The Skeptics

The Establishment Is Confused on Egypt

The Skeptics

Bruce Riedel has written a piece arguing that proponents of cutting U.S. aid to Egypt believe that doing so will “leverage” its military “to back down” and that the act of cutting aid is a “good threat” that only works once.

I found the piece confusing, but I think the problem partly lies in a decades-long policy that fails to “leverage” the aid we currently give.

Riedel writes, “the aid lever probably helped persuade the generals in 2011 not to use brute force to smash the revolution.” Here he separates Egypt’s riot-control police from the body of senior generals, even though both groups are appendages of the same repressive regime. Moreover, in mid-April 2011, a military tribunal sentenced political activist Maikel Nabil to three years in prison for insulting the military. Days before Nabil’s arrest, security forces in Cairo fatally shot two protesters and detained dozens more for violating the national curfew and a ban on demonstrations. Don’t these measures constitute “brute force to smash the revolution”?

Riedel then pivots to another argument for U.S. aid: Israel. He says U.S. aid amounts to “a large bribe to persuade the officer corps to back what most believe to be a humiliating peace treaty.” If, as Riedel argues, aid was an emollient intended to soothe Egypt’s wounded pride, then that has little to do with persuading Egpyt to not start a war with Israel. If aid is just a bribe to maintain decent relations with Israel, isn’t the expectation of other behavior ancillary? Besides, the cooperation we got in exchange for our "large bribe" was not always smooth.

In 2008, a top U.S. diplomat reported that when U.S. officials talked to leaders of Egypt’s Ministry of Defense about border security, counterterrorism, civil defense and peacekeeping, these efforts were met with limited success, and Egypt strongly resisted—and only later supported—millions in U.S. foreign military funding for a countersmuggling system on the Gaza-Egyptian border. Furthermore, in 2007, the director of the Israel Security Agency reported to U.S. diplomats that Egyptians seal up tunnels under the Rafah border crossing but have done nothing to shut down extensive smuggling operations that bring explosives from Sudan, and perhaps Yemen and Libya, and that Egypt could have acted to cut off much of the smuggling but did not.

Moving on, at the end of his piece, Riedel seems to contradict his advocacy of U.S. aid: “The United States should not fund a military coup even to save the peace treaty.” Do we not agree? U.S. aid continues to flow even as Egypt’s illiberal democracy backslides. Indeed, U.S. aid continues to support a brutal regime that maintains its authority through the denial of free speech, arbitrary imprisonment, savage repression and routine torture.

Riedel’s piece aside, recent news reporting has focused on Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi. Morsi has claimed that Egypt will adhere to its international commitments, but U.S. officials may want to take that pledge with a grain of salt. Aspects of the U.S.-brokered Camp David Peace Agreement, such as Egypt’s sale of natural gas to Israel below the global market rate, will certainly be up for review. Moreover, even though Morsi professes freedom for all Egyptians, including women and Coptic Christians, the Muslim Brotherhood (of which Morsi is a part) has a history of going back on its promises. Last year, it claimed it would not run a candidate for president. It has argued for free-market policies even as Morsi invokes the need for minimum and maximum wages.

Let us hope that the situation in Egypt progresses, but the liklihood of significant liberal economic and political reforms does not look good.

TopicsAutocracyCivil SocietyDemocracyEconomic DevelopmentElectionsHuman RightsForeign AidPolitical EconomySociety RegionsIsraelEgypt

Eurovision Spotlight Falls on Azerbaijan

The Skeptics

Azerbaijan is one of several countries which demonstrate that merely eliminating totalitarian communism is not enough to bring forth democratic capitalism. There are plenty of dedicated human rights activists, but the regime ably deploys the traditional tools of repression.

Eurovision nevertheless held its latest songfest in Azerbaijan—which won the competition last year—and garnered upwards of 125 million viewers. But there was no noticeable improvement in human rights; indeed, families were forcibly ousted from their homes with inadequate compensation to make way for the new Crystal Hall venue. The result has been substantial recrimination, especially against the European Broadcasting Union, which owns the Eurovision Song Contest. However, the private association made up of broadcasters from 56 nations was never well-positioned to do much about a member state’s misbehavior.

In fact, the music extravaganza was previously held in other countries with human rights problems, including Russia and Turkey. Similar complaints could be made against Ukraine and even Hungary, which has tightened restrictions on press and religious freedom. Israel, which also belongs, occupies the West Bank. It’s too much to expect a private group with such a varied membership to pick and choose among its members, especially if Western governments are still prepared to deal with the regime.

Not all news about Azerbaijan is bad, however. Oil production is falling, which will force economic diversification and reduce the opportunity for high-level corruption. The Economist magazine reports that an e-government program has helped cut low-level corruption. A newer generation of energetic younger dissidents, journalists, and activists is growing, giving hope for the future.

Moreover, the descent of 1,500 international journalists on Baku helped highlight human rights abuses, which limited the propaganda value of the contest. One dispossessed homeowner declared: “When else can we make noise? Eurovision is it, at no other time would anyone pay attention to us.” The Aliyev government even publicly complained about the negative attention.

Reflecting on the controversy, the Financial Times observed that, by drawing attention “to Azerbaijan’s record on rights and freedoms, [Eurovision] will achieve something very worthwhile.” If any of those reporters return in the future to cover energy development—abundant supplies of oil and gas are one reason Europe limits its complaints about President Ilham Aliyev’s rule—they aren’t likely to have forgotten their Eurovision lesson.

And they soon may have a much bigger target than Eurovision. Baku reportedly is preparing a bid for the 2020 Olympics. That would put Azerbaijan on the world stage—human rights warts and all.

TopicsAutocracyCivil SocietyDemocracyEconomic DevelopmentHuman RightsPolitical EconomySociety RegionsAzerbaijan

What Is Waltz Up To on Iranian Nukes?

The Skeptics

Paul Pillar has already mentioned the provocative Kenneth Waltz essay on Iranian nuclear weapons that has inflamed the segments of the Beltway foreign-policy establishment who bothered to read it. But I wanted to expand on a couple of additional points Waltz raises.

It probably bears observing, first, that when Waltz writes that Iranian acquisition of a nuclear arsenal “would probably be the best possible result,” he is defining “best possible result” in the exact opposite way that the Beltway foreign-policy establishment does.

As Waltz wrote in his debate with Scott Sagan on nuclear optimism versus nuclear pessimism, “a big reason for America’s resistance to the spread of nuclear weapons is that if weak countries have some they will cramp our style.” Iran is a weak country who, with a nuclear arsenal, would cramp our style. Waltz opposes America’s style. As he put it in a 1998 interview, “I’ve been a fierce critic of American military policy and spending and strategy, at least since the 1970s.”

Read in this context, then, what Waltz sees as a feature of an Iranian weapon is what the American foreign policy establishment sees as a bug: the fact that an Iranian bomb will cramp our—and Israel’s—style. The foreign-policy establishment desperately wants to preserve the option of doing an Iraq—or Iran—war every so often if they feel like it. An Iran with nukes makes invading Iran a totally different ballgame.

What Waltz is after is “stability.” He has long argued that nuclear balances produce stability because the prospect of escalation to war between nuclear states is so harrowing that states seeking survival—which he argues all states tend to do—peer into the abyss and back away.

Deborah Boucoyannis wrote a fascinating article in 2007 arguing that Waltzian realists, by dint of their appreciation and support for balancing power—and antipathy for unbalanced power—are in fact classical liberals in the same sense that America’s founding fathers were classical liberals. They were obsessed with drawing up a constitution that would balance the branches of the American government against one another, not because the presidency, or the Congress, or the courts was itself inherently malign, but because unbalanced power is dangerous anywhere. One can even see this theme in the writing of early American leaders’ thinking on foreign relations. Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1815 of his desire that nations “which are overgrown may not advance beyond safe measures of power, [and] that a salutary balance may be ever maintained among nations.”

This is what Waltz sees in the Middle East today: unbalanced power. If what you value is stability, then pushing the region toward balance, where no one can start a war with anyone else without risking his own survival, looks good.

Two other points. First, in order to get Iranian nukes to act as a stabilizer, Waltz has to argue that the Iranian regime is not suicidal, and that the primary reason it might like a nuclear weapon is for survival. I agree with this argument, and it bears pointing out that people as far away from realism as the neoconservative writer Eli Lake seem to agree as well. Unfortunately, the din of nonsense emanating from Washington seems to have convinced the American people that Iran would nuke Israel. In the recent poll from Dartmouth’s Benjamin Valentino, 69 percent of those surveyed said that Iran would be “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to use nuclear weapons against Israel.

Finally, this has been a useful insight into how detached popular commentary in America is from scholarship on the subjects pundits discuss. It was precious, for example, to see Commentary’s Ira Stoll scrambling to figure out who Kenneth Waltz was. For those with interest, he ranked third in a survey of international relations scholars that asked for a ranking of scholars “who have had the greatest influence on the field of IR in the past 20 years.” It’s a good thing that our architects and bridge-builders have a closer relationship with the engineering field than our foreign-policy pundits do with international relations scholarship.

TopicsSanctionsNuclear ProliferationRogue StatesSecurity RegionsIsraelIran

Egyptian Elections: Is the Revolution Over?

The Skeptics

Before the news of Hosni Mubarak’s impending death dominated the news cycle, the real issue on Egypt is what happened in the past week. On Thursday, Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court effectively dissolved parliament. On Sunday, Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces issued a supplementary constitutional declaration that stripped the presidency of most of its power and gave itself temporary legislative authority and a strong hand in writing the country’s new constitution. Egypt’s democracy now hangs by a thread after what amounts to a de facto coup. U.S. policymakers ought to reassess Washington’s aims with Cairo and weigh the supposed value of American military and economic aid against the outcomes actually reached. Evidence suggests that U.S. aid can and should be phased out, providing Egypt the domestic political shake-up its young democracy desperately needs.

U.S. officials must consider the precise purpose of military aid programs, particularly their usefulness with respect to Egyptian-Israeli peace. Proponents of aid stand the region's geopolitics on its head, arguing that aid dissuades Egypt’s military from initiating war against Israel. Little to no attention is paid to the fact that Washington advances interests that Egypt already has, as war with Israel would be disastrous for Egypt, aid or no.

Throughout the Cold War, Egypt and Israel fought a war nearly every decade: 1948-49, 1956, 1967, 1969, and 1973. Egypt’s military realized long ago—and more importantly, on its own accord—the hazards of its perpetual confrontation with Israel. Its adherence to the U.S.-brokered Camp David Peace Agreement of September 1978 was the culmination of lessons learned from its devastating military defeats.

Egyptian-Israeli peace is assured not by Washington’s largesse to Cairo, but by the memory of its humiliating military losses and the desperate economic conditions in Egypt. Nevertheless, Cairo continues to wage covert measures against Israel—again, despite receiving U.S. assistance. Earlier this year, pro-military fliers distributed in Egyptian taxis blamed the United States, Israel, and other foreign powers for causing the country’s crisis. In addition, under Mubarak, Israeli authorities complained that Egypt was failing to effectively control the smuggling of arms and explosives in tunnels under Egypt’s Rafah border crossing with Gaza. Other material was also being transferred by sea and above ground by smugglers with the complicity of Egyptian soldiers and officers. Israeli Security Agency director Yuval Diskin believed that Egyptian leaders lacked the will to crack down on these weapons networks because they viewed Israel as a safety valve that channeled extremists away from Egypt.

Recent tensions in the Sinai could have serious implications. As Amman-based journalist Osama Al Sharif writes:

Sinai will remain a critical point of friction between Israel and Egypt. Since the collapse of the Libyan regime, huge caches of weapons have found their way from Libya into the Sinai Peninsula. For Israel, the fact that Hamas has now access to new armaments represents a huge security challenge. It is a situation that neither Israel nor Egypt can control. The former may decide to carry out a preemptive strike against Hamas and loyal cells deep within Sinai. Such unilateral action could easily develop into a regional conflict. [Emphasis added.]

Even if structural factors between Israel and Egypt do not change, and Israel retains its overwhelming military superiority, the potential for overreaction or miscalculation could spiral into conflict. Such a scenario would put U.S. officials in an embarrassing position, having supplied massive amounts of military hardware and economic assistance to both belligerents for over three decades.

Presently, Washington supports a regime in Cairo that continues to view Israel as an enemy and entrenches its power through brutality and political repression. Until recently, Cairo’s Islamist government was intent on incorporating Sharia law and cooperating (for more U.S. aid) with America. Moreover, many Egyptians—angered by lack of progress on Palestinian self-determination through the creation of an autonomous Palestinian state—are increasingly frustrated with an America that sends massive military and financial assistance to their regime (over $60 billion in military grants and economic assistance since 1975).

Decades of U.S. aid has done nothing to turn Egypt into a democracy or a market economy. Unfortunately, as made clear by the transfer of power in February 2011 from former president, Hosni Mubarak, to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Egypt has not undergone a revolution, but rather a thinly veiled attempt by the armed forces to perpetuate their six decades in power.

Months ago, the Obama administration resumed funding to Egypt, even though Congress restricted military aid until and unless the State Department could certify that Egypt progressed toward democracy, basic freedoms, and human rights. A senior Obama administration official said at the time that there would be no way to certify that all conditions were being met. Today, however, with thousands of activists being detained and tried in military courts, overwhelming evidence shows that Egypt’s military junta has not met any of the aforementioned obligations. The military, which commands an array of commercial enterprises in industries such as water, olive oil, cement, construction, hospitality, and gasoline, limited democracy to advance their narrow self-interests.

In Cairo, a freely elected civilian government will always be powerless against a deeply entrenched military. The flourishing of a secular-minded liberal democracy would of course be ideal, but guided by the belief that picking sides in the Arab world advances U.S. strategic interests, senior officials endorse a policy that in the short-term could stymie Islamists, but in the long-run discredit reformers and increase the credibility of extremist hardliners. That central paradox plagued America’s counterterrorism policy under Mubarak. As an unclassified U.S. Department of Defense report from 2004 acknowledged:

If it is one overarching goal they [Muslims] share, it is the overthrow of what Islamists call ‘apostate’ regimes: the tyrannies of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Jordan and the Gulf States…Without the U.S. these regimes could not survive. [Emphasis added.]

Here, however, a caveat is needed. The Muslim world is expansive, and radicals are only a small part. As Thomas H. Kean, chair of the 9/11 Commission, said in July 2004 before the U.S. Subcommittee on National Security:

The small number of Muslims who are committed to Osama bin Laden’s version of Islam, we can’t dissuade them. We’ve got to jail them or we’ve got to kill them. That’s the bottom line. But, the large majority of Arabs and Muslims are opposed to violence, and with those people, we must encourage reform, freedom, democracy and perhaps, above everything else, opportunity. [Emphasis added.]

Even as many in Washington—including this author—strongly reject the Islamists who rose to power in Cairo, it is well past time for us to step back and allow Egyptians to shape their own destiny. Egypt is deterred from attacking Israel not because of U.S. aid or love of the Jewish state, but rather because it has little prospect of gain and much to lose. If tensions erupt in the Sinai and spiral into war, that development would perhaps serve as the greatest indictment against the assumption that decades of U.S. assistance produced a sustainable peace.

Egyptians must judge for themselves whether Islamists or the military can deliver on promises of economic and political reform, especially after decades of substantial U.S. assistance has failed to live up to its aims. Sadly, it seems that given the conventional wisdom in Washington, phasing out U.S. aid to Egypt might be more difficult than phasing out Egypt’s old dictator.

TopicsCivil SocietyDemocracyElectionsForeign AidPolitical EconomySecuritySociety RegionsEgypt

Drones, Special Operations and Whimsical Wars

The Skeptics

Asked last week on 60 Minutes how many shooting wars the United States is in, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta took a moment to answer. He eventually said we are going after Al Qaeda in Pakistan and its “nodes” in Somalia, Yemen and North Africa. Somehow, he left out the indefinite war we have going in Afghanistan.

It’s no wonder that Panetta can’t keep track of the wars he’s supposed to manage. On top of Afghanistan and the drone campaigns, twelve thousand U.S. special-operations forces are distributed around dozens of countries, increasingly outside declared war zones, where they train foreign militaries, collect intelligence and occasionally launch lethal raids. As just reported in the Washington Post, some of these forces are now operating a dozen bases across Northern Africa, where their activities include overseeing contractors flying surveillance aircraft. Despite the Obama administration’s claims of great progress in fighting Al Qaeda, the global shadow war shows no signs of abating.

The official rationale for using force across the world is that Al Qaeda is global. But that’s true only thanks to a capacious definition of Al Qaeda that imposes a sense of false unity of disparate groups. The always-overrated remnant of the organization that sponsored the 9/11 attacks barely exists anymore, even in Pakistan. Our counterterrorism efforts are directed mostly against others: terrorists that take up Al Qaeda’s name and desire to kill Westerners but have limited links to the real McCoy, as in Yemen and North Africa, and insurgents friendly to jihadists but mostly consumed by local disputes, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan, Al Shabaab in Somalia and Al Qaeda’s Islamist allies in southern Yemen. Like the phony communist monolith in the Cold War, the myth of a unified, global “Al Qaeda” makes actions against vaguely linked entities—many with no obvious interest in the United States—seem a coherent campaign against globe trotting menace bent on our destruction.

The real reason we are fighting so much these days is that war is too easy. International and domestic restraints on the use of U.S. military power are few. And unrestrained power tends to be exercised. Presidents can use it whimsically, at least until they do something costly that creates a backlash and wakes up public opposition. Drones and special-operations forces made this problem worse.

Most of the world is what the military calls a permissive environment, especially since the end of the Cold War. Most places lack forces capable of keeping our military out. Many potential allies invite it. The risks traditionally associated with war—invasion, mass death, etc.—are now alien to Americans. Since the draft ended, the consequences of even bad wars for most of us are minor: unsettling media stories and mildly higher taxes deferred by deficits. That’s why, as Nuno Monteiro argues, the U.S. military was already quite busy in the 1990s despite the absence of real enemies.

Because war is so cheap, the public has little reason to worry much about it. That leaves elected representatives without any electoral incentive to restrain presidential war powers. No surprise then that the imperial presidency grew as American power did. Technology gains and secrecy exacerbate the problem. Even more than strategic bombing from high altitude, which already prevented U.S. casualties, drones cheapen warfare. Covert raids are riskier, of course, but secrecy limits public appreciation of those risks.

The president and his advisors assure us that they use these forces only after solemn debate and nights spent (badly) reading just war theory. But a White House that debates the use of force only with itself short-circuits the democratic process. That is not just a constitutional problem but a practical one. Broad debate among competing powers generally produces better decisions than narrower, unilateral ones. That is why is it is naive to suggest, as John Fabian Witt did last week in a New York Times op-ed, that the executive branch is developing sensible legal institutions to manage the gray area between war and peace occupied by drone strikes. What’s needed are checks and balances. That means Congress needs to use its war powers.

First, Congress should rewrite the 2001 Authorization of Military Force, which has morphed into a legal rationale for doing whatever presidents want in the name of counterterrorism. That bill authorized force against the organizers of the September 11 attacks and those who aided them, which seemed to mean Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and maybe Pakistan. The new law should state that acts of war, including drone strikes, in other places require a new authorization of force. If Congress is for bombing stuff in Yemen and Somalia, it should debate those missions. Second, Congress should reform the convoluted laws governing the deployment of special operations forces, making their use more onerous and transparent. Those forces should engage in covert action only after a presidential finding, as with the CIA. Third, Congress should require that taxes or offsets fund wars. That would increase debate about their worth.

The trouble, as already noted, is that Congress has no interest in doing these things. Congressional leaders are today more interested in policing leaks about the president’s unilateral exercise of war powers than in restraining them. Short of a military disaster involving special-operations forces or drones, this seems unlikely to change in the short term. In the longer term, we need a restoration of Congress’ institutional identity. Even without an electoral reason, politicians should want to exercise war powers simply because they can—because people like power. That’s the assumption behind Edward Corwin’s notion that the constitution’s is an “invitation to struggle” over foreign policy. Something has obstructed Congress’ desire to struggle. Those concerned by the president’s promiscuous use of force should try to identify and remove the obstruction.

TopicsCongressDemocracyDefenseFailed StatesGrand StrategyThe PresidencyMilitary StrategyTerrorismSecurity RegionsAfricaAfghanistanNorthern AfricaSomaliaYemen

The Looming U.S. Return to Cam Ranh Bay

The Skeptics

President Lyndon B. Johnson addressing U.S. troops at Cam Ranh Bay, 1967.Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was practically salivating during his recent visit to Vietnam at the prospect that the U.S. Navy might gain long-term access to the former U.S. base at Cam Ranh Bay. A security partnership with Vietnam seems to be a prominent aspect of the much-touted U.S. strategic “pivot” to East Asia. In particular, such a partnership is one component of the Obama administration’s clumsy containment policy directed against China.

For members of the Vietnam War generation, the fawning rapprochement with Hanoi is a bitter irony. A succession of U.S. administrations meddled in Vietnam’s civil war, supporting an assortment of corrupt dictatorial regimes in Saigon and ultimately intervening militarily in a decade-long war that consumed more than 58,000 American lives. Now, Washington consorts with the same one-party, communist state that U.S. leaders excoriated a few decades ago, and American businesses eagerly line up to sign lucrative economic agreements with the Hanoi regime that has lost none of its repressive features. The survivors of America’s military crusade in Vietnam—and the families of those who did not survive—could be excused if they wondered what all the fuss and furor had been about.

The embryonic U.S. strategic partnership with Vietnam underscores how the earlier policy was such an unnecessary tragedy. Washington’s rationale for its Vietnam policy in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s reflected extraordinarily sloppy thinking. If Hanoi was the principal adversary, then the United States was interfering in a civil war—a parochial conflict that had little relevance to America’s security. Even if one accepted the Orwellian interpretation that the 1954 Geneva Accords intended that there be two Vietnamese states rather than one, it was difficult to expand that dispute into one that menaced the well-being of the United States.

If, on the other hand, one regarded Hanoi as merely a cat’s-paw of a major power, U.S. policy makers were still erratic about which major power that was, the Soviet Union or China. It was impossible to regard both as the puppeteer, unless one accepted the premise that Moscow and Beijing were two parts of a monolithic threat. But even by the early 1960s, that notion had become implausible. The Sino-Soviet split had already emerged and should have been apparent to all except the most die-hard conspiracy theorists.

The thesis that Hanoi was a willing servant of Moscow’s was far-fetched and ignored strong signs of Vietnamese nationalism, if not chauvinism, in statements put out by the North Vietnamese government. But the notion of North Vietnam as a Soviet puppet was plausible compared to the argument that Hanoi was doing China’s bidding. That belief suggested a shocking historical illiteracy within the American policy-making elite. Tensions between China and Vietnam went back centuries. Indeed, worries about an undue dependence on China was likely the underlying reason Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh put out feelers to Washington during Harry Truman’s administration about the possibility of cooperation with the United States. Even Vietnamese communists preferred to preserve as many options as possible rather than have no choice but to rely on their allies in Moscow and Beijing.

China was literally the last country in the world that Vietnamese, of any political persuasion, would want to have as a patron, much less a master. That point was confirmed with a vengeance barely five years after the withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Vietnam and three years after the collapse of the South Vietnamese state, when Chinese and Vietnamese forces fought a short but nasty war.

Ironically, U.S. leaders now seem to belatedly recognize that Vietnam resents and distrusts China. But that tardy acquisition of wisdom will be little consolation if Washington now tries to turn Vietnam into a cog in an anti-China containment policy. Such an approach will not only poison relations between Hanoi and Beijing, it may well poison relations between Washington and Beijing. Instead of careening from regarding Vietnam as an implacable enemy to viewing it as a crucial, anti-China ally, the United States should simply treat Vietnam as a normal country and endeavor to maintain a normal relationship with its government. Washington has already done enough damage in that part of the world without another round of gratuitous geopolitical meddling.

TopicsHistoryGrand StrategyRising PowersSecurity RegionsChinaSoutheast AsiaVietnamAsia

Iran: Pearl Harbor Redux?

The Skeptics

The author’s views are his own and do not represent those of the Air War College, the air force or the Department of Defense.

Yesterday, Robert Merry drew some provocative parallels between the American approach to negotiations with Iran and the failed diplomacy that preceded the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Ostensibly to dissuade the Iranian regime from going nuclear, the Obama administration has ratcheted up the economic pressure. Puzzlingly, however, it has failed to respond to several gestures on the part of the Iranians suggesting they are ready to halt well short of the bomb in exchange for a gradual lifting of the sanctions. It is almost as if the United States will not take “yes” for an answer but is negotiating in bad faith as a way to clear political space for war. The echoes of 1941 are powerful here, Merry suggests. The Roosevelt administration, too, applied crippling sanctions to an adversary, this time the Japanese, ostensibly to halt their expansion into Southeast Asia. And in retrospect it does appear that the United States would accept nothing less than Japan’s humiliation in the form of a withdrawal from China as the price for easing the pressure. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Roosevelt wanted war with Japan. Can the same be said of Obama and Iran?

I am in print arguing that Roosevelt put the United States on a collision course with Japan so as to have a “back door” into the war in Europe, so I put more stock in Merry’s analogy than many others would. I have no trouble believing that a shrewd politician like Obama is capable of maneuvering the United States into a war with Iran, if the stakes warrant it. But is that what is really going on here? In the World War II case, Roosevelt had a powerful rationale for bringing matters to a head with Japan: he needed some way into the larger war against the Axis before Hitler potentially finished off the Russians. Whatever hopes he had for Russian resistance, Roosevelt could hardly count on their holding out beyond the summer of 1942. So he needed to get the American war machine humming sooner rather than later. Is there a comparable time pressure in the Iran case? By all accounts, the Iranians have not even made the decision yet on whether to go for the bomb and are still some way off from a functioning weapon. Moreover, it is not at all clear that a nuclear Iran is the disaster that many hawks have made it out to be. So what exactly is compelling Obama to cut negotiations short, especially when he has all sorts of domestic political incentives to avoid war before the election (a point that Merry concedes)?

My guess is that, if anything, Obama’s intentions are the opposite of what Roosevelt’s were in the fall of 1941. He wants to avoid war with Iran but has to maintain a hard line in the negotiations lest he open himself up to charges of appeasement and create a campaign issue for the Republicans. So the trick is to be just unyielding enough that he insulates himself politically while not bringing on an unwanted war. The problem is that this balancing act will become increasingly unsustainable as additional sanctions come into force and Iran is faced with a stark choice between capitulation, economic ruin and some act of reckless aggression to break the encirclement. Look for the Obama administration to find subtle ways to string out the talks and relieve the pressure on Iran if my interpretation is correct. If the choice has been made to resort to force, though, then expect to see more of the “blameshifting” tactics that Merry references as the Obama administrations prepares the ground for war.

TopicsArms ControlHistoryGrand StrategyThe PresidencyNuclear ProliferationRogue StatesWMDSecurity RegionsIranJapan

Pushing Ukraine Back to the Soviet Union?

The Skeptics

Ukraine scored a historic upset in their first Euro 2012 soccer match yesterday, creating a rare celebratory and unifying atmosphere in the country. There had been little good news out of the Ukraine leading up to its cohosting—with Poland—of the Continent’s major soccer championship. Despite achieving independence two decades ago, Ukraine’s political development remains stunted. Ironically, European governments risk pushing Kiev away while attempting to promote democracy there with moves such as Berlin’s threat to block a new political and trade agreement between Ukraine and the European Union.

There’s not a lot to choose from among Ukraine’s leading politicians. However, President Viktor Yanukovich appears to be misusing his power to punish rival Yulia Tymoshenko for political revenge.

In response, German chancellor Angela Merkel said that her nation would boycott the 2012 European Championships. Last month, German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle also threatened to kill Kiev’s Association Agreement and the Common Economic Space Treaty with the EU. Ukraine is a member of the Eastern Partnership initiative, created three years ago by Brussels.

Ukraine is not the only troubled member of the EP: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia and Moldova all have serious human-rights issues. However, Nicu Popescu of the European Council on Foreign Relations explained that while Ukraine is not the worst offender among the group, it “is the biggest source of disappointment and bad news.” As a result, warned Jana Kobzova, also at the council, “More and more EU states are asking why should we want the Ukraine closer to the EU when its political system is increasingly incompatible with the values the EU preaches?”

It’s a fair question, but the alternative is Kiev slipping closer to orbit around Russia. Yanukovich originally was viewed as Moscow’s candidate, since he represented Russophone speakers. However, in office he put his nation first. He has refused to join Russia’s Customs Union (which also includes Belarus and Kazakhstan) and turn over control of Ukraine’s natural gas to Moscow. But because of resistance in Brussels, Yanukovich last month declared a “strategic pause” in Ukraine’s relations with the EU. In fact, Foreign Minister Konstantin Grishenko said his nation would no longer seek full EU membership.

Germany and the other EU members should moderate their ambitions. None of the Eastern Partnership members were on the fast track to EU membership. The systems were too different, and the geographic distances were too great. Even before Kiev disappointed its European friends, people were talking of a twenty-year accession process. And enlargement fatigue had not yet afflicted Brussels, with disappointment over the performance of Bulgaria and Romania, resistance to Turkey’s membership and reluctance to quickly include the rest of the Balkans.

Instead of viewing Ukraine as a candidate member to be transformed, the Europeans should treat Ukraine as an errant friend to be reformed. Closer ties should be developed, allowing more criticism to be delivered with greater effect. The association agreement between the EU and Kiev obviously is important economically to Ukraine. It also may be the best vehicle to help pull Kiev back to a more democratic course.

Image: Pavol Frešo

TopicsAutocracyCivil SocietyDemocracyHuman RightsSociety

About that Pivot to Asia

The Skeptics

Leon Panetta with Ng Eng Hen, Singapore's defense minister.At the start of his long journey across Asia, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told the Shangri-La Security Dialogue that the United States would play a greater role in the security of the Asia-Pacific region.

Specifically, Panetta explained, the United States would focus on “promoting strong partnerships that strengthen the capabilities of the Pacific nations to defend and secure themselves.” (Emphasis mine)

In a speech with the requisite amount of hand-waving and pleasing rhetoric, this statement stands out as one that is eminently measurable. If the U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific region succeeds, ten or fifteen years from now we will have observed that countries in the region expanded their military capabilities, such that they are better able to secure their territory and their wider interests. That was Panetta’s goal, clearly set forth in the speech, and he is speaking for the entire Obama administration.

How this will play out is still quite murky. If the pivot works as planned, does that mean that the Asian allies will be spending more money on their militaries? Not necessarily. Will they be better able to operate independent of the United States? Not clear. Panetta’s speech declared that the United States would “modernize and strengthen” existing “partnerships in the region.” Does that imply that there will be fewer troops in Europe and more in Asia? Probably not. Panetta has stressed, and he did again in Singapore, that there will be a U.S. presence in Asia, but it would be more flexible. The Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions are obviously more conducive to air and naval operations, and there is little need (and therefore little enthusiasm) for a vastly larger U.S. ground presence.

But while we can’t know the precise disposition of U.S. forces in the region in the future, we can assess where they are now, and where they have been. A recent issue of Defense News (June 4, 2012) includes a map of the region showing where U.S. troops are located and in what numbers. The data is compiled from this quarterly report plus a separate report on deployments in South Korea (numbers which are curiously excluded from the 309A report).

All told, the numbers are quite small. Of the nineteen countries listed, thirteen hosted fewer than one hundred U.S. military personnel. There were more Americans stationed in China (seventy-four) than in India, Indonesia and Bangladesh combined (seventy-one). And a substantial share of the U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific is based in Hawaii (42,502) and Guam (4,272).

Panetta reminded his audience that the U.S. military presence in Japan (36,708) and South Korea (18,470) will be smaller in the future, but this too is a continuation of a very long-term trend. Consider, for example, that there were 136,554 U.S. active-duty personnel in Japan (including Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands) in 1950, 82,264 in 1970 and just 46,593 in 1990. (The historical data can be found here.) The presence has leveled off since then but is likely to decline still further as more U.S. personnel are moved to Guam. This move, Panetta explained in Singapore, “will make the U.S. presence in Okinawa more politically sustainable, and it will help further develop Guam as a strategic hub for the United States military in the Western Pacific”

To recap: the U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region has been steadily declining for decades, particularly the number of active-duty personnel stationed in East Asia. Panetta implies that this trend will continue, but he also stressed that “the United States will play a larger role in [the] region.” The U.S. Navy is expected to boost its presence, but it is unclear exactly where or how. Singapore agreed “in principle” to host four littoral combat ships on “a rotational basis,” but that doesn’t come close to meeting Panetta’s promise to deploy 60 percent of U.S. Navy assets to the Asia-Pacific by 2020 (the current split between the Atlantic and Pacific is 50-50).

Another big unknown: Will the countries in the region be as committed to their own security as Panetta imagines? One way to measure this (though not the only way) is by the amount of money that each country is willing to dedicate to its military. The trends are not promising. IISS’s The Military Balance 2012 notes dryly that “elevated growth rates across Asia have not necessarily translated into equivalent increases in defence spending.” Over the past ten years, 2001–2010, spending as a share of GDP has fallen from 2.83 to 1.94 percent in the South and Central Asia Region, and it has not budged in East Asia and Australasia (1.41 percent in 2001; 1.44 percent in 2010).

This is not surprising, especially given that U.S. spending rose dramatically during this same period, from 3.0 percent in 2001 to 4.8 percent of GDP in 2010. Much of this growth was driven by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and therefore not directed toward the Asia-Pacific region, per se. Still, people are disinclined to pay for things that others will provide them for free, and U.S. grand strategy, and the military posture that flows from it, discourages other countries from spending more on their defense.

American policy makers frequently complain about our allies doing too little or not sharing the burden more equitably, but many are content with the status quo. Fearful that other countries might either a) grow too capable militarily, appear threatening to their neighbors and precipitate regional arms competition, or b) allow security challenges to fester and grow, necessitating U.S. involvement at a later date, Washington has preferred to maintain a forward military presence in both Europe and Asia in the hopes of preventing either from happening. We cannot know what would have occurred if Washington had withdrawn U.S. military personnel from both regions after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but we can see that U.S. taxpayers have incurred higher costs, and U.S. troops have borne greater risks, while other countries have done relatively less. At times, U.S. policy makers seem to be quite worried that other countries might acquire greater military capability and be more inclined to use it, but that has not occurred; most of America’s allies were militarily weak at the end of the Cold War, and they have allowed their hard power capability to atrophy further since then.

In ten or fifteen years, will we declare the pivot to Asia a success if we see this trend reversed, if Americans are spending less as a share of regional military expenditures, and if the countries in the region are contributing more? I would. I think that a majority of Americans would. But I remain skeptical that the foreign-policy establishment here in Washington feels the same way.

TopicsDefenseGrand StrategyRising PowersSecurity RegionsChinaNortheast AsiaJapanSouth KoreaAsia

Yemen, Drones and the Imperial Presidency

The Skeptics

Royalists in the Yemeni Civil War.Based on a broad theory of executive power, President Obama, and possibly his successor, has the authority to target people for death—including American citizens—without a semblance of transparency, accountability or congressional consent. Since 9/11, officials and analysts have touted drone strikes as the most effective weapon against Al Qaeda and its affiliates. Drones have become a tool of war without the need to declare one. The latest front is Yemen, where a dramatic escalation of drone strikes could be enlisting as many militants as they execute.

“In Yemen, U.S. airstrikes breed anger, and sympathy for al-Qaeda,” a headline blared in last week’s Washington Post. The evidence of radicalization comes from more than twenty interviews with tribal leaders, victims’ relatives, human-rights activists and officials from southern Yemen, an area where U.S. drone strikes have targeted suspected militants affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The escalating campaign of drone strikes kills civilians along with alleged militants. Tribal leaders and Yemeni officials say these strikes have angered tribesmen who could be helping to prevent AQAP from growing more powerful.

According to the Post, in 2009, U.S. officials claimed that AQAP had nearly three hundred core members. Yemeni officials and tribal leaders say that number has grown to seven hundred or more, with hundreds of tribesmen joining its ranks to fight the U.S.-backed Yemeni government. “That's not the direction in which the drone strikes were supposed to move the numbers,” wrote the Atlantic’s Robert Wright.

As the majority of U.S. missile assaults shift from Pakistan to Yemen—allowing foreign-policy planners to wage undeclared wars on multiple fronts—Americans should pay close attention to a few important and complicating factors that make the conflict in Yemen unique. First, the self-proclaimed Marxist state of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) only merged with its northern neighbor, the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), in 1990. In 1994, the two countries fought a bloody civil war that did not result in a smooth reunification. The International Crisis Group’s “Breaking Point? Yemen’s Southern Question” summarizes competing North-South narratives:

Under one version, the war laid to rest the notion of separation and solidified national unity. According to the other, the war laid to rest the notion of unity and ushered in a period of Northern occupation of the South.

Media reports asserting that AQAP is taking advantage of the South’s hunger for independence should be understood in the context of this North-South divide. Rather than encourage the Yemeni government to respond to southern demands for greater local autonomy, Washington’s tactics are helping the U.S.-backed Yemeni government repress southern separatists. Indeed, many residents in Abyan, in southern Yemen, claim that the Yemeni government intentionally ceded territory to domestic enemies in order to frighten the West into ensuring more support against the indigenous uprising.

These developments are troubling, as the escalation of drone strikes could be creating the self-fulfilling prophecy of helping alleged AQAP-linked militants gain ground and increasing local sympathy for their cause. As Ben Friedman wrote recently, the misperception that comes with conflating AQAP with the broader insurgency is that it “invites a broad U.S. campaign against Yemen’s southern Islamists, which could heighten their enthusiasm for attacking Americans, creating the menace we feared.” That assessment echoes the sentiment of The Nation’s Jeremy Scahill, who has done intrepid reporting in Yemen. He recently said the campaign being conducted “is going to make it more likely that Yemen becomes a safe haven for those kinds of [terrorist] groups.”

The Oval Office seems to be giving this issue of sympathy short shrift. President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, has publicly argued that the precision of drone strikes limits civilian casualties. However, the New York Times revealed last week that the president and his underlings resort to dubious accounting tricks to lowball the estimate of civilian deaths, counting “all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants” while the Department of Defense even targets suspects in Yemen “whose names they do not know.” The Times article recounts one of the administration’s very first strikes in Yemen:

It killed not only its intended target, but also two neighboring families, and left behind a trail of cluster bombs that subsequently killed more innocents. It was hardly the kind of precise operation that Mr. Obama favored. Videos of children’s bodies and angry tribesmen holding up American missile parts flooded You Tube, fueling a ferocious backlash that Yemeni officials said bolstered Al Qaeda.

As foreign-policy planners in Washington deepen our military involvement in Yemen, the American people—rather than focusing on the number of senior Al Qaeda members killed—should be asking whether we’re killing more alleged militants than our tactics help to recruit.

TopicsThe PresidencyTerrorismSecurity RegionsPakistanYemen