Doyle by Los Alamos National Laboratory as part of that pattern. Certainly a more restrictive approach to nuclear information management and a more disciplined approach to command and control of the arsenal seem to be the flavor of the day.

Third, evidence points to a determination to rebuild the intellectual capital necessary to sustain the nuclear mission for another generation. A senior State Department official, at the Annual Deterrence Symposium in mid-August, spoke of the need to recruit a new wave of “political scientists, lawyers, physicists, geologists, engineers, and more,” in order to “bring the next generation into the nuclear deterrence enterprise.”

Fourth, what we might call the “three musketeers” (Brent Scowcroft, Stephen Hadley and Franklin Miller) seem to have displaced—at least temporarily—the “four horsemen” (George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry and Sam Nunn), as the media commentators of the day. The four horsemen have published a range of important op-eds since 2007 about the need to move away from nuclear weapons (see, for example, herehere, and here). Their arguments have generally gone unanswered. The musketeers’ recent article in the Washington Post, underlining the importance of forward-deployed nuclear weapons in Europe, was obviously written with one eye on the approaching NATO summit in Wales. But it has wider implications: after all, if forward-deployed nuclear weapons are so important in Europe, why aren’t they just as important in other theatres?

Fifth, the administration seems to have wound back slightly the significance it attaches to the imperative of “nuclear security”—a protracted exercise to round up insecure warheads and quantities of fissile material in the world. Clearly that mission’s still important: Washington continues to fund it during straitened budgetary times. But one gets the sense that, for the coming few years, rounding up stray quantities of fissile material is not as strategically important as resuscitating the US nuclear weapons arsenal.

And sixth, the administration seems to have gone back to taking seriously the nuclear policies of the other nuclear-weapon states: witness the State Department’s recent finding that Russia is in violation of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

Now, some will argue that those are all just straws in the wind, and that if Obama wanted to shift his nuclear policy, he would just say so. But one year out from another NPT Review Conference, could he? Besides, has policy changed, or are we just seeing a shift of emphasis? In 2009 Obama said he thought a non-nuclear world would be safer and the US should work towards that goal. The goal, he said, might not be reached in his lifetime. And in the meantime, the US would need to ensure it could rely upon a safe, secure and effective nuclear arsenal. So a theme of continued reliance always sat side by side with the grander goal of nuclear disarmament.

I think the straws tell a story: that nuclear weapons are making a comeback in US strategic policy—driven by a growing mood of strategic realism in Washington. The strategic environment of 2014 looks different to that of 2009. True, the comeback will probably be limited. But when future historians look back on 2013–14, they’re likely to paint it as a turning of the tide on nuclear weapons policy, occurring—ironically—under the administration of one Barack Obama.

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

Image: Wikicommons. 

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