Friday, January 31, 2014

Romney's 2014 State of the Union

A guest piece for the fine outlet that gave me my first foray into US political writing! 
The Daily Caller.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Why we shouldn't raise the Minimum Wage

Fair play to The Huffington Post. They may have a liberal slant, but they re-posted my take on why we shouldn't raise the minimum wage.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Cory Remsburg

Cory Remsburg, a guest of the First Lady at the 2014 State of the Union. And an American who explains why I believe this and this. And why this really pisses me off. I'm glad he was recognized by everyone in the Chamber. Sua sponte.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Somalia air strike + Syria peace talks

1) The US air strike against a leader of Al-Shabab is welcome news. As I argued in the aftermath of the Nairobi Mall attack, the US must conduct a vigorous, wide ranging and durable counter-terrorism strategy against this group. It's important to note that alongside this air strike, JSOC/US IC are also conducting regular operations inside Somalia.

2) Befitting the Baathist legacy to which they subscribe, the Syrian Government is made up of pathological liars. Still, the prospect of an evacuation from Homs offers one small spark of hope from Geneva II. My thoughts on what the US should be doing at the conference are provided here.

Friday, January 24, 2014

A tough week for freedom...

To conclude my writings for this week, I've collated a few news stories from around the world that provide further evidence for the theme of my recent article - For 2014, Globe in Partes Tres.

1) North Korea continues to play games over the prospect of reconciliation with the South. Some of my specific thoughts on North Korea are offered here.

2) Protesters in Ukraine (not 'the Ukraine') continue to resist Putin's war against their better future. Some of my specific thoughts on Ukraine / Putin are offered herehere and here.

3) In Switzerland, Syria's Government persists in claiming that the rebellion is wholly comprised by terrorists. Its representatives gleefully ignore their own crimes.  Some of my specific thoughts on the Syrian Civil War are offered here and here.

4) Al Qa'ida Core leader, al-Zawahiri, calls on Syrian jihadists to unite behind the death cult that is Salafi-rooted jihadism. Some of my specific thoughts on Al Qa'ida are offered here, here and here.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Geneva II and the need for a new American strategy

"If we wanted to surrender we would have surrendered from the start,"
Bashar al-Assad, January 19th 2014

On Wednesday, representatives from the Syrian Government, the Syrian rebellion and the international community will gather in Geneva. The ‘stated’ aspiration of all sides – a just end to a brutal civil war.

In reality, Assad has little interest in meaningful concession. Yes, he’ll probably offer some vague proposals – we should expect the suggestion of a ‘national reconciliation council’. But whatever Bashar offers, if anything, it won’t be substantive. Haafez’s heir is in no mood to negotiate.

It’s not hard to understand why.

Reinforced by Khamenei, Nasrallah and Putin, Assad is applying a strategic blend of blackmail and destruction against the already fractured rebellion. As the rebels fight amongst themselves, the regime consolidates its base of power. And as much as the international community might cry at the suffering of the Syrian people, divorced from resolute policy, our tears have only greased Assad’s machine of death.

All of this leads to one centering reality – the dictator is looking forward to Geneva. In his mind, he holds all the courage and all the cards.

As such, in order to give Geneva II any chance of a positive outcome, America must reshuffle the deck. If we are timid, the Russians will simply generate another WMD disarmament-style figment deal. We can’t let that happen.

Instead, we must replace our policy of confused trepidation with a calculation of unapologetic realpolitik. In short, we need to be both simple and tough – stating the boundaries of a deal we’ll accept and explaining what will happen if Assad doesn’t acquiesce.

For a start, we’ll need to be clear about our non-negotiables. More precisely, while a short term cease fire would certainly be worth consideration, our acceptance of any final peace will require three absolutes. First, Syria’s Sunni community will have to be given a genuine, participatory role in any new government. And it will have to involve more than titles of office- Sunni alienation from Syrian government provision must come to an end. As we’re witnessing in Iraq and Lebanon, sectarian disenfranchisement is a catalyst for extremism. Second, any transitional process must ultimately end with democratic elections. Finally, Syria will need a constitution that balances representative government with protections for minority groups. Alawites, Christians and Kurds will all require the confidence of protection from sectarian abuse. None of these demands will be simple to achieve, but all of them are necessary. The alternative is chaos now or chaos deferred.

Supporting our policy imperatives, we must remember that our power is real.

Correspondingly, we must make Assad understand that America will not tolerate diversionary games. We’ll have to outline that while we’re open to meaningful discussion, Assad’s non-cooperation will come with a severe cost. The most obvious way we can do this is by stating it – clearly and directly. By clarifying that if the peace process falters, America will renew and increase our assistance to nationalist centered Syrian rebels. Indeed, the one fortunate element of the Salafi jihadist rise in Syria has been its assistance in verifying the ideological stance of other rebel formations – it’s now clearer who the ‘good guys’ actually are.

Yet we’ll also have to help Assad realize that our power doesn’t begin and end with a potential supply train. Just as General Dempsey has spoken of ‘‘different ways of action’’, we should make clear that direct military options remain on the table. That in the event of Assad’s continued slaughter; we’ll re-consider military strikes against his regime. Made credible, US deterrent power will produce effect. Just as B-52s recently gave a physical face to US power in the East China Sea, deploying SSGNs to the Eastern Mediterranean would offer the redeemed constitution of American resolve in Syria.

But our strategy in Geneva can’t simply be about getting serious with Assad. We’ll also have to recognize our adversaries in Assad’s alliance for who they actually are.

To recognize that while Khamenei’s hardliners see themselves as the new leaders of the Middle East, they’re actually calculating thugs who can be restrained.

To recognize that while Putin thinks he’s a judo-chopping, ex-KGB superman, he’s actually a skulking, mafia goon who can be deterred.

To recognize that while Hezbollah regards itself as the world’s most powerful non-state actor, its structured organization is vulnerable to pressure.

And contrary to Assad’s wishes, we cannot allow our concerns about supranational Salafi jihadists to dictate our policy. These terrorists pose a real threat, but if we empower our professionals, we’ll defeat them.

            Up until this point, American policy in Syria has been a monumental failure. We’ve empowered our enemies, neglected our prospective allies and allowed a tyrant to wreak havoc upon his people and the region. Obsessed by the serious risks of intervention, we’ve accepted the catastrophic consequences of absent American leadership.

This week, in Geneva, we can and we must begin to put things right.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Three Problems with the President's NSA reforms

In the lawyer’s world, regulations are an ally. Guiding a reliable path towards a specific remedy, regulations offer order in place of chaos.

In the intelligence officer’s world, regulations are an adversary. Providing rigidity in face of dynamic and hidden truths, regulations present obstacles to answers.

In a democracy then, the key is to balance these two understandings. Regulations must be flexible enough to allow for the extraction of knowledge from complexity, and rigid enough to ensure a credible foundation of just, democratic order.

Last Friday, to the detriment of America, President Obama tipped the balance too far. He’s done so in three specific ways.

1)    Limiting the Intelligence Community’s ability to penetrate terrorist networks

‘‘Effective immediately, we will only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of three.’’

An invitation to the cut-outs.

Consider the following scenario. An Al Qaeda officer in Yemen makes a call to another individual in that country. That other individual then calls someone in Saudi Arabia. That individual then calls someone in Belgium. From today, the NSA can no longer chase down the phone data belonging to the subject in Belgium. Some claim that this isn’t a problem – that a ‘three hop’ rule allows for a vastly excessive drag net of irrelevant information. And on paper, they’re right. But in reality it’s just not that simple. For a start, such arguments ignore the fact that intelligence officers use a spread of information to drive their investigations – not simply communication linkage chains. In this context, by limiting the information flows to which intelligence officers have access, the move to a ‘two hop’ rule risks empowering terrorist cut-outs. Facilitators who, already Snowden-apprised of US intelligence monitoring, are astute to the need to protect the networks they serve. Providing another complication is Al Qaeda’s functional diversification into a growing number of affiliate and inspired terrorist networks. Take the Syrian civil war. As foreign jihadists return from that conflict to their respective home nations, some will do so in peace and others with an eye to terrorism. Facing the later elements, the need for reflexive intelligence capabilities will be significant. There is little question that Obama has complicated that pursuit.

2)    Introducing a case by case judicial review system for Metadata access

‘‘I have directed the Attorney General to work with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court so that during this transition period, the database can be queried only after a judicial finding, or in a true emergency.’’

As an extension to the problems posed in (1), the President has also decided that the FISA court must now authorize each specific access into the metadata archives. Two problems here. First, when it comes to counter-terrorism, the term ‘‘true emergency’’ is truly vague. Perhaps that’s the point – affording Obama the future option of a retroactive definition (and thus political insulation). Second and more importantly however, requiring judicial findings will essentially mean that analysts are prevented from doing that which the President himself has said they must: ‘‘being able to quickly review telephone connections to assess whether a network exists…’’ At the heart of the matter, it’s about threat v time. While there are only eleven judges on the FISA Court, there are many terrorists making numerous phone calls every day. Without rubber stamping, meaningfully managing this workload will be near impossible.

3)   Restricting US spying on foreign leaders

‘‘Unless there is a compelling national security purpose – we will not monitor the communications of heads of state and government of our close friends and allies.’’

Again, it’s all in the definitions. At a basic level, absent some clarification as to what a ‘‘compelling national security purpose’’ actually means, American allies will assume that they’re being monitored anyway. And while Obama’s ‘clarification’ probably assures that the NSA isn’t going to be listening in on the French President’s ‘later night’ conversations, what about other calls? Considering Hollande’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia for example, one could make a pretty strong case that the US has a compelling national security excuse for monitoring him. But more than this strategic angle, the real weakness of Obama’s declaration is that it forces the US to tread an impossible line. On the one hand, not spying on foreign allies. On the other hand, spying whilst implying that no spying is occurring and thus opening the door to future diplomatic embarrassments. Ultimately, it’s clear that there are compelling reasons for the US to spy on certain European states - the French certainly have no qualms about spying on the US. Still, by his confused approach on this issue, President Obama has muddied the waters even further. His ruling won’t rebuild trust, but if a future Snowden leaks new espionage details, it will allow foreign states to accuse the US of having lied. In short, it’s not very clever.

So yes, the US Intelligence Community is immensely powerful. And yes, its power requires democratic oversight – calibrated but meaningful. Nevertheless, these reforms will not serve the national interest. In the end, just as the State Department is the necessary response to a world full of opportunity, the NSA is a necessary response to a world full of threats. An associated truth is also clear. NSA officers do not go to work in order to harass their fellow citizens. Rather, they work to harness the ill-intentions of others. Neglecting that truth in his ill thought out regulations, the President has tipped us towards unnecessary danger.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Next few days...

Over the next three days I'll be writing about Obama's NSA reforms, my suggestions for US strategy at Geneva II and the growing threat of Syria-inspired/developed terrorism in Europe. Tomorrow will be the NSA reforms.

Tom Rogan Thinks...

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Ya'alon's Silly Comments

I'm a firm supporter of the US-Israeli alliance. Still, I struggle to understand the psychology of some Israeli politicians. Take Israeli Defense Minister Ya'alon. Studying his background, Ya'alon is clearly an intelligent, strategically minded man. After all, this is a leader who commanded Israel's foremost Special Operations unit and then became his nation's most senior military officer. But what Ya'alon said about Kerry didn't make much sense. Even if he's overly optimistic, Kerry's pursuit of Middle East peace is a worthy one (I've argued why here and here). As much as Ya'alon might be angry about Kerry's peacekeeping force proposals, his words were not clever. To be sure, Netanyahu doesn't like Obama. That was clear a few years ago. And in many ways, Netanyahu's dissatisfaction with Obama is understandable (US policy in the Middle East is a mess). 

Nevertheless, in the context of the 'settlement snub' of 2010 and the ongoing 'Pollard release' lobby, Ya'alon's  comments were unjustifiable.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Iran Nuclear Deal - Implementation

The implementation of the Geneva interim nuclear deal will begin on January 20th. That's welcome news. After all, in recent weeks it seemed like the agreement might fall apart before it even began. On another positive note, Iran will shortly begin to dilute its stockpile of highly enriched uranium. Still, I have a number of concerns.

  • While inspectors will apparently be allowed daily, physical access to the Fordo site, there will only be monthly inspections at the Arak based heavy water reactor. That's far from ideal. If the Iranians are serious about addressing fears that they are pursuing a plutonium-route nuclear weapon, allowing more vigorous inspections at Arak would be the perfect place to start. Instead, the reluctance to afford access to Arak suggests that the Iranians may want to hide what's happening there. It raises questions and it fosters mistrust.

  • The Iranians are crowing. While this is to be expected at some level (and helps Iranian moderates placate their hard-line colleagues), it's worrying that many Iranian officials are so gleeful in their claims that this deal doesn't bind them in any significant way. Again, it suggests an absence of seriousness in the pursuit of trust towards a lasting arrangement. Without hope of a lasting agreement, this deal will be rendered into irrelevance.

  • It's problematic that the negotiators have taken so long to reach implementation. This reality suggests an agenda disconnect. Since 2003, Iran has attempted to evade the international community in its efforts to ensure a non-weaponized nuclear program. Delay has formed the primary strategic gambit on Iran's part. In short, what we're seeing looks like more deliberate time wasting.

While I supported this deal at the time of its creation, it's also abundantly clear to me that Geneva hasn't got off to a good start. The US will have to work exceptionally hard to ensure that Iran fulfills its obligations. At the same time, Congress will have to play a constructive but cautious role in supporting US diplomacy. Still, if this effort fails, the only options left available will be dramatically tightened sanctions alongside the prospect of military force. 

Time is running short.

Friday, January 10, 2014

3 reasons the GOP should make 2014 the year of sensible Immigration Reform

Let's be clear, Republicans cannot sustain their pro-business/individual freedom narrative and also oppose immigration reform. From doctors (who could alleviate endemic primary care shortages) to entrepreneurs (who could benefit economically deprived communities), current immigration regulations deter opportunity and defy logic. We're losing out on desperately needed foreign investment and talent. Sensible immigration reform in this area (expanding talent-pool green cards) would help make our economy stronger, our country healthier and would also reduce our debt. In basic terms, it's a no-brainer.

Immigration reform will also be a necessity if the GOP is to successfully challenge Democrats on the growing social mobility debate (specifically, on issues like the minimum wage, taxation and inner city deprivation). If Republicans were to endorse reform, they'd have the opportunity to win a new generation of voters who aspire to an 'opportunity culture' - one in which hard work is rewarded with social mobility.

In a final sense, the GOP needs to embrace immigration reform in order to prove that it's evolving as a party. Facing demographic certainties, the GOP has no other option but to widen its appeal. Thus, both in a symbolic and policy sense, the party needs to situate its traditional beliefs (small government/low taxes etc.) in a foundation that's viable for the 21st century.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

USAF Crash in UK

It appears that four members of the US Air Force have been killed during a training accident in the UK. The Pave Hawk crew seems to have been a CSAR/CASEVAC unit. The personnel who lost their lives were trained to carry Pararescue Jumpers into (and out of) harm's way. They train hard because they know that when the mission comes, there's very little room for error. As the PJ creed affirms... 'That Others May Live'.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Political Face of Sectarian Hatred in the Middle East

Yesterday's bombing in Beirut illustrates the primordial influence of sectarian hatred in shaping Middle Eastern politics dynamics. As I noted on Monday, the Lebanese Hizballah is struggling to contain the wave of Sunni extremist violence that's directed against it. Regarding this sectarian anger, it's clear that there have been two separate counter-responses to Nasrallah's intervention in Syria. On one side, the March 14 bloc is trying to weaken Hizballah's political influence at the governing level. Supported by the Saudis in the form of new aid to the Lebanese Army, Siniora and Hariri are pushing for Hizballah's separation from any new cabinet. Conversely, motivated by their fanatical ideology, Salafi extremist groups are also seeking to weaken Hizballah. However, for these groups, the chosen mechanism of political activity is significant violence. What's clear is that sectarianism is now front and center in Lebanese politics (Martin Chulov gives a good reporting primer on Hizballah's role in this evolving dynamic).

But it isn't just Lebanon. If interested, here are some of my thoughts on the challenge of sectarianism in terms of...
  • Iraq (with latest news on Anbar here)
  • Lebanon (in relation to the Syrian Civil War)
  • Somalia (in terms of internal tensions within terrorist groups) 
  • How it leads people into terrorism/helps sustain terrorist groups

Thursday, January 2, 2014

3 Lessons from the Harris-Perry Controversy

Last Sunday was not a good day for MSNBC.

Ben and Andelynne Romney adopted a baby. That act of love earned them the cackling, gleeful scorn of prominent liberals. On live TV. This isn't complicated. The comments by Melissa Harris-Perry and her panelists were both embarrassing and pathetic. Still, there are three important lessons to be drawn here.

1) Prejudice comes in many forms
Imagine the outrage that would have followed... a TV panel of prominent conservatives suggests that (New York Mayor-Elect) Bill de Blasio's African-American son was the product of a 'token' political calculation... unrestrained fury would follow. And rightly so. In their rant however, Harris Perry and co. have encapsulated a small but spreading infection in American liberalism – the encroachment of emotion over logic and decency. It's clear that liberals disagree with many tenets of conservative philosophy. Nevertheless, in today's America, a thinly veiled hatred sits far too close to the heart of liberal discourse. Motivated by anger, many liberals have thus come to regard prejudice as a wholly subjective concern - something that conservatives consistently support and that liberals unfailingly oppose with moral purity. The actual truth is self-evident. By rendering a small child as a political object, rather than as a member of an American family, Harris Perry and co. have engaged in an unambiguous racism. Their not so subtle mantra rings loudly - all minorities are necessarily liberal and all conservatives are inherently racist. This is political Endocarditis.

Remember folks, just as it has no logic, neither does racism have a specific face. Whether from the mouth of a conservative or a liberal, whether it comes with a smile or spitted fury, our reaction should be the same. To condemn it absolutely. What was said was shameful.

2) Conservatives don't have a monopoly on stupidity.
Regrettably these comments don't stand alone. Instead, they reflect a deeper grain of ludicrous remarks from other liberals in 2013. Churning in the melting pot of idiotic remarks, we've had Bashir's comments on Palin, Clinton on Benghazi, Rep. Waters on sequester, Harris Perry (yes, again) on kids, Toure on immigration reform and the President’s summit of rhetoric - 'keep your plan'. These examples have reinforced a simple truth – casual stupidity pays no heed to political colors.

By breaking from logical assessment, too many otherwise intelligent liberals have discredited their agenda. While passionate debate is critical for America's well-being, we also need to accept that debate is worthless when it’s devoid of intellectual sensibility. Most of all, we need to realize that unchallenged stupidity helps no one. Idiotic remarks denigrate American political life and fracture the bonds of our society. Of course, there’s a simple remedy here – unless you’re going to contribute meaningfully, just stay quiet.

3) Conservatives must do more to address minority concerns.
Conservatives mustn't allow themselves to be distracted by this incident. It's not pleasant. Just as too many liberals view minorities with arrogance, it's also obvious that conservatives need to build far better bridges with non-white voters. Until conservatives get serious about inner city politics, for example, many Americans will continue to ignore the GOP. The election data tells its own tale. Unless conservatives become more competitive with minority voters, American conservatism has a bleak political future. Recognizing this reality, conservatives should regard what’s just happened as a challenge rather than a cause for celebration. A challenge towards a more inclusive future. Just as the Romney family has shown love to be colorless, so too must modern conservatism be limitless in its aspiration and concern.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014