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Two Videos of American Airstrikes on ISIS That Should Scare Iran

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Credibility in international relations, noted Benjamin H. Friedman in TNI in August, “doesn’t travel well.” Tough actions in one part of the globe don’t necessarily make leaders in another tremble at the sound of our footsteps. Weakness in one place doesn’t necessarily provoke aggression in another. “Historical studies show,” wrote Friedman, “that leaders deciding whether to defy foreign threats focus on the balance of military power and the material interests of the threatening state, not on its opponent’s record of carrying out past threats.” So all the worries that Obama’s false start on Syria last year inspired Russia’s revanchism in Ukraine or China’s pushiness in the South China Sea are overwrought. And the new campaign against the Islamic State will probably have a similarly ephemeral impact on America’s credibility in other confrontations.

But a faraway war can still send shockwaves through national-security establishments around the world. A rival might demonstrate that his forces are stronger than expected; a friend’s hidden weaknesses might come to light. The decisive U.S. victory in the 1991 Gulf War lit a fire under the Chinese military, which realized the extent of its inferiority. Days after the war, the Soviet Union’s Marshal Viktor Kulikov—formerly commander of the Warsaw Pact forces—told an interviewer that “The military operations between the coalition forces and Iraq have modified the idea which we had about the nature of modern military operations....The Soviet Armed Forces will have to take a closer look at the quality of their weapons, their equipment, and their strategy.” There were similar recalculations after, for example, the 1999 NATO air campaign in the former Yugoslavia.

The air assault on the Islamic State will be no different. And there’s one country that has to be paying particular attention: the Islamic Republic of Iran. US Central Command has released several videos of strikes on ISIS facilities. Two of these videos demonstrate advanced bombing techniques that analysts have noted will be important in an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Writing in International Security in 2007, Whitney Raas and Austin Long dug into the technical side of a possible Israeli strike. Many of Iran’s nuclear facilities, such as the huge centrifuge halls at Natanz, are hardened and buried to make the attacker’s task harder. One bomb—even a “bunker buster” designed for the task—might not be enough to dig through all the dirt and high-strength concrete. “One method” for dealing with this, Raas and Long say, “is to use [laser-guided bombs] targeted on the same aimpoint but separated slightly in release time to ‘burrow’ into the target.” A former Israeli Air Force general said that this method could “eventually destroy any target.” But hitting the same spot again and again takes extreme precision.

And that’s exactly what we see in this footage of a strike on “an ISIL compound” near Raqqa on Tuesday.

Two bombs hit in quick succession—and then two more, right on the same spots. The first two bombs appear to have been “bunker busters” aiming to knock out some bunker that may have been beneath the building—their impacts produce no visible explosion. The second pair may have been intended for the above-ground portion of the structure—we see a lot more smoke and fire, and part of the building collapses.

But Iran’s nuclear facilities aren’t just buried—some of them are big, too. Centrifuges are fragile, but you wouldn’t want to go through the trouble of penetrating Iranian airspace and then penetrating the bunkers, only to leave many of them still functioning. You want to be sure you’ve destroyed them throughout the enrichment hall. Raas and Long use high-explosive blast curves, which show how quickly the destructive power of an explosion (in this case, overpressure) dissipates as distance from the explosion increases. Cold War-era research into the effects of nuclear explosions showed how much overpressure is needed to reliably destroy different sorts of structures and objects. If you know how much overpressure is needed to destroy your target, the radius at which your munition produces that much overpressure, and the area of your target, you know how to space your aimpoints. CENTCOM demonstrates this principle in this footage, also from Tuesday, of a strike on an Islamic State vehicle staging area. Pay attention to the outlines of the property:

About a dozen explosions, spaced throughout the target area. This method gives the attacker confidence that nothing on that property is going to show up on the battlefield again. Raas and Long calculate that about three munitions going off inside one of the big centrifuge halls at Natanz would be enough to ensure destruction.

In other words, an Israeli strike would likely combine these two techniques. An American strike, as Geoffrey Kemp and I noted in our 2013 book War with Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences, would be easier and more likely to destroy the targets. We’d have better weapons—the thirty thousand pound GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator, for example—and better infrastructure to back us up. Yet we’d use the same principles.

The Iranians are aware of all of this. They know we can hit their nuclear facilities, and they know the Israelis probably can, too. They also know that we’re hesitant to go to war with Iran if we can avoid it. But their defense planners surely can’t have been thrilled to watch American airmen demonstrate these two techniques in Tehran’s neighborhood.

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.

TopicsDefense RegionsIranSyria

The Next South China Sea Crisis: China vs. Indonesia?

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As Indonesian president-elect Joko Widodo, also known as Jokowi, prepares officially to begin his term later next month, there remains a degree of uncertainty regarding the future policy settings of his administration both at home and abroad. One thing, though, seems increasingly clear: momentum is building toward the realization of Indonesia’s long-dormant potential to emerge as a maritime power.

The vision of Indonesia as a “global maritime nexus” (poros maritim dunia) gained prominence during the presidential campaign and seems set to become a central focus of the upcoming Jokowi administration. While Indonesia’s emergence as a maritime power is by no means assured—it will face many challenges ahead—we may be witnessing the dawn of a new era in Indonesian history.

The precise details of that maritime vision remain a work in progress, but some preliminary observations can be made. The foundation of the “global maritime nexus” concept is primarily economic: it seeks to increase maritime connectivity and thus economic equality between the various Indonesian provinces. That argument has been convincingly advanced by Faisal Basri, a leading economist and member of Jokowi’s expert team on the economy. Yet according to Basri, the vision of Indonesia as a maritime power isn’t limited to the economic dimension alone, and can also contain a security or defense function, including the protection of state sovereignty.

While Jokowi hasn’t spoken at any length on his own vision of the concept, the vision and mission statement he submitted during the campaign prioritized the protection of Indonesia’s maritime interests. The public statements that Jokowi has made on the issue have repeatedly touched on that priority, specifically the problem of illegal fishing.

In comments made earlier this month and published in the local Indonesian press, Jokowi stated that it was necessary to act decisively against foreign fishing vessels in order to prevent the continued theft of Indonesian resources. “If we do not act decisively, our fish will be stolen by foreign ships,” Jokowi was quoted as saying. Such comments indicate that he may not be as disengaged on foreign policy matters as some have expected; in fact he may be more assertive on certain priorities.

The issue of illegal fishing by foreign vessels is likely to prove a pivotal challenge for Jokowi’s administration, and will almost certainly create tension with another emerging maritime power—China. China is hardly the only country whose fishermen are operating illegally in Indonesian waters. But it’s the only one whose fishermen are directly supported if not encouraged by the coercive power of its state security services at sea.

China’s expanded presence in disputed areas of the South China Sea is increasingly bringing its fishermen, and its maritime security organizations, into direct contact and often confrontation with those of Indonesia. While the Indonesian foreign ministry continues to maintain there’s no dispute between China and Indonesia, China’s actions suggest otherwise.

A number of incidents have occurred in the area since 2010, resulting from what ultimately proved to be unsuccessful attempts by Indonesian security forces to prosecute Chinese fishermen operating illegally within Indonesia’s claimed EEZ. Those efforts to assert Indonesian jurisdiction in its claimed EEZ are beginning to form a pattern of persistent failure, a pattern which, if left unaltered, may eventually compromise Indonesia’s military deterrent posture in those areas, as well as the legal basis for its claims.

The most recent of those incidents occurred in March of 2013. Since I first wrote about that incident late last year new details have come to light, including the apparent use of electronic-warfare capabilities by the Chinese Maritime Law Enforcement (MLE) vessel Yuzheng 310. Based on the Indonesian captain’s own reporting, as well as subsequent investigation and analysis, it now appears highly likely that during that incident Yuzheng 310 jammed the communications of the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (KKP) vessel Hiu Macan 001.

Consistent with the KKP captain’s description of events, Yuzheng 310 may have been disabling his ability to receive communications from his headquarters ashore, in an apparent effort to sever the vessel from its command and control (C2) loop. It appears likely Yuzheng 310 would have been calculating that—in combination with other coercive measures—the action would force the Indonesian captain to release his Chinese prisoners. The suite of measures had the desired effect, but might just as easily have proved dangerously escalatory had the KKP captain instead decided not to acquiesce.

Continued patrols in those areas by what is now the China Coast Guard may confront Jokowi with an early test of his leadership, possibly in a crisis scenario not dissimilar to that from March 2013. It remains to be seen whether or not the new administration is even aware of that potential contingency, let alone prepared to respond effectively.

Despite the obvious overlap between Jokowi’s focus on combating illegal fishing and the recent incidents with China in the South China Sea, it’s also unclear to what extent Jokowi is himself aware of that overlap, or the severity of the challenge it presents to his vision of Indonesia as a global maritime nexus. Addressing that challenge will require decisive leadership from the new president and his team, both domestically and abroad.

Scott Bentley is currently a PhD candidate at the Australian Defense Force Academy, UNSW. His research focuses on security strategies in maritime Southeast Asia. This piece first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here

Image: Creative Commons License 3.0 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

The Danger ISIS Represents: "It has to be fought differently..."

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This is not G.W Bush’s ill-conceived war against Saddam Hussein.  There is no questionable intelligence driving events.  Nor is it a pre-meditated campaign seeking to alter regional balances or introduce new ones – campaigns which have gone awry in the past or the likelihood of “mission creep” present if President Obama is to believed.

Only the words and actions of ISIS itself provide the motivation to act against them, words that are not filtered or interpreted, but broadcast and distributed directly by ISIS accompanied by actions repulsive to anyone who claims membership in humanity.  

With many fighters coming from Europe, the United Kingdom, and Australia and from Canada, there is no reason to regard this as an idle threat.  Several plots have already been apprehended in Europe and Australia.

In response to President Obama’s nascent plan, a consensus is emerging on two broad themes - that airpower alone won't suffice and at some point a ground force; ours or someone else’s will be required.

Second, that ISIS/ISIL/IS - is no longer simply a terrorist movement, or an insurgent group, it is a nascent state.  It has to be fought differently - to not do so, risks taking a Taliban campaign plan against an enemy that is far different - it is akin to applying the last war's tactics to a present war.

Why they are different?

In the cities they control, they exercise governance.  They have established curriculums for schools, provide for the sick, (those they don't kill) and provide for their own rule of law.  They have an economic dimension - you just can't sell oil - even on the black market without having a means of continuing production, and creating an infrastructure that moves it from production to the point of sale.

All of these things are characteristics of a government in being which, unlike previous movements, fully control cities and the swaths of land which connect them.

Their military arm, their army, is disciplined in its own fashion.  Their purposeful killings, executions and massacres are organized - a function of policy vice indiscipline. They patrol, fight and move in a fashion that indicates some level of coordinated training.  And they have weapons that only a quasi-state can support - tanks, field and self-propelled artillery and a few SCUDs thrown in for good measure.

So far, the use of airpower has blunted certain IS advances but certainly didn't stop the flood of displaced to Turkey's borders this weekend.  Targeting will become more difficult as ISIS consolidates in the cities that it holds and rooting them out, from Mosul for example, will not be easy. It will need a conventional force to do that, not just Special Forces operators calling airstrikes.  The ground and the nature of IS forces, require different tactics than those used in Afghanistan.

But the real problem comes in Syria.  If the FSA (Free Syrian Army) must also fight ISIS - good luck!  We set the seeds for them to be fighting a two front war.  Fighting Assad on the one hand, fighting ISIS on the other.

We've simplified it for Assad, he fights anything that isn't the Syrian regime, and we've simplified it for ISIS, anything that isn't dressed in black gets killed.  We've polarized the conflict even more, the risk of not understanding what the effect will be.   Notwithstanding the fact that a coherent "opposition" no longer exists, it is unlikely that FSA and its loose affiliates can prevail over Assad though our attacking ISIS makes limited victories for Assad possible.  It may very well be that some sort of understanding will have to be achieved with Syria, as difficult as that might be for western leaders to swallow.

On the domestic front, unless Iraq, or Saudi Arabia, or Turkey or Egypt or some other regional power gets seriously involved, both with air and above all a land force, support for the whole effort will disintegrate.  "Why should we be involved if regional countries aren't" will be the prevailing sentiment and rightly so.  There might be support at home for a ground engagement IF there was a coalition including Arab countries or non-Arab ones from the region like the Turks or even the Iranians – without that, we are heading for another long war.

More reflection is required, not because we shouldn't stop the IS but precisely because the strategy is still immature.  Our level of engagement must be dictated by a strategic end state that is clearly articulated.  In this case a clear military objective, with sufficient means to realize it.  If not future failure is encapsulated in the current plan - unless the details are resolved.

What needs to occur?

We need to articulate at home that this is a very different animal we are facing and understand the danger IS represents, at home, to our allies, and regionally. So far, while everyone acknowledges the IS is bad, have not yet made the mental leap bridging the notion of- how bad they are with what action to take.  We are still on the middle ground of acting on the fringes - involved, but not fully or decisively engaged - not helped by our national obsession that advisors represent boots on the ground.

With whatever diplomatic ability we have in the Arab world we need to get the Saudi's, the Turks or the Egyptians seriously involved emphasising that though the IS is Sunni, this is not an anti-Sunni campaign nor a western campaign against Islam.

To that end, diplomacy at home amongst domestic Muslim communities must occur.  On the one hand to starve IS from a stream of recruits and financial support but also to have Muslim voices here reject IS’s toxic ideology.  Imam’s  should be making the case that the IS has distorted their religion and calling for action rather than Western politicians.  Finally, every element of international cooperation should be harnessed to starve the IS of the financial wherewithal to fight – cutting access to oil markets, arms and cutting transfer of funds.

As this develops, some of this will come together, but at present the pieces needed just aren't there.

George Petrolekas is on the Board of Directors of the CDA Institute and co-author with Ambassdor Ferry de Kerckhove of the 2013 and 2014 Strategic Outlook for Canada. Mr. Petrolekas served with NATO, and in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Cyprus and as and advisor to senior NATO commanders.  The opinions expressed are his own.

Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr. 

TopicsSecurityPolitics RegionsUnited States

Ten Percent of Western Recruits to ISIS are Women

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After the grisly execution of American journalist Steven Sotloff by an ISIS terrorist earlier this month, a chilling message from inside ISIS-controlled territory reached tens of thousands globally via social media:

“I wish I did it.”

It came from Umm Ubaydah, a Western woman who had converted to Islam, moved to Syria, married a jihadist fighter, and joined in the ISIS media campaign to drum up support for the movement among English-language Tweeters and bloggers everywhere.

According to estimates by American and European centers for the study of radicalization, Umm Ubaydah is one of hundreds of Western women who have either joined the ranks of ISIS or been intercepted en route to the territory it now controls. Some are converts to Islam: Nineteen-year-old Coloradan Shannon Maureen Conley, arrested in April by the FBI on her way out of the country via Denver International Airport, pleaded guilty on September 10 to planning to join the group. Other female recruits hail from Muslim immigrant communities, such as the two teenage Somalis from Norway and several Somali American women from Minnesota who did make it to Syria. A UK study estimates that ten percent of the thousands of Western recruits to the “Islamic State” are women, while one French estimate puts the number much higher. They are only a small part, in turn, of a much larger number of women from within the Muslim world who have also made “hijra” — religiously-motivated migration — to the area.

Whatever the precise breakdown of national origins and proportion to men, female jihadists carry a significance greater than their numbers. From the cynical standpoint of ISIS and similarly-minded groups, they are a propaganda coup, and a further incentive to men to join their ranks. (By most accounts the organizations do not use the women as fighters but rather “provide” them to male jihadists as mates and homemakers while encouraging them to take to the Twittersphere.) From the standpoint of global security, the fact that foreign recruits to these organizations include both genders adds a layer of complexity to the challenge of mitigating threats potentially posed by jihadist “returnees” to their countries of origin. Thus it behooves Muslim and non-Muslim societies alike, in honing their approaches to “countering violent extremism,” to adapt a gendered approach that takes women as well as men into account — both as part of the problem, and as part of the solution.



Studies of female radicalization have identified a range of causes, some overlapping with men and others unique to women. Mia Bloom of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at UMass Lowell sees a combination of factors peculiar to Muslim minorities in the West, ranging from feelings of alienation within the Muslim community to Islamophobia in the broader society. In some cases, both in Western and Muslim countries, radicalization has been linked to personal psychological problems. In others, particularly in the Muslim world, it may be a woman’s response to her own pariah status having been accused of slighting the “honor” of her family through extramarital sex.

Fortunately, a more pervasive phenomenon with respect to women and radicalization is an opposing trend, whereby women are seen playing a disproportionately large role in mitigating extremism and all forms of violent conflict. A UNESCO study on the role of women in war-torn African states found a clear correlation between the degree of their inclusion in peace building efforts and those efforts’ overall success. The study informed United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, calling for the recruitment of women to play an integral role in conflict resolution and all efforts at “countering violent extremism” (CVE). Krista London Couture, a former Deputy Branch Chief at the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington, recently studied the positive role of women in CVE as a fellow at the Brookings Institution, and found that overall, “When women are empowered socially, politically, and economically and when there are higher levels of gender equality, the chances of peace and conflict prevention should increase.”

Couture investigated two Muslim countries in which domestic manifestations of terrorism have been remarkably low in recent years — Bangladesh and Morocco — and found robust government efforts to enlist women in the struggle against extremism.

In Bangladesh, she reports, the ruling Awami League political party, in power since 2008, has won accolades for a holistic counterterrorism strategy into which women’s social and economic empowerment figure prominently. The party has intensified efforts to strengthen women’s financial capacity in impoverished areas through micro-lending programs, improved women’s literacy rates through higher primary school attendance, and taken aggressive measures to bring more women into the work force. “Bangladesh has made significant progress in meeting its CVE objectives and goals,” Couture writes, “and empowered women in Bangladesh are considered crucial to the success.”

The Bangladeshi experience bears emulating in other impoverished Muslim countries. The status of Muslim women is extremely different in the United States, to be sure, where Muslims of both genders tend to rank among the 25% most affluent and educated people in the country. But in Western Europe, there is poverty and disaffection among many Muslim communities — as well as a socioeconomic gender imbalance within them. Thus the relevance of Bangladeshi CVE strategies is not limited to the developing world.

During Couture’s visit to Morocco, she found similar efforts at women’s empowerment in terms of finance, employment, and education. She also found special efforts to improve the legal status of women and, most remarkably, their role in the religious leadership of the country. Against opposition from hardline Islamist factions, King Mohammed VI has instituted progressive revisions to the Moroccan family code (Mudawana), granting women their due divorce and inheritance rights as well as protections within the household. Since 2005, by order of the king, Morocco’s Islamic affairs ministry has begun certifying female Muslim preachers. Navigating the conservative precepts of Islamic legal tradition, the king introduced a new designation known as “Murshidat” (female religious guides), who share with the male imam in responsibility for administering a given mosque. In the course of their work, Murshidat serve to advance Islamic moderation and tolerance and curb radicalization. Couture writes, “This revolutionary development for the advancement of women in Morocco offered an opportunity for women to act as agents of positive change in their communities throughout Morocco.”

The institution of Murshidat is not easy to replicate in other countries: King Mohammed VI enjoys special latitude to innovate Islamic legal rulings through his status as the country’s supreme religious authority. That said, the king of Jordan enjoys a similar status in his country. Some governments in the Gulf have capacities of their own to introduce top-down religious reform via state institutions. Egypt’s venerated Al-Azhar Islamic seminary, a source of guidance and inspiration to Muslims worldwide, also has the requisite power to move the interpretation of Islamic legal precepts forward. Since all these countries have been sources of recruits to the likes of ISIS, and all share an interest in combating it, their respective leaders and institutions should examine the Moroccan model and consider adopting it in some form.

Female Islamic leadership has also been the subject of intense discussion among Muslims in the West. In 2005, American Muslim scholar Amina Wadud ignited a firestorm of controversy by leading Friday prayer for a congregation of about 60 women and 40 men. Though some quarters of the American Muslim community consider her actions a violation of Islamic law, she has also won a growing number of champions in her country as well as an Europe — and even begun to press her case inside the ancient heartlands of Islam. Between progressive efforts like Wadud’s in the West and the beginnings of similar reform in Morocco, it is possible to envision a new dynamic, whereby mainstream Muslim communal life offers an alternative role model to Muslim women — whether Muslim-born, or converts to the faith.

Greater international cooperation to advance all these efforts is an urgent matter in the struggle to defeat jihadists in Syria and Iraq, as well as the ideas they have been promulgating with alarming effectiveness, far and wide.

Ahmed Charai is publisher of the weekly Moroccan newspaper L'Observateur and president of MED Radio, a national broadcast network in Morocco, MEDTV network and chairman of the board of Al-Ahdath al-Maghrebiya Arabic daily newspaper. As an expert on Morocco and North Africa, he sits on the Board of Trustees of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He is a member of The National Interest's Advisory Council.

Middle East specialist Joseph Braude is the author, most recently, of The Honored Dead (Random House, 2011), and is now at work on a book about Arabic media.

Image: U.S. Army Flickr. 

TopicsISIS RegionsMiddle East

For Some Senators, Politics Doesn’t Stop at the Water’s Edge.

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“President Barack Obama is hopelessly naïve, has failed to articulate a well-thought-out strategy to defeat the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria, and is tying the U.S. military’s hands by slashing the defense budget at the same time that U.S. soldiers are ordered to save the world. The administration is drastically underestimating the threat that ISIL poses to the safety of Americans, and the president has purposely “insulted” the men and women in uniform when he said that no U.S. combat boots will be deployed to Iraq—despite the very fact that 1,600 troops are already in Iraq serving in dangerous environments.”

If you think this is an overly partisan statement, you would be absolutely right. These are the words (I’m paraphrasing, obviously) that Sen. James Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, used as the focal point in his opening statement at a committee hearing last week. The topic of discussion, as titled in general terms by the Armed Services Committee, was “U.S. Policy Towards Iraq and Syria and the Threat Posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.” It’s perhaps the most serious national security topic that the Obama administration, the Defense Department, and the State Department are dealing with—enough to elicit a fifteen-minute, prime-time national address by the president of the United States.

Inhofe’s remarks, however, reveal the dilemma that the White House is in: whatever they decide to do, there is always going to be someone in Congress (usually a proud conservative Republican) that is either unhappy with the strategy that has been formulated or upset that more firepower is not being used to—in the president’s own words—“degrade and destroy” the Islamic State.

President Obama, of course, is not the only Commander-in-Chief that has had to juggle with this problem. Even before the Monica Lewinsky scandal that almost destroyed President Bill Clinton’s career, congressional conservatives repeatedly questioned his gravitas as Commander-in-Chief. After the loss of eighteen U.S. servicemen in the dusty streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, in October 1993, Clinton’s approval ratings on the subject were horrible. Clinton’s successor, President George W. Bush, was hounded by Democrats (and eventually some Republicans) when the Iraq war turned from a “Mission Accomplished” moment into a quagmire that appeared to have no end in sight. That criticism never left the Bush presidency entirely, and it eventually contributed to a Democratic victory in the 2008 presidential elections.

What seems different in Obama’s case, at least from this author’s vantage point, is that nothing the president does on national security appears enough for the opposing party in Congress—many of whom have no foreign-policy experience themselves and tend to use issues of national security as a convenient way to discredit the Democratic Party during a midterm-election season (and by the way, Democrats do this too when they are in the minority). Not all Republicans are like this: Senator Bob Corker has been relatively pragmatic as the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and when he criticizes the administration, it’s usually on legitimate policy grounds. Even John McCain and Lindsey Graham, the two biggest hawks in the Senate today, have been willing to support President Obama when they thought he was embarking on the right path (McCain and Graham provided the administration with crucial support in December 2009, when Obama announced the Afghanistan troop surge).

Yet if 2009 was a honeymoon period when Democrats and Republicans could at least cut across party lines on matters of national security and foreign policy, 2014 is a year where no one seems to get along and people are content with questioning one another’s motives. Sen. Inhofe’s opening statement is a case in point:

“[A]irstrikes can only be fully effective, especially in the urban areas ISIL is entrenched in, when paired with the skills of a trained air controller on the ground. But the President already ruled out boots on the ground. There was a collective sigh of relief at ISIL Headquarters in Raqqa [Rah-Ka], Syria, when they heard him say that.

His claim of “no boots on the ground” is an insult to the men and women in Iraq today who are serving in harm’s way. We already have boots on the ground in Irbil and in Baghdad and throughout Iraq.

We should ask the pilots dropping bombs over Iraq whether they think they are in “combat” - pilots who face the real threat of having to eject over ISIL held territory.

I’m not advocating for an army division or combat elements on the ground. But it is foolhardy for the Obama Administration to tie its hands and so firmly rule out the possibility of air controllers and special operators on the ground to direct airstrikes and advise fighting forces. It sends the wrong message to our troops, to the enemy, and to partners.”

To Inhofe’s credit, he didn’t criticize the president’s strategy without offering an alternative of his own—deploying U.S. special operators, he argued, will be a critical element if the U.S. Air Force is expected to pinpoint ISIL locations accurately without excessive civilian casualties.

But why add the comment that President Obama is boosting ISIL’s morale by dismissing the deployment of U.S. combat forces? And why suggest that the Commander-in-Chief is insulting the very same people he is ordering into Iraq? Is it the sheer partisanship that everyone talks about obsessively? Is it language that is especially conducive to an election year?

Whatever the answers may be, it is hard to say that all of this helps the country unite in what Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has acknowledged “will not be an easy or brief effort.” Perhaps I’m being overly sensitive. Or perhaps the old adage “politics stops at the water’s edge” is truly dead for some members of Congress.

Image: Flickr/USAFE AFAFRICA/CC by 2.0

TopicsThe PresidencyDomestic PoliticsCongress RegionsUnited States

Europe’s Paralysis Problem

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It is seductive to think that the Russian war in Ukraine—and NATO’s sluggish response—is a crisis wholly tied to Russian nationalism and power politics. But in reality, the current crisis is neither simply a function of personal leadership nor political decision-making. As this crisis slowly expands and escalates, we must look at the deeper and far more consequential forces at work upon which the future of Europe—and Ukraine—rest. Russian President Vladimir Putin deals in the currency of force and power. He has found the nations of Europe to be weak, self-indulgent, irresolute, and intestinally unfit for confrontation.

And he is right.

But the more critical question is how Europe—collectively and nationally—has squandered the dream of its founders. Why has Europe lost the courage to confront Russian expansionism? The hard truth is that Europe’s paralysis—and those of its leaders—is rooted in deeper long-term policy choices. Only by facing the hard facts and reversing bad policies can Europe and the United States grapple with current and future acts of aggression.

Make no mistake: Putin has calculated his actions based on Europe’s tepid response to past acts of aggression ranging from Bosnia, Kosovo, Georgia, and Ukraine. Since the Second World War, European leaders have followed a flawed logic where fewer armaments mean fewer conflicts and where arms embargo freeze conflicts. While Bosnia and Kosovo proved both axioms wrong, European leaders persist with such logic. Underneath this fallacy lies the more inconvenient truth that Europe has used NATO—and the American taxpayer—to avoid the hard costs of national defense and political realism.

The abdication of national defense to NATO has allowed European leaders to avoid reforming their social welfare programs, restructuring their economies or modernizing their militaries. In a word, telling their voters—No. As late as 2010, Robert Gates emphasized that a real alliance requires shared burdens as well as shared benefits. Yet European nations have still failed to meet the agreed military spending commitments for their national conventional forces. Europeans can no longer expect America to defend them when they are unwilling to defend themselves. They cannot expect Vladimir Putin to respect, if not fear them, if they have no defense but their rhetoric. Europeans must expand and unify their military forces within NATO without delay.

Make no mistake: Europe’s failure to confront eventual political federalism has also undercut its credibility when dealing with Putin and when supporting Ukraine. Despite its work during the Great Recession, the European Union has failed to resolve its central dilemma: political sovereignty. The EU is now a treaty organization masquerading as a government. Its survival requires that it hold democratic legitimacy. Doing so requires an elected European Parliament and President with a clear democratic mandate, allowing Europe to speak with one voice and mean it. Simply put: where there is no accountability and authority, the people perish.

Make no mistake: Putin is counting on the fecklessness and weakness of European public opinion to eventually consent to his acts of aggression. Preventing such an act of infamy requires confronting the most critical and consequential policy issue at hand: European cultural dysfunction. In short, Europeans have been taught to be ashamed of their past. This is particularly true when addressing the historical role of Judeo-Christian ethics in public life and policy choices. This extends to issues touching upon work-life balance, family life, generational equity and the demographic future of European nations. It also intersects with the role of religious freedom in Europe. There is a deep cultural sickness at work in a society whose universities place Camus above Aquinas and Foucault above Augustine. A society that does not embrace its past has no future. Europe must place Judeo-Christian ethics at the heart of its laws and political identity.

Make no mistake: this war in Ukraine is a war against Europe. It will continue so long as Europe is physically and mentally disarmed. Europeans have been led to believe that speaking softly is better insurance than carrying a big stick. They have become prisoners of history rather than students of history. And now, they must rediscover their past to save their future.

Jeremy Schwarz is an Ernest May Fellow in History and Policy with the International Security Program at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsEurope

Be Afraid: Why America Will Never Defeat ISIS

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On the eve of the Iraq War in 2003, while commanding the 101st Airborne Division, then-Maj. Gen. David Petraeus repeatedly asked Rick Atkinson the rhetorical question: “Tell me how this ends.” What began as a private joke between a military commander and an embedded journalist has become a warning for the need to define clear objectives and be cognizant of unexpected outcomes before going to war.  Last week, President Barack Obama attempted to provide clear strategic guidance for the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL), declaring: “Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL.”

I published a column in Foreign Policy recently that highlights two troubling elements about Obama’s declared end state.

First, other Obama administration officials have offered their own end states that confuse or contradict what the president stated just eight days ago. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough stated recently: “Success looks like an ISIL that no longer threatens our friends in the region, no longer threatens the United States. An ISIL that can’t accumulate followers, or threaten Muslims in Syria, Iran, Iraq, or otherwise.” Also, Secretary of State John Kerry declared before the the Senate Foreign Relations Committee something else: “The military action ends when we have ended the capacity of ISIL to engage in broad-based terrorist activity that threatens the state of Iraq, threatens the United States, threatens the region. That’s our goal.”  Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told the House Armed Services Committee that “success” included “stability in the Middle East.”

Second, the United States—and any combination of partners or allies—will never “destroy” ISIS. The evidence supporting this assertion is simple: Both Presidents George W. Bush and Obama declared that the Taliban and al-Qaeda and its affiliates would be “defeated” and “destroyed.” Meanwhile, the size and lethality of these groups has increased almost everywhere that they exist. The reason that presidents make such absolutist and totally unachievable pronouncements says more about American political culture than providing realist military campaign objectives. As I wrote in my column, a courageous president would tell the American people the truth, which is:

“The United States will attempt to diminish the threat that [ISIL] poses to U.S. personnel in the region to the greatest extent possible based upon the political will and resources that the United States and countries in the region are willing to commit.”

That is a strategy of mitigating ISIS’ threats and containing its influence within Iraq and the surrounding region. Yet, while mitigation and containment will drive the U.S. counterterrorism strategy regarding ISIS as a reality, the Obama administration (and Congress and the media) will pretend that the strategic end state is to defeat and destroy them. So when you hear the White House promise to destroy ISIS, don’t believe them, but consider why it is politically mandatory that they make such an outrageous and impossible claim.

This article first appeared on CFR's blog channel: Power, Politics, and Preventive Action here

Image:  U.S. Army Flickr. 

TopicsISISSecurityPolitics RegionsMiddle East

The Decline of the Bretton Woods Institutions

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When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the Bretton Woods institutions—the IMF, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (WTO)/GATT—appeared invincible. Orchestrated by the United States as the sole superpower, they seemed set to durably underpin a universal economic order. But they are now in rapid and unmistakable decline, which can only be reversed by a major shift in approach by their political masters.    

As the Cold War receded, all three institutions felt a strong wind in their sails. Hundreds of millions of Chinese, Russian and Vietnamese workers became part of the global market economy. The Eastern Europeans became enthusiastic joiners of the European Union. China, Russia, and dozens of other countries embarked on comprehensive negotiations to become members of the WTO, not only adopting the totality of the rules that govern trade, but accepting even tougher disciplines than applied to existing members. Previously planned economies became active members and users of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, eagerly adopting the tenets of the Washington Consensus. Meanwhile, economic growth in the developing world surged, democracy spread, and international conflicts declined in frequency and intensity.

But, as we now know, this trajectory was not to last. The outward appearance of a powerful apparatus remains, but the Bretton Woods institutions are now in trouble, hampered by profound disagreements among the large powers over ownership structure and/or their direction, and seemingly paralyzed by their incapacity to adapt to the rapidly changing world around them.

Dysfunction is evident for each of the Bretton Woods institutions.

Frustrated by the Doha deadlock, the United States and its allies have launched mega-regional negotiations that in effect promote alternatives to the WTO as rule-maker in addition to bypassing China, India and other large developing economies. India has just returned the favor by torpedoing the Bali trade-facilitation negotiations. China is stalling on a new Information Technology agreement and promoting its own version of Asian mega-regionals. The United States is, in turn, opposing China’s efforts to join the negotiations on International Services, which are being conducted outside the WTO.

The IMF still plays a role in acute crisis situations, but—despite its attempts to adopt a less rigid stance on issues ranging from fiscal adjustment, inflation targets, to capital controls—it remains profoundly distrusted by many developing countries. Still viewed as an instrument of the finance ministries and central banks of rich countries, the IMF suffers from near-pariah status in Asia where the memories of draconian austerity policies it imposed during the crisis of the late 1990s linger, prompting various initiatives to establish alternative crisis rescue facilities, and inviting increased self-reliance through large-scale, foreign-exchange reserve accumulation. Attempts to reform its ownership have failed, scotched by the U.S. Congress.

Meanwhile, the World Bank’s development lending has shriveled to insignificance in comparison not only to private financial flows, but also to national sources of aid and development finance. The so-called BRICS bank (founded by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) is meant to compete with the World Bank and overcome some of its shortcomings.

Completing this unsettling picture, the G20, which has officially replaced the G7 as the premier economic forum, has achieved little since the financial panic of 2009 abated. Many observers now view it as little more than an oversized talking shop.

The change of fortune for the Bretton Woods institutions is not difficult to explain. It is in no small part a result of its own success in invigorating growth, trade and foreign investment across the developing world. Most important, however, is the fact that the group of the world’s largest economies—those that can call the shots—is no longer formed by a small group of rich countries with similar worldviews. It now includes several countries with large populations, diverse political systems and different economic structures, whose only common trait is that they are relatively poor.

As examples: China (a mass manufacturer) and Russia (a commodity exporter) are now part of the world market, but they remain state-led autocracies. India, South Africa and Brazil retain some of the world’s highest trade barriers. While these rising powers rightfully insist on a larger role in global institutions, they also understandably place a higher priority on fighting their own pervasive poverty than solving the world’s problems.

At the same time, industrial countries continue to be plagued by economic crisis. They are seeing internal divisions deepen and budgets tighten. The United States’ ill-fated and enormously costly foray into Afghanistan and Iraq has made the American public even more skeptical of foreign entanglements than it naturally might be. Large factions in the U.S. Congress favor a smaller role of government at home and see even less of a need for investing in international institutions.

So while in theory the need for the Bretton Woods institutions to support the globalization of markets is greater than it has ever been, in practice the deals needed to retain their vitality have been difficult to strike.

The United States (the richest economy in the world) and China (the second richest economy in the world) are now respectively the largest and second largest trading nations. They have the greatest interest in open and predictable international markets and the greatest influence among their peer groups. Yet, while they talk of partnership, the undercurrent of rivalry is evident in their actions, and even more so, in the dearth of any joint initiative to tackle the major issues they confront in common.         

It would be misleading and alarmist to suggest that the decline of Bretton Woods constitutes an immediate threat to open trade, globalization or the extraordinary development progress we have seen in recent years. These advances certainly depend in part on international institutions, but, at their core, they are driven by fundamental forces—most notably technology and countries’ desire to better the lot of their people by engaging in international trade and investment. After all, economic progress and globalization held sway long before the Bretton Woods institutions were established.

However, it would be equally wrong to underplay the long-term risks that lurk behind the widening shortfall in international economic governance. The global economy needs better rules to keep trade open and predictable, more effective regulation of large international banks, stronger rescue mechanisms at times of crisis, and development paradigms that do not devastate the environment or trample on workplace safety standards.

More ominously, as we have seen at the border of Ukraine and in the East China Sea, geopolitical and security concerns can feed into economic disputes (and vice versa) contributing to a dangerous escalation.

The Bretton Woods institutions are not dead—far from it. The major powers may still find a way to reform and allow them to adjust to the world’s new distribution of economic power. What we know for sure: until they do adjust, vital reforms will be delayed and international investors and exporters can expect to face a riskier environment than in the past; and they will never regain their vitality without the active support and sustained collaboration of China and the United States.

Uri Dadush is a senior associate in Carnegie’s International Economics Program.

TopicsGlobal GovernanceWorld BankIMFWTO RegionsUnited StatesEuropeChina

The Federal Reserve Will Never Be Dull Again

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Much is being made of the Federal Reserve beginning to normalize its policy. It sounds as though the Federal Reserve is getting back to its old, boring self. While labor market progress is debatable with too many part-timers and a low participation rate and inflation remains subdued, the Fed is set to cease its quantitative easing (QE) stimulus program. The federal funds rate or “fed funds”, the primary tool of monetary policy, is set to re-emerge as the favored instrument.  The Fed will wind down QE in October, and begin to raise interest rates sometime thereafter. The theory being that the US economy can support normalized policy without stumbling—at least too much. It seems the Fed will once again become the dull and subtle institution.

But this is simply not the case. Monetary policy is not going to be “normal”—and the Fed is not going to be boring, dull or subtle—anytime soon. At nearly 0 percent, the fed funds rate must move much higher to reach pre-recession levels. From January 1993 (the trough in fed funds after the 1990 recession) through the end of 2007 (before the Fed dropped it to nearly 0), the monthly average was about 4.4%. This would be no small move from current levels. The Fed itself sees rates of around 4 percent in the longer run, but does not agree on how quickly to move towards it. The Fed is also up against the downward trend in the fed funds rate since the late 70’s, early 80’s inflation was broken—each business cycle saw increasingly lower Fed Funds to combat an economic slowdown, and lower peak rates to cool an expansion.

Aside from the time it will take to move Fed Funds back to a more normal level, the side-effects of quantitative easing will take time to work out. The Fed’s balance sheet is currently sitting at about $4.4 trillion as QE led to the rapid accumulation of assets. The Fed should stop adding to its stockpile soon, but that does not imply that it will stop its purchases.

Much attention has been paid to how quickly the Fed purchased additional assets, but little given to the “rolling of maturities”. The Fed is currently maintaining the size of its balance sheet by purchasing new securities with the proceeds of those that mature. This keeps the balance sheet the same size, but does not increase it. A critical part of Fed guidance will be how quickly—if at all—they shrink the balance sheet. There are options. The Fed could stop rolling entirely, roll a portion, maintain the current policy and allow the balance sheet to stay large, and tweaking around the amount of mortgage-backed securities and treasuries among other options. The Fed has stated it intends to reduce the balance sheet to only what is necessary to operate, will hold mostly treasuries, and will let them roll-off, but has not provided guidance on when or how rapidly. The key here is that the Fed will be purchasing securities after it “ends” its QE program—just not growing the balance sheet.

It is worth asking whether Fed policy will ever approach something equivalent to a historical norm. For the moment, the answer appears to be no—at least for a very, very long time. Even if the Fed is able to raise fed funds moderately over the next couple years, it is unlikely it will be able to move them higher quickly enough to get them “off the ground” in any real way. There is also the question of how effective monetary policy can be in this type of environment. If there is a shock to the economy in 2016 and the Fed Funds rate is sitting at 1.5%, how will the Fed react? With little room to move rates lower, the Fed would likely resort to QE or halt shrinking the balance sheet (or both). Unconventional monetary policy is becoming much more conventional.

The Fed is nearing the conclusion of its latest round of QE, but this does not mark the end of an era. The balance sheet will remain inflated for a long time—even if an effort is made to reduce it. The balance sheet will become a more important  tool of monetary policy (shrinking the balance sheet is a form of relative tightening). QE will likely be used in the future to stimulate the economy as moving the fed funds rate has less of an effect. A once simple to understand institution—moving interest rates up or down—has become an increasingly difficult one to understand. Monetary policy may someday return to the simplicity of old, but normal will not return anytime soon.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsEconomics RegionsUnited States

A World of Scotlands

The Buzz

Regardless of how the Scottish referendum on independence turns out, it’s worth putting the event into context by recalling some basic facts concerning the rate of state proliferation. That’s not a topic that gets a lot of attention in news media. But how many countries do you think there are in the world today? Actually, the answer depends on how you define “countries,” but “about 195” wouldn’t be too far from the truth. Given there were 68 in 1945, the number of countries in the international community has—roughly—tripled over the past seventy years. In short, state proliferation has been a powerful force, even during those Cold War years that we like to think of now as a veritable model of strategic stasis.

Moreover, there’s no reason to think the number of countries in the world has peaked. In his work on geopolitics, Saul Cohen, for example, argues that “the creation of up to fifty additional quasi- or fully independent states over the coming decades will change the territorial outlines and functions of many major and regional powers.” Indeed, political disaggregation will likely continue despite—indeed, partly because of?—the centripetal forces of globalization, as testament to the strength of what we might call “identity politics.”

These days, there’s a popular myth that state boundaries tend to be fixed and inviolable—witness the recent outcry over the de-facto annexation of Crimea by Russia. In reality, though, state boundaries are not nearly as fixed as many might imagine. Take a look at this brief three-minute video (see above) of how borders have changed in Europe over the last thousand years. It requires no great act of imagination to believe that an independent Scotland might arise—nor that it might, at some point in the future, be reabsorbed into the United Kingdom. Over long time frames, change seems normal.

The map’s not good at depicting the global growth in the number of states over the last seventy years—not least because decolonization was a strong driver of state proliferation and most of that happened away from European shores. Nor is the map a good indicator of strategic angst. Seen at a distance—on a computer screen or from the other side of the world—state proliferation is an interesting phenomenon to watch. Seen close up, it’s highly unsettling and strategically unnerving. Consider the attempts by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army to force Bougainville’s secession from Papua New Guinea. Or remember when East Timor gained its independence from Indonesia and the effects that had on the Indonesia-Australia relationship? Similar effects, perhaps more severe, would attend any move towards independence by West Papua.

And so far we’re only talking about relatively small cases of state proliferation. While some might think the prospect a Black Swan event, a broader break-up of the Indonesian archipelago, for example, would have major geopolitical consequences—indeed, it would fundamentally reshape Australia’s strategic environment.

Whether Scotland votes for independence or not, the big message is that state proliferation remains an important driver in international politics.

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

TopicsDomestic Politics RegionsScotland