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More Recklessness from the Washington Post Editorial Page

Paul Pillar

James Carden and Jacob Heilbrunn provided in the current issue of The National Interest an extensively documented review of how the ever-more-neocon editorial page of the Washington Post “responds to dangerous and complex problems with simplistic prescriptions.” The Post's most recent editorial about the nuclear negotiations with Iran is firmly in that same simplistic, destructive tradition. It is hard to know where to begin in pointing out the deficiencies in this effort by the Post's editorialists, but noting some of them can illustrate how the tendencies that Carden and Heilbrunn cataloged constitute, as the abstract for their article puts it, a crusade for doctrines “that have brought Washington to grief in the past.”

The current editorial offers a prescription that is so simplistic that it isn't really a prescription at all. And that—the absence of any plausible proposed alternative—is its most basic shortcoming. Instead it is just a collection of ways of saying, “We don't like where these negotiations are going.” Even though the writers claim that “we have long supported negotiations with Iran,” the effect of their piece is to add to the negative background music to which those determined to defeat and derail any agreement with Iran—including Benjamin Netanyahu and confirmed deal-saboteurs in the U.S. Congress—dance and from which they derive energy.

The editorial posits as one of its complaints a version of the familiar meme about the U.S. administration supposedly conceding too much to Iran—even though that image is quite at odds with the actual history of these negotiations, in which it is Iran that has made the most significant concessions. The editorial says the Obama administration supposedly “once aimed to eliminate Iran's ability to enrich uranium,” although there is little indication that this administration ever believed that a zero-enrichment formula could ever be the basis of an achievable agreement. It is interesting to note, however, that more than a decade ago a different administration, evidently thinking a demand for zero enrichment was the proper policy, spurned an opportunity to negotiate an agreement with Tehran when Iran had only a tiny fraction of the enrichment centrifuges it does now—and we all know how that policy worked out.

On the subject of uranium enrichment the editorial writers play familiar and hazardous semantic games in positing a goal of “eliminating Iran's potential to produce nuclear weapons” and “denying Iran the capability to develop a military nuclear option.” It is impossible to “eliminate” such a ”potential,” and Iran already has, after all those years of no negotiations, the “capability” to develop such an “option.” This kind of talk only helps the deal-saboteurs lay a trap by being able to say about any conceivable agreement that could emerge from any negotiations with Iran that it does not “eliminate” capabilities or potential or options.

The purpose of an agreement is to ensure that Iran does not exercise such an option. The most important element in providing this assurance is the unprecedented level of intrusive inspections that would make any move toward exercising such options immediately clear. The Post editorial pooh-poohs this by referring to “theoretically giving the world time to respond.” No—it's not just theoretically; the inspection arrangements would actually given the world plenty of time to respond.

The Post also bemoans how “even limited restrictions would remain in force for only a specified number of years.” Most observers of the negotiations expect that the time spans involved, and especially for enhanced inspections, would be many years, and perhaps a decade or more. The editorial gives no reason to suspect that the Iranians after all this time would have any motivation at all to discard everything they had gained from remaining a certified, inspected, restricted, non-nuclear weapon state. Nor does the editorial comment on what it would mean for the conclusions we ought to draw about Iran' s motivations and intentions if it demonstrated for several years its willingness to comply with an agreement that would be quite restrictive on Iran.

This gets to the issue of possible cheating or stealthy acquisition of a nuclear weapon. The editorial throws that up as another thing to get us worried. But it says nothing at all about why the possibility of stealthy building of a bomb would be any greater with a negotiated agreement than without one. It wouldn't, and if anything probably would be less, given the enhanced inspections under an agreement.

A second line of attack in the editorial is another recently much-used meme by opponents: the notion of “increasingly aggressive efforts by Iran to extend its influence across the Middle East.” In this respect the editorial exhibits one of the same basic deficiencies that is almost always exhibited when the notion is used this way: it says nothing about why, if such Iranian regional activity is a problem, it would be any worse under a nuclear agreement than without one. If such activity really is as much of a problem as the editorial suggests, then the years-long keep-Iran-in-the-penalty box approach hasn't worked very well, has it? The editorialists write that “rather than contest the Iranian bid for regional hegemony, as has every previous U.S. administration since the 1970s [again if that's the case, how well has that approach worked out?], Mr. Obama appears ready to concede Iran a place in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and beyond...” It is not up to the United States, or in the power of the United States, to “concede” such things; Iran is in the region, and will have relations with other states in the region, and along with other states will compete for influence in the region, whether we like it or not. Is Iran, by negotiating with us, “conceding” a place to the United States in Iraq, Syria, or elsewhere?

On the “regional aggression” theme the editorial also exhibits most of the other misconceptions that are exhibited when this theme comes up, such as the idea that everywhere there is any turmoil involving anyone with any link to Iran, that the turmoil is the result of Iranian expansionist initiatives, when in fact it is not. Or the idea that Tehran is operating a Comintern-like Shia international, when in fact it is not. An additional twist that the Post gives to the theme is to state that “the White House has avoided actions Iran might perceive as hostile—such as supporting military action against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.” Getting more deeply involved in the Syrian civil war is, of course, something the Post editorial board has been calling for repeatedly over the last couple of years. Amid all that war-drum-beating, it apparently doesn't occur to the board that the administration has very good reasons not to sink the United States into that tar pit, regardless of whether or not Iran would see such action as hostile.

The editorial calls for more Congressional involvement—another open invitation for more deal-killing activity by saboteurs on Capitol Hill. Although the editorial accurately quotes Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken about how the administration sees Congressional action as appropriate only later after Iran has demonstrated that it is living up to its end of a deal, it makes no mention of the logic behind that schedule. The logic ought to be appealing to anyone as distrustful of Iran as the editorial writers evidently are. The administration intends to limit any sanctions relief in the early phase of an agreement to executive action so that sanctions could be quickly reinstated in the event of any Iranian failure to observe the terms of the agreement—more quickly and easily than if new legislation had to be enacted.

The editorial near its end makes it sound as if there is some alternative that it is recommending by referring to how “the right response to the questions now being raised is to seek better terms from Iran...” Oh? How, exactly? Isn't such seeking what the negotiators have been doing for months? This sort of suggestion might be a disguised way of giving more momentum to sanctions legislation that is rationalized as strengthening the U.S. negotiating position but in fact is designed to kill the negotiations. Or the suggestion may reflect naiveté that is somewhat akin to the Post editorial board living in what Carden and Heilbrunn describe as “a foreign-policy fairy-tale land in which nasty authoritarian regimes can be magically transformed by American leadership into democratic ones.” In the same fairy-tale land, American leadership and toughness can magically get other governments to accept terms that are contrary to their interests.

The last few words of the editorial correctly raise what ought to be the key question in any evaluation of an agreement that emerges from these negotiations, which is to consider whether it “is better than the alternatives.” Except the editorialists don't examine what the alternatives really are. Indefinite continuation of the interim agreement currently in force would be helpful in fulfilling U.S. nonproliferation objectives, but the Iranians would be unlikely to accept being strung out like that, given that they are still under the economically damaging oil and financial sanctions. Besides, hardliners in the U.S. Congress have made it clear they would push hard for agreement-violating, deal-killing additional sanctions if there is no final accord by early summer. So the true alternative is no agreement at all—and that means no special restrictions on, and no intrusive inspections of, the Iranian nuclear program. Yes, let's indeed compare whatever agreement is reached with the alternative.

We should remember the grief that the crusading doctrines the Post has supported have brought us in the past. In particular we might recall the Post's support for the Iraq War, which among much other grief it caused the United States also was the single biggest cause in recent years of the expansion of Iranian influence in the Middle East—specifically, in Iraq itself. Then we might ask where else in the Post's fairy-tale land its current undermining of the Iran negotiations is likely to lead us.                   

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

Is China About to Declare War Against ISIS?

The Buzz

Despite China's long-standing diplomatic principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states, Beijing cannot completely control its citizens' involvement in terrorist activity abroad. Whether China likes it or not, it is being drawn into the conflict against ISIS.

China's state media recently reported that three Chinese ISIS militants were executed in 2014 following their attempted desertion from the terrorist organization.

Quoting an unnamed Kurdish security official, a reporter for the Global Times wrote that one militant was killed in Syria in September after becoming disillusioned and trying to return to the Turkish university where he had been a student. The other two were beheaded in December along with 11 other militants from six different nationalities.

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In response to the report, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson simply stated: “China opposes all forms of terrorism. China is willing to strengthen cooperation with the international community to fight together against terrorist forces, including the ‘East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM),’ in order to protect regional and global security and stability.”

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This standard statement effectively summarizes the Chinese Government's thinking on counter-terrorism: the emphasis is on the international community's cooperation with China in its fight against the threats of domestic terrorism and separatism (ETIM is an Islamic terrorist organisation founded by Uyghur militants in western China), while China's cooperation with the international community in its fight against international terrorist organizations remains limited.

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This thinking is frequently expressed in the country's media. Last week, an op-ed in the Global Times put the blame for the execution of a Japanese hostage at the hands of ISIS squarely on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, arguing that Abe values Japan's relationship with Washington above the safety of its own citizens. It reasons that the execution should serve as a warning to other East Asian nations not to become embroiled in this conflict, and ends by expressing the hope that “from now on, whenever China encounters any kind of terrorist attack, Japanese, US and European public opinion will make a clearer-cut condemnation of those attacks.”

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The involvement of Chinese citizens in ISIS is increasingly under scrutiny. Just two weeks ago, Malaysia's Home Minister confirmed that 300 Chinese militants had used his country as a transit point to join ISIS. Three weeks ago,Chinese authorities arrested 10 Turkish nationals for providing false passports to alleged terrorists from Xinjiang.

China will soon be forced to make difficult policy choices with significant implications for its diplomacy and international role. It will no longer be able to make official statements linking Uyghur separatists within its borders to international terrorist organizations without making a tangible contribution to counter-terrorism efforts abroad.

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here.

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

Pakistan Wants 'Battlefield' Nukes to Use against Indian Troops

The Buzz

Pakistan is continuing to develop tactical nuclear weapons for use on the battlefield against India, a senior U.S. intelligence official said this week.

In providing a worldwide threat assessment to the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Vincent R. Stewart, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, discussed Pakistan’s expanding nuclear delivery systems.

“We anticipate that Pakistan will continue [its] development of new delivery systems, including cruise missiles and close-range ‘battlefield’ nuclear weapons to augment its existing ballistic missiles,” Stewart said during his opening statement, according to an official transcript.

Tactical nuclear weapons are low-yield, short-range nuclear missiles designed for use against opposing troops on the battlefield, rather than against enemy cities like strategic nuclear weapons. Both the U.S. and Soviet Union deployed them in Europe (among other places) during the Cold War, and Washington and Moscow continue to deploy them today. They are not covered  in existing U.S.-Russian arms control treaties like New START.

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In April 2011, Pakistan first tested the Hatf-9 (Nasr) missile, which it called a “Short Range Surface to Surface Multi Tube Ballistic Missile.” In the official statement announcing the test, Pakistan’s military said the Hatf-9 missile was nuclear-capable and had been developed to be used at “shorter ranges.”

“NASR, with a range of 60 km, carries nuclear warheads of appropriate yield with high accuracy, shoot and scoot attributes. This quick response system addresses the need to deter evolving threats,” the statement said. It added that the “test was a very important milestone in consolidating Pakistan’s strategic deterrence capability at all levels of the threat spectrum.”

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Testing continued throughout 2012 and 2013, and Pakistan’s Strategic Forces are believed to have inducted the missile into service following an October 2013 test. Pakistan has continued periodic testing since that time, most recently in September of last year. However, it is unclear whether Pakistan is capable of building nuclear warheads small enough to use on the Hatf-9.

The missile itself is a derivative of the Chinese-made Weishi-2 (WS-2) short-range ballistic missile, which Beijing developed specifically to export. Starting in 2012, Pakistan began firing the Hatf-9 in four missile salvos from what it called a “state-of-the-art multi-tube launcher,” which was also derived from Chinese systems.

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Pakistan developed tactical nukes as a way to counter India’s conventional military superiority. In particular, Islamabad's tactical nuclear weapons were a response to India’s development of the so-called “Cold Start” military doctrine, which calls for using small and limited excursions into Pakistani territory to respond to Islamabad-sponsored terrorist attacks.

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As one analyst explained “The idea is that smaller nuclear weapons, used on Pakistani soil, would stop invading Indian forces in their tracks.” Similarly, a Pakistani missile expert told local media outlets at the time of the first test: “This is a low-yield battlefield deterrent, capable of deterring and inflicting punishment on mechanized forces like armed brigades and divisions.”

As The National Interest has previously noted, Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons are one of the most dangerous nuclear threats facing the world today. That’s because fielding tactical nuclear weapons underscores Islamabad's willingness to use atomic weapons even to counter non-nuclear threats (unlike India, Islamabad does not maintain a no-first-use nuclear doctrine.) Moreover, in order to be effective, Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons would have to be kept in a more ready state in order to be usable on short notice. Furthermore, once deployed on the frontlines, the battlefield commanders would likely be granted the authority to use them, raising the danger of a rogue general sparking a nuclear armageddon. Finally, tactical nuclear weapons, especially when deployed, would be more susceptible to theft by any one of the countless terrorist groups that find safe haven in Pakistan.

For these reasons, the U.S. intel community expressed alarm about Pakistan’s development of tactical nukes back in 2013. Stewart’s statement confirms that this remains the case today.

Image: Wikimedia/One half 3544

TopicsSecurity RegionsSouth Asia

Tony Abbott: The Worst Leader of Any Industrialized Democracy? You Decide.

The Buzz

Is Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott the most incompetent leader of any industrialized democracy? Of course, a leader’s popularity, to some, depends on that leader’s political orientation. Many conservative Republicans think Barack Obama is one of the worst presidents in modern history, while many liberal Spaniards think conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is one of the worst leaders in Spain’s modern history.

But competence and popularity are not necessarily the same things. Even conservative Republicans would admit that Obama has achieved major accomplishments in office – they just do not like those accomplishments at all. And Obama, Rajoy, and other rich world leaders, whatever their problems, usually seem to be making their policy decisions based on advice from a retinue of advisors and after careful consideration of policy options. Even leaders criticized for acting too slowly, and offering uninspired policy ideas, like French President Francois Hollande, appear to be capable of running their countries’ day-to-day policymaking. There are world leaders who appear dangerously unhinged, making policy based on whims, advice from a tiny handful of advisers, or some other highly unscientific formula. Argentina’s president, Christina Fernandez de Kirchner, comes to mind, as does Ecuador President Rafael Correa, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, or Russia’s Vladimir Putin. But none of these leaders run a rich and powerful democracy.

Tony Abbott, however, is in charge of a regional power, a country that is the twelfth largest economy in the world and the only rich world nation to have survived the 2008-9 financial crisis unscathed. Yet in less than two years as prime minister, Abbott has proven shockingly incompetent, which is why other leaders within his ruling coalition, following a set of defeats in state elections, may now scheme to unseat him. They should: Abbott has proven so incapable of clear policy thinking, so unwilling to consult with even his own ministers and advisers, and so poor at communicating that he has to go.

Abbott’s policies have been all over the map, and the lack of coherence has often made the prime minister seem ill-informed and incapable of understanding complex policy issues. In press conferences, Abbott has offered mixed public messages about some of the health care reforms that were at the center of his agenda, and sometimes has seemed unsure himself of what health legislation has actually been passed on his watch. He also has seemed unsure of what he promised in the past regarding Australia’s major public broadcaster – he promised not to touch it – before he went ahead made cuts to it. He also looked completely baffled on climate change issues at the G20 summit in Australia last year.

Abbott also does not seem to think it necessary to even discuss policy proposals with his top ministers and other leading members of his conservative coalition. His lack of consultation has made it harder for him to pass some critical legislation. In addition, he appears to have one of the worst senses of public relations of any prime minister in recent Australian history. At major economic summits, he has embarrassed Australia with his coarse rhetoric. He recently decided to give an Australian knighthood to Prince Philip, husband of British Queen Elizabeth II, even though nearly half of Australians would prefer the country to be a republic, and even those who support the monarchy disdain actions that look like Canberra sucking up to the British royals. Australia had not given out its own knighthoods for nearly decades, and even to many monarchists the very idea of Australian knighthoods seemed archaic. And if Abbott was going to give out archaic knighthoods, Prince Philip was a bizarre choice. Even among the conservative supporters of Abbot’s coalition, giving a knighthood to the notoriously gaffe-prone and fusty Prince Philip went down badly. Abbott did not appear to have consulted with most of his top ministers before deciding to give Prince Philip the accolade.

I take no position on whether a left or right coalition can govern Australia better – whether Australia needs a revolt from within the ruling coalition or a national election victory by the left. But a country that for decades has punched above its weight on nearly every international issue surely can do much better for a prime minister than Tony Abbott.

This piece was first posted on CFR’s blog Asia Unbound here

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsDomestic Politics RegionsAustralia

US Navy's 6th Generation Fighter Jets Will Be Slow and Unstealthy

The Buzz

The U.S. Navy’s next generation air superiority fighter will not be “super-duper fast” or employ much in the way of stealth, a senior navy official announced on Wednesday.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the Navy’s top officer, divulged some details about the Navy’s so-called Next Generation Air Dominance F/A-XX fighter jet during a speech at an industry conference.

“I don’t see that it’s going to be super-duper fast, because you can’t outrun missiles.” Greenert said, the Washington Examiner reported. “And you can’t become so stealthy that you become invisible — you are going to generate a signature of some sort,” he also noted, adding “You know that stealth may be overrated…. If something moves fast through the air and disrupts molecules in the air and puts out heat – I don’t care how cool the engine can be – it’s going to be detectable.”

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In lieu of stealth and speed, Greenert said that the F/A-XX would gain access by deploying “a spectrum of weapons” that could suppress enemy air defenses.

Greenert made the remarks while speaking at the Naval Future Force Science and Technology Expo in Washington, DC.

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His concerns about speed and stealth appear to be valid. As USNI News notes, the proliferation of high-speed anti-air weapons to America’s potential adversaries greatly reduces the value of speed. Stealth also is a wasting asset, as Dave Majumdar recently explained on The National Interest:

“Russia and China are already working on new networked air defenses coupled with new radars operating in the UHF and VHF-bands that threaten to neutralize America’s massive investment in fifth-generation fighters. Fighter-sized stealth aircraft are only optimized to perform against high-frequency fire control band radars operating in the Ku, X, C and portions of the S-band.”

That the next generation fighter will gain access primarily by suppressing enemy air defenses also isn’t entirely surprising. After all, the Navy already employs the Boeing EA-18G Growler, an electronic warfare variant of the the F/A-18F Super Hornet, one of the planes that the F/A-XX will eventually replace.

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Still, Greenert’s claims about the declining value of stealth and speed pose some stark questions for the armed forces and American taxpayers. The U.S. has spent decades and hundreds of billions of dollars developing and fielding the “super-duper fast” F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, both of which rely on stealth to be effective. These fifth generation aircraft are expected to be the foundation of the U.S. fighter fleet for years to come. If their capabilities quickly become inadequate to meet America’s security needs, the U.S. could find itself facing a glaring fighter gap.

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It’s little wonder then that the military is already fast at work trying to develop the next generation X-plane even though the F-35 JSF is not even operational yet. Unfortunately, these sixth generation fighters might not operational until 2035.

Image: Wikimedia/Boeing

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited

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