Currying Favor at Camp David

Paul Pillar

As crown princes and other leaders of Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf meet this week with President Obama, the first thing to keep in mind as background to this encounter is a truth that the president spoke last month in an interview with Tom Friedman of the New York Times. The president observed that the biggest threats those Arab countries face “may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries” based on “populations that, in some cases, are alienated, youth that are underemployed, an ideology that is destructive and nihilistic, and in some cases, just a belief that there are no legitimate political outlets for grievances.” Of course that's not an observation that the rulers of those countries want to hear, and the president acknowledged that talking about such things is “a tough conversation to have” with those regimes, “but it's one that we have to have.” Sound foreign policy for our own country requires dealing in truths, even ones that make our interlocutors uncomfortable.

The president would have been on sound ground to make his point even more forcefully than he did. There will be no Iranian flotilla carrying an invasion force against the gulf. Anything remotely resembling such a fanciful scenario would be obvious folly for Iran and, even if were to occur, would be met with a forceful U.S.-led response with or without any explicit security guarantees from Washington. Nor does it require any instigation from the outside for the danger of internal unrest and instability to arise from the anachronistic, undemocratic political systems, coupled with narrowly based economies and sometimes sectarian-riven social structures, that prevail in these countries. The most serious instability that has occurred in the last few years in the immediate neighborhood of the Gulf Arab countries, in Bahrain and Yemen, was internally initiated and not instigated by any outside power, be it Iran or anyone else.

The next thing to ask about the gathering at Camp David is what these Arab regimes would, or even could, do if they return home displeased. The answer is: not much at all. Those regimes need the United States more than the United States needs them. They are highly reliant on U.S. help just to enable their military forces to operate their advanced weapons. They are even more reliant on the tacit blessing that the world's most powerful democracy confers on them every day by not making much of an issue of their undemocratic nature, notwithstanding how much talk one has heard in Washington, especially under the previous administration, about spreading democratic values in the Middle East. Moreover, the Gulf states are not in position today to express any displeasure by trying to wield oil as a weapon, 1970s style; Saudi Arabia has its own reasons right now not only to keep oil flowing but to keep prices low.

Administration policymakers surely are smart enough to realize all this, but they feel obligated to play a political game that involves catering to the Gulf Arabs' expressed anxieties, no matter how opportunistic those expressions may be—hence this week's meeting. The game is played mostly within Washington; it is a matter of the administration having to keep the Gulf Arabs from complaining too loudly about reaching an agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program, lest the administration's domestic opponents amplify their accusations that the administration is selling “allies” down the river (or down the gulf) by making a deal with Tehran. The nuclear agreement actually does no such thing. The Gulf Arabs have reached their own rapprochements with Iran in the past, and they are smart enough to realize that an agreement that restricts the Iranian program and precludes an Iranian nuclear weapon is better for their own security than the alternative of no agreement and no restrictions.

Although some coddling of the Gulf Arabs may be worth it if this helps reduce the chance that the Iran agreement will be killed in the U.S. Congress, it would be a mistake to extend new security guarantees or similar commitments that would risk entangling the United States more deeply in the Arabs' own peculiar quarrels. Those quarrels involve religion, ethnicity, and intra-regional rivalries where the United States does not have an interest in taking sides, and that give rise to fights in which the United States does not have a dog.

The United States unfortunately has already gotten itself involved in a very local, very messy, and very multi-dimensional fight in Yemen—involvement that would be incomprehensible except as a kind of compensatory stroking of Saudi Arabia. If one looked for a more direct U.S. interest in the Yemeni fight it would involve long-distance terrorist threats from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—but AQAP is on the opposite side of the Yemeni fight from the people the U.S.-backed Saudi military intervention is going after.

There are good reasons for the United States to maintain cordial and even close relations with the Gulf Arab countries, notwithstanding their political systems and values that are so antithetical to our own. But such relations should be part of an independent and flexible U.S. policy in the Middle East that does not involve getting dragged into other people's pet quarrels and does not involve getting held hostage to the Gulf Arabs' own expressions of displeasure or discomfort.

An additional complication in trying to please such “allies” is that pleasing one can annoy another. More arms sales to the Gulf Arabs has gotten talked about, but that quickly runs into the assumption that whatever any Arab state gets in the way of armaments must be kept inferior to whatever Israel gets. Israel illustrates better than any other case the futility of trying to buy cooperation from a complaining “ally” with not just arms aid but other supportive measures. The extraordinary largesse, political and material, that the United States bestows on Israel does not buy such cooperation—certainly not regarding the nuclear agreement on Iran, where the Israeli government vigorously opposes U.S. foreign policy and attempts to sabotage it at every turn. The Gulf Arabs are too polite to imitate Israel in blatantly poking sticks in their benefactor's eyes. But expect from them a more restrained “what have you done for me lately” posture.                   


TopicsSaudi Arabia Iran Yemen RegionsMiddle East

Get Ready: China Eyes Strategic African Naval Base

The Buzz

China may build a permanent naval base in a strategic African port.

On Sunday, Ismail Omar Guelleh, the president of Djibouti, told AFP that “discussions are ongoing” over Chinai building a military base in his country, adding that Beijing’s presence would be “welcome.” The country also hosts American, French and Japanese military installations.

“France's presence is old, and the Americans found that the position of Djibouti could help in the fight against terrorism in the region," Guelleh said during the interview.

“The Japanese want to protect themselves from piracy — and now the Chinese also want to protect their interests, and they are welcome," he added. The report went on to say that China would likely establish the base at Obock, Djibouti's northern port city.

When asked about the report, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying refused to deny its veracity, and in fact stopped just short of confirming it.

“We have noted the relevant report,” Hua said, before adding:

China and Djibouti enjoy traditional friendship. Friendly cooperation between the two sides has achieved constant growth over recent years, with practical cooperation carried out in various fields. What needs to be pointed out is that regional peace and stability serves the interests of all countries and meets the aspirations shared by China, Djibouti and other countries around the world. The Chinese side is ready and obliged to make more contributions to that end (emphasis added).

China has long participated in an international anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden, near where Djibouti is located. As Hayes Brown notes over at Buzzfeed, some in China have previously raised the possibility of Beijing establishing naval bases on the African contentintent. About five years ago, one top Chinese admiral was quoted as saying that ““I think a permanent, stable base would be good for our [anti-piracy] operations.” However, China’s Defense Ministry quickly shot down the idea, stating that: “Some countries have set up overseas supply bases (but) the Chinese fleet is currently supplied at sea and through regular docking (in the Gulf of Aden region).”

Djibouti already hosts Camp Lemonnier, which serves as the primary base of operations for U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) in the horn of Africa. The base is used primarily to conduct counterterrorism operations in the region, including launching unmanned drone attacks.

Japan opened its own base in Djibouti back in 2011 to bolster its ability to conduct anti-piracy operations in the region. Before then, the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (MSDF) had been using Camp Lemonnier as its base of operations. Earlier this year, Japan’s Defense Ministry announced that it would be expanding the operations it conducts from its lone foreign operational base.

The negotiations over establishing a naval base in Djibouti underscores China’s desire to bolster its presence in Africa. Back in 2014, China and Djibouti inked an agreement that gives the Chinese military access to Djibouti port. China is also heavily invested in infrastructure projects in Djibouti’s landlocked neighbor, Ethiopia.

As I’ve previously argued, China is better positioned to prevail over the United States in their ongoing competition for influence in the region.

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ben A. Gonzales​

TopicsSecurity RegionsAfrica

Geopolitics Is Back—and Global Governance Is Out

The Buzz

As the Middle East implodes and the planet bakes, one wishes the world would stand still long enough for governments to catch up. Today’s most burning issues—from terrorism to climate change—loom larger than ever. Worse, by definition, these transnational problems cannot be solved with national approaches alone. They require unprecedented cooperation among the world’s most influential countries.

The problem, though, is that geopolitics is back. The world turns out to be a lot more red in tooth and claw than many had anticipated, and international cooperation is suffering as a result. Strategic rivalry is heating up. The geopolitical clash in Ukraine is the perhaps clearest instance, but it is only one example of the growing gulfs between the West and strategic competitors, not least Russia and China. Beyond the risk of major confrontation, these tensions are preventing effective responses to transnational threats.

The world is left to muddle through, even as countries face mounting crises within their borders that are heavily influenced—even caused—by events in neighboring countries or across oceans.

Today, the Council of Councils, a network of think tanks spanning twenty-six countries, released a Report Card documenting the troubling consequences of waning international cooperation. The leaders of these institutions judged the international community’s recent performance to be severely lacking—barely deserving a gentlemen’s C.

Across the board, experts expressed extreme concern about the grinding conflicts in Syria and Ukraine—and at the apparent inability of the United Nations and other cooperative mechanisms to respond to them.

This is not the world the Obama administration trumpeted in its first National Security Strategy in 2010. Back then, the White House described a new global era in which the primary objective of statecraft was no longer to temper geopolitical rivalry but to manage shared dilemmas of interdependence. “Power, in an interconnected world, is no longer a zero-sum game.”

Alas, neither the Russians nor the Chinese (among others) got the word. From Eastern Europe to the Middle East to the South China Sea, great power frictions are not only exacerbating regional insecurity but also bleeding over into other realms, handicapping joint efforts to address transnational threats like cyber-insecurity.

In the background, a historic diffusion of power to emerging economies has chipped away at U.S. supremacy, leaving the world without a clear leader. Since 2000, the world has experienced the fastest and most dramatic redistribution of economic might in history. In principle, this would allow  rising players to do their fair share. But in practice, emerging and established powers are colliding both on their policy preferences and their willingness to assume new responsibilities.

Climate change is one prominent example, where major developed and developing economies remain split about how to share the burden of the painful cuts required to preserve the planet. Meanwhile, the momentum for economic cooperation generated by the Great Recession has almost entirely faded. The U.S. failure to approve reforms to the International Monetary Fund has only validated Chinese doubts that the West would ever integrate rising powers.

In response, China is leading a charge to create parallel institutions, which the United States is resisting—revealing a potentially dangerous fissure in the international economy.  Similarly, on cyber-security, competitive posturing between major players like China, Russia, and the United States—as well as radically different views about citizen rights—are preventing countries from negotiating norms to reduce the risk of a major conflict online that spills into the real world.

Given these tensions, unfortunately, prospects for addressing the world’s most explosive problems, such as the wave of conflicts in the Middle East, appear grim. The central body set up to preserve international peace and security—the UN Security Council—is paralyzed when its members believe that their core interests are at stake, and thus was powerless to address the conflagration in Syria—to say nothing of Ukraine.

The return of geopolitics portends a rocky road for international cooperation, which has always depended on a convergence of great power interests. We should not be surprised to see deepening strategic competition bleed over into areas, including those—like counterterrorism cooperation—that have been relative bright spots.

Still, the report  identifies important opportunities for breakthrough that U.S. policymakers can and should capitalize on. These include expanding global trade through the TPP/TTIP negotiations, pushing through reforms to bolster the World Health Organization’s capacity to respond to crises like Ebola, and working toward mutual commitments to combat climate change. Finally, the negotiations with Iran present an unprecedented opportunity to address one of the most intractable risks to international peace and security in decades. Forging ahead with international cooperation on these issues may even help calm the tensions preventing progress in other areas. 

Stewart Patrick is a senior fellow and Isabella Bennett is an assistant director at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Niruku


The Masterplan for Stopping North Korea's Deadly Underwater Nukes

The Buzz

North Korea's apparently successful test of a workable submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) was big news over the weekend.

Signs that North Korea had been working on designing and testing both an SLBM and a submarine with the vertical missile launch tubes capable of firing them have been circulating for some time. In March, Admiral CD Haney, commander of US Strategic Command, warned that Pyongyang was working towards a sea-based deterrence capability. Some South Korean defense officials say that North Korea could have a functioning submarine and ballistic missile in 2-3 years. Whether Pyongyang is able to miniaturize a nuclear warhead in that time is up for debate.

Robert Kelly yesterday wrote a great analysis of the security and political ramifications stemming from the launch. I believe he is right in that this development will be fodder for American hawks, particularly with a presidential campaign coming up next year.

However, I disagree with Kelly's argument that North Korean SLBMs “cannot be targeted for preemption: that is the whole point of SLBMs.” I would argue that the mere existence of SLBMs, while certainly complicating defense planning for the US and South Korea, will not eliminate the preemptive strike option in the minds of policy-makers in Washington or Seoul.

The guaranteed nature of the second-strike depends on the quality of the submarine as much as on the SLBM.

'Noisy' submarines can be tracked, trailed and if need be destroyed by anti-submarine warfare (ASW) forces. It appears that the submarine the North Koreans intend to use for their SLBMs is based on an old Yugoslav navy design from the late 1970s. This will likely make it vulnerable to modern ASW.

Pyongyang's test is likely to spur increased development of ASW forces in South Korea, something that has already begun happening since the sinking of the Cheonan in 2010. Seoul may now have more cause to increase its cooperation in this area with the US, as well as Japan, the two most significant ASW powers in the region, if not globally.

Kelly also argues that North Korean second-strike capabilities will lead to greater pressure from the US on South Korea to deploy land-based missile defense systems. I think this is true, but South Korea is more likely to push for greater cooperation with the US on sea-based missile defenses.

One of the advantages of mobile missile-launch platforms such as submarines is their ability to relocate to different azimuths in order to gain an advantage over static land-based BMD systems. But if you know the rough location of the submarine through ASW trailing, destroyers equipped with BMD systems can close in on the likely launch point and take out the missiles in the vulnerable ascent phase. South Korea already has three KDX-III class destroyers with some BMD capability, and is investing in more Aegis-equipped cruisers, with six planned by 2019.

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter. 

TopicsDefense RegionsAsia

Russia's Armata T-14 Tank: A Super Weapon?

The Buzz

There has been significant coverage on the newest addition to the Russian family tree of armored vehicles, the T-14 Armata. Purported by the media to be a super tank, the credibility of the T-14 is now being seriously questioned due to the Armata that broke down during the a recent rehearsal for Russia’s VE Day Celebrations. The West should not be distracted by the Armata's recent public relations disaster. Instead, it is important to examine how this new tank reveals key changes in Russian military doctrine. The Armata represents Russia's dedication to developing a professional army capable of fighting in large scale and low-intensity regional conflicts.

(Recommended: 5 Russian Weapons of War NATO Should Fear)

The Armata is a direct product of an effort by the Russian Federation to professionalize its armed forces. This shift in doctrine developed after Russia's wars in Chechnya revealed dramatic deficiencies in its military's ability to fight low-intensity wars. The Russian army was pushed back by a stateless enemy, weak in numbers, weapons, and supplies. From December 1994 to August 1996, the Russian army took just over 60,000 casualties: 5,500 killed, 52,000 wounded, and 3,000 missing. Russia's ill-trained conscript army, conventional Cold War tactics, and poor equipment produced catastrophes: in the battle of Grozny 1994, nearly 70% of the 200 Russian tanks involved were destroyed. After their poor showing, Russia has sought to revamp its armed forces with a new doctrine emphasizing professionalism and incorporating modern equipment.

The design of a new tank is crucial to the efficacy of a Russian professional army, which is increasingly prioritizing the survivability of its personnel. Survivability for a professional army means assuring more trained soldiers are able to fight another day. Russia's newest iterations of its aging tank designs, the T-90 and T-72B3, employ upgraded survivability capabilities, notably explosive reactive armor. However, at their core, they retain characteristics that make them more suitable for a conscript army and mass armored warfare. The older tanks are less suitable for a professional army, particularly in low-intensity conflicts.

(Recommended: 5 Russian Weapons of War America Should Fear)

Unlike the T-90 and T-72B3, the Armata's design and capabilities mirror the threats it is intended to face. The Armata incorporates modern principles of survivability, such as being built around a fully automated turret, sealed away from the crew, which reduces the danger posed by the detonation of ammunition. Like its Western counterparts, the Armata is a high-profile tank, relying on heavy layers of composite and reactive armor. This is unlike the T-90 and T72B3, which relied on a low profile for slower hit probability. Anti-missile countermeasures, are also integral to the Armata's design.

(Recommended: The Real Reason the West Should Feat the Armata Tank)

Western tank designs, built upon similar principles, have demonstrated significant crew survivability against insurgency tactics in low-intensity conflicts. The Israeli Merkava, the Armata's direct inspiration, is particularly exemplary of Western tank design and has boasted exceptional performance against asymmetric threats. It features a high profile and composite armor, built from the ground up prioritizing crew survivability, much like the M1 Abrams, Leopard 2, and other modern Western designs. The Merkava also incorporates unique features into its doctrinal interpretation: a forward-located engine provides additional crew protection, and anti-missile countermeasures similar to those the Armata design features prominently. Conflict in Lebanon in 2006 would prove the value of this Western doctrine and Israel's own design against insurgency threats. The Israeli Defense force experienced many setbacks, exemplified by the Russian military in the First Chechen War: armor was deployed conventionally and crews were primarily conscripts. However, casualties were significantly mitigated, due in large part to the Merkava's design emphasis on crew survivability. The 401st Armored Corps Brigade, the IDF's spearhead force in the operation, reported only eighteen tanks severely damaged, two completely destroyed by heavy IEDs, and twelve soldiers killed.

Production of the Armata also reveals Russia's regional foreign policy objectives. While many are terrified of Russian allusions to the use of nuclear weapons, Russia's most recent military doctrine implies the developed use of conventional forces. Russia's nuclear strategic forces may ensure its territorial sovereignty, but their usefulness for regional power projection is limited. Russia is most interested in reasserting control in its historic borderlands, what they call the Near Abroad. As such, the Russian military appears to be preparing for multiple hybrid war scenarios. Toward this purpose, there is the need for soldiers trained in irregular warfare and for mobile armor capable of addressing a variety of threats. Whether a hybrid action like in Ukraine, open warfare with a neighbor, or low-level terrorism threats in the Caucasus, the Armata would be extremely useful for the Russian military. To date, the T-90 is already more than enough to deal with most armor threats in the conflict in Ukraine. The Armata would be even more formidable.

Many specifics on the Armata remain unknown. While on paper the Armata is a wonder tank, its actual capabilities are still untested. The focus on innovative weapons systems like the Armata, which emphasize quality over quantity, show that Russia is serious about modernizing its military and projecting into the Near Abroad.

This piece first appeared on the Atlantic Council’s website here. This is reposted with their consent. 

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsDefense RegionsEurope