The Buzz

4 Things You Didn’t Know About the U.S. Air Force’s Role in Fighting Ebola

The Buzz

With so much misinformation circulating about the scale and domestic danger of the Ebola threat, less attention has been paid to the U.S. military’s effort to stem the disease’s spread in Africa. Operation United Assistance is now well underway, drawing the joint armed services together with a wide range of interagency and multinational partners. While the headquarters of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division have been the most visible element of this operation, much of the behind-the-scenes work has been conducted by the U.S. Air Force. I spoke with Air Force participants to get a sense of this contribution:

1. The U.S. Air Force is the backbone of the anti-Ebola effort. From the outset of Operation United Assistance on September 17 to October 21, Air Mobility Command (the U.S. military’s worldwide airlift system, commanded by General Darren McDew) flew 208 sorties in support of operations, transporting 1,989 short tons of cargo and 595 passengers. This provided the logistical foundation for the entire mission.

2. Airmen are building bases and getting their hands dirty right alongside the Army. There are over 200 Airmen on the ground—roughly one quarter of the United States’ total 880 troops currently deployed to West Africa.  These Airmen are civil engineers, logisticians, and operational coordinators, engaging in a wide range of tasks. They are assessing sites for temporary air bases and pitching in with the building.

3. Airmen are providing medical support, too. The Air Force’s Expeditionary Medical Support System (EMEDS) are devoting critical in-house talent to Operation United Assistance’s medical mission set. The Air Force’s 633rd Medical Group completed deployment of a modular hospital in Liberia on October 20—the first deployment of a facility of its kind. This hospital will be used to train crucial emergency care responders.

4. Volunteer Air Force Reservists and the Air Guard provide significant capability. The Air Force relies heavily on volunteers in its Reserve Component (which includes the Air Guard and the Reserves) for all of its day to day and surge operations.  Accordingly, many of the C-17 sorties are being flown by Air Force Reservists, who have volunteered to take time off of their civilian jobs to support the anti-Ebola mission. Likewise, 70 Airmen from the Kentucky Air Guard 123rd Contingency Response Group have deployed to Senegal with active duty airmen from California and New Jersey to support the Joint Task Force—Port Opening (JTF-PO) operation, where their mission is to move the supplies and support through to the main effort.

Although the Air Force supplies only a quarter of the most visible “boots on the ground” for this mission, without the other dozens of less visible “boots in the air,” there would be no military mission at all.

The above first appeared in CFR’s blog Defense in Depth here.

Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr. 

TopicsEbola RegionsAfrica

Ukraine Votes for a Future in Europe

The Buzz

On Sunday night, I sat in a chilly school gym while election officials in the city of Lviv went through the tedious process of counting and reconciling paper ballots for Ukraine's parliamentary election. Millions of Ukrainians went to the polls on Sunday to elect a new Parliament, less than a year after former president and Putin puppet Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in the Maidan protests. There was no heat, because most of the gas that powers Ukraine comes from Russia and is too expensive to use this early in the season. Despite the conditions, however, I will not forget the Ukrainian people I met while observing their election.

There was the kindly grandmother, running a rural polling station, who was so proud to have a foreign observer, especially an American, visit her village. She told me that the little hamlet, aptly named Velyka Volya ("Great Freedom"), was the place where a group of Ukrainian resistance fighters, in a 1946 version of Masada, committed suicide rather than surrender to the encircling Soviet troops.

An elderly man at a downtown polling station shared his story. As a medical student following the Second World War, he joined the resistance and fought the Soviets until his capture in 1951. He was shipped to a Russian gulag and survived for six years before being released, but authorities prevented him from going home. He never returned to medical school. He was so happy to be serving as a precinct secretary in a democratic election in his native land. He pleaded with me for America to send arms and Kevlar so that Ukraine's young men would have a fighting chance against Russian regulars.

A young mother arrived at a suburban precinct. In tow was her three-year-old daughter, dressed in a white snow suit that matched her own. The little girl clutched and waved Ukraine's blue and yellow flag and smiled the whole time that her mom underwent the formalities of casting her vote. The election was about the child. Her mom envisioned for her a future of freedom and the rule of law in the sunlit uplands of the West, not of despotism in the wintery East.

The precincts were manned by fresh-faced kids. Of the seventeen precinct election committees my team visited, most had a majority of twenty-something members. Some were made up entirely of young people. The Maidan protests that claimed the lives of 100 of their contemporaries inspired them to get involved to stop the apparatchiks from stealing another election. These young people are taking their country back and corrupt, one-party rule has no part in their plans.

One of these young post-Maidan activists is Hanna Hopko. She is a thirty-two-year-old mom and committed Christian with a PhD in communications. Hopko has already established herself as a reformer who took on big tobacco in her effort to rid Ukraine's bars and restaurants of second hand smoke—no easy feat in a country where cigarettes are still sold everywhere. Hopko was the number one candidate on the Samopomich Party list. Until Sunday, Samopomich had never contested a parliamentary election. What it lacked in national election experience, it made up for with a pro-European, free-men and free-markets platform. While it appears that President Petro Poroshenko's bloc will win a narrow victory, the International Republican Institute exit poll shows Samopomich taking an unexpectedly strong third-place position. Dozens of its "outsider" candidates, led by Hopko, will now be demanding reform from inside Ukraine's Parliament.

Finally, for the first time since the Soviets occupied Ukraine in 1918, there will be no Communist Party representation in Ukraine's legislative assembly. When the exit polls were released just after 8 p.m., showing that the Communists were well below the 5 percent threshold for proportional representation, several Ukrainian voters pumped their fists and smiled. For them, this election was a welcome end to Communist influence over their lives.

Notwithstanding the war and the punishing economic circumstances Russia's invasion and occupation have inflicted on them, Ukrainians are happy today. They showed the world that they remain unbowed in the face of aggression and are committed to a future in the democratic West.

Robert C. O'Brien is the California Managing Partner of a national law firm. He served as an US Representative to the United Nations. He was a member of the International Republican Institute delegation that monitored Ukraine's parliamentary elections on Sunday. He also advised Republican presidential candidate Governor Mitt Romney on foreign policy matters. Robert’s website is Follow him on Twitter @robertcobrien.

Image: Robert C. O'Brien

TopicsDomestic PoliticsElections RegionsUkraine

Could This Be ISIL's Next Target?

The Buzz

Could ISIL gain traction in Azerbaijan? Amid the welter of analyses about ISIL in Syria and Iraq, little attention has been paid to the potential impact of ISIL or other Islamic extremist movements in another important area--namely, the strategically sensitive south Caucasus region and especially energy-rich Azerbaijan. The anti-ISIL plan for a Kurdish autonomous entity has even greater implications for the south Caucasus and its several secessionist movements.

First, the matter of ISIL. Located just northeast of Iraq, Azerbaijan has a mostly Shi’ite population with a Sunni minority. The state is secular, but President Ilham Aliyev has raised the specter of Islamic extremists in the north where his country borders Russia along the Caucasus Mountains. Twenty-six alleged fighters for Islamist groups, ISIL among them, were arrested last week on their return to Azerbaijan.  

Is Azerbaijan an Iraq-in-the-making? How real is the threat? How can we tell?

Azerbaijan is unlike Iraq in numerous meaningful ways. Neither religious identity nor rhetoric has been a factor in Azerbaijani politics for over a century. The leader of one Azerbaijani opposition party commented that sectarian politics like those in Iraq are “primitive.” The population of Azerbaijan though mostly Shi’ite is Turkic. Its history of Shi’ite-Sunni cooperation, societal modernization and emergent secularism goes back to the 19th century. Azerbaijan’s reformers achieved short-lived victory in their republic of 1918-20.

The arrival of the Bolsheviks in April 1920 led to the imposition of violent, if sporadic, anti-religious campaigns, which were distinct from the evolutionary secularizing efforts of the native elites. Thus, the comparison between today’s Azerbaijan and Iraq, where secularism was imposed mainly by the Ba’ath party since the late 1960s, shows the greater longevity and depth of secular life in Azerbaijan. Tolerance of religious difference, especially in Baku, is shown not merely by the presence but by the growth over time of such non-native groups as the Jewish community which grew rapidly in the early 20th century as Jews fled pogroms in Russian and Ukraine. It remains active today. The disappearance of the Baku’s long-established Armenian community and closing of its church can be traced to the bitter and unresolved conflict over Nagorno-Karabagh rather than a general intolerance of Christians. Overall, religious expression is considered a personal matter in Azerbaijan, and in society as a whole, people who attend a mosque or wear the hijab are neither feared nor ostracized.

At the same time, it would be premature to suggest that Azerbaijan is immune from Islamist appeals. The Sunni population in the north can hardly be insulated against the radicalism of the north Caucasus, but the nature of the spill-over remains murky. Some experts have suggested that sectarian conflicts in the region have encouraged or deepened divisions within Azerbaijani society, especially in rural areas. But hard evidence is illusive.

The Aliyev regime’s designation of all sorts of religious people and groups as Wahabbis or Salafis is unhelpful. Religious individuals are persecuted without differentiation. Such broad-brush treatment impedes efforts to get a clear reading on the type and depth of political uses of Islam and the potential for future radicalism among Azerbaijanis. Piety does not make a Muslim a radical.

If an extreme Islamist faction did exist, it would not have to be large to be dangerous. Two factors could make it more dangerous. First, discontent born of poverty or injustice feeds radicalism. Despite oil wealth and the modernization of Baku, lingering economic, social and political inequality contribute to Azerbaijan’s vulnerability to Islamist appeals. Outside central Baku, poverty is evident. People with Soviet-era educations cannot take advantage of jobs in new industries and often cannot provide better education for their children.

How many are affected? What are their alternatives? Is there an emerging middle class, as the regime insists? Data on these matters are not sufficient or sufficiently reliable to draw a definitive conclusion. Bribery is endemic, and citizens report pressure to give bribes even to get low-level jobs. A perception that the regime is corrupt and unjust can push the populace toward a traditional pole of morality, religion. Radical leaders could take advantage of such a climate, and Azerbaijan’s ruling circles are missing opportunities to address these problems.

Second, a regime that quashes open discussion and even mild dissent is cutting off peaceful discourse and thereby fostering extremism. Recent years have been marked by increasing government repression including the marginalization of the genuinely democratic opposition parties. Their offices and publications have been pushed out of the city center or shut down. Election rallies have been blocked. Parliamentary elections of 2010, which were deemed by international observers to be neither free nor fair, led to the complete exclusion of opposition parties from the National Assembly. With the failure of the democratic opposition to protect itself, much less effect needed change, popular interest in Islamist groups cannot be ruled out.

Nor are there other means for peaceful redress of grievances. Independent human rights activists, journalists and bloggers have been harassed, beaten, and arrested. This summer so many human rights activists were arrested that one account characterized the list as a “who’s who” of important civil society figures. Particularly shocking are the beatings and torture of activists in jail, most recently Leyla Yunus, a petite and diabetic woman with an international reputation. NGOs including scholarly organizations have had bank accounts frozen and offices raided and closed. Critical reports from Amnesty International, Freedom House, the OSCE and other groups are dismissed by officials in Baku as “anti-Azerbaijani.”

The regime stresses its security requirements, its need to maintain independence, especially against Russia, and defend against terrorists. These are real challenges. But it’s hard to see how election monitors, human rights groups, and bloggers threaten Azerbaijan’s independence.

Nor is religious extremism the only potential danger. Kurdish autonomy is being considered a tool to contain ISIL and the “treatment” here may be as volatile as the disease. Few Western analysts have explored the broader implications of Kurdish autonomy and certainly not for the south Caucasus. Such an arrangement for Iraq’s Kurds not only affects Turkey’s Kurds, as all have conceded, but could lead also to comparable demands by Iran’s Kurds living in the northwest of that country bordering Iraq. As a frequently oppressed ethnic and sectarian minority (Kurds are mostly Sunni) Iranian Kurds might find autonomy flimsy and press for secession. Secession movements, an urgent topic despite the outcome of Scotland’s referendum, affect each state of the south Caucasus.

All demands for secession are used by Armenians to bolster arguments for the self-proclaimed republic in Nagorno-Karabagh, in Soviet times an autonomous region inside Azerbaijan populated mainly by Armenians. Since the 1994 cease fire to a 6-year war, Armenian forces have occupied that area and surrounding regions totaling about 17% of Azerbaijan’s territory. Azerbaijan has rejected the secession-as-self-determination demand on the basis of preserving its territorial integrity.  

Here Azerbaijan must be wary of Russian meddling since Moscow has both a military and more recently commercial treaty with Armenia.  Azerbaijan’s major ally is NATO-member Turkey that is itself on guard against both Kurdish and Armenian territorial claims. Renewed fighting over Nagorno-Karabagh could turn into a truly ugly regional conflict.

Neighboring Georgia likewise resists demands of ethnic minorities that are supported by Russia. Both of Georgia’s secessionist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia have Russian support, including the invasion of Georgia in “defense” of the Ossetians in 2008. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s revanchism early this year in Ukraine affirmed that Russia can with impunity seize the territory of a neighboring sovereign state using the pretext of claims to protect ethnic Russians. Neither Georgia nor any other state of the south Caucasus has a significant Russian minority but Russia has already claimed to protect Ossetians and may well do the same for its Armenian allies or others. Secretary of Defense Hagel’s trip to Tbilisi after the September NATO meeting, reflected this linkage by discussing Georgia’s entry into NATO.

Nor is the impact of secession confined to the states of the south Caucasus. Even the whiff of secession from Iran’s Kurds could, Tehran surely fears, inspire a similar demand from the neighboring Turkic population of Iran’s east Azerbaijan and Ardebil provinces. The movement for reunification of Iranian (“southern”) Azerbaijan with northern (now independent) Azerbaijan has been simmering since the Soviet collapse. It is encouraged by groups and individuals in the north. The vigorous support for the movement by Azerbaijan’s first post-Soviet president Abulfez Elchibey was a particular point of contention between Baku and Tehran. Iran stands to be hurt by secessionist movements in its northwest, and paradoxically, it is all that stands between a possible IS drive from Mosul to Baku.

Neighboring Russia and the Middle East, the entire south Caucasus is vulnerable to events in both. The potential autonomy or secession of the Kurds affects each of the three states, though differently – Georgia and Azerbaijan stand to lose territory from successful secessions bids while Armenia stands to gain. Similarly, Russia, which has just used the secession-by-self-determination card in Ukraine /Crimea can throw its weight on the same side of that argument to weaken Georgia and Azerbaijan and support Armenia. Indeed, of the various threats. Russian meddling is perhaps the greatest for the region and especially for Georgia and Azerbaijan. But the danger of Islamic extremism cannot be clearly assessed without more realistic information from Azerbaijan. The attraction of radicalism itself could be reduced if the Aliyev government were to establish and protect civil society.

Audrey Altstadt is a fellow at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author.

Image: Wikicommons/C.C 3.0 License. 

TopicsISIL RegionsAzerbaijan

Team Obama's Pointless Attack on Israel

The Buzz

What does the Obama administration hope to accomplish by trashing Israel in the press? This is the most important question after an apparently coordinated wave of anonymous quotes welled up in Tuesday’s press. Relations with Israel have steadily worsened over the course of Obama’s presidency, and little of what was said was out of step with some views being expressed in broader policy circles. But why say it, and why now?

The wave began Monday night, with Foreign Policy’s Gopal Ratnam saying that the White House was “undermining” Israeli defense minister Moshe Yaalon during his recent visit to the United States by denying him access to several key officials. This wasn’t surprising—Yaalon had called Secretary of State John Kerry “obsessive and messianic,” among other insults. But the tone of the snub was sharp. Ratnam quotes “a pro-Israel congressional aide,” who we can reasonably assume is a Democrat close to the administration, saying of Yaalon that “there is a limit to how much you can shit all over the White House and expect to get every meeting you want...I don't know why the Israelis continue to feel the need to express their disagreements in offensive terms with this administration.”

But the executive excreta fell much thicker on Tuesday afternoon in a column by the influential journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, who quoted “a senior Obama administration official” calling Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “chickenshit.” Goldberg asked “another senior official who deals with the Israel file regularly” about this assessment, and the official “agreed that Netanyahu is a ‘chickenshit’ on matters related to the comatose peace process, but added that he’s also a ‘coward’ on the issue of Iran’s nuclear threat.” The first official also said that Netanyahu is “scared to launch wars,” is principally concerned with his own political survival, and has “got no guts.” And the second official crowed that it is now “too late” for Netanyahu to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, saying that “a combination of our pressure and his own unwillingness to do anything dramatic” meant that Netanyahu “ultimately...couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger.” Said the second official, “The feeling now is that Bibi’s bluffing.”

And the end of Goldberg’s column contains what may be a set of threats from the administration to Israel: first, to allow Palestinian actions at the UN that will “isolate Israel from the international community,” and second, to “make explicit” America’s vision of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement—a vision that is likely to diverge significantly from Netanyahu’s vision. Goldberg, a seasoned observer of U.S.-Israeli relations, writes that he doesn’t “remember such a period of sustained and mutual contempt” between the two allies, and lays the blame for the split at Netanyahu’s feet, calling his government “disconnected from reality” and his foreign policy a formula for “disaster.”

All this cloacal talk is sure to touch off a firestorm in Israel. The administration seems to want Netanyahu to pay a domestic price for his policies. Yet Goldberg’s assessment is that Netanyahu’s approach “has its charms” for the Israeli electorate, and Bibi appears to be in a solid position at home. There are few clear alternatives to the man TIME magazine once branded the “king of Israel,” and his principal challengers nowadays are to his right. So there’s little reason to believe that the Obama team’s remarks will topple him, or that we’d get something much better if he did fall.

The timing of the remarks is equally baffling. The Iran negotiations come to a head on November 24. If there’s a deal, the administration will come under immense pressure at home, particularly from Israel’s strongest defenders in Congress. A better relationship with Israel would mitigate that pressure. And if there’s not a deal, the administration may wish to extend the interim deal with Iran—another political friction point in which pro-Israel factions will be at odds with the administration. Yet the White House has opened fire early, and rather than attacking Netanyahu’s Iran approach, it’s engaging in playground name-calling. It’s hard to see what good this will do, and the damage could be serious. There has been a growing feeling in Washington that Israel would not have been willing to push Congress to confront the president on Iran, that it would prefer to live with a tolerable deal than to have an open battle with its closest ally. If Congress is already attacking Obama on Israel and if Israel and America are already fighting each other, these incentives change.

Further, if the administration doesn’t want Netanyahu to attack Iran, accusing him of bluffing and calling him a coward might not be the best way to ensure that. And as one observer noted, the administration is effectively “taunt[ing] Netanyahu for trusting in the Obama admin's promises” to deal with the Iranian problem in return for Israel backing off its threats. With American allies in Europe and Asia questioning the reliability of our defense guarantees, should the White House be gloating that it’s played an ally for a sucker?

The Obama team’s thoroughly undiplomatic language, in other words, will likely have little payoff. Perhaps this is in continuity with the administration’s common approach to international crisis: to treat strongly-worded speeches as an effective and low-cost form of action, even when they continue to be neither.

Or perhaps the officials merely wanted to vent after nearly six years of dealing with an exasperating Israeli leader. If that’s the case, their “chickenshit” talk should have been reserved for their colleagues, their spouses, their friends, their pets, their houseplants, their therapists, or even Siri. But a major journalist? Obama’s staffers have damaged an important relationship for no benefit other than the self-satisfaction of a sharp insult. Such actions are a mark of arrogance.

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.

Image: Flickr/The Israel Project. CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsDiplomacy RegionsIsrael

Why Right-to-Work Works

The Buzz

When the Teamsters Union came knocking, Michael Romanchock refused to pony up the dues the union demanded. After all, he had worked nine months at his jobsite—a Pepsi bottling plant in Ebensburg, Pennsylvania—and didn’t even know it was unionized. Why pay for services you cannot notice?

This May, union officials threatened to have him fired if he didn’t pay the dues, which average $600 a year. Romanchock wouldn’t budge, and on July 1, the Teamsters had him canned.

Were Pennsylvania a right-to-work state, Romanchock would never have gone through this ordeal. But only twenty-four states have those employee-protection statutes. Fortunately, a new wave of “right-to-work” statutes may be on the way—not from the feds, not from the states, but at the local level.

In most states, workers at unionized workplaces must pay union dues to hold their jobs. Unions use some of those dues to bargain on behalf of their members. But they also use dues to finance causes many of their members oppose.

For example, unions have spent millions to help re-elect Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), a professed opponent of same-sex marriage. Union members who support same-sex marriage might not want to support him. The Service Employees International Union and the United Auto Workers gave tens of thousands to Planned Parenthood, America’s largest abortion provider. Union members who consider abortion the taking of innocent life might object to funding it.

Theoretically, workers can opt out of the political portion of these dues; in practice, unions make it very difficult. The Teamsters did not even tell Romanchock how much they spent on political activities, much less that he could decline to fund it. They simply had him fired for not paying full dues.

Mandatory dues hurt workers doubly. It forces them to pay for representation and political activities they may not want. It also makes unions less responsive to their interests. With mandatory dues, unions do not have to earn workers’ support—they are compelled to provide it. Not surprisingly, unions charge higher dues and pay their officers higher salaries when workers have no choice but to pay.

Right-to-work laws make union dues voluntary, thereby forcing unions to work harder to earn workers’ support. When Wisconsin passed right-to-work for most government employees, unions responded by lowering dues. Even some union organizers consider right-to-work a good thing. Gary Casteel, southern organizing director for the United Auto Workers, explained that in right-to-work states: “if I go to an organizing drive, I can tell these workers, 'If you don't like this arrangement, you don't have to belong' . . . if you don't think the system's earning its keep, then you don't have to pay."

Right-to-work laws can also boost local economies. Economic development consultants report that most companies prefer to locate new plants in areas with right-to-work laws. It was no accident that the foreign “transplant” automakers built almost all their U.S. plants in right-to-work states. Or that Boeing located its new assembly line in right-to-work South Carolina.

Gallup polling finds that Americans support right-to-work by a three-to-one margin. Overwhelming majorities of those self-identifying as Democrats, Republicans or Independents believe workers should not get fired for not paying union dues. But union bosses disagree. They fight right-to-work tooth and nail. And mandatory dues give them a lot of money to fight with. Unions are spending $300 million this year to defeat five governors who crossed them.

Such spending—and the clout that comes with it—has successfully blocked right-to-work initiatives in most states. Union opposition has kept right-to-work from even coming to a vote in the Pennsylvania legislature. This has left millions of workers like Michael Romanchock saddled with forced dues.

Thankfully, workers may soon have a new option for getting out from under such requirements. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) explicitly allows states to forbid forced dues. And as my colleague Andrew Kloster and I point out in a recent piece, cities and counties have a strong legal foundation for arguing this authorization also encompasses local right-to-work ordinances—at least for private-sector workers.

Some state and local politicians have begun proposing exactly this approach. Illinois Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner has suggested letting counties pass their own right-to-work laws. Daniel Harrop, the Republican candidate for mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, has proposed a municipal right-to-work law for his city. Other cities and counties may follow soon.

Local right-to-work ordinances would allow more conservative counties to bypass union opposition that stymies statewide efforts. While President Obama carried Pennsylvania, Mitt Romney handily carried the county containing Ebensburg. A county ordinance could have protected Romanchock’s job.

Unions would likely file immediate court challenges to such ordinances. But the Supreme Court has already ruled that Congress did not intend the NLRA to override laws regulating forced dues. Further, the Court frequently interprets “state” laws as implicitly including local ordinances. This especially applies to charter cities and counties with delegated legislative authority. Although the Supreme Court has not specifically ruled on this issue, cities would have a good legal case.

Local right-to-work laws could benefit millions of workers—giving them control over more of their earnings and how it is spent. They would also create more jobs. Counties in Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and other non-right-to-work states could compete for new investment on a level playing field with southern states. Unions might not like this, but the unemployed and workers like Michael Romanchock certainly would.

Based on calculations from their federal financial disclosure filings, Teamsters Local 110 collected $819,000 in dues from 1,382 members in 2013—an average of $592 per member.

James Sherk is a Senior Policy Analyst in Labor Economics for the Center for Data Analysis at the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity at The Heritage Foundation.

Image: Flickr/andjohan/CC by 2.0

TopicsDomestic Politics RegionsUnited States

Great Britain’s Time of Troubles: Why it Matters

The Buzz

British politics is in a state of flux, with potentially major implications for European unity and transatlantic relations. 

Last month, the United Kingdom came close to dissolution as the Scottish electorate toyed with the idea of striking out alone.  Earlier this year, the UK Independence Party (Ukip) beat all three of the major parties in elections to the European Parliament—the first time in over a century that a party other than the Conservatives and Labour had won the popular vote in a UK-wide election.

There were points during the Scottish referendum campaign that it looked as though the 307-year old union between England and Scotland would be terminated.  Many believe that a decisive slice of Scotland’s voters were persuaded to maintain the status quo only on the promise that Scotland’s devolved parliament at Holyrood would be given extra powers.  As such, the ‘No’ campaign’s victory hardly can be interpreted as a vote of confidence in the British system.  Scots demanded constitutional reform.  What is more, politicians from across the political spectrum undertook to respond.

The defeat of Scotland’s bid for independence, then, offered only momentary respite for those invested in maintaining the Union.  A commitment has been made to rush extra powers for Holyrood.  At the same time, however, the demand for heightened devolution (“devo-max”) in Scotland has been matched by cries of unfairness by politicians in England.  Why should Scotland be afforded greater insulation from politicians in London when English matters are still being voted on by Scottish MPs?  Why is England the only country of the United Kingdom to lack its own devolved assembly?  Although English nationalism has not yet reached fever pitch, there is at least a growing appetite for the entire apparatus of the British state—not just its Scottish elements—to be revisited.  An uneven and unequal distribution of power cannot survive in the long-term.

Sub-national constitutional questions are not the only ones plaguing the Conservative-led government in Westminster, however.  Ever since Ukip won the European elections this summer, the question of Britain’s future in the European Union has been placed firmly at the top of the national agenda.  Ukip is virulently anti-European, with withdrawal from the EU comprising the party’s flagship policy.  Ukip’s stubborn popularity, then, is cause for consternation among the largely pro-European Westminster political elite.  Simply put: many ordinary Britons would like to see the back of Brussels.

The Conservative party in particular finds itself squeezed by the rise of Ukip.  Desperate to win a parliamentary majority next year, the Conservatives can ill afford to hemorrhage votes to the nationalistic Ukip on its right flank.  Two Conservative MPs already have defected to Ukip, their resignations prompting high-profile by-elections when the government would much rather project an image of unity, competence and stability.  Earlier this month, Ukip won its first ever elected Member of Parliament as a result of one of these by-elections.  Analysts predict that the insurgent force could gain as many as 30 seats in the House of Commons next year.

Ukip’s electoral success points to another trend that threatens to undermine the stability of British politics—that is, the country’s long suffering two-party system looks to be in potentially terminal decline.  A third party, the Liberal Democrats, has been in government since 2010.  As noted above, Ukip came first in national polls held this summer.  The Scottish National Party has been the largest party in the Scottish Parliament since 2007.  Nationalists also poll strongly in Wales, while Northern Ireland operates its own party system altogether.  Across Britain, Ukip and other parties such as the Greens—whose numbers have swollen of late—threaten to chip away at the Conservatives’ and Labour’s electoral dominance.

All of these developments should be of concern to Britain’s allies in the North Atlantic.  Britain’s future in Europe is the most obvious potential casualty of the political turbulence.  Ukip and Conservative backbenchers are loudly calling for a referendum on the issue.  The pro-European cause is hardly helped by the ineptitude of Eurocrats in Brussels: unbelievably, EU officials have recently ordered London to contribute an extra £1.7bn ($2.72bn) to the mammoth EU budget, punishment for Britain’s economy having out-performed its continental counterparts.  Cameron has vowed to ignore the request; his Eurosceptic critics argue that the government is powerless to resist.  What might otherwise have been an embarrassing political headache has the potential to become a major catalyst in the present context.  Steering Britain through such tempestuous seas will take great foresight and political leadership.

Britain used to be known as Perfidious Albion because of its reputation as an unreliable ally.  The charge then was that Britain only could be relied upon to pursue its own selfish interests, never to act with honor or altruism.  Today, the country might more accurately be described as Precarious Albion—an unreliable ally not because of perfidy but because of its inability to guarantee a future for itself as a strong and united player at the heart of Europe.  Its domestic political system in flux, Britain risks becoming a rickety transatlantic bridge indeed.

Image: Office of the Prime Minister: UK/Flickr

TopicsDomestic Politics RegionsUnited Kingdom

The Future of War Is Here: Proxy Warfare

The Buzz

Unconventional warfare isn’t popular among Western strategists these days. Whether it’s supporting insurgent groups (the strict definition) or supporting militias allied with government forces, proxy warfare has a bad reputation. The complex situation in Syria and Iraq isn’t helping matters: the US is struggling to find a reliable proxy in Syria and confidence in Iraq’s security forces and associated militias is low. In a recent editorial in the Canberra Times, Hugh White said, “For half a century America and its allies have been trying to win messy civil wars without fighting themselves and by training and equipping one side or the other. It never works.”

Professor White’s not alone in his dismal assessment. The New York Times’ Mark Mazzetti reports that a recent CIA study came to a similarly dim conclusion—that US efforts at unconventional warfare had little effect on the long-term outcome of conflicts. Despite those conclusions, it’s unwise for strategists prematurely to dismiss the idea of supporting insurgent groups and working with non-state armed groups in both current and future conflicts.

For those who find proxy warfare detestable, its poor record mightn’t seem worrisome. Unfortunately, global trends suggest future conflicts will be characterized by insurgents, militias, and non-state armed groups who’ll be important in determining outcomes. Reports, including the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030, show that increasingly those groups emerge to fill the security vacuums of failing states. They have easier access to external sources of support. Russia and Iran clearly see proxy warfare as part of their strategic culture. Even most conventional future scenarios—what Douglas MacGregor calls “wars of decision”—will have insurgents seeking to influence outcomes before, during, and after decisive actions. So it’s critical that strategists understand unconventional warfare and how to counter it. No matter how detestable we might find proxy warfare, it does work and our enemies would be happy to use it against us.

The data on supporting insurgent groups helps to illustrate my point. Studies of insurgencies and civil wars consistently demonstrate that external support is the most common enabler of insurgent success and that failure to isolate insurgents from external support is one cause of unsuccessful counterinsurgency campaigns. If external support matters so much in determining the outcome of civil wars, but US and allied efforts have a bad record, what’s the obvious conclusion? The problem isn’t that unconventional warfare doesn’t work; the problem is that we’re not good at it! The US and its allies are either doing something wrong or failing to do something important.

Actually, it’s both. Generally speaking, when supporting insurgent groups in the past, the US and its allies have either committed too little and/or expected too much. It’s important to recognize this failing now and to make a concerted effort to better understand how to incorporate unconventional warfare in future strategy. To be fair, the US and its allies have had some success when they chose to support a side in both insurgent and full-blown civil wars. Successful examples include Afghanistan in the 80s, at the beginning phases of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, and in Yugoslavia during World War II to name just a few. (There are more.) However, according to Mazzetti, the report claims that CIA efforts were less effective when insurgent militias fought “without any direct American support on the ground.” That’s a point I’ve emphasized before. Proxy forces will be more effective (and more malleable) when advisors are on the ground and providing them with capability, trust, advice, and support. Proxy forces live in the dangerous reality of civil war and social anarchy, and therefore have different immediate and long-term interests than their sponsors. It’s a principal-agent problem that has to be addressed. If we don’t commit blood and treasure to their cause, we can’t expect to influence their behavior—or the outcome.

Even if the commitment to proxies is strong, there’s also the danger of expecting too much from unconventional warfare strategies. In those cases where the US has been successful in supporting proxies, the desired outcome was broad. In Afghanistan in the 80s the US sought to punish and expel the Soviet Union from Afghanistan and cared little about what came next. Unconventional warfare with the commitment of only material support was good enough for the US, because Pakistani ISI provided the on the ground advice. In Operation Enduring Freedom, material support, in addition to on the ground advice and capability (air power) to the Northern Alliance was enough to defeat the Taliban—albeit not enough to secure the peace. In Yugoslavia during World War II, the objective was simply to keep Hitler’s divisions occupied. In each case, the objectives of unconventional warfare efforts were simple, broad end-states. The more control one expects over the outcome, the greater the need for a comprehensive strategy within which support for insurgents is merely one strand.

The lessons for anyone interested in military strategy are pretty clear. Future conflicts will be filled with sub-state and non-state armed groups. The capability to assess, influence, support, and integrate those entities into operations and strategy is something every credible military force needs to possess. Strategists need to understand those groups in both the context of the conflict at hand and in theory. The ability to influence such groups requires commitment. And, of course, the ability to influence outcomes requires that unconventional warfare efforts be part of a bigger strategy.

Lieutenant Colonel Jan K. Gleiman is an active duty US Army officer and a visiting fellow at ASPI (where this first appeared) from United States Pacific Command. 

Image: U.S. Army Flickr.

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

Why the Hong Kong Student Protest Movement Is in Trouble

The Buzz

While the Hong Kong protests vanish from the front pages of the press, replaced by other shiny-object foreign-policy issues, they reinforce why meaningful political and economic change in China will remain phantoms in the air for the foreseeable future. The Chinese Communist Party, as many already know, is incestuously tied to business interests in Hong Kong and the mainland. Change to the political system risks wreaking economic havoc on politically tied business interests. Thus, neither business, nor political elites have any reason to alter the current system. The protesters in Hong Kong, specifically the students, are directly challenging this relationship in the territory. This is a commendable effort that, as negotiations this week demonstrated, will ultimately fail in achieving the desired end state. Unfortunately, the students walked right into an ambush this week by engaging in publicly televised negotiations with the Hong Kong government.

Before we explore why the students just bolstered the Hong Kong government’s ability to drive a wedge between them and other Hong Kong interest groups, it is important to highlight some uncomfortable figures about the Special Administrative Region. Hong Kong has the twelfth worst Gini Coefficient in the world. In comparison, mainland China ranks 27, Singapore 32 and the United States 41. Hong Kong is in the company of Haiti, Sierra Leone, Central African Republic, Honduras and Guatemala in this ranking. While Hong Kong only registers 3 percent unemployment, approximately 20 percent of the population lives in poverty. Press reporting indicates that students, as well as religious and political actors are well aware of these economic inequalities.

Representatives of these groups make public statements that suggest they feel Beijing’s political patronage networks are increasingly seizing the economy and limiting the ability of average Hong Kong citizens to improve their stations in life.

The August 2014 announcement by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress to limit the choice of Chief Executive candidates only to those approved by the Hong Kong Election Committee has further increased the sense of political insecurity. While students, Christian religious leaders and longtime Democratic activists believe this ruling jeopardizes Hong Kong’s political future, they do not all agree on a viable alternative solution. The Hong Kong Federation of Students (led by Alex Chow) and Scholarism (led by Joshua Wong) believe that Hong Kong citizens should have the right to directly nominate Chief Executive candidates for election consideration. In 2013, Scholarism created a petition for parties in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) to sign. The petition would demonstrate these parties’ support for direct nominations of Chief Executive candidates by citizens of Hong Kong. No party fully supported Scholarism’s petition. The Democratic Party along with several others refused to sign the petition. These parties believe there is a better solution to nominate Chief Executive candidates than that proposed by Scholarism.

Several Christian religious leaders and other Democratic operatives are throwing their support behind Occupy Central with Love and Peace (Occupy Central). The founders of Occupy Central are both religious representatives in their communities. Benny-Tai is the group’s first leader and a Christian Law professor at the University of Hong Kong. Reverend Chu Yiu-ming is a Baptist leader who is concurrently the new leader of Occupy Central. According to press reporting, members of the Democratic Party, such as founder Martin Lee, support Occupy Central.

Occupy Central started forming in the summer of 2013. By August 2013, the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese used its main publication, Kung Kao Po, to legitimize the use of civil disobedience to force the new Chief Executive’s government to propose a universal suffrage solution. The Diocese claimed that the government had twice put off referencing the issue to Beijing, as called for in the Basic Law; was violating the fundamental rights of the people based on the UN Charter for Human Rights by not developing a universal-suffrage system; and that any proposal must not only offer universal suffrage, but must also include a process of nominating the Chief Executive candidates that allowed for the consideration all opinions.

While the students want direct nominations, other leading political groups want a less disruptive approach to gather opinions. This tension of interests makes it difficult for the Hong Kong government to provide any viable solution that satisfies all groups. What unifies these two movements is their disdain for the voting solution offered by Beijing and what they perceive to be the most recent affront to their lives by Beijing authorities.

This brings us to this week’s negotiations. One early complaint by the students was that the Chief Executive was not engaging in meaningful dialogue with Hong Kong citizens, despite campaign promises. His refusal to come and literally talk with protesters only reinforced this view. Now his government is publicly speaking to the students. While the government offered no roadmap, as the students demanded, it did start laying the groundwork to create the impression that it is sincere about engaging with the students. The goal of the government is to publicly make the students appear stubborn and spoiled, while the government builds the narrative that it is the responsible, grown-up party.

The Hong Kong government’s approach aims to directly show that the students do not have Hong Kong’s economic interests at heart, lack an appreciation for their political rights and have no meaningful solution to offer Hong Kong. This message may resonate with Hong Kong citizens who own small businesses, make their livings driving taxis and are old enough to remember harder economic times.

As noted earlier, the students want direct nominations of Chief Executive candidates and some even want an end to the functional constituencies in the Election Committee. Liberal parties do not agree with this solution. By suggesting publicly that the election rules can change after 2017, the Hong Kong government is attempting to put a carrot in front of these liberal groups. Simultaneously, the government is using the students’ own demands to demonstrate to the public that their interests collide with the political goals of the liberal parties. The students walked right into it—unfortunately.

At the end of the day, the students are unintentionally positioning themselves as the political losers. The Hong Kong government is using its public engagement with them to shape their grievances as separate from those of the average Hong Kong citizen, civil society and liberal political groups. The bigger losers, though, will be the citizens of Hong Kong, as the larger socioeconomic issues—Party patronage networks, corruption and social immobility—will continue to fester. Given that the mainland suffers from these issues, without any meaningful realignment of political rights that reduce the Party’s hold on economic levers of power on the mainland, Hong Kong will continue to experience growing economic inequality and a sense of social insecurity resulting from Party-business ties.

Nicholas Iorio is a private-sector international security affairs consultant specializing in the Asia-Pacific.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Underbar dk/CC by-sa 4.0

TopicsDomestic PoliticsDemocracy RegionsChina

Japan and America: Forging a Global Alliance?

The Buzz

Recently, the US and Japan released the Interim Report on the Revision of the Guidelines for US-Japan Defense Cooperation (PDF). The revision’s the first since 1997 and occurs in the context of Asia-Pacific power shifts. So countries in the region are watching closely just how much the USJapan alliance is changing, both practically and conceptually. That includes the Australian government, which has long been supportive of a more ‘active’ Japanese security and defence policy at both the regional and global level. It’s a line Japan’s current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also been pushing.

Indeed, the five-page interim report points to the prospect of a USJapan alliance moving beyond a narrow focus on the territorial defense of Japan against major aggression (from China or North Korea, for example). Instead, it’s based on a “strategic vision for a more expansive partnership” and the need to build the alliance as a “platform for international cooperation that would continue to make positive contributions to the region and beyond.” It stresses that among other things future bilateral defense cooperation would focus on:

- “seamless, robust, flexible, and effective bilateral responses;

- the global nature of the U.S.-Japan Alliance; and

- cooperation with other regional partners.”

Moreover, the report’s interesting for what it doesn’t say: in recognition of the expanding scope of geographical cooperation, the report doesn’t mention “situations in areas surrounding Japan,” a phrase that underpinned the 1997 guidelines.

While the 5-page document isn’t specific on details, the report provides some ideas on what these three aforementioned headings might entail. When it comes to “seamlessly” ensuring Japan’s peace and security, it observes that there could be “cases where swift and robust responses are required to secure the peace and security of Japan even when an armed attack against Japan is not involved [italics mine].” In other words, in theory at least, Japan could be asked to provide protection for US forces in hostile environments beyond its immediate neighborhood; for instance in the area of ship-based ballistic-missile defense.

Concerning increased “cooperation for regional and global peace and security,” the document notes that “areas of cooperation to be described may include, but are not limited to”: peacekeeping operations; international Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief; maritime security; capacity building; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; logistics support; and non-combatant evacuation operations. While the US continues to try to reassure Japan about its security commitments (for instance, the US Navy just announced plans to forward deploy three more ballistic-missile-defense-capable destroyers to Japan over the next three years), Washington also sees the revised guidelines as a chance to move the alliance beyond Tokyo’s preoccupation with the “China threat.”

How likely is the emergence of a more “global” USJapan alliance? The good news is that Japanese officials involved in drafting the interim report agreed to the report’s language, probably in anticipation of the Abe government’s expectations. Moreover, Japan has been stepping up its Asia-Pacific defense engagement. For example, it agreed to provide both the Philippines and Vietnam with modern Coast Guard vessels. As well, Japan and India are in talks about the possible sale of Japanese amphibious aircraft. Lastly, there’s still the prospect of a submarine deal with Australia.

But serious obstacles stand in the way of a truly global—or even regionally more active—USJapan alliance. For a start, Japan’s new ‘three conditions for the “use of force” as measures for self-defense’ still impose significant restrictions on the Self-Defense Forces in the exercise of Japan’s right of collective self-defense. If Japan decides to support the US in a regional or global contingency, it’ll probably remain strictly limited to tasks such as logistical support or minesweeping outside the area of actual combat. Moreover, despite much talk about Japan’s “remilitarization,” in reality there’s no such thing. As Brad Glosserman and David Kang have observed in these pages:

“Japan’s defense policies are evolving to keep pace with a changing regional environment, but the idea that Tokyo will be able to threaten its neighbors is just not credible. There is no will, nor the capability to do so.”

As I’ve argued (here and here), Japan’s defense policy remains fundamentally defensive in nature. As Alessio Patalano has shown (paywalled), Japan’s naval modernization reflects a “targeted enhancement” of capabilities required for the protection of its sea lanes, particularly in the area of anti-submarine warfare and basic expeditionary capabilities to safeguard its many islands. Moreover, security reform in Japan remains a cumbersome process (PDF)—and there are already signs that attempts to flesh out at the legislative level what exactly the JSDF could or couldn’t do in support of the US in a conflict mightn’t come to fruition any time soon. Lastly, the Japanese side’s apparently frustrated that the interim report emphasizes the alliance’s global role but makes no mention of China.

We’ll have to see what the final guidelines bring. But in any case, it’s prudent to expect evolutionary, not revolutionary, changes in the USJapan alliance—and in Japan’s defense policy in particular.

Benjamin Schreer is a senior analyst at ASPI. This piece first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist here

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

Why the Battle for Kobane Matters (and Doesn't Matter)

The Buzz

If you relied only on the media, you could be forgiven for thinking that the focus of the fight against ISIS has been on the Syrian city of Kobane.

This is thanks to the easy access for international media to the Turkish side of the border near Kobane and the resulting images, as well as the work of the Kurds and their associated lobby groups who want the world to focus on their issues. At one point the Australian Broadcasting Cooperation (ABC) even claimed that a hill near the town was “strategic.” Tactically important perhaps, but strategic? I don't think so.

As US Secretary of State John Kerry noted, the US does not consider Kobane a defining element of the coalition strategy. Rather, it quite rightly sees that Iraq is ISIS’ main effort and hence the bulk of Washington's force is directed there.

Kobane's value though, lies in what it represents more than what it is. One of the principles of war that applies to insurgent groups as much as it does to conventional armies is the maintenance of momentum. If you have momentum, then you force your opposition to make reactive decisions under pressure that often turn out to be sub-optimal. You can also create fear and panic in the opposition, as ISIS showed in its attack on Mosul and subsequent drive south, which resulted in the collapse of several Iraqi army divisions. ISIS has also relied on battlefield victories to replenish its ammunition stocks and gain military equipment and recruits.

The capture of Mosul, though, may well represent a high point in ISIS's campaign.

While the group is still pressing its advantage in al-Anbar province in Iraq, it has lost Mosul dam and has been investing in Kobane for over a month without success. If it is unable to capture Kobane, it will have lost significant personnel and resources against some Kurdish irregulars (with coalition air support) for little to no gain. One of ISIS's lines of operation will have stalled, and very publicly so.

ISIS is a media savvy organization and it realizes that being beaten back in Kobane would be a very public loss. And in the social media world ISIS inhabits, a public loss can also be a strategic one. Images of coalition airstrikes and Kurdish fighters tearing down ISIS flags don't do much for ISIS's reputation as a near-invincible jihadist war machine, an image on which it has relied for much of its success to date.

Kobane also offers the coalition opportunities greater than the limited value of the town itself. In the past week the coalition has increased its support for the Kurdish fighters, indicating a willingness to fight for the town's defense. This limited action offers some significant practical benefits for the coalition. It will be learning much about integrating airstrikes with indigenous forces and can use the Kobane battle as a live run for future actions against ISIS in Iraq. At the same time, the coalition is able to degrade ISIS forces in the region, which appear to be reinforcing failure in their assault on Kobane.

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

Image: U.S. Air Force/Flickr. 

TopicsISIS RegionsSyria