The Next Frontier: Better Eyes in the Sky

The Buzz

DARPA, the Pentagon subsidiary charged with developing new technology, has released information about its newly developed 1.8-gigapixel spy camera, and the specs are truly stunning. ARGUS-IS, as the project is known, is thought to be highest-resolution camera in the world with the ability to recognize six-inch targets from over twenty thousand feet.

The landmark video camera can be attached to unmanned drones and transfer over six hundred gigabytes of data per second. Its storage capacity is equally impressive: ARGUS can hold up to five thousand hours of extremely high-resolution video footage.

According to, “If ARGUS were hovering over New York City, it could observe half of Manhattan. Two ARGUS-equipped drones, and the US could keep an eye on the entirety of Manhattan, 24/7.”

Aside from the incredible technological feat this machine represents, considering ARGUS in the context of Moore’s Law raises legitimate questions. The rate of technological advance always seems to outpace our preparedness for the resulting new geopolitical vulnerabilities. Are we ready for ARGUS? And who else, friend or foe, will eventually harness this powerful tool?

TopicsCyber SecurityIntelligence RegionsUnited States

U.S. Leaders: 'We Are Number One'

The Buzz

Stephen Walt has an entertaining post up at Foreign Policy in which he wonders what would happen if one of our senior U.S. foreign-policy officials took a truth serum and just started talking about America’s approach to global affairs. What impolitic truths would they reveal? He then offers a list of the “Top Five Truths You Won't Hear Any U.S. Official Admit,” which are:

#1: "We're never gonna get rid of our nuclear weapons."

#2: "We don't actually care that much about human rights."

#3: "There's not going to be a two-state solution."

#4: "We like being #1, and we're going to stay there just as long as we can."

#5: "We do a lot of stupid things in foreign policy. Get used to it."

This is a pretty good list, but it’s worth observing that #4 is in fact something that American officials say, and even trumpet loudly, quite frequently. It may not be phrased exactly in the crude terms of “we’re number one,” and it’s more often couched in phrases like “global leadership.” But grand references to America’s position at the apex of world power, along with pledges to maintain and build on that power, are common from leading figures of both political parties. Consider these words from President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address:

Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about. . . . America remains the one indispensable nation in world affairsand as long as I’m President, I intend to keep it that way.

Or, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said to the Council on Foreign Relations in 2010:

The United States can, must and will lead in this new century. Indeed, the complexities and connections of today's world have yielded a new American moment, a moment when our global leadership is essential.

Or, as Mitt Romney put it in his foreign-policy speech at the Citadel in 2011:

I am guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion: This century must be an American Century. In an American Century, America has the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world. In an American Century, America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world.

Moreover, this is hardly a new phenomenon. Obama’s and Romney’s remarks both illustrate this point well. In both cases, these men were drawing on other previous, well-known statements. Obama’s “indispensable nation” phrase was first popularized by Madeleine Albright in the 1990s, and Romney’s “American Century” derives from the title of Henry Luce’s famous 1941 Life essay. Indeed, the practice of U.S. officials telling audiences both foreign and domestic how powerful their nation is, and how they intend to keep it that way, is by this point a time-honored tradition.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsThe PresidencyPolitics RegionsUnited States

Berlusconi's Dangerous Defense of Mussolini on Holocaust Remembrance Day

Jacob Heilbrunn

Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is intent on making a political comeback, has a knack for stirring up controversy. He has repeatedly uttered politically incorrect statements and engaged in outlandish, if not bizarre, behavior. But he has crossed into dangerous territory with his remarks defending the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini on Holocaust Remembrance Day in Milan.

Mussolini began his career as a man on the left and then migrated to the right, where he led the March on Rome to install his personal dictatorship in 1922 as the head of the country's National Fascist Party. His success led Hitler to try and emulate Mussolini's march to power with the Beer Hall putsch in Munich in 1923. It failed. Hitler was put on trial and given a light sentence. But the lesson Hitler drew was that he had to come to power by democratic means. Nevertheless, the example of Mussolini helped embolden Hitler in his belief that he, too, could lead a fascist revolution in Germany.

Mussolini was not intent on mass extermination of the Jews, but that is hardly the measure. Mussolini, three years after the 1935 Nuremberg racial laws, passed his own, and worked, as far as possible, to extrude Jews from Italian society, including interning them in concentration camps in Italy. Whether Mussolini was a hardened fanatic or a ruthless opportunist, as the historian Denis Mack Smith has argued, is not really germane. The result of his alliance with Hitler was catastrophic. Once Hitler occupied Italy in 1943, thousands of Jews were deported to the death camps. In 2013 it should hardly be necessary to recite these well-known facts. But Berlusconi's remarks testify to the lingering attachment of some Italians to neo-fascist sentiments and to the urge to polish up their own history rather than confront the obvious.

Supposedly, Winston Churchill said it was fine that Italy was on the side of England's opponents since "we had them last time"—a jest about the inefficacy of the Italian fighting forces. But the fact remains that Mussolini, a vicious despot, plighted his troth with Hitler and Italians, and particularly Jewish Italians, ended up paying the price. But Berlusconi is engaging in the kind of historical revisionism that the right has sometimes tried to perpetrate in Germany as well—the notion that Hitler, or Mussolini, had their good sides and their bad sides, and that distinctions can be made between their policies, when the truth is that they cannot, and that the two dictators directed everything toward militarism and war, policies that ended up leading their countries into an abyss from which it took them decades to emerge.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Berlusconi announced,

"It's difficult now to put yourself in the shoes of people who were making decisions at that time," said Berlusconi, 76, who is campaigning ahead of elections in February.

"Obviously the government of that time, out of fear that German power might lead to complete victory, preferred to ally itself with Hitler's Germany rather than opposing it," he said. "As part of this alliance, there were impositions, including combating and exterminating Jews. The racial laws were the worst fault of Mussolini as a leader, who in so many other ways did well."

What Berlusconi and other revisionists will never concede is that racial laws were not incidental to these fascist regimes, but their very essence. Mussolini allied himself not because he was cowering before Nazi Germany, but because he reckoned he would end up on the winning side with all the spoils that would entail. He was wrong. With his historical contortions, which are as pathetic as they are offensive, he is defending the indefensible. Berlusconi, who likely hopes to curry favor with voters on the right, is simply bringing further discredit upon himself and Italy. His remarks offer a reminder of the moral obtuseness of those who would try to efface rather than remember the Holocaust. The sooner this odious man disappears from the political scene, the better.

Image: Left half public domain, right half Wikimedia Commons/European People's Party, CC BY 2.0.

TopicsPublic Opinion RegionsItaly

American and Iranian Apes on a Treadmill

Paul Pillar

The longer the impasse over Iran's nuclear program continues, the more evident are the similarities in how the American and Iranian bodies politic react to such confrontations. The similarities between the United States and Iran that are involved in this matter actually go beyond the negotiating stalemate itself and involve some of the false assumptions that have made the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon seem like such a big frightening deal in the first place. One of those assumptions is that turban-wrapped Iranian heads work in a fundamentally different way from unwrapped Western heads, in that they are more concerned about an afterlife and less susceptible to being deterred in the current life. In fact, the behavior of Iranian leaders gives no support for that assumption; the principles of deterrence apply as much to them as to American or other leaders. The turbaned heads work in basically the same way in that regard as unturbaned ones.

Now the negotiating difficulties are putting on display other similarities between Iranians and Americans. A round of negotiations between Iran and the United States and its P5+1 partners that had been expected to be convened about now has not done so, as the two sides dicker over agendas and venues. The Iranians have been the more troublesome side lately, going back and forth on the question of a venue even though the P5+1 seem willing to meet just about anywhere. So we are hearing again on the American side familiar expressions of doubt as to whether the Iranians really want to negotiate an agreement. Those doubts are mirrored on the Iranian side, which has been given plenty of reason to question whether the United States and its Western partners really want to negotiate an agreement. Although the P5+1 are flexible about where to talk, they continue to be inflexible regarding the subject about which Iran has the most reason to talk, which is how to gain relief from economic sanctions. The P5+1 have put no proposal on the table that includes any significant sanctions relief, and the indications are that they have no intention of making any such proposal in the next round. 

The P5+1's inflexibility very likely is the main factor underlying the diplomatic dance that the Iranians are doing right now and that is delaying the convening of a new round of talks. The Iranians may not want to be blamed if a new round is seen as a failure, which it would be if the inflexibility about sanctions continues. The Iranians may also see dickering over the terms for convening the next round as one of their few attention-getting ways of expressing displeasure over that inflexibility. Trita Parsi assesses that Tehran is probably miscalculating if it thinks it will be blamed and criticized more for participating in talks that fail than for not talking at all. That assessment may be correct, but it leads to another U.S.-Iranian similarity. Americans have repeatedly shown an affinity for the notion (U.S. policies toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict provide an obvious, but by no means the only, example of this) that trying to negotiate and falling short is worse than not negotiating at all, no matter how much the underlying problem continues to fester. Now the Iranians are showing a bit of the same tendency.

Then there is the trait that Iranians and Americans share with not only each other but also many other nationalities: the belief that showing toughness is the key to successful bargaining. The American side has repeatedly displayed that belief with the piling on of sanctions on top of sanctions and all the tough talk about the military option, in addition to the negotiating inflexibility regarding sanctions relief. On the Iranian side, an additional reason for the current balking about convening a new round of negotiations may be to show toughness—to send a message that Iran is not hurting so much from sanctions that it is anxious to strike a deal. Ali-Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to the Iranian supreme leader, tried to send such a message when he said on Saturday, "Today, the United States is weaker than the time when it attacked Iraq and Afghanistan, and Iran is currently far stronger than Iraq and Afghanistan."

As a negotiating process drags out with fits and starts and interruptions, one hears more questioning about whether the other side is trying to drag it out indefinitely. This entails another similarity between the two sides, one related to underestimation of the opposite side's willingness to cut a deal. One has already heard lots of talk in the United States about how maybe Iran is just trying to drag out negotiations to give those centrifuges more time to spin and to get closer to being able to construct a nuclear weapon on short notice. A mirror image concern among Iranians—who are hurting from the sanctions and who also have heard plenty of talk in the United States about regime change—is that the United States is just trying to drag out negotiations to give the sanctions time to have even more of an effect, leading perhaps to severe political instability and a toppling of the Iranian regime. The inflexibility of the P5+1's negotiating posture regarding sanctions lends credibility to this hypothesis in Iranian eyes.

The late Paul Warnke, who was the chief arms control negotiator in Jimmy Carter's administration, wrote an article in 1975 that was a critique of the U.S.-Soviet arms race and was titled, “Apes on a Treadmill.” Warnke saw the two superpowers as waging an endless competition that was not in either country's interest and argued that the United States should take the first step off the treadmill. There are many differences, of course, between the U.S.-Soviet competition in strategic arms and the current confrontation between the United States and Iran. The most obvious one, apart from Iran being nothing close to a superpower, is that on the Iranian side there are no nuclear weapons, the regime says it does not want such weapons, and the U.S. intelligence community says the regime has not decided to build such weapons. The nuclear weapons most involved are the ones owned by Israel, which wants to preserve its regional nuclear weapons monopoly.

One might try to dismiss Warnke's perspective of the mid-1970s by arguing that in the 1980s, the intensified arms race that Ronald Reagan declared contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. One might carry that reasoning further by arguing that sanctions on Iran today are the analogue to Reagan's arms race. Far too much is problematic in such arguments, if not the first part about the USSR then certainly the second part about the political effects of sanctions, to accept them as valid. But in the meantime, if such reasoning were the basis for U.S. strategy and posture, it would only confirm Tehran's suspicions about the real U.S. objectives, further discouraging Iran from making concessions and probably precluding a negotiated agreement.

In a less substantively specific and more metaphorical sense, the current U.S.-Iranian relationship bears much resemblance to Warnke's apes on a treadmill. It may be easy to find aspects of Iranian behavior that appear obstinate and apelike, but hold up a mirror and one will see very similar aspects on the other side. Some of the attitudes are deeply engrained in habitual ways of looking at foreign confrontations and would be hard to change. But taking a step the United States has not yet taken—using sanctions for their declared purpose as leverage in obtaining a negotiated agreement—would make such an agreement possible and would be a step off the treadmill.

TopicsSanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIranUnited States

Costs of a Fixation

Paul Pillar

There appears to be no end in sight to the fixation on the lethal incident last year in Benghazi, Libya and to the determination to wring as much recrimination from it as possible. The topic demonstrates how much an issue launched and exploited during the heat of an election campaign can continue as a national distraction well after the election has come and gone. One might have thought that Secretary of State Clinton's swan-song Congressional testimony this week would mark the end of this preoccupation, but that now seems unlikely. Anyone with an interest in undermining the political prospects of this once-and-possible-future presidential candidate, or of the administration she has been serving the past four years, has an interest in keeping the issue going.

I addressed last fall the principles that need to be borne in mind when thinking about an incident such as the one in Benghazi. I am pleased to note that the director of national intelligence—who does not have a dog in the partisan political fight that has become a subtext of this issue—agrees with my observations enough to have incorporated them explicitly into a speech. The principles remain valid.

The State Department's accountability review board has completed its study of the incident, has issued its report, and has had all of its recommendations accepted by the secretary of state. If this does not bring closure to the matter for anyone who has a straightforward, non-political, non-recrimination-driven concern about the incident, it is hard to imagine what would or should bring such closure.

Given the shape that the preoccupation and associated rhetoric about this incident has taken, we also should note that the fixation on it has a couple of longer term costs.

One of them comes under the heading of the perfect being the enemy of the good. The zero-incident standard that is implied by much of the rhetoric—and that is implied by the discourse that habitually follows many terrorist incidents—risks impeding government operations in ways that outweigh whatever good can be done by pursuing the unattainable goal of zero incidents. In the case of the events in Libya, the impeding has to do with the unavoidable trade-off between diplomats and other foreign-based U.S. officials doing their jobs energetically and effectively, and keeping those same officials secure from those who might do them harm. The longer and louder are the recriminations about Benghazi, the more that future secretaries of state and those who work for them will respond by low-risk approaches that keep their people relatively safe behind the high walls of fortress-like embassies, at the expense of doing their jobs effectively. The resulting damage to U.S. foreign policy can take many forms, including damage to counterterrorism.

Another cost concerns the common-knowledge narrative that seems to be emerging about what led to the attack in Benghazi. The narrative is simply that a terrorist group plotted the attack and that other circumstances, including an inflammatory anti-Islam video that was receiving much attention at the time, had nothing to do with it. That narrative is incorrect as well as damaging, notwithstanding all the laborious reconstructions about this particular attack not growing out of a popular demonstration. Terrorist attacks rarely grow out of popular demonstrations, but popular anger has a great deal to do with stimulating terrorism, providing a permissive environment for it, and increasing the pool of angry people who may resort to or be recruited into terrorism. Anti-U.S. terrorism correlates with people being angry about things associated with America, including unofficial things such as the offensive video and official policies and actions. Failure to understand that connection encourages the unproductive view that countering terrorism is just a matter of eradicating a fixed roster of terrorist groups; making that view the basis for policy increases the chance of more Americans becoming victims of terrorism.

Image: Flickr/Mr. Theklan. CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsTerrorism RegionsLibyaUnited States