Monday, September 30, 2013

Why (sensible) spending cuts are necessary

Having been focused on recent events in the Middle East, apart from a couple of pieces on ObamaCare (here and here), I haven't written much on domestic policy over the last few weeks.

Time to correct that situation!

Watching the shutdown debate play out, I've found it amusing to see liberals claim that Republicans are delusional on the deficit/debt. That somehow, as Nancy Pelosi argues, there are ''no more cuts to make''. In specific terms, many liberal commentators are suggesting that because the CBO has projected that the deficit will decrease over the next ten years, the fiscal crisis is therefore over.

It isn't.

For a start, the CBO is only saying that things are looking less bad than they once did. And even then, only over the next 10-13 years. More importantly, the deficit-elation crowd conveniently ignores the fact that CBO assumptions reside on current law and present expectations of future growth. In this regard, although the near-term deficit figures are indeed looking better, they're far from perfect. At a basic level, these numbers rest on the assumption that there will be sustained growth over the next ten years (very optimistic). But they also assume a stable track on low interest rates - if interest rates rise significantly (which they almost certainly will), the exacerbating impact for the deficit will also be substantial.

Of course, this is not to say that spending cuts should be applied as a blunt instrument. In my opinion, the correct approach is sensible austerity over the near term and comprehensive entitlement reform over the longer term. Still, the facts are also unassailable in their flowing message - debt denial is the fiscal brother to birtherism. Liberals might claim that conservatives are embracing a callous idiocy in their deficit reduction plans, but in actuality the opposite is true. Left unchallenged in their big government pursuit, liberals would saddle America's young with an insurmountable mountain of debt. That's morally inexcusable. 

Correspondingly, conservatives are right to oppose that avoidable future.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Obama-Rouhani phone call

Regarding President Obama's phone call with President Rouhani, please also peruse my recent posts on Iran (as provided below). 

I'm concerned.

I'm worried that this call will reinforce Iranian perceptions of the US as weak - and that those perceptions will drive a negative Iranian negotiating strategy. 

Let's be clear; on paper, a phone call makes sense - it offers a reinforcement of trust and it broadcasts a mutual willingness to move beyond previous hostilities. As I said, good on paper. Unfortunately however, flowing alongside the ongoing US debacle over Syria, I fear that the message of this call will be heard differently in Tehran and Washington. That the theocrats will increasingly believe that the US lacks the willpower to prevent their nuclear ascendancy.

If the Iranians believe that the US is buffing over the threat of military force, they'll call that bluff.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Syria/UN: Resolution Without Resolve

''.... but the text will not threaten the use of force for a failure to comply, officials said.''

''The final draft also does not ascribe specific blame for the Aug. 21 attack that asphyxiated hundreds of Syrians.''

This ludicrous Security Council resolution is a waste of paper- it's logically and ecologically unsound.

This is the international relations equivalent of a situation in which, after murdering an entire family, the killer is caught red handed. Then however, instead of punishing the culprit - in this case a gangbanger, the Judge simply makes him promise never to repeat his crime. 
           The Judge issues a concluding warning to the murderer- should he re-offend, the convict's co-conspirator will decide an appropriate punishment. In making his ruling, the Judge proudly claims that he has served justice, whilst simultaneously also deterring the gangster's compatriots.

As I said, this resolution is ludicrous; it belongs in the UN restroom.

This is our acquiescence in the face of slaughter. President Obama might have preserved the pretense of his credibility (and even then, only in Europe), but this deal will cost America dearly. Russia has consolidated an already obvious global victory. The rules of international order have been trashed. Peace will pay the price.

I see four direct consequences.

1) Assad will view our weakness as an explicit approval to ignore his responsibilities under the UN disarmament framework.

2) Russia will be unleashed to further dominate the conduct (retrogression?) of international affairs. Putin is laughing.

3) North Korea will be emboldened to up their nuclear ante.

4) Iran will be encouraged to re-double their support for Assad and renew their long cultivated game of false, time-buying nuclear negotiations.

On this last point, please see my post from yesterday concerning the three diplomatic delusions of the Obama Administration in their interactions with Iran.

My other related writings.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

2 Presidents and 3 diplomatic delusions regarding Iran

Few agendas are as necessary or as noble as the advancement of global peace. After all, a just peace represents the merging of morality and unified political interest.

But peace isn’t easy.

For a start, it requires the honest appraisal of realities in the moment, not the appraisal of realities as we would wish them to be. The distinction is important – diplomatic delusion feeds political dysfunction. History is littered with bloody testimony to the dear costs of wishful thinking.

Regrettably, regarding Iran, I fear that US delusion is back in town.

1)      Delusions regarding the Iranian leadership

It’s no secret that President Rouhani lacks ultimate power over his country’s policies - that authority flows from Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Nonetheless, western excitement over Rouhani’s supposed d├ętente has encouraged the belief that a nuclear deal is near. The new implication – Rouhani wants peace, Obama wants peace and thus peace will become reality.

There’s a problem here.

Not only does Rouhani lack decisive power in Iran’s political system, his power is inherently limited by the governing essence of the Iranian theocracy. In Iran, the underpinning of political authority has a central source - the ‘Guardianship of the Jurist.’ Conveniently codified by the Ayatollah Khomeini, this doctrine enshrines absolute power in Iran’s Supreme Leader. Absolute is the operative word here. In comparative terms, this guardianship is Iran’s opposite to the European royalist ‘divine right of kings’ – one leader proffering the ordained will of God on Earth.

In other words, Khamenei is the key.

So follows the question- does the Supreme Leader want a deal?

Some say yes. David Ignatius (a top analyst plugged into the US Intelligence Community) suggests that Khamenei's willing to give serious peace a go.

 I'm not so sure.

Political rule 101 - always review the historical record in preference to the campaign speech. At a basic level, Khamenei is no friend of peace – his power resides upon the bodies of the Iranian people. The Supreme Leader cannot be trusted. Moreover, studying Khamenei's statements and those of the men who sit close to his throne, it’s abundantly clear that America isn't regarded as a prospective partner (an understanding on which a successful nuclear deal would depend). Consider the words of the Chairman of Iran’s powerful Guardian Council, Ayatollah Jannati:

At the end of the day, we are an anti-American regime. America is our enemy, and we are the enemies of America. The hostility between us is not a personal matter. It is a matter of principle. We are in disagreement over the very principles that underlie our revolution and our Islam.’’

Men like Khamenei, Jannati and their ideological spawn (think Qassem Soleimani) are principled enemies of the United States. They don’t want our friendship. They want us gone from the region. It’s crucial that we grapple with this reality. At best, Rouhani is a well-intentioned Secretary of State style figure. But divorced from real power, his words are words alone.

2)      Delusions regarding Iran’s nuclear intentions

Iran’s leaders like to claim that their nuclear pursuit is peaceful – as Rouhani argued at the UN: it’s all about societal advancement (an assertion that would be more believable if the regime weren't so desperate to control information flows). Yet, this isn’t about society. It’s about power. And not the energy supply kind. Rather, Iran’s leaders believe that the day they come into possession of a nuclear weapon, will be the moment that they guarantee the survival of their regional revolutionary project (this judgment having been reinforced by perceptions of Assad's WMD enabled survival). As a corollary, when we pretend otherwise; that somehow Iran’s nuclear ambitions are on the bargaining table of standard diplomacy, we guarantee one of two outcomes. Either an Israeli strike against Iran, or eventually, a nuclear armed Iran.

Instead, if we’re to avoid a nuclear Iran, we must first take stock of the importance that the theocrats place in their nuclear endeavor. Normal diplomacy just isn’t going to cut it. We’re going to need to up the ante; offering Iran a peaceful low-enrichment program with one hand and tougher sanctions/the credible threat of military force with the other.

Put simply, Khamenei must come to realize that the price of nuclear weapons will be too heavy to bear.

3)      Delusions regarding US-Iranian ‘mutual interests'

In his speech to the UN, President Obama stated the following:

 ‘’I don’t believe this difficult history can be overcome overnight – the suspicion runs too deep. But I do believe that if we can resolve the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road toward a different relationship – one based on mutual interests and mutual respect.­­­’’

I’d love to know what ‘mutual interests’ the President is talking about.

Apart from what’s now effectively an indirect alliance in Syria, across the world, US and Iranian interests stand in starkest opposition. Just a few examples…

The US supports Lebanese democracy; Iran supports a Hizballah hegemony.

The US operates a robust network of alliances with the Sunni Arab kingdoms; Iran regards those governments with an overt and active hatred. (Admittedly the Arab monarchies aren't huge fans of Iran.)

The US opposes North Korean nuclear proliferation; Iran stands in alliance with the Stalinist kingdom.

The US seeks an Iraqi government independent of malevolent influence; Iran supports militias in furtherance of its agenda in both Iraq and Syria.

The US pursues a semi-stable democracy in Afghanistan; Iran supplies the Taliban.

The US confronts those who slaughter civilians; Iran embraces terrorism with zeal.

These are the facts. We ignore this reality at our peril.

                     Don’t get me wrong. These three delusions are not to say that diplomacy with Iran is pointless. In fact, because of the scale of these problems, effective diplomacy is of pivotal importance.

That's my point - our diplomacy must be level headed.

Preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon will require far more than wishful thinking and a sprinkling of pleasant words - that path is plainly redundant. If Iran is to change course, it won’t be because of Obama's outreach (new centrifuges indicate that they’re quite happy with their current road to Damascus), it will be because their nuclear road is blocked by American resolve.

The appropriate US strategy is a simple one – to empower our East River dialogue with New York bluntness – speaking to Khamenei in terms he will easily understand. America must offer the Ayatollah two choices- peace by verified disarmament, or tougher sanctions backed up by the certain threat of US military power.

To those who call me a warmonger for this post - that Rouhani deserves our easy trust and flexibility, I have a simple rebuttal. In his speech yesterday, President Rouhani claimed that Iran defends ''.... peace based on democracy and the ballot box everywhere.. and believe[s] that there are no violent solutions to world crises.''

If you believe that, you'll believe anything.

Links to my other related writings

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

4 Takeways from the Filkins study of Qassem Suleimani

This piece by Dexter Filkins on Qassem Suleimani, CO of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards - Quds Force, is a must read. At least for anyone who has an interest in the politics of the Middle East.

My 4 takeaways...

1) Suleimani is a comfortable regime hardliner
Put simply, you don't become the head of the Quds Force unless you are an ideological hardliner. Take this quote from the general: ''When I see the children of the martyrs, I want to smell their scent and I lose myself.'' Suleimani has no doubt in the righteousness of the Islamic revolutionary project of which he is a part. As he sees it, he's an heir to Husayn; a pious servant in the service of divine righteousness. This notion of ordained purpose coalesces with Suleimani's comments on the ''paradise'' of ''the battlefield''. The general's sustaining ideological motivations are far from flexible. This is not a guy who'll one day sit down and become a supporter of democracy.

2) Suleimani is a semi-astute political actor
Unlike Salafi Jihadists, Suleimani carefully attunes his activities towards his specific interests in the political moment. As Filkins notes, Suleimani is occasionally willing to work with the United States - Filkins references Crocker's (former US Abmbassador-Iraq) decision to allow Suleimani to help shape Iraq's first post-war provisional government. What Filkins neglects to mention is that Suleimani played a very clever game with this endeavor - see a certain Ahmed Chalabi... 

Nevertheless, Suleimani isn't a political mastermind. For one, he seems to underestimate the US Intelligence Community - see his absurd letter denying responsibility for attacks on US forces/the 2011 plot against the Saudi Ambassador in DC.

In a final regard, there should be no doubt that Suleimani considers the United States to be a fundamental enemy - Filkins aptly points out the general's support for EFP cells in Iraq.

3) US Foreign Policy can both deter and embolden Iranian aggression
As Filkins hints, Suleimani's fluctuating aggression has been explicitly linked to Iranian perceptions of American confidence or weakness. In essence, when the US is seen as timid, Iran becomes more aggressive. On the flip side, the opposite is true. From my perspective, this speaks to two things - 1) That the US collapse in Syria is indeed a strategic catastrophe in terms of the motivating signal it sends to Iran. 2) That a credible threat of military force could push Iran towards serious compromise in their nuclear ambitions.

4) Iran is fully engaged in support of Assad
During the recent Syria intervention debate, some suggested that even a limited US operation would encourage major Iranian escalation in support of Assad. Yet, as Filkins explains, the Iranians are already fully committed to the survival of their key ally. In that sense, by sitting on the Syria sidelines, we're allowing Iran to dominate the Syria battlespace. We're also indirectly empowering Salafi Jihadist formations over nationalist rebel formations. In short, our Syria strategy is completely idiotic.

My related thoughts on the Middle East can be found here.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

How the US must respond to the Westgate Mall attack

As I commented yesterday, it will concern the US Government that an attack on this scale occurred without prior intelligence warning. As Bergen and Sterman explain, in recent years, Al-Shabab has garnered significant support from elements of the Somali-American community. Due to this fact, the US Intelligence Community regards Al-Shabab as a high priority collection target.
             Yet, even amidst this intense Intelligence scrutiny, Westgate proves that Al-Shabab's operational security is sufficient enough for the group to successfully plot and conduct a major attack. This reality encourages two conclusions. First, that Al-Shabab is following Al Qa'ida's evolving preference for ''going off the grid'' in its plotting (avoiding electronic communications, compartmentalizing operational cells etc.). Second, that the US/allies need to do more to penetrate the group's power base in southern Somalia.

In another area, it's equally important that we recognize the recent developments in Al-Shabab's organizing character. In short, though its still hampered by factionalism, the group is now orientated under a leadership that holds a significant and growing interest in global Jihad. Lead by Ahmed Abdi Godane; a young, hyper aggressive leader, over the last few months, Al-Shabab forces have ruthlessly purged former commanders and others (like Hammami) who have dared to criticize or challenge their new kingpin. 

Godane's consolidation necessitates a US response.

In this vein, we should expect increasingly aggressive US counter-terrorism operations inside Somalia - likely via both manned strike aircraft and UCAV platforms and potentially also from US Special Forces stationed at Camp Lemmonier, Djibouti and/or on US Navy vessels stationed off the Somali coast.

Alongside new counter-terrorism operations in Somalia, we should also expect some government responses here in the United States. From my perspective, three particular actions are necessary.

1) As I noted yesterday, the US law enforcement community must ensure that Somalia orbit counter-terrorism efforts are well resourced. 

2) State and local government authorities must update their crisis plans. During the recent Navy Yard shooting, DC authorities and the media failed miserably in their responsibility to deliver accurate, coherent and timely public advisories. Because of these failings, had Alexis acted alongside other attackers focused against other targets, Washingtonians would have been placed in unnecessary jeopardy. Defeating Mumbai 2008/Westgate style attacks is complex enough. But by learning from past incidents, US metropolitan authorities will maximize their ability to save lives in the future.

3) Echoing point 2, on the specific tactical side, it's also crucial that local law enforcement agencies work with the FBI to refine their planning. As is the case in the UK, ongoing and multi-faceted preparation is a critical endeavor. Ego contests (like that between the FBI and NYPD) are fundamentally unhelpful.

          Ultimately however, we, the American people, must wake up. Yes, in the moment of attacks we're glued to news reports. However, once incidents have concluded, our attention often becomes absorbed by blame games. Take the Navy Yard/Capitol CERT controversy. Had that tactical team stayed at the Navy Yard, it's possible that they may have saved lives. Yet, as mentioned above, had Alexis operated as part of a broader cell that also held the Capitol as a target (the extent of threat was unknown at the time of the CERT recall), the decision to remain at the Navy Yard could have been catastrophic. 

My overarching point here is a basic one - counter-terrorism isn't simple. Protecting America requires our shared and astute attention.

Related Thoughts

Monday, September 23, 2013

Massacre in Nairobi

For my core thoughts, please read my latest piece for the National Review Online.

Here are two further thoughts.

1) The attack undoubtedly involved a significant degree of operational planning. This preparation likely included advance reconnaissance, specific training and a considerable mobilization of manpower and resources. In this vein, it's telling that the US Intelligence Community apparently had no information to suggest a major attack was about take place. Combined with reports which suggest that three Americans may have participated in this atrocity, the US government appears to lack a satisfactory intelligence penetration of the al-Shabab network. This is a serious concern. Over the past few years, a number of Americans have traveled to Somalia to fight alongside al-Shabab. Others have provided the group with funding support. As is the case regarding US Citizens in Syria, a major fear is that Americans in Somalia will return to the United States to conduct attacks (see my recent piece on Zawahiri). In the aftermath of this incident, we can expect a beefing up of the FBI's East-Africa focused counter-terrorism teams.

2) The attack matrix was clearly orientated around a Mumbai 2008 style model: a heavily armed force seeking maximum destruction against a soft target. The cell's objective - to stay alive as long as possible - to kill as many people as possible. Due to the fact that shopping centers attract large crowds but lack major security capabilities, locales like Westgate are exceptionally difficult to protect. A further complication- mobile cells of suicide attackers pose a serious challenge for responding tactical teams. Counter terrorism officers must balance hostage rescue efforts with the containment of the attackers. The first priority is to prevent terrorist skirmishing squads from breaking off into various parts of a city.

Relevant thoughts - 'Other' section

In Nairobi, Baghdad, and Peshawar -- the evil nature of a global Jihad

My latest op-ed for the National Review OnlineIn Nairobi, Baghdad, and Peshawar -- the evil nature of a global Jihad

Friday, September 20, 2013

Iran, the US and the UN - A skeptical take

It appears that President Obama is to meet with President Rouhani of Iran. The reason for the meeting is simple - the White House believes that Rouhani's election offers a renewed prospect for peace.

As Obama put it,

''I think this new president [Rouhani] is not going to suddenly make it easy. But, you know, my view is that if you have both a credible threat of force, combined with a rigorous diplomatic effort, that, in fact, you can strike a deal."

I believe that the President is overly optimistic.

First, post-Syria, US credibility regarding the potential use of military force has been evaporated. Second, Iran's Supreme Leader, Khamenei, holds the cards when it comes to the nuclear game. Third, see below... a re-post of my piece from a month back on Iran's diplomatic strategy.

         ‘’We should deal with the issue through a realistic approach."
           Hassan Rouhani, August 6th 2013

The Obama Administration should take those words literally. After years of diplomatic failure, only a realistic approach can improve US-Iranian relations.

Yes, Rouhani is likely to be an improvement on his inauspicious predecessor (a clownish narcissist now locked in a desperate struggle for relevance). Iran’s new President has promised to improve women’s rights and seek better relations with the west. If nothing else, his tone is more conciliatory. These developments are, even if only prospective, good.

Nevertheless, enamored by the potential for change, many western commentators have reacted with unrestrained elation. Rouhani’s election has made ‘’imaginable what for years has been unimaginable.’ said Stephen Kinzer in The Guardian.  In response, ‘’The Obama Administration should signal a shift in style, substance and strategy’’ declared Ali Vaez in the Christian Science Monitor.  Some went even further. In a particularly odd commentary for Al Jazeera, the academics, Flynt and Hillary Leverett found that Iran now offers a ‘’concrete expression’’ of Muslim democratic emancipation.

I think not.

Rouhani might not be Ahmadinejad, but that certainly doesn’t make him an Iranian Jefferson. After all, his existing human rights record isn’t exactly stellar. During the student protests of July 1999, Rouhani embraced a gleeful brutality - "From today’’ he warned‘’our people shall witness how… we deal with these opportunists and riotous elements, if they simply dare to show their faces."  He wasn’t joking. The students were crushed. It’s also been alleged that Rouhani played a key role in the use of terrorism against Iranian dissidents living abroad. (UPDATE_ He also apparently believes that the Holocaust is a myth). 

More concerning in the present however; the new President is a proud supporter both of Iran’s nuclear program and of continued assistance to the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad.

These facts should lead us to a cautious conclusion – a pleasant tone means nothing without substance.

Nowhere is this more true than with regards to the Iranian nuclear crisis.

While some analysts believe that Iran's present condition of international isolation and inflation make a nuclear deal likely, I'm not so sure. To me, that argument resides upon an intrinsically western conception of state interests; secular, populist and relative to the moment. Yes, Iran’s leaders obviously care about economics. Unfortunately, they care far more about joining the nuclear club. As I've argued before, the theocrats view nuclear power as the existential guarantor for their ongoing revolutionary project. This understanding explains why we’ve seen repeated nuclear negotiations rise in hope and then collapse in failure. Put simply, for the Ayatollahs, compared to the prospective feast of a nuclear dominion, western concessions are nothing. We think we have cake, but we only have crumbs.

Playing to our delusion, Iran adopts the foreign policy brother to Madoff’s Ponzi scheme- a negotiating strategy that uses trickery to buy time for nuclear advancement. The scam? Offer flirtations of peace, blame western intransigence for a negotiating failure, then, a few months later, start all over again. By allowing emotion to dominate our logic, we buy it every time.

Rouhani’s arrival allows Iran to play the same game with a fresh face.

It needn’t be this way. For all their bluster, Iran’s leaders understand that a military conflict with the United States would be a disaster for their interests. If we grasped this – we could, alongside stronger sanctions, perhaps deter them into ending their nuclear program. Unfortunately, emboldened by western impotence in Syria and Obama’s stuttering threats, American warnings bear little weight. For deterrence to be real it must first be believed.

There’s another political component at stake here- Israeli patience with diplomacy is nearly exhausted.

Following Rouhani’s election, Netanyahu again pressured the Obama Administration for tougher sanctions. I suspect that Israel’s Prime Minister fears Iran will use Rouhani the reformist to evade future sanctions. Nearly a year after Netanyahu’s ‘red line’ speech, it’s obvious that time is running out. In addition, though it's pure speculation on my part, Netanyahu's restoration of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process could indicate his desire to get President Obama 'on side' prior to an Israeli military attack on Iran.

Regardless, it's a dangerous wager to assume that Netanyahu’s warnings are a bluff. Israel’s security strategy resides upon Israel's regional supremacy of power. Where some cannot look beyond the risks of military conflict, Israelis (and the Sunni Arab monarchies) see a nuclear Iran as an intolerable threat.

In this sense, if Rouhani's style is divorced from substance, his arrival will provide little aid to the cause of peace.

My other clips on Iran are below.

Syria repercussions (The Guardian)

Iran plans retaliation if US strikes Assad (Blog)

The geo-strategic impact of Iran attaining a nuclear weapons capability (The Commentator)

How domestic politics influences Iranian, US and Israeli foreign policy (Blog)

How Iran will use brinkmanship to protect its nuclear program (The Guardian)

Israel could attack Iran without causing a major war in the region (The Guardian)

Iran and Diplomacy (Blog)

Strategic interplay in the Near/Middle East (The Daily Caller)

Netanyahu at the UN (Blog)