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America's Real Pivot: Time For a Treaty Alliance With Vietnam?

The Buzz

Last week, after the Obama administration’s decision to begin selling Vietnam limited amounts of lethal arms, a shift in the policy that has been in place since the end of the Vietnam War, I noted in a blog post that I believed the administration had made the right move, despite Vietnam’s serious—and worsening—rights abuses. Administration officials note that any further lethal arms sales, and closer relations with Vietnam and the Vietnamese military, will be contingent on Vietnam making progress in tolerating dissent of all types. Indeed, according to a report on the lethal arms sales in the New York Times:

The State Department emphasized that the policy change applied only to maritime surveillance and “security-related” systems and asserted that the decision reflected modest improvements in Vietnam’s human rights record.

I actually don’t think that there is any evidence of improvements in Vietnam’s human rights record at all in recent years; this is just a convenient fiction to placate those in Congress who are opposed to selling lethal arms because of Hanoi’s rights record. Indeed, the U.S. State Department’s own annual country report on Vietnam notes no real improvements in human rights in the past year, and summarizes the situation in Vietnam by saying that “the most significant human rights problems in the country continued to be severe government restrictions on citizens’ political rights, particularly their right to change their government; increased measures to limit citizens’ civil liberties; and corruption in the judicial system and police.”

Still, although I think that overall the administration has badly ignored human rights and democracy promotion in its strategy of re-engagement with Southeast Asia, I think Washington needs to build much closer ties with Vietnam no matter the country’s rights record. I am hardly a realist, but this is one time realpolitik should win out. For one, boosting lethal arms sales may help position the pro-United States faction with the Vietnamese leadership to gain strength vis-à-vis the more pro-China faction in the leadership. Several Vietnamese academics and officials say that the pro-China faction in Vietnam’s leadership is already on its heels, due to increasing China-Vietnam conflict over disputed areas of the South China Sea.

More specifically, the United States should build on its comprehensive partnership with Vietnam and work toward a formal treaty alliance with Hanoi. Besides ending the ban on selling lethal arms to Vietnam, the United States should work toward expanding access for American naval vessels at Cam Ranh Bay, expanding training programs for senior Vietnamese officers, and institutionalizing the annual United States–Vietnam strategic dialogue at a higher level, ensuring that the secretary of defense and his Vietnamese counterpart participates in the strategic dialogue annually.

Working toward a treaty alliance with Vietnam would be central to maintaining the U.S. presence in East Asia, protecting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and finding new ports and potential forward operating bases for the U.S. military as domestic political concerns in Japan and Thailand threaten military relationships with these states. For Vietnam, closer ties with the United States would allow the Vietnamese military to rapidly upgrade its equipment, would ensure close trade relations with Washington, and would provide the kind of security against an assertive China that, it appears, ASEAN could never offer.

Let’s drop the false rationale of an improving human rights record in Vietnam and call this relationship what it is: a strategic partnership that could be critical to both countries’ interests in Asia.

This piece first appeared in CFR’s blog Asia Unbound here.

Image: Department of Defense Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

Why the Bombing Campaign in Syria Isn't Working Well

Paul Pillar

The U.S. air war in Syria has not gotten off to an encouraging start. For many observers the principal indicator of that is a lack of setbacks for ISIS, as the group continues to besiege a Kurdish-held town near the Turkish border. We ought to be at least as discouraged, however, by the negative reactions to the airstrikes from the “moderate” Syrian opposition groups that the strikes are supposed to help and in whom so much hope is being placed if U.S. policy toward the Syrian conflict is to begin to make any sense. Harakat Hazm, a group considered sufficiently moderate and effective to have received the first shipments of U.S.-made anti-tank weapons, called the U.S. campaign “a sign of failure whose devastation will spread to the whole region.”

It is early in that campaign, of course, and if searching hard enough one can also find some more encouraging signs. The airstrikes in Iraq still have more support. And ISIS in Syria at least seems to have seen the necessity of lowering its visibility in places it controls such as Raqqa—although its blending even more closely into the civilian population will make future airstrikes that much harder to do.

Despite administration statements about having to think in long-haul terms, patience in Washington will wear thin amid meager results. Pressures for escalation will increasingly be felt. In response to comments from opposition groups about how the airstrikes are insufficiently coordinated with, and have not aided, their operations on the ground, expect to hear more talk in Washington about a need for putting U.S. personnel on that ground.

That sort of talk ought to be met with a reminder of the fundamental reasons—the inconvenient facts of the Syrian situation that constitute a still-unsquared circle—that will continue to make for poor results.

One reason is the multidimensional nature of the Syrian conflict, in which in the absence of a credible Syrian political alternative the United States has in effect taken the side of a Syrian regime that it supposedly still wants to oust, and in which the opposition groups in which the United States has placed its faith have significantly different priorities from Washington. Opposition groups have been particularly critical of the United States targeting of the Al-Nusra Front, which is an understandable target for the United States given that group's status as an affiliate of Al-Qaeda, but which many of the other groups have seen as an effective ally in the fight against the Assad regime.

Another reason is the inevitable damage and resulting anger and resentment from airstrikes, even though high-tech U.S. weapons are far more discriminating than the Syrian regime's barrel bombs. Some of the resentment-generating impact of the US. strikes so far has been indirect and economic rather than direct and kinetic. Attacks on targets such as oil refineries, power plants, and granaries have caused shortages and price rises that have hurt civilians at least as much as they have impeded ISIS.

And related to that is the potential for the United States to make itself a bigger issue in Syria than either ISIS or the regime. There already are worrisome signs that Al-Nusra and ISIS are repairing their breach from last year and campaigning in tandem against the U.S. intervention by portraying it as a war against Islam.                            

TopicsSyria RegionsMiddle East

Turkey's Crucial Role in America's Campaign against ISIL

The Buzz

Two months ago, a medium-sized Yazidi village in Iraq called Sinjar was in desperate need of help. Surrounded and besieged by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant—a group that explicitly stated its intention to destroy those who practice the Yazidi faith—tens of thousands of men, women and children vacated their homes for a remote, dry and uninhabitable mountain range. Under siege with nowhere to go, thousands of men, women and children were forced to endure the hardship of living without food, water and shelter for days on end. Old men were starving to death, young children were dying of thirst and for the first time in a very long time, there was the possibility of an act of genocide occurring right under the world’s nose.

Thankfully for those Yazidis trapped on Sinjar Mountain, the United States took notice of their dire humanitarian plight. On August 7, in the State Dining Room at the White House, President Barack Obama stepped up to the podium and explained to the American people in a prime-time speech why the United States could not allow such a barbaric group of people to succeed in killing innocent civilians simply because of their faith. “When we face a situation like we do on that mountain—with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when we have a mandate to help—in this case, a request from the Iraqi government—and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye,” Obama said. “We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide. That’s what we’re doing on that mountain.”

The situation was eventually resolved: U.S. air strikes bombarded ISIL positions on the foot of the mountain, opening up a humanitarian corridor that allowed thousands of civilians to escape the horrendous conditions in which they were living. That act would come to represent the opening salvo of a broader and more comprehensive U.S. military campaign against the Islamic State group—as of August 8, over 400 air strikes have hit hundreds of ISIL targets, from artillery pieces and ISIL formations to armed vehicles and anti-aircraft weapons. A broad coalition of European partners has since joined the United States to conduct operations of its own.

If “degrading and ultimately destroying” the Islamic State within the borders of Iraq is hard, doing the same in Syria is harder. Unlike in Iraq, where U.S. airpower can be matched with forces on the ground like the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga, allies in Syria are in short supply. It will take an estimated twelve months for the training and equipping program established in Saudi Arabia to churn out the first batch of moderate Syrian fighters (which will number 5,000), and according to Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby, the vetting hasn’t even begun yet. Elements of the Free Syrian Army who are already on the ground wedged between Assad forces and ISIL are angry and bewildered as to why the United States is not coordinating the air campaign with them. The fact that the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobane is about to fall into the hands of ISIL, despite nearly eleven air strikes around the town in a 36-hour period serves as a perfect microcosm to the challenges and inherent flaws in Washington’s counterterrorism strategy in Syria: that is, without allies on the ground that can be trusted and are equipped with the weapons they need, air strikes will be limited to creating breathing space for fighters that are locked into their positions and unable to move.

Blaming America first is easy to do in this context. It is the United States, after all, that effectively drew up the campaign plan against ISIL, assembled the sixty-nation coalition and devoted far more combat aircraft, personnel and military resources to the fight than any other country. But that in and of itself is a significant problem, for it shows that despite claims from the Obama administration about the impressive breadth of the anti-ISIL coalition, its durability is severely tested by nations who are either unable or unwilling to do their share.

Turkey, a country that has the second biggest army in all of NATO, is perhaps the most critical player in the U.S.-led coalition. Yet, instead of President Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu doing what they pledged to do publicly, both men are reticent of using Turkish troops and artillery to push ISIL back from their own border. It was Davutoglu himself who declared that Turkey “will do whatever we can so that Kobane does not fall,” and yet the reality is far different: Turkish tanks, standing by, watching ISIL creep even closer to the center of Kobane without doing anything about it. Turkish leaders, like Davutoglu, are also choosing to complain about what is not happening (like a no-fly zone inside Syria), rather than using Turkey’s considerable resources to improve what is. It’s a divergence between words and deeds that is beginning to upset Washington. As one anonymous U.S. official confided to The New York Times, “[t]his isn’t how a NATO ally acts while hell is unfolding a stone’s throw from their border.”

What once looked like an air campaign that was effectively diminishing the command-and-control and financial capability of the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria, now looks like a campaign, two months in, that is impeded by a lack of ground troops in Syria and a set of supposed allies that are not buying into what the United States is trying to accomplish. Every military campaign has its troubles and pitfalls along the way—the question is whether the United States will convince its regional allies, like Turkey, to act on their pledges.

TopicsCounterinsurgencyMilitary Strategy RegionsIraqSyriaUnited StatesTurkey

5 Weapons from Star Trek That America’s Military Wishes It Had

The Buzz

In Star Trek's vision of the future, humanity has ended poverty, hunger and racism. In fact, all the worst aspects of human existence have been swept away -- except war.

Warfare and weapons have been a prominent theme in Star Trek since the series debuted in 1966. Barrages of phasers and photon torpedoes erupt from starships traveling faster than the speed of light, only to be repelled by deflector shields that block their deadly energies.

Never mind that much of this is fantasy. Traveling faster than light is impossible, as far as we know (though not even the physicists are certain). Space is big, ships are small, and actual space combat would be closer to a game of hide-and-seek than the battle of Jutland or Leyte Gulf (for a fascinating interview I had with a real naval expert, see this).

Nonetheless, Star Trek and Star Wars have shaped popular perceptions of space warfare. Sometimes for good, sometimes for bad. But either way,  some of those Star Trek weapons would make the Pentagon's day. Consider these:

Cloaking Device:

Stealth has become the overriding design feature of America's most advanced warplanes, such as the F-22, F-35 and B-2. But invisibility -- the ultimate stealth -- was portrayed as a tactical system back in 1966, when Captain Kirk and the Enterprise first encountered the Romulan cloaking device in the episode "Balance of Terror.”

An invisible warship has enormous flexibility, not just as a weapons system but also as a transport or reconnaissance vessel. It can get close to a target, or evade enemy weapons. Because adversaries can never be sure of detecting a cloaked ship, they must work on the assumption that hidden ships may attack or are spying on them at any moment, thus creating a force multiplier effect far out of proportion to the actual battlefield capabilities of the invisibility screen.

At least that's how it works in theory. "Balance of Terror" is a perfect allegory for the worst fears about America's stealth aircraft. Remember that while the Romulan ship was cloaked, it could still be tracked well enough for the Enterprise to fire at it. Not with pinpoint accuracy, but well enough to damage the Bird of Prey. The Romulan ship also sacrifices much in capability to retain stealth, notably the fact that the cloaking device consumes so much power that it must uncloak to fire its weapons.

Critics say the F-35's stealth can be defeated, and that it has given up so many capabilities in the name of stealth that it will be a lackluster fighter at best. Perhaps the designers should have talked to the Romulans first.

Transporter Beam:

The Pentagon is spending billions to develop a Prompt Global Strike missile that can land anywhere in the world within one hour. But how about dropping a bomb instantaneously? That's exactly what the Star Trek transporter could do. An instantaneous delivery system that should be able to dispatch bombs as easily as people and cargo.

It would also seem to be a useful device for scattering mines in front of enemy ships moving at interstellar speeds. Curiously, Star Trek ships don't really scatter mines as tactical weapons on TV and the movies, though the ships in the Star Fleet Command computer and Star Fleet Battles paper wargame use mines quite readily.

Perhaps the people who would most love the transporter would be the Special Operations commandos, for whom just getting to a remote or heavily defended location is half the battle. Instead of slogging through the jungle or hoping some jihadi with a rifle doesn't shoot down your helicopter, wouldn't it be nice to have Scotty beam you down into the Al Qaeda base?

On the other hand, if Al Qaeda has transporters, the Department of Homeland Security's job becomes much more interesting.

Plasma Torpedo:

"Balance of Terror” was perhaps the most influential TV episode for space warfare. Not only did it unveil the cloaking device, but the Romulan plasma torpedo as well.

The plasma torpedo seems like a cross between those big Chinese missiles designed to kill aircraft carriers, and the massive U.S. bunker-buster bombs like the 15-ton Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP). Except that where the MOP destroys bunkers and tunnels, the plasma torpedo could disintegrate not just a Federation outpost dug a mile deep under an asteroid, but the entire asteroid as well.

Spock describes the torpedo as an "enveloping energy plasma, forcing an implosion." Its technical details aren't discussed in detail, but it obviously has a guidance system and faster-than-light capability to chase the Enterprise at warp speed. It does appear to be a short-ranged weapon (at least by interstellar standards); by the time it hits a fleeing Enterprise, enough of its energy has dissipated to allow the ship to survive.

Borg Cube:

The Borg Cube is in many ways the perfect weapon. Not only does it destroy enemy ships. It assimilates them and their crews, thus enhancing Borg military resources while reducing the enemy's. In that sense, it is not just a conventional warship. It is a psychological operations (Psyops) system, except that instead of converting the enemy through propaganda, the Borg convert them by implanting control units in their brains.

In a way, the Borg way of war harkens back to the days of Earth's Thirty Years War of the 17th Century, as well as Napoleon's armies. Those soldiers lived off the land by plundering supplies from farms and villages, preferably -- though not always -- in enemy territory. By assimilating the people and machines of their enemies, the Borg can essentially supply themselves indefinitely.

Doomsday Machine:

The most awesome and most insane of Star Trek weapons, the Doomsday Machine was a giant robotic ship built by a race in another galaxy. It was supposed to destroy enemy planets and then digest them for fuel, thus giving it infinite range. Unfortunately, it also destroyed the planets of the race that built it.

A 1967 allegory for the Cold War nuclear arms race, the Doomsday Machine was an example of a weapon too powerful for its own good. In this case, the capacity for destruction became the capacity for self-destruction.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy and a writer for Waris Boring. Follow him on Twitter:@Mipeck1.

Image: Creative Commons 2.0/Flickr/ Robert Young from the UK. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

Iran: A Bigger and Badder Threat than ISIS?

The Buzz

Once alerted to the menace posed by brutal terrorists in Iraq and Syria, the world has swung into action with vigor and resolve—and enough potent military hardware to make even the most hardened terrorist think twice. Already ISIL’s decentralizing its main force elements to hide amidst innocent women and children. Truly, atrocity and cowardice are bedfellows.

But focusing excessively on ungoverned spaces in Iraq and Syria can distract from broader strategic priorities. Highlighting one dilemma can diminish our international peripheral vision, to the point where other pressing issues seem to have abated or disappeared.

Part of the challenge with ISIL is to degrade and contain it, while not constraining the international community’s broader focus. Admittedly, ISIL casts a long and fearful shadow, but there are potentially worse—albeit quieter—threats lurking, which also demand urgent attention.

They include the maverick trifecta of Iran, Russia and North Korea. Unlike ISIL, each of those international “problem-states” comes disproportionately better armed, including a ready-made or emerging nuclear capability, accompanied by an unpredictable senior leadership.

The first unresolved problem confronting the world is what exactly to do about Iran. The threat of a nuclear-armed Iran would dwarf that which is posed by ISIL, whose mayhem and carnage a coalition of nations is now working to suppress. For almost a decade, since September 2006, Iran has steadfastly and with contempt thumbed its nose at the international community, by remaining deliberately in breach of its nuclear arms control obligations.

It has taken that sustained and obdurate stance for three reasons. First, because of the prestige, power and authority which Iran believes such weapons would give it, both regionally and beyond. In some Iranian eyes it would be a much stronger player to be feared by all parties; even an equal to Israel. Second, Iran’s strategic leadership remains fundamentally and violently opposed to a world order in which both the United States and Israel continue to retain disproportionate influence. And, third, Iran probably interprets longstanding international inaction on their nuclear weapons program to date as a strong indicator of longer-term vacillation and weakness.

The issues of ISIL and Iran overlap in at least two ways. The international community’s focus on the former gives Iran more time and enhanced cover to develop its thinly veiled nuclear capability. And depending on how current to mid-term events unfold in the Middle East, Tehran might see a pretext, or reason, to initiate military action against ISIL in its own right, at least to further extend or expand proxy-military actions against the West.

Doubtless, those sensitivities and threats are well appreciated by the war’s principal leaders; including ISIS/ISIL’s own twisted hierarchy. But what’s perhaps less acknowledged, at least publicly, is the growing need now for ISIL to be degraded and contained, concurrent with a broad and holistic internationally agreed approach to Iran.

By having put Iran on the backburner for the last decade—for obvious and understandable reasons called Iraq and Afghanistan—the world, and especially the West, has forfeited the opportunity of solving the problems separately.

Now, the issues of both ISIL and Iran must be confronted and resolved closer together. At the least, it’s time for the international community to engage and agree upon an effective strategy to contain Iran.
Almost certainly, such a strategy will include multiple and complementary lines of engagement across the international community and with Iran itself. Those will embrace the broad sweep from diplomacy, to international consensus and coalition building, to economic sanctions, and in extremis, the possibility of military action.

By default, the US, as it has done with ISIL, must inevitably lead the way, notwithstanding its inherent national war-weariness. But whichever combination of the above is agreed, the time for action on Iran is now much closer than it has ever been.

The wider world was finally roused to the true menace of ISIL by its evil mix of malevolent atrocity exported by social media. But replace the ghastly specter of ISIL’s severed heads and slain thousands, with an Iranian nuclear device used somewhere in the Middle East—and the mind is concentrated wonderfully, about the broader potential for a worse crisis.
It’s time the international community took Iran off the backburner.

This piece first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist here. 

Image: Creative Commons. 

TopicsISIS RegionsIran

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