MANPADS Myths in Libya

The Skeptics

C.J. Chivers's excellent post for the New York Times’s “At War” blog dispels the widely reported contention that the Libyan weapons stockpiles looted amidst last year’s fighting included shoulder-launched SA-24 air-defense missile systems. The post explains that while Libya did acquire SA-24s, they were not the shoulder-launched or MANPADS (man-portable air-defense systems) variety. Because vehicle-launched SA-24s like Libya’s are harder than MANPADS to surreptitiously transport and operate, they are a smaller proliferation risk, especially where terrorists are concerned.

Libya did have SA-7 MANPADS, some of which appear to have been looted from weapons stockpiles. These are less reliable than SA-24s due to age and far less capable even when young. Last spring, U.S. officials began to say that Libya had acquired twenty thousand SA-7 missiles. I complained about that estimate here. No U.S. official has ever said where that figure comes from, and it vastly exceeds prior published estimates.

As Chivers explains on his own blog, if Libya had twenty thousand missiles, it likely acquired far fewer reusable components and had far fewer complete systems. It’s like how you buy fewer cannons than cannon balls. But as the twenty thousand claim has been widely repeated, reporters have often replaced the “missiles” part with “MANPADS,” which means the whole system. A quick Google search gives countless examples. Even Andrew Shapiro, the state department's assistant secretary, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, said twenty thousand lost Libya MANPADS in prepared remarks in February.

What all this amounts to is underreported good news. At least, the news is far better than even careful newspaper readers have realized. Rather than twenty thousand MANPADS, including some high-end types, floating around Libya and who knows where else, the number is almost certainly far lower and consists of less capable or even unusable components.

That good news makes the already dubious case for paying to protect commercial aircraft against MANPADS even worse. Someone tell Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA).

Few security reporters have C.J. Chivers’s experience with weapons and military organizations. But there is nothing preventing them from having stronger BS detectors and approaching scary official claims with more skepticism.

TopicsArms ControlDefensePost-ConflictSecurity RegionsLibya

Predictable Responses to the Baghdad Talks

Paul Pillar

Responses to the negotiations last week between Iran and the P5+1 are falling into familiar patterns. The outcome of this round of talks could be discerned from what each side brought to the table on the first day. Iran had made it clear it was willing to make the key concession of ending enrichment of uranium to the worrisome 20-percent level but that it would expect something significant in return, with the obvious something being some relief from the ever-more-onerous sanctions that have been imposed on the country. Except for an offer of spare airplane parts, the P5+1 did not budge on sanctions. Although the entire record of what transpired over the conference table is not public, it appears the P5+1 have never indicated what Iran would have to do to gain any significant relief from sanctions. This silence, on top of the overall inflexibility of what they are hearing from their interlocutors, gives the Iranians ample reason to question the good faith of the other side and—especially amid all the talk about regime change and going to war—to wonder if, no matter what they do, all they can expect to face is pressure and more pressure.

The spinning that was well in evidence before the Baghdad talks continues, along with warped views of international negotiation that, whether or not they are part of intentional spinning, are badly mistaken. A good example is an editorial this weekend in the Washington Post. Titled in the print edition “Iran's Intransigence,” the editorial astoundingly asserts that “Tehran sought something for nothing,” completely ignoring the aforementioned facts about enrichment levels and sanctions. A further assertion is that the talks “failed to show that the regime of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has made a strategic decision to strike a bargain,” ignoring ample evidence to the contrary, from Khamenei's pronouncements about immorality of nuclear weapons to the Iranian negotiators' proposals to engage on a variety of matters of common concern in addition to the nuclear issue.

The editorial strikes the familiar theme about Iran not having a “right” under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to process uranium, as if not being an explicitly enumerated right is equivalent to being prohibited. Enrichment of uranium is not prohibited under the NPT, of course, and in more than a dozen other countries it is a major part of nuclear programs, including peaceful nuclear programs that are indeed a right under the treaty. (This is not to mention the production of plutonium by some of these same countries as well as others, including Israel.) There also is the familiar reference to United Nations Security Council resolutions on Iran's nuclear program. I wonder if the Iranian negotiators, while looking across the table at the P5 portion of the P5+1, mentioned how peculiar it is to use as a supposed legal reference actions that the P5 themselves took and that amount to a bill of attainder against Iran.

The editorial also includes the familiar theme that still more sanctions are needed to exert still more pressure on Iran, embodying the fallacy that if some pressure has helped elicit some concessions then more pressure will elicit more concessions, despite a paucity of concessions from the pressuring side. This line of thought is taken further in the all-too-familiar direction of calling something a negotiation but really treating it as coercion into submission. The editorial writers say acceptance of any Iranian enrichment at all should come “only at the end of a negotiating process”—i.e. after the other side has conceded everything we want. Even then, we should only “consider” accepting enrichment, and even then such a concession would be—in an indication of who is being allowed to set the limits in this whole endeavor—“probably unacceptable to Israel.”

Missing from all of this is one of the essential ingredients of successful negotiation, which is a full appreciation for the other side's perspective. One can find some of that elsewhere in the Post this past weekend, in David Ignatius's column—which in turn reflects some observations of Seyed Hossein Mousavian, the former Iranian negotiator who is now a visiting scholar at Princeton. “It's useful to view recent negotiating history through Iranian eyes,” says Ignatius:

Here’s what this optic reveals: In 2005 Khamenei removed his ban on negotiations with America; in 2009 Iran offered to export to the United States its uranium enriched to 20 percent, and it renewed this offer with greater specificity in 2010 and 2011; Iran accepted a Russian proposal last July to suspend further enrichment capacity and accept the International Atomic Energy Agency’s “additional protocol” for intrusive inspection. The Iranians think that they got nothing but more sanctions for these moves.

Ignatius correctly observes, “Successful diplomatic negotiations are always a process in which each side can claim some success, rather than one of demand and capitulation.” The apparent deafness to this on the P5+1 side has yielded an unsurprising result: “The more the West has tried to squeeze Iran, the more the Iranians have done precisely the things that infuriate the West.”

What can Iran do in the face of Western intransigence? Well, it can continue enriching uranium to 20 percent, as Iranian nuclear-program chief Fereydoon Abbasi stated on Sunday. And as we all know, Iran is capable of playing nastier versions of hardball. It plays the nasty version when others play it against Iran. Pertinent to this, the New York Times article about Abbasi's statement notes that Abbasi is “a former nuclear scientist who survived an assassination attempt two years ago that is believed to have been mounted by Israel.”

Now comes word of an alleged plot with Iranian connections to kill Americans, Israelis and Saudis in Azerbaijan. The lines of responsibility, including any possible connection to the Iranian regime, are very hazy, and we should be cautious in making anything of this. But if the Iranian regime was involved, the motives should not be difficult to figure out. The alleged Azerbaijani leader of the plot told investigators “that the planned attacks were intended as revenge for the deaths of the Iranian nuclear scientists, attacks that Iran has publicly linked to Israel and the United States.” Activity associated with the plot took place last year and evidently stopped this year as the nuclear negotiations neared. A Western diplomat commented, “What happens if the talks fail—that's anyone's guess.”

The behavior involved is not only infuriating to the West; some of it is deplorable. But as long as the West and Israel continue their current postures on the Iranian nuclear issue on which they have fixated, the behavior is also predictable.


TopicsUNInternational LawSanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelIranUnited States

Is Obama Hiding His College Transcripts?

Jacob Heilbrunn

The issue of Barack Obama's birth has faded. Now some on the Right are alleging that President Obama is engaged in a different cover-up. They say, the Los Angeles Times reports, that he's hiding his college grades from scrutiny.

The allegations go something like this: Barack Obama's supporters claim he's a Great Brain type. Nonsense. Obama's record as president doesn't suggest that he has an IQ much over room temperature. Divulging the grades that he received might help settle the matter. Did he really score well at Occidental College and Columbia University? Or were his grades, in fact, lousy? Did he slide into Harvard Law as the result of affirmative actions programs rather than his own intellectual prowess?

In case you are interested in pursuing the matter, here's the website that first offered what it called a $10,000 "bounty"—since raised to $20,000—for anyone who coughs up the president's old transcripts.

The problem with this theory, of course, is that Obama gives every indication of having prospered at college. The man assimilated himself perfectly into the Ivy League ethos—the smooth syntax, the sense of complacency and the penchant for philosophical musings, as in his Nobel-Prize speech, where he alluded to Reinhold Niebuhr's thoughts on just-war doctrine. If anything, you could argue that Obama lost his edge, that he soaked up the Harvard worldview all too well, which is why he hired Clinton-administration retreads such as Lawrence Summers to join his administration.

But none of this suggests someone who was inattentive or impercipient during his college years. Judging by the two books he's published, Obama is no slouch as a writer. The Ivy League appears to have shaped him intellectually, prompting him to sophisticated musings about, as an old letter published in Vanity Fair indicated, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. Obama writes,

Remember how I said there’s a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism—Eliot is of this type. Of course, the dichotomy he maintains is reactionary, but it’s due to a deep fatalism, not ignorance.  

The gravamen of the charge—whoops, there's the kind of phrase an elitist would use—of the transcript whisperers is that Obama himself is guilty, it would seem, of phony elitism. That he is simply pretending to be something he is not—well-educated and so forth. Of course, if he were that skilled at dissimulation, it would also suggest that he's no dummy at all. So the college-transcript affair is really, to use another highfalutin word, a taradiddle. For some reason, a number of conservatives seem to keep trying to overcomplicate Obama, to divine sinister motives, when the truth about him is rather prosaic.

What's more, even if his grades were substandard, what would it prove? That there was a conspiracy to promote Obama, dating all the way back to his college years? Anway, as the LA Times observes, the grades of George W. Bush and John Kerry, both Yale graduates, were nothing to write home about. It's also the case that you don't necessarily have to go to a fancy college or have good grades to be a successful president—Ronald Reagan went to Eureka College.

Those on the Right who are becoming obsessed about Obama's college years should take a sabbatical from conspiracy theorizing. Isn't Obama's record enough for them to criticize without inventing lurid fables about his past?

Image: Systemman

TopicsElections RegionsUnited States

Romney, Kerry Miss the Point on Threats: Size Matters

The Skeptics

Senator John Kerry (D-MA) is the latest person to mock Mitt Romney’s declaration that the Russian Federation “is, without question, our number one geopolitical foe.” It was a pretty silly statement, particularly given the fact that Russia is a demographic basket case and a very humble economic power. But there’s all sorts of weirdness going on in Romney’s assertions and those of his critics.

Take, for example, Wolf Blitzer’s follow up to the Romney assertion:

BLITZER: But you think Russia is a bigger foe right now than, let's say, Iran or China or North Korea? Is that - is that what you're suggesting, Governor?

ROMNEY: Well, I'm saying in terms of a geopolitical opponent, the nation that lines up with the world's worst actors. Of course, the greatest threat that the world faces is a nuclear Iran. A nuclear North Korea is already troubling enough.

But when these - these terrible actors pursue their course in the world and we go to the United Nations looking for ways to stop them, when - when Assad, for instance, is murdering his own people, we go - we go to the United Nations, and who is it that always stands up for the world's worst actors?

It is always Russia, typically with China alongside.

And - and so in terms of a geopolitical foe, a nation that's on the Security Council, that has the heft of the Security Council and is, of course, a - a massive nuclear power, Russia is the - the geopolitical foe and - and the - and they're - the idea that our president is - is planning on doing something with them that he's not willing to tell the American people before the election is something I find very, very alarming.

So in fairness to Governor Romney, it does seem like he realizes he’s made a gaffe here, so he tries to back up and take another run at it. But in doing so, he just FUBARs it worse. Taking a mulligan, he tries to pivot from the Russia allegation by folding in Iran (“the greatest threat the world faces”) and North Korea, and gesturing at Syria.

It’s the same thing Kerry does in his condescending lecture to Romney:

We have much bigger problems on this planet in the Middle East, with the evolution of Egypt, with the challenge of Syria, terrorism, al-Qaeda in Yemen, and so forth.

Both of these guys should be ashamed of themselves. And they ought to be light-headed from the amount of threat inflation they’re doing. We spend too much time debating the relative size of our enemies and too little debating their absolute size. Every country at all times has a number one, number two, and number three “geopolitical foe.” But the threat environments posed by those foes vary radically.

In a better world, American political elites would discuss the absolute level of threat they face rather than just bickering over our enemies’ batting order. As Ben Friedman and I recently wrote in Orbis:

The dirty little secret of U.S. defense politics is that the United States is safe—probably the most secure great power in modern history. Weak neighbors, vast ocean barriers, nuclear weapons and the wealth to build up forces make almost nonexistent the threats that militaries traditionally existed to thwart. Americans cannot seriously fear territorial conquest, civil war, annexation of peripheral territories, or blockade. What passes for enemies here are small potatoes compared with what worried most states at most times. Most U.S. military interventions affect U.S. security at best marginally. We have hopes and sometimes interests in the places where we send troops, but no matter how much we repeat it to honor the troops, it is untrue that they are fighting to protect our freedom.

Part of the reason our national security politics are pathological is that we focus disproportionately on debating which enemy is the biggest without stopping to ask how big the enemies are.

If your three biggest problems are being infected with Black Death, having a bull rhino charging at you, and being knee-deep in quicksand, you can wonder—for a few seconds, at least—which is your number one problem. Similarly, if your three biggest problems are that you got into an argument with your spouse about who left a dish in the sink, your shoelaces are untied, and you can’t log in to Facebook, you can puzzle over which of those is bigger. But only a fool would miss the distinctions between the two scenarios.

TopicsDemographyElectionsGrand StrategyThe PresidencyRogue StatesSecurity RegionsChinaRussiaIranNorth Korea

General McChrystal and Academic Freedom

Paul Pillar

An opinion piece at The Atlantic by Gian Gentile, identified as a U.S. Army colonel who teaches history at West Point, offers one of the strangest interpretations of academic freedom I have seen. The subject is the teaching of a course at Yale by Stanley McChrystal, the retired U.S. Army general and former commander of forces in Afghanistan. Referencing a recent article in the New York Times about McChrystal's teaching gig at Yale, Colonel Gentile castigates what he describes as “Yale's extraordinary act” of imposing “special conditions” on students by treating McChrystal's classes as off the record. The colonel goes on to talk about accountability and to note proudly that cadets are free to take anything he says in his classes at West Point and to tell it to the world.

It is not entirely clear what the colonel fears is being said by the retired general in that closed classroom at Yale, but he seems to have a thing about counterinsurgency. He wonders whether portions of the Yale faculty have been “seduced by the 'better war' myth” and suggests that students who have “little personal knowledge of the true nature of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan” are getting hoodwinked. (By the way, Gentile does not note the Times article mentioning McChrystal's tendency to “wander into anecdotes about sensitive operations in Iraq and Afghanistan” as a reason for students being instructed not to repeat his remarks outside the classroom.)

“Extraordinary act”? “Special conditions”? These phrases caught my eye, given that I have kept off the record everything that is said in the university classes I have taught. I consider this important in facilitating the freest, most uninhibited discussion by students and instructor alike.

Incredibly, Gentile says that Yale's ground rules for McChrystal's classes “bend the dictates of academic freedom.” Quite the opposite. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines academic freedom as “the freedom of teachers and students to teach, study, and pursue knowledge and research without unreasonable interference or restriction from law, institutional regulations, or public pressure.” Keeping personal attribution of remarks from leaving the classroom is one of the best ways to safeguard that freedom—especially the part about freedom from public pressure. Public attribution opens one up to that type of pressure.

Accountability certainly is important, and the statement on academic freedom by the American Association of University Professors speaks about the responsibilities and “special obligations” of professors. Most universities achieve accountability in the quality and integrity of teaching through such means as student-written evaluations and in-class monitoring by university officials. Public attribution of in-class remarks is less likely to achieve accountability than to provide fodder for those with political agendas. The worst examples have been things like the McCarthy-like Campus Watch, which compiled “dossiers” on college professors deemed by the Campus Watch people to be too critical of Israel.

Personal experience has probably made me more attuned than Colonel Gentile to some of these dangers. Some ten years ago, while still a serving government official, I gave a guest lecture to a class at a different university from the one at which I would later teach. In illustrating a point in response to a question from a student, I made a brief and mildly critical reference to a single formulation in a presidential speech. A few days later, a garbled and inflated version of my comment appeared in a now-defunct right-wing publication under the headline “Senior Intelligence Official Blasts President's Speech.” The story was embellished further in subsequent retellings by others with a political agenda, especially editorial writers at the Wall Street Journal. By a couple of years later, in the midst of the 2004 presidential election campaign, the version being told was that I had given a “public speech” attacking the president's policies. And all this nonsense started with an attribution leaving the confines of a classroom.

Not just on university campuses—and not just with retired military officers teaching on campuses—the biggest threat to free and unbiased thought and discourse is not some bit of doctrine an instructor sneaks into a lecture in a closed classroom. A much bigger threat is the twisting and manipulation of what others have said, to advance a political cause and to intimidate or silence those who do not agree with the cause.

Image: Bluedogtn

TopicsCounterinsurgencyDomestic PoliticsMedia RegionsAfghanistanIraqUnited States