The Buzz

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

Leon Panetta’s Worthy Fight?

The Buzz

President Barack Obama has a lot on his plate: a U.S. military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; the Ebola outbreak in West Africa; the stalemate in Ukraine; terrible poll numbers; sincere doubt among the American people on his presidential leadership abilities; and the fact that his party is likely to lose control of the Senate in November.  So the president must not have been pleased when his former Secretary of Defense and CIA Director, Leon Panetta, added on to the pile with some very harsh criticisms about the Obama administration’s foreign and national security policies.  

In his memoir (Worthy Fights) released on October 7, Panetta writes like the straight-shooter, candid public servant that he’s been known for throughout his career—a resume that included a stint in the Nixon administration, a Democratic congressman representing California for 16 years, President Bill Clinton’s budget director and chief of staff, and Obama’s pick to lead the Pentagon during a time of straining defense resources and automatic budget cuts.  According to multiple reviews that have been published about the book (I haven’t read the memoir yet), Panetta is direct in both what President Obama got wrong and what he got right.  Panetta calls Obama a highly intellectual and analytical person who weighs all of the costs and unintended consequences before making a decision, and describes him as a “strong leader on security issues” during his first term.

It was the next two years, Panetta says, when Obama “lost his way,” as he put it to USA Today’s Susan Page in an exclusive interview touting the book’s release.

Panetta has a set of complaints similar to those that Robert Gates, another Obama Defense Secretary, wrote about in his own memoir, Duty.  Obama, for one, didn’t seem to value the advice of his cabinet officials as much as he could have—particularly when important national security priorities were under discussion.  The National Security Council largely called the shots on matters of foreign policy, and when agency heads like the CIA, Pentagon, or State Department gave recommendations to the president, they were were often overruled.  “There was nothing wrong with that,” Panetta writes, “but that did have the effect of reducing the importance of the Cabinet members who actually oversaw their agencies.”

Comments like these, of course, should be taken for what they are: relatively uncontroversial, common griping from cabinet officials who would much rather have their recommendations endorsed by the president than thrown on the shelf for a later date.  What one can suspect the Obama administration does not appreciate, however, are criticisms from Panetta about the president’s policies and capacity as a Commander-in-Chief.

In perhaps one of the more personal digs at Obama’s leadership qualities as president, Panetta writes that Obama “relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader." On occasion, he "avoids the battle, complains, and misses opportunities.”  These are precisely the types of statements that will make congressional Republicans and G.O.P. contenders for the 2016 presidential election giddy with excitement.  In fact, if given that quote without Panetta’s name attached, one would assume that it came from a Republican like Sen. John McCain or Speaker John Boehner—not by a longtime Democratic operative who served Obama for four years.

The same goes with another nugget, deployed in a story by Peter Baker of The New York Times, in which Panetta writes that Obama hoped “that perhaps others in the world could step up to the plate” as the United States sought to rebalance its role in the world.  This is a common talking point for Republicans, many of whom love to invoke the argument that the president is deliberately trying to lessen American’s commitments overseas so he can tackle the domestic, legacy-like issues.  Sen. Bob Corker and Sen. Lindsey Graham could just have easily used this kind of rhetoric for a press release.

Should we read anything into these specific quotes?  On the surface, they appear to show a wide and distinct disconnect between a president and his former Secretary of Defense—a gaping hole that Republican candidates will be eager to fill in an election year that has already been friendly to the party.

But, looking beyond the juicy remarks that journalists have used in their stories, it’s likely that the media storm brewing over Panetta’s memoir will pass sooner rather than later.  Robert Gates did some damage to the Obama foreign policy brand for a few weeks after his own book was published, yet no one really talks about it anymore.  At the time, Gates forced the White House to push back and defend the administration in the public eye (Vice President Joe Biden took the lead in that effort), but Obama’s legacy wasn’t severely harmed as a result.  Panetta’s Worthy Fights will likely follow a similar direction, even if White House officials are scrambling right now to produce a legitimate defense.

There’s only one big difference between the Gates and Panetta accounts: the latter was published during the height of a midterm election year.  Given the date of the book’s release—four weeks before election day—the respected, career Democrat may have inadvertently provided Republicans with more ammunition on the stump.    

TopicsPolitics RegionsUnited States

A Man-Made Ecological Catastrophe: More Than Half of All Earth’s Vertebrates Have Disappeared

The Buzz

In a world of crises from Ebola to Syria, it’s easy to overlook slow-motion calamities. Both the U.S. government and the mainstream media are vulnerable to this myopia, the former in thrall to the tyranny of the in-box, the latter forever chasing what’s “new” in the news. This may account for the silence that has greeted recent scientific evidence that the Earth is experiencing a devastating and potentially irreversible loss of biodiversity. Unfortunately, this man-made ecological catastrophe is unfolding at a gradual, if inexorable, pace in multiple areas of the world. But it is harder to find images akin to a hostage begging for his life, or health workers clad in protective suits, to hold the public’s attention and mobilize political support for action. Thus, humanity continues to sleepwalk, as the planet experiences only the sixth major extinction event in its 4.5 billion year history.

On September 30 the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and partner organizations issued a jaw-dropping report. According to the Living Planet Report 2014, between 1970 and 2010 more than half of all Earth’s vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish) disappeared, even as the human population nearly doubled from 3.7 to 7 billion. This decline occurred everywhere—on land, in rivers, and in the oceans. The main culprits were habitat destruction and unsustainable resource exploitation through commercial fishing and hunting. The greatest declines occurred in freshwater systems, where populations declined by 76 percent. Latin America alone lost 83 percent of its wildlife—the most dramatic drop globally. “If half the animals died in the London zoo next week it would be front page news. But that is happening in the great outdoors,” as one of the reports contributors, Kevin Norris of the Zoological Society of London, told the Guardian.

It is clear by now that Homo sapiens is the most potent invasive species ever. By clearing forests and transforming land for agricultural use and new human settlements, by exploiting and altering water systems, and by polluting the air, rivers, and oceans, we have placed extraordinary pressures on countless species of animals and plants, as well as microorganisms on which natural cycles depend. Last year an exasperated Sir David Attenborough, one of the world’s best known naturalists, declared humans to be a “plague on earth.”

The WWF report seeks to measure humanity’s global “ecological footprint”—that is, how much area is currently required to supply humanity with ecological goods and services. It concludes that the Earth would need to be 1.5 times bigger than it is to allow these goods and services to be regenerated and exploited in a sustainable manner. And things are likely to get worse before they get better. By 2050 the world will add an estimated 2.4 billion more people, even as consumption rises dramatically among swelling middle classes in developing countries.

This week, representatives from nearly two hundred countries have gathered in South Korea for the biannual Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity(CBD). One of their main tasks is to assess progress on a set of twenty targets (divided into fifty-six indicators) which they agreed to in 2010. These commitments were designed to slow the destruction of species’ habitats, cut pollution, and stop overfishing by the end of the decade, including by safeguarding ecosystems and encouraging national policies to support biodiversity. So what’s the status?

The news is grim. According to Global Biodiversity Outlook 4, published on the eve of the conference, the world is on track to meet only five of the fifty-six sub-elements. And while there has been some progress on thirty-three others, the world will fall short on these. A recent article in the journal Science, coauthored by more than fifty scientists, similarly predicts that the world will fall woefully short of achieving these goals.

What is becoming ever more clear is that humanity is simply exploiting nature without accounting for the ecosystem services that it provides. Collectively, we are running down our natural capital assets, rather than including them on corporate balance sheets or in national strategies for fostering economic growth. As WWF President Carter Roberts told CBS News, “We’re gradually destroying our planet’s ability to support our way of life…. We all live in a finite planet and it’s time we started acting within those limits.”

This sort of “limits to growth” talk has long been anathema to free market enthusiasts, as well as techno-enthusiasts, who predict that human ingenuity will continue to confound Malthusian predictions of the sort that biologist Paul Ehrlich made in his 1968 work, The Population Bomb. There remains great suspicion, particularly in libertarian and conservative circles, of any statist, public policy steps that would threaten to cap levels of consumption and growth.

The most intriguing approaches to biodiversity loss, however, are likely to come from those who argue that biodiversity loss represents a market externality, often a reflection of the well-known “tragedy of the commons.” The solution is likely to be found in regulatory steps to “internalize” current externalities. One such approach, which has been tried to good effect in some fisheries, is to issue a limited number of “catch shares” and allow fishermen to trade these permits. But the scope of the current ecological calamity requires even more creative ideas about how to account for the “ecosystem services” we get from nature—ranging from soil fertility to clean air to pollination to genetic diversity—including by charging those who run them down to the detriment of us all. Some of the most innovative thinking on these questions has been done by Dr. Gretchen Daily of Stanford University, 2012 winner of the prestigious Volvo Environment Prize.

New ideas must be married to political leadership, however. And here, the United States is in an ambiguous position. Despite being the largest bilateral funder of sustainable development programs worldwide, the United States is one of only two UN member states that have not ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity (the other is Andorra). President Clinton signed the CBD in 1993 and transmitted it to the Senate. Despite being voted out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after a bipartisan vote of 16-3 in 1994, a vote of the whole Senate has never been scheduled—a reflection not only of the general antipathy that many conservative U.S. senators feel toward UN environmental treaties, but also of groundless claims that the CBD will undermine U.S. sovereignty, impose taxes on the United States, infringe on intellectual property rights, and hurt U.S. biotechnology and agriculture interests. All such concerns can easily be addressed through use of explicit U.S. reservations, declarations, and understandings—as the Senate typically does when providing its advice and consent to treaties. In the meantime, as a mere “observer” rather than a party to the CBD, the United States undermines its standing as a leader in protecting the world’s precious genetic diversity.

This piece first appeared in CFR’s The Internationalist blog here.

TopicsEnvironment RegionsUnited States

Why Do So Many Chinese Expect War?

The Buzz

A professor of classical music in Beijing startled me in 2010 when he said, “When I look at my students, I fear we are headed for war within five years.”

“War with whom?,” I enquired.

“With anyone.”

His students don't seem like fenqing (“angry youth”). They are in a musical conservatory, after all, not a military academy. Many have overseas connections. But they are also ambitious, emotional, fiercely nationalist and for them war – any war – would be a gratifying affirmation of their country's ascendance. Like the 2008 Olympic Games but with real explosions, not fireworks. These kids lap up PLA propaganda films like Silent Contest even as they dream of Juilliard. My professor friend worries they just haven't thought things through, that their various aspirations are totally misaligned.

A similar message comes from a recent essay in The Economist. “What does China want?” it asks, and it concludes China may not get all it seeks. Understandably, China wants wealth and power. It also wants respect. Yet respect is love as much as fear. The Economist wonders if the Chinese state, with its heavy hand at home and blaring “cold-war, Manichean imagery,” will achieve this aim.

What do the Chinese people themselves want? As patriots, they want wealth, power and respect for their country.

They also want out. Of those who can afford to, 64% wish to leave, an extraordinary figure. At the same time however, most Chinese are nationalistic, so perhaps Beijing merely reflects their mood. As Jessica Chen Weiss argues, nationalism is not new. The only thing that varies is the Government's “green light/red light” indulgence of nationalistic public protest. Most alarming is the high level of anticipation for war among the Chinese public. And thanks in part to an endless parade of World War II television dramas, the target is clear: Japan. In a recent survey, only one-quarter of Chinese do not foresee future military conflict with Japan. 

The “strange revival of nationalism” is a paradox of our age. War worship should totally contradict materialist aspirations, yet the two often go together. Perhaps some new citizens want the goodies of Western life without the full package of liberal rights and responsibilities. In the words of philosopher John Gray they “don't much care about getting to Denmark,” the supposed nirvana of Francis Fukuyama's modernity. Or they might, but they don't become Danes when they do.

Historically, the morphing of prosperity into nationalism has been a powerful trend. The “strange revival” may be exactly that: an atavistic reversion to type. In 1841, a Prussian aristocrat proclaimed the great virtue of economic progress over warfare:

“Under a good and wise administration...are not (our) inhabitants better fed, clothed and schooled? Are not such results equal to a victorious campaign...with the great difference that they are not gained at the expense of other nations, nor the sacrifice of the enormous number of victims that a war demands?”

Azar Gat's magisterial War in Human Civilization identifies that aristocrat as Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, the German Chief of General Staff, who 50 years later would blame the “passion of the populace” for warmongering: “Today, war and peace (are) no longer cabinet questions...Public opinion (may) prove stronger than the will of those who rule.” By the 1890s, Bismark's restrained Prussian growth machine had become unified Germany, now under the bombastic Wilhelm, who would later “roll the iron dice” for the honor of his Reich. Germany's economic success led to an expanded sense of diplomatic entitlement.

On the other side of the world, the New York Times (30 July 1894) fretted: 

“Japan is panting for a fight. She has, at great cost, reorganized her army and founded a fleet, and would...readily avail herself of any opportunity of proving their value and showing to an admiring world what she can do with them. Of all possible opponents, China would be the most preferred, for the Japanese regard (the) mainland with a most holy hatred, mixed with a great deal of contempt.”

Those same words are depressingly imaginable today, with the roles reversed. Xi Jinping commands the PLA to be battle-ready. The state media uses harsh words like “unswerving,” “unflinching,” and
“uncompromising.” A defense academic warns the nation to prepare for World War III. An active-duty PLA major general scoffs that Japan can be “taught a lesson” with a third of his forces. No wonder 64% of Chinese surveyed think “hardening our position” is the way to resolve territorial disputes.

How do we explain the apparent contradiction between China's hostile nationalism and its great globalization project? Wouldn't war itself be greatest of all threats to its ambition? And why are the very countries demonized most by China's nationalism also attracting Chinese talent and wealth? There are many possible explanations. Of course people emigrate for many reasons, practical and personal. Perhaps China will prevail either in peace or war, and is spreading its reach confidently. The affluent 64% who want to emigrate probably aren't the same hard 64% who want to man up against Japan. Perhaps outsiders just don't “get” China. Or maybe folks are simply hedging their bets. Maybe the odds of war really are rising, and Chinese are voting with their feet.

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

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

A Secret Weapon to Stop the Ebola Crisis: The United States Military

The Buzz

Reaction was mixed following President Obama’s announcement that he was sending 3,000 troops to Liberia to help contain the spiraling Ebola epidemic. Doctors Without Borders, the Nobel Prize-winning, normally pacifist NGO has been on the front lines of this fight begging for military support. Meanwhile, a couple of retired generals have blasted the president for the decision, asserting that it is a “misuse” of the military, whose job is to “fight wars, not medical battles.”

They couldn’t be more wrong.

The threat beyond Africa is real—the clock is ticking. Although the immediate threat from cases in Texas and Spain may be overblown, experts warn that the virus is mutating and if not stopped, will spread well beyond Africa, stressing the capacity of even more developed nations like our own to contain it.

Moreover, Ebola represents a significant security issue. As the disease spreads, so does panic—and panic leads to violence. CFR’s own Laurie Garrett observes, “Lawlessness will rise as Ebola claims the lives of police and law enforcement personnel, and terrified cops quit their jobs.”

As health workers die or quit—or as people stay away from hospitals for fear of contracting Ebola—they will begin to die of other, normally treatable health problems. According to Garrett, “Women will die in delivery, auto accident victims will bleed out for lack of emergency care, old vaccine-preventable epidemics will resurge as health workers fear administering them to potentially Ebola-carrying children, and child malnutrition will set in.”

Thus, as governments fail to cope with the outbreak and associated panic, the epidemic’s spillover effects will serve to cripple government infrastructure and societal structures, creating major security issues. This spiral into chaos, in turn, will only accelerate the spread of the virus and confound efforts to control it.

Smaller steps early on could have nipped this epidemic in the bud.  But we are well past that now. Only the military—indeed, only the United States military with its vast organizational and command and control capabilities—can do what is needed to coordinate multi-national efforts and contain this virus.  As with warfare, it is all about logistics and leadership.  Here is what the U.S. military brings to the fight against Ebola:

-Leadership and coordination: The United States is deploying half of the headquarters element of the 101st Airborne Division to coordinate multi-national and interagency efforts between several actors: the Liberian government, USAID, UN aid workers, and the United States’ own forces. This is a complex organizational challenge for which the U.S. military is uniquely qualified.

-Treatment centers and mobile labs: Military engineers and support contractors will construct seventeen prefabricated treatment centers to help isolate and treat the sick. Mobile labs will allow health workers to identify and separate Ebola patients from others.


-Transportation: As commercial airlines show increasing reluctance to fly between affected countries, military transport will be needed to maintain the flow of medical workers and supplies. This includes critical aid like hygiene kits and protective gear.


-Training: Military medical personnel will be able to train 500 local health workers and volunteers a week in basic self-protection procedures to control infection. This empowerment of local workers will be the key to stopping this epidemic while also limiting the direct exposure of U.S. troops.


Such firm U.S. contribution represents an understanding that the Ebola epidemic constitutes a global challenge—one that must be met with a global solution. As with a fight against any adversary, a policy predicated solely on self-isolation and avoidance would not be a winning strategy. We will be most effective when we seek to stem the virus at its source.

This is a mission for which the U.S. military is uniquely qualified. Despite the false adage that the military’s role is only to “fight and win the nation’s wars,” it has carried out a myriad of humanitarian and stabilization operations in its 239-year history.

Doing so is not only a moral imperative—it also falls firmly within the United States’ national interests. The global community must unite to turn the tide against Ebola, and our nation—and its military—must play its part to lead it.

This piece first appeared in CFR’s blog Defense in Depth here.

Image: U.S. Department of Defense Flickr. 

TopicsEbola RegionsUnited States

Will Falling Oil Prices Kill Iran's Economic Recovery?

The Buzz

Oil prices have been tumbling for weeks—they were at twenty-seven-month lows this morning and fell further throughout the day. That’s good news for consumers—and bad news for producers. But the man who should be most uneasy is Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. He had promised an “economic boom” and lower inflation, and has even suggested that Iran has the potential to be one of the world’s ten largest economies within thirty years. And he’s had some successes. Iran’s economy isn’t zipping and inflation is still extreme, but he has calmed the widening gyre of economic chaos that former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had stirred up and worked to reduce Iran’s economic isolation.

Getting the Islamic Republic’s budgets in order required serious austerity measures. Now even the shrunken budget may be in danger. The current budget, in effect until March of next year, was designed for an oil price of $100 and oil exports of 1.5 million barrels per day. Iran has struggled to hit the latter target—in June, as oil prices were peaking, it came up a few thousand barrels a day short, and then fell more the next month. Now it might have trouble hitting the former, too. Brent crude oil, whose prices tend to hug Iran’s main crudes, hit a low below $91 today (it had been over $113 in June); the futures market anticipates $93-$94 per barrel for many months to come. Compound that with the difficulty Iran has making straightforward, efficient cash transactions under the sanctions regime, and one cannot help but wonder whether Tehran will struggle to get hard currency, to sustain its expenditures, to control inflation, or to get that “economic boom.”

Rouhani will have trouble delivering on his promises, and that will weaken him at home. Conservative elements in the Majles will intensify their criticism—and more moderate conservatives may join the fray. In the longer term, Rouhani would also have to worry that reformist enthusiasm may fade. Reformists have always been split on whether to change the Islamic Republic from within—and thereby dignify it with their participation—or to withdraw from the system. Rouhani has already lost some of his shine among reformists, particularly for his recent claim that Iran would not imprison journalists. Economic weakness could compound that trend. Would a reformist majority after the 2016 Majles elections—already not a sure thing, especially if the vote is not fair—slip away?

The most pressing issue in Iranian politics isn’t the economy. The nuclear negotiations, which are coming to a head as the current interim deal is set to expire next month, are. A successful nuclear deal would bring huge, sustained economic benefits. Western money would rush in. Western expertise would help Iran boost its oil production and thus the government’s budgets. And such a major political and economic success would enormously strengthen Rouhani’s hand and create a chance of big gains at the ballot box for his fellow travelers. A sagging oil market thus increases the opportunity cost of not making a deal. Iran has less leverage at the negotiating table. Seen from beneath an accountant’s green eyeshades, an agreement now looks more likely and more likely to be favorable to the West.

But the accountants don’t run Iran. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei does—with the backing of a tangle of ideological and economic interests that stand to lose if a deal makes Iran more open to the West. And cutting a deal has always been the wise move from a purely economic standpoint. The nuclear facilities have been expensive to build, and the international response to them has been even costlier for Tehran. The only serious economic benefit they offer—the potential for nuclear energy—would take decades of construction and many billions more dollars to realize, and could have been done with foreign help for a much lower price. A bit of red ink on the spreadsheets might not be enough to make the ayatollah fold.

Khamenei also isn’t deeply invested in Rouhani’s political fortunes. Sure, he let Rouhani run, and then let Rouhani win. He’s backed the nuclear negotiations. But he’s also allowed withering criticism of Rouhani’s administration in the Majles and the hardline press. He’s let the Majles impeach one of Rouhani’s cabinet members. He’s publicly questioned the utility of the nuclear talks, and drawn red lines that limit Iranian flexibility. He won’t go into panic mode if Rouhani’s poll numbers drop a few points.

Further, to the extent that the nuclear talks also require negotiation between Rouhani and his allies on one side and Khamenei and the hardliners on the other, a weak oil price cuts into Rouhani’s leverage. So while a deal has become more likely when seen from an international lens, it’s become less likely when seen from a domestic politics lens. Thus, if oil prices hold around their current low levels, we’ll get a chance to see just how eager Khamenei and his allies are for a deal.

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.

TopicsEconomicsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIran

Selling Vietnam Lethal Weapons: The Right Move?

The Buzz

Last Friday, the Obama administration partially lifted the U.S. ban on lethal arms sales to Vietnam, which had been in place since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. According to the Associated Press, on Friday, “State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters the United States will now allow sales of lethal maritime security capabilities and for surveillance on a case-by-case basis.” These lethal arms sales will, for now, remain relatively limited, though the United States could sell Vietnam boats and planes, which would theoretically be used for Vietnam’s coast guard.

This first step in selling lethal arms to Vietnam, though heavily criticized by human rights groups because of Hanoi’s deteriorating record on political and religious freedoms, likely will be followed by greater arms sales, including naval and air force assets. And it is true that Vietnam’s government has increasingly cracked down on dissent of all types over the past five years. In particular, the government in Hanoi has waged a harsh campaign against Internet writers, bloggers, and social media activists of all types, jailing many and instituting some of the toughest restrictions on Internet and social media use of any nation in the world.

In general, as I have written, I think the Obama administration’s Southeast Asia policy has often overlooked human rights and democracy promotion, allowing the region to slide backwards in terms of political freedom, since the United States has said little about democratic rollback in many nations and has allied itself with some of the more autocratic countries in the region. This is, in general, a mistake, since the United States is alienating Southeast Asians while, in general, reaping little strategic benefit from its relationships with many of the more authoritarian nations in the region.

But Vietnam is the exception.  Of all the countries in mainland Southeast Asia, only Vietnam has provided–and will provide–enough strategic benefits for the United States to justify closer ties to such an authoritarian regime. Unlike in Myanmar or Thailand, in Vietnam the government, though repressive, has clear control over the armed forces, and though the Vietnamese regime certainly is guilty of a wide range of abuses, the actual Vietnamese military itself is, in many respects, less abusive and more professional than those of Myanmar or Thailand. Vietnam is, overall, more stable than Myanmar or even Thailand, and the population, despite the history of war with the United States, tends to be ardently pro-American. But there is no denying that Hanoi harshly represses dissent, minority rights, freedom of religion, and other freedoms.

Vietnam’s military is not only under civilian command but, more important strategically, is larger and, in a conflict, potentially far more effective than that of any other country in mainland Southeast Asia, including Malaysia and Thailand. Vietnam’s navy is professional and well-trained. Vietnam’s strategic location, right next to the South China Sea, puts it at the center of vital shipping routes and at the heart of one of the areas where the United States and China are most likely to come into conflict; Washington and Beijing are unlikely to come into conflict over the Mekong region, despite the Obama administration’s decision to re-engage with mainland Southeast Asia. Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay would offer the best harbor for U.S. naval vessels in case of a conflict in the Sea. And unlike Thailand or Malaysia, Vietnam, which has fought wars with China for centuries and shares a long land border with China, has few illusions about China’s rise, and is willing to back up its position on disputes with Beijing with skillful diplomacy and the real threat of force. What’s more, a younger generation of Vietnamese officials, who did not fight in the war, has come to dominate the foreign ministry and military; they see a stronger relationship with the United States as essential to Vietnam’s future security.

Paul Leaf, a defense specialist, offers a fine summary of Vietnam’s advantages as a partner:

Vietnam’s military outlays climbed 130 percent from 2003 to 2012—making it Southeast Asia’s second biggest defense spender as a proportion of GDP—which Hanoi is using to modernize its naval and air forces. Its location is strategically valuable: Vietnam shares an almost 800-mile border with China and it abuts the South China Sea. Finally, Vietnam is tough, having kept an outnumbered and outclassed group of vessels near China’s rig during their 75-day summer [of 2014] standoff.

As the most populous nation in mainland Southeast Asia, Vietnam also is an economy that, if it handles its current turbulence, has far more room to grow than most other nations in the region.

Does all of this excuse Vietnam’s harsh repression of dissent? Of course not. But foreign policy, at times, entails balancing strategy and values, and despite my own strong convictions about democracy and human rights, in Southeast Asia Vietnam is the one place where, to my own sadness, the strategic side of the ledger should win out. The White House should move forward with further arms sales. In an upcoming working paper, I will examine how the United States and Vietnam could build on arms sales and move toward a formal treaty alliance.

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

TopicsSecurity RegionsVietnam

Avoiding the Long War Redux

The Buzz

As bombs and missiles have begun to drop in ISIS strongholds in northern Syria, military experts are warning that the air campaign will be measured in months, if not years, and that a ground campaign must certainly follow.  President Obama said as much in his address announcing the commencement of the campaign against the IS.

The Obama plan cannot be considered a strategy yet--significant pieces are missing. It was formed as much if not more so from domestic political realities and those constraints rather than what is necessary to defeat the IS.  It is in part why there are two separate, though complementary, missions to destroy the IS in Iraq and to degrade it in Syria.  

Destruction of the IS cannot be done by airpower alone, and there are some questions of how much of it can be degraded by airstrikes. In this context, air power can be likened to trying to swat a pesky fly with a hammer – but given the number of flies and their geographic spread, an area the size of the United Kingdom, this can be a wearisome and lengthy process.

Based on how many sorties were flown over Libya, we can surely expect the air campaign to last between six months to well over a year and that was with a proxy ground force provided by the National Transition Council.  There is no such ground force in Syria or even in Iraq and so we are once again facing a long war.

Above all it is the duration of our engagements overseas, the years in Iraq and Afghanistan without satisfactory conclusions, and the billions that were spent, that have soured western publics to any sort of overseas military engagements, especially those which feature the commitment of ground forces.

Facing the threat that the Islamic State evinces--with its beheadings, its pre-medieval use of crucifixions, the purposeful elimination of non-adherents in their midst and the subjugation of what remains to servitude--has galvanized nations and people to act, notwithstanding their visceral reluctance to do so. People understand that the IS, wrapped in a cocoon of quasi-statehood represents a danger if left untouched.

In the towns and cities it holds, an entire new generation of youth is being schooled in the Islamic State’s sanguinary curriculum of terror. It isn’t our intervention that will make more martyrs and converts; it is our non-intervention that will.

In response, a coalition that includes Arab states, puts an end to the question “why it’s always only us”.  The participation of regional Sunni states is helping defy the narrative that it is the West against Islam.  

However, military action is not inexpensive. The estimates from the United States are that this will cost between seven to ten million dollars a day, or $3.6bn dollars a year, not including contributing nation costs.

Unlike the Second World War, where spending supported mobilization and increased hiring, modern wars do not produce the same economic effect and  monies spent on long wars could be directed for more productive uses.

President Eisenhower in his famous parting speech said: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

Beyond fiscal cost, there is a further societal cost to consider at home.

In the 19th century, Robert E. Lee opined that warfare should be fierce lest we grow too fond of it.  A century later in 2004, the historian Niall Ferguson was struck by the festive atmosphere in Las Vegas, while the U.S. Army was slogging it out in Iraq. Video of antiseptic, high tech missile strikes, mesmerizing us with their precision will become part of our daily fare of news, in a similar fashion to the day’s box scores and traffic reports. It is Orwellian in its imagery, where a society is in perpetual war but disengaged from it.  Along with that separation is the inescapable reality that prolonged war produces a drain on the national spirit the longer that conflict endures.

This is not an argument to avoid going to war against ISIS, in fact it is quite the opposite.

The quicker ISIS can be decisively degraded if not destroyed the better.  This requires a punishing air campaign coupled with a ground force follow up. Instead of one hammer employ many and end this military intervention quickly.

The air campaign, appears to be under-resourced compared to what established the winning conditions for Desert Storm for example; as if the coalition is hoping that precision will replace the persistent coverage that only mass can provide.  While an air campaign answers the public perception of action it cannot fully succeed on its own.   That is exactly what coalition leaders must openly discuss and confront.

The Obama plan recognizes the need for a ground campaign; It is short on detail on who will do that making this only a plan at the moment and not a strategy.

The mainly conventional nature of the ISIS enemy, the terrain and, a long secure allied border with Turkey mean that a ground campaign could be conducted with lighting speed.

In Gulf War One the air campaign lasted five weeks, and the ground operation liberating Kuwait was completed in 100 hours.  The point being that success is possible if aims are limited to the destruction of the IS, and not a mission to establish government or re-establish civil society by military means.

The end of conflict in Gulf War One is also instructive, as there was no “complicated” exit strategy.  When Kuwait was liberated, the troops came home.  Limited objectives, clear goals and a short war are the lessons to be drawn.

Two divisions, of a well-led modern mechanised force preferably US led that would not exceed 50,000 should have no difficulty advancing North on a Baghdad,  Mosul axis, then swinging west driving to Lake al Assad as its limit of exploitation.

Its left boundary, once in Syria, would be the Euphrates River, north of which is exclusively the IS domain.  The Turks, whose border runs across the entire line of advance would be enjoined to provide secure basing for the logistics effort, and holding attacks along the length of those borders.

That sweep, would provide Turkey the buffer zone that they have long argued for and they can be asked to man it under a UN mandate in effect reducing the creation of newly displaced and facilitating humanitarian aid delivery.

That alone is not enough and international pressure must be maintained for the creation of inclusive governments in the region.  Without the sharing of real power in Baghdad, the Sunni’s will have every reason to distrust both the current regime and the US.  In Syria, the faster the IS is destroyed, the less Assad will benefit and the Free Syrian Army might have a chance to concentrate instead of fighting a two front war – one against Assad, another against the IS.

It is important to remember how we got here in the first place and understand it to avoid another re-dux; that being the very delicate matter of the Sunnis in Iraq.

The roots of the IS were spawned in the Sunni suppression and its subsequent marginalization soon after the Iraq invasion.  When repaired by extraordinary US efforts during the surge, gains were squandered by a Iraqi government, in the absence of a US presence, that re-fomented sectarian divides further marginalizing the Sunnis; resulting inter-alia in an Iraqi army that could no longer fight despite the billions spent on creating it.

In Syria, as civil demonstrations against Bashar al Assad became a rebellion and then a full-fledged civil war, the United States and the West had nothing to offer except words.  International “Red Lines”, proved to be nothing more than posturing, adding to a long list of missed opportunities where what might have emerged as a moderate opposition with western support quickly became overrun and divided by fundamentalists.

Between those two tinder boxes, ISIS, and the IS was born.

To simply bomb the ISIS over the course of a year without becoming diplomatically engaged in resolving the baseline issue of Sunni marginalization in Iraq and Syria will only create another ISIS down the road. In both Syria and Iraq, a positive outcome is only achieved, if IS is rapidly defeated and only then, will there also be an opportunity for humanitarian aid to freely flow.

To avoid the results experienced by the west over the last decade ; the most obvious of these being that “Long Wars with unclear purpose are not good.”  Use decisive military force, including land power, now--to bring ISIS to an end, to avoid a prolonged conflict and further human suffering.

George Petrolekas is on the Board of Directors of the CDA Institute and co-author of the 2013 and 2014 Strategic Outlook for Canada. Mr. Petrolekas served with NATO, in Bosnia, and Afghanistan and as an advisor to senior NATO commanders.

Howard Coombs is a professor of military history and war studies at the Royal Military College of Canada. The opinions expressed are their own.

Image: U.S. Army Flickr. 

TopicsISIS RegionsMiddle East

The Next Threat?: Boko Haram's "Islamic State"

The Buzz

On October 3 Boko Haram released a new video asserting that Abubakar Shekau is still alive. The video goes beyond “Shekau’s” usual rhetoric and Boko Haram violence. Here are five reasons to pay attention to this newest video:

  1. The quality of the video is very good. Typically, Boko Haram videos have been grainy and have had low-resolution. This newest video is clear and well produced. Parts of the video show other videographers filming. This quality of video production is reminiscent of earlier work by the splinter group known as Ansaru. This video could suggest that the two groups are now working together.

  2. It claims to show the remnants of a Nigerian jet fighter that went missing on September 12. The footage shows a jet wing that looks to be riddled with bullet holes. If this is indeed the missing Nigerian jet fighter, then Boko Haram likely has anti-aircraft weapons capable of shooting down the Nigerian military’s jets.

  3. It introduces Al Qaid (Commander) Al Midani Ali Al-khambuwi. He is the executioner of a man that Boko Haram claims is the pilot of the downed Nigerian jet. This is the first time that Boko Haram has shown the face of any commander other than “Shekau” in a video. This may suggest that they are trying to establish formal leadership as the group develops its own governance.

  4. It shows multiple examples of Boko Haram’s sharia justice: a couple being lashed, a man losing his hand, and a man being stoned to death. In each case there are large crowds of men and women witnessing the punishments. This indicates that Boko Haram has control over certain populations in northeast Nigeria and is reminiscent of MUJAO and other radical groups during their occupation of northern Mali.

  5. There are more references to an Islamic caliphate. In previous videos “Shekau” has used the terminology “Islamic state,” in this video he refers to Boko Haram’s territory in Nigeria as a “caliphate.” The flag used by Boko Haram in the video appears to be the same as the one flown by ISIS. While the two organizations seem separate it is clear that they have shared aspirations.

The reemergence of “Shekau” is not of particular interest. The Nigerian military continues to claim that the real Shekau died years ago, and, if he is still living, it is unclear what Shekau’s actual leadership role is. What is of great concern is Boko Haram’s increased military capabilities, control of territory, and its efforts in establishing its own “caliphate.”

This piece was originally posted in the CFR Blog “Africa in Transition” here.

Image: Wikicommons.

TopicsTerrorism RegionsAfrica

Nuclear Negotiations: Iran's Quest for Status

The Buzz

Policy makers tasked with cutting a deal with Iran over its nuclear program by the November deadline may find a set of useful lessons from the French nuclear-weapons program. Scott Sagan points out that France was largely motivated to pursue the bomb to restore the grandeur it lost during the Second World War. For de Gaulle and his predecessors, the bomb was an important symbol of French independence; after France lost Algeria, it demonstrated that France was still a great power. A similar dynamic may be at play with Iran over its demands concerning the right to engage in the enrichment of uranium.

When it comes to proliferation, many scholars and policy makers have largely ignored the possibility that status, rather than insecurity, is a primary motivation driving the behavior of states seeking to cross the nuclear Rubicon. Status refers to “an attribute of an individual or social role relating to rank.” States that are content with their standing in world politics are unlikely to pose problems for the prevailing international order. The states that pose a challenge are the ones that are dissatisfied over their rank in the international hierarchy. While these states may excel along one or more observable dimensions, from military prowess to economic strength to possessing a geographic sphere of influence, conflict is likely to ensue when the leading international powers refuse to recognize dissatisfied states’ claims to prestige. Conflict can come in the form of crises as well as war. Such conflicts are believed to resolve contests over status. The status dilemma resolves itself with either the leading powers granting a state’s status claims or the contestant backing down.

Many of Iran’s claims to enrichment appear to be driven by concerns over its status. In 2003, Iran agreed to a deal with the EU+3 whereby it would suspend the enrichment of uranium and sign the Additional Protocol to the NPT, allowing for more intrusive inspections. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pointed to this agreement in the 2005 presidential elections as a humiliation for Iran. This issue is credited with having helped propel the then mayor of Tehran to the presidency. Throughout his tenure in office, Ahmadinejad continually reiterated Iran’s claims to having the right to enrich uranium under the NPT. Despite Ahmadinejad's current status as a political pariah, this is one part of his legacy that has managed to survive. Even though he was responsible for negotiating a deal with the EU+3 that involved the suspension of enrichment, President Hassan Rouhani, has reiterated some of the same claims to enrichment that his predecessor made. This suggests that concerns over status are alive and well within the Iranian body politic.

Western negotiators appear sensitive to Iran’s concerns over saving face. The United States has recently floated proposals that would recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium while limiting its technical capacity to do so. Simultaneously, the Obama administration has also signaled that it may propose allowing Iran to keep 4,500 centrifuges in exchange for cuts in Iran’s fissile material stockpile. While Iranian negotiators have hinted that Tehran may be willing to reduce the number of centrifuges from the currently reported 9,400 to 7,000, other hurdles remain. Iran has insisted that multilateral UN sanctions be removed at the front end of a nuclear deal, rather than being removed piecemeal while the Islamic Republic demonstrates it is in compliance with any deal with the P5+1.

While the possibility of reaching a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran by the end of November remains in doubt, there are a few options for satisfying Tehran’s demands for status and prestige while preventing breakout. The United States and other members of the P5+1 should tie prestige to states’ non-nuclear status. One issue that is of importance to Iran is the Persian Gulf naming dispute. Several Arab states along with some branches of the U.S. military refer to the body of water as the Arabian Sea, while international organizations, such as the UN, use the term Persian Gulf. The United States and the P5+1 could tie official recognition of the body of water as the Persian Gulf to Iran’s non-nuclear status. A second way is to lower the prestige of nuclear weapons. One way to do this is to allow for the limited expansion of the UN Security Council but make denuclearization a condition for permanent membership. Seyyed Hossein Mousavian and his colleagues at Princeton proposed a third idea that has failed to gain traction, but may be worth revisiting. This involved reducing the number of Iran’s older centrifuges in exchange for a smaller number of newer, more sophisticated centrifuges along with the construction of a multilateral enrichment facility.

Cooperation with Iran under the status dilemma may not be possible before the late November deadline, compelling the P5+1 to visit other options. These options start with pursuing another extension of the talks after November. This may prove to be difficult, if not impossible, if the Iranians are seen as intransigent and the Obama administration suffers huge losses in the upcoming midterm elections. In the United States, Congressional action is necessary for sanctions relief to take place; pushing through such legislation would be difficult with the current Congress and would be nearly impossible if the Democrats lost control of the U.S. Senate. If a deal were cut with the Iranians after the November elections, President Obama could suspend enforcement of sanctions legislation. However, there would be no guarantee his successor would do the same.

A second option would be to abandon the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) and put the sanctions that had been removed last year back into place. Despite criticisms from hawks on the right, the announcement of the JPOA was greeted with a muted response by world oil markets and foreign investors, because it did not remove sanctions on Iran’s banks. Removing the first phase of sanctions relief may be fairly easy for the United States, because a “coalition of winners” benefiting from access to Iranian markets has not emerged.

A third option is for the United States and its allies to ratchet up the pressure on Iran. Iran’s economy is still in shambles and the country is continuing to suffer from a drought, both of which have been brought on through gross mismanagement. Covert actions that diminish Iran’s already limited refining capacity would exacerbate its economic woes. However, some studies have shown that autocracies benefit from sanctions. They allow rulers to extend their grip on power by centralizing the distribution of wealth within a state.

A fourth option is to denuclearize Iran militarily through a series of Osirak-like strikes. This option does not seem to be feasible, because the governing regime is believed to have learned the lessons of Osirak and dispersed its nuclear sites throughout the country. Some, like Fordow, are heavily fortified and may be difficult to destroy. Foreign Imposed Regime Change (FIRC) may be a more effective means of disarming Iran than a set of limited strikes, but would be incredibly expensive given the costs of occupation. Furthermore, it would put the United States in the position of having to choose between continuing to pursue its fight against ISIS and Al Qaeda or dealing with the blowback from attacking Iran.

A fifth option is to learn to live with a nuclear Iran and focus on the threat posed by groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda. While there is little doubt that Iran can be deterred, many fear that allowing Iran to cross the nuclear threshold could set off a cascade of reactive proliferation in the Middle East. Furthermore, it could exacerbate tensions within the nascent alliance the United States has put together against ISIS by giving the impression that Washington is favoring the leader of the “Shia crescent” over Sunni powers.

Albert B. Wolf is an Israel Institute Fellow with the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  He is currently writing a book examining the effectiveness of coercive diplomacy in curbing nuclear proliferation.

Image: Iran president website

TopicsSecurityDiplomacyNonproliferation RegionsIranUnited States