American officials like to say that Iran's defiance of international demands that it limit its nuclear activities, its support for terrorism, and the like have led to Tehran's growing isolation. Iranian regime officials see things differently. The Iranian regime has a strategy in the Middle East and believes it is succeeding.
Nowhere in the Middle East is Iran's strategy clearer at the moment than in Syria. Recently, Maj. Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, the military advisor to Iran's supreme leader, asserted that Syria is a "confrontation between the strategic policies of the world's great powers and regional powers," with Iran and its foreign allies on one side, and the United States and its regional allies on the other, per a translation by the American Enterprise Institute.
In explaining why Iran is engaged in this confrontation, Safavi noted that "Iran has pursued power and influence out to the Mediterranean three times." Two of these instances, in Safavi's recounting, occurred during the reigns of ancient Iranian kings. The third, however, was the present. He explained that Iran currently uses Hezbollah as "the long arm of Iranian defensive power … to confront a possible Zionist attack against Iran's nuclear energy facilities."
Safavi also explained how successful Iranian approaches to Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as to Syria, have made Iran a "regional power" in defiance of Western efforts to thwart its ambitions.
It would be easy to dismiss Safavi's claims as bluster. They are certainly selective: Ordinary Iranians are unlikely to find much comfort in his claimed foreign-policy successes while they struggle with rising inflation and unemployment at home. As hyperbolic as his claims may be, however, they are echoed by other Iranian officials and provide a useful guide to understanding Iranian actions and formulating an approach to the region.
Western officials and analysts have a tendency to artificially isolate one problem in the Middle East from another, treating Iran's nuclear program and the Syrian crisis, for example, as distinct problems to be dealt with independently.
This can lead to clouded analysis and false policy choices. For example, some argue that the United States should avoid involvement in Syria to ensure that resources are available to deal with Iran. In reality, both Iran's activities in Syria and its nuclear ambitions are part of a broader Iranian strategy to project power, enhance its regional influence, and constrain the United States and its regional allies.
Likewise, many analysts were surprised by Hezbollah's open admission of its deep involvement in Syria, because they viewed the group as primarily a Lebanese political party or as engaged in fighting Israel. While both of these are true, they neglect that Hezbollah is more fundamentally a group created to project Iranian power into the Levant, a mission with which its Syrian venture -- as well as its activities in Iraq during the last decade -- is perfectly compatible.
Western officials' inattention to this broader picture has real strategic consequences for U.S. interests. No matter how much American policymakers stress that the "military option" is on the table with respect to Iran's nuclear program, Washington's failure to push back on Iranian aggression in Syria, and the European Union's reluctance to penalize Hezbollah for its actions, undercut the credibility of Western warnings. Whatever the view of the West, for Tehran these issues, as well as the West's responses to them, are inextricably connected.
And not just for Tehran -- America's allies in the region also see U.S. actions in different theaters as linked, and they view with alarm Washington's passivity in the region. Consequently, American influence is everywhere diminished as friends and foes alike increasingly factor Washington out of policy decisions, and the force of America's allies collectively is reduced as each pursues policies independently not just of the United States but, to a great extent, of one another.
Once lost, influence is costly to regain, which gives rise to a vicious cycle. Re-establishing U.S. influence and credibility requires actions that, as crises deepen and multiply, become costlier as time passes, which reinforces the argument against taking them. Nowhere is this more evident than in Syria.
Costly interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have soured U.S. officials on further entanglement in the Middle East. But disengaging from the region will only add to the costs of those wars, not compensate for them.
One lesson we must learn from those conflicts, however, is to have clear objectives and to pursue them economically. When it comes to Iran, the objective has never been and should not become merely limiting Iranian nuclear activities, but disrupting the strategy of which both the nuclear program and Syria, as well as Iran's asymmetric actions, are parts. A non-nuclear Iran emboldened by victory in Syria remains dangerous.
The economical way to begin countering Iran's strategy is not to wait for a last-resort strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, or worse yet to continue offering Iran nuclear concessions in hopes it will bite; rather, it is to press Iran in a place like Syria, where it is far from home and perhaps overextended.
Defeating Iranian designs in Syria will not halt Tehran's nuclear ambitions, but it may restore in the eyes of Iranian and allied officials alike the credibility of American power, and force Tehran to reconsider the costs of its strategy. For Iran, Major General Safavi reminds us, has a strategy in the Middle East; the United States must as well.
Facing a series of significant foreign policy challenges, the Obama administration appears to be responding with an array of diplomatic initiatives built around negotiations. Thus, the White House hopes to convene a diplomatic conference on the Syrian war in Geneva , and to launch a dialogue with China on cybersecurity, both to take place in July. Meanwhile, the administration still hopes to resume yet another round of negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program.
The problem in each of these cases is not that the Obama administration is following a diplomatic track. The problem is that the White House and State Department seem to be pursuing negotiations from a posture of weakness, and are not taking the needful steps to strengthen their negotiating hand. Diplomacy always takes place in the context of facts on the ground, and in each of these cases America's adversaries are doing a better job of creating facts on the ground more favorable to their positions. Meanwhile, perhaps seduced by the false dichotomy of thinking that diplomacy is always an alternative to the use of force rather than often a complement to force, the Obama administration may be setting up its various diplomatic gambits for failure.
Take Syria. While Secretary Kerry is begging and cajoling various parties to agree to attend the peace conference, in the war itself the Assad regime's patrons such as Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah are helping Damascus regain the battlefield initiative against the rebels through substantial weapons upgrades and territorial advances. Even if the Geneva gathering does take place next month, it will occur in circumstances far more favorable to Assad and his backers - and will consequently be far less likely to lead to Assad's departure and any viable settlement.
In the case of China, the White House in recent weeks has at last begun publicly speaking out against China's state-sponsored hacking of American military and commercial targets, but the only real action in response seems to be a call for dialogue because, in the words of a senior administration official "we need to develop some norms and rules." Well, yes, developing norms and rules would be nice, but the immediate issue is much simpler: the Chinese government needs to stop stealing technology from American companies, and needs to stop engaging in low-grade acts of cyberwar against the American military. China will continue this cyberwarfare as long as it can do so without any consequences - and a diplomatic dialogue or even "sternly-worded demarche" from the State Department do not count as consequences. Especially since Beijing has proven very artful at using dialogues as diversionary tactics to resist taking concrete policy steps, with the episodic U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue being just one example (an especially sad reminder of the failures of U.S. human rights policy as this week marks the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre).
Iran, meanwhile, is starting to resemble "Groundhog Day," with Tehran pursuing a salami slicing strategy of incrementally advancing its nuclear program while sporadically coming back to the negotiating table. Here at least the US diplomatic strategy has included coercive instruments such as economic sanctions and other measures. But as Mike Singh and others have repeatedly pointed out, missing has been a credible, unambiguous threat from the U.S. of the use of force. It is just such a credible threat that would, ironically, reduce the likelihood of war by showing the Iranian regime that a diplomatic solution is their best and only option.
Looking at history, many previous negotiations succeeded because of the strong hand the U.S. wielded. Nixon and Kissinger used the Linebacker bombing campaigns to strengthen the American position in the Paris peace talks that ended the Vietnam War. Reagan's diplomatic outreaches to Gorbachev took place amidst America's enhanced military posture, development of the Strategic Defense Initiative that drove the Russians nuts, and pressure on the Soviet periphery through support for insurgents in places like Afghanistan. The Clinton administration had a strong hand to play in negotiating the Dayton Accords thanks to Operation Deliberate Force.
In contrast, the Obama administration has dealt itself a weak hand in its various diplomatic initiatives. This is not at all to say that diplomacy should be abandoned, but rather that the White House should look for ways to approach negotiations with incentives for the other side to change its behavior. In Syria, this could mean steps like arming the rebels or imposing no-fly zones. With China, it could mean engaging in some retaliatory cyber-measures against Unit 61398 (one hopes this is already being done?), so that when Chinese officials sit down for the dialogue they will do so knowing that refusing to cooperate will carry costs. In the case of Iran, the regime needs to know that its choices are a negotiated settlement or the destruction of its nuclear program.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
For months, the Obama administration has been avoiding the conclusion that the Assad government used chemical weapons in its armed struggle to suppress its citizens. As recently as yesterday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel rebuffed the notion, saying "suspicions are one thing; evidence is another."
Today the White House finally conceded the point. "Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent Sarin," the administration wrote in a letter to Congress.
But even now, the White House is insisting it needs to gather the facts and called for a U.N. investigation, a convenient method of continuing to stall on Syria.
The letter goes on to say that "given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experience, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient -- only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making and strengthen our leadership of the international community." It endorses a "comprehensive United Nations investigation that can credibly evaluate the evidence and establish what took place." (The U.N. has already deployed a team to Cyprus to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria, but so far they have been denied entry into the country, and a full-throated investigation remains unlikely.)
The world's best intelligence services are generally acknowledged to include those of Israel, Britain, France, and the United States, yet for months we alone are unable to establish whether chemical weapons have been used in Syria. As technical assessments have traditionally been the strong suit of American intelligence, it is curious that we alone among the major intelligence assessors were unable to determine whether chemical weapons had been employed.
The governments of Britain and France informed the United Nations they have credible evidence that Syria has more than once used chemical weapons. They took soil samples from the suspect sites and subjected them to rigorous testing, interviewed witnesses of the attacks in Homs, Aleppo and Damascus, and became convinced nerve agents were used by the government of Syria.
"To the best of our professional understanding, the [Syrian] regime used lethal chemical weapons against gunmen in a series of incidents in recent months," General Itai Brun, chief of the research division of Israel's army intelligence branch, said Tuesday.
Even the government of Syria acknowledged that chemical weapons were used, though they unconvincingly claimed the chemical weapons were used by the rebels and refused entry to U.N. investigators.
Our European allies have said they believe the Syrian government "was testing the response of the United States." Until today, the response of the United States has been to avoid coming to a conclusion.
General Brun made that public statement while Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was in Israel. Hagel's reaction? He claimed the Israeli government didn't share that information with him. But the Obama administration's secretary of defense didn't double back to get the information. He didn't strengthen deterrence by reiterating the president's "red line" that any chemical weapons use by the Assad government would bring U.S. retaliation. He expressed a complete lack of curiosity on the subject, saying "suspicions are one thing; evidence is another."
Hagel has now been forced to backtrack. "As I have said, the intelligence community has been assessing information for some time on this issue, and the decision to reach this conclusion was made in the past 24 hours," Hagel said, "and I have been in contact with senior officials in Washington today and most recently the last couple of hours on this issue." Hagel added that "we cannot confirm the origin of these weapons, but we do believe that any use of chemical weapons in Syria would very likely have originated with the Assad regime." Hagel's statement taken together with the "varying levels of confidence" modifier included in the White House's letter to Congress means that the Administration is still avoiding a conclusion; they will surely want an intelligence community consensus with a very high level of confidence (something rarely achieved).
Because if it should be "proven" that the Assad government has used chemical weapons, it will either force the president's hand to intervene in Syria, or the president will be revealed to have made threats he declines to back up. Instead, the administration has chosen to conclude that the intelligence is inconclusive.
It would be deeply inconvenient for the president of the United States to have to go to war in Syria when he placidly assures the American public that the tide of war is receding. U.S. intervention grows even more inconvenient since our unwillingness to help the rebels has led them to take help from quarters we disapprove of -- are we to fight alongside the al Nusra front, which we (rightly) characterize as a terrorist organization with al Qaeda links?
It is a problem of the president's own making, of course: He took a strident stand that any chemical weapons use would be a "game changer" precipitating American military involvement. This president likes to look tough on the international scene -- even when he's leading from behind he's taking all the credit. So we have policies designed to showcase Obama as a commanding commander in chief. In order to keep him from having to make good on his threats, the administration has taken to relying on intelligence assessments as his opt-out.
The Syria evasion is of a piece with Obama administration deflections of other intelligence conclusions that would force a change to their policies: Iran and North Korea.
With regard to the Iranian nuclear program, President Obama gave a speech (at AIPAC, no less) insisting that he would not settle for containment of a nuclear-armed Iran; he would prevent it. Since then, the secretary of defense and the director for national intelligence have both testified to Congress their strong belief that Iran "has not decided to make a nuclear weapon." In so carefully parsing their language, they are attempting to remove from consideration the evidence of Iran's capability to build a nuclear weapon in order to assert as more important Iran's intent.
What neither the secdef (then Leon Panetta) nor the DNI acknowledged is that assessing intentions is the most difficult part of intelligence work and requires a supple and deep understanding of the politics of other governments -- something we are unlikely to have about a country with complex political dynamics unhindered by institutional constraints and in which we have not had a diplomatic or economic presence for 34 years.
The Obama administration is unconcerned that other countries who have at least as good an intelligence operation directed at Iran as we do don't share our confidence that Iran hasn't made the decision to proceed. When challenged on the divergent assessments, now Secretary of Defense Hagel explained there might be "minor" differences between the U.S. and Israel on the timeline for Iran developing nuclear capacity. The Obama administration's generous timeline is a function of them "knowing" that Iran hasn't decided to proceed.
With regard to the North Korean nuclear test and military provocations, President Obama insisted he would not reward bad behavior (even as Secretary Kerry visiting Seoul offered negotiations). Lieutenant General Flynn, director of the defense intelligence agency, which is the arm of U.S. intelligence most focused on assessing military capabilities, testified before Congress that in DIA's judgment, North Korea already has the ability to mate nuclear warheads to long-range missiles. The administration's response? The President denied the conclusion in a nationally-televised interview. The director of national intelligence, Jim Clapper, also gave interviews explaining that DIA's conclusions are "not the consensus view of the intelligence community."
This is what the politicization of intelligence looks like: politicians turning their eyes away from information that is inconvenient to their agenda. It's always a bad idea.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
In his excellent critique of the critics of the Bush foreign policy legacy, Peter Feaver spotlighted Water Russell Mead's advice to Republicans to reflect "openly and honestly" on how the 43rd President forever corrupted the GOP's foreign policy credentials. Every time I hear this advice -- usually given by my Democratic friends in sorrow rather than anger -- I ask them when Democrats will reflect openly and honestly on how their own caricature of Bush foreign policy has distorted and crippled their party's capacity for strategic thought.
The fundamental flaw in President Obama's grand strategy lies in its origins -- a view of America's role in the world crafted as the mirror image of a self-satisfying political narrative about Bush. It was a worldview based on the projection of their critique of Bush onto the world and not on the fundamental dynamics of power and competition that actually exist in the international system. In the editorial pages of the New York Times, faculty lounges across the country, and the Phoenix Project on foreign policy in Washington, a hugely simplistic assessment of Bush foreign policy emerged between 2001 and 2008. American foreign policy, it was decided, had become unilateral and militaristic. Our standing in the world had collapsed (an assessment based on Western European polling and one that ignored repeated polls in Asia and Africa that showed the United States was considerably more popular at the end of the second Bush administration than the end of Clinton's time in the White House). We were not willing to talk to our adversaries, etc.,etc.
As a result, the Obama foreign policy doctrine that emerged was entirely process-oriented and based on each of these critiques. How could the United States stabilize relations with China? By cooperating on climate change, a supposedly win-win transnational theme neglected by Bush. How would the administration solve the dangerously revisionist policies of Iran and other members of the Axis of Evil? Through engagement and dialogue, an obvious tool not exploited by Bush. How would the problems of proliferation be addressed? Through a visionary speech in Prague on total nuclear disarmament, something anathema to Bush. How to handle human rights and democracy? Smarter to tone down naming and blaming so that we could reassure countries like China and Iran that we were no longer pursuing a dangerous neocon policy.
In bits and pieces realism and realists emerged triumphant in the first Obama term. Hillary Clinton's Asia policy stands out, as does the triumph of realists in the debate over the Nuclear Posture Review. But what is the Democratic foreign policy establishment's basic doctrine today? Absent the organizing principle that Bush was the root of our problems, there is no core doctrine. Of course, the critics said Bush had a doctrine ... so maybe it would be better not to have one of those after all.
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
The failure of the latest round of negotiations over Iran's nuclear program will likely bring calls for changes in the American approach -- for bilateral engagement, for an "endgame proposal," or even for reconsideration of the merits of "containment" of a nuclear-weapons-capable Iran. One such proposal -- focusing on strengthening the US "diplomatic track" with Iran -- was put forward recently by The Iran Project, a group of distinguished former U.S. officials.
There is much in the report with which I agree. In particular, the report is correct to observe that neither sanctions nor engagement alone will accomplish U.S. aims and that a combination of policy tools will be required. It is also right to begin with an assessment of U.S. and Iranian interests and objectives, which should be the starting point for any successful policy.
However, I would differ with the report on four vital issues and thus reach different conclusions regarding the way forward on Iran policy.
First, the report conflates the objectives and interests of Iran writ large with those of the Iranian regime. The principal-agent problem that bedevils even democratic governments is particularly pronounced in authoritarian regimes, such as Iran's, which are not accountable to an electorate. Care must therefore be taken to distinguish between Iranian national interests and regime interests.
When it comes to sanctions, the Iran Project report's own conclusions illustrate this distinction -- the economic costs imposed upon Iran have certainly set back Iran's national interests but have had little apparent impact on the regime's own calculus, likely in part because Iran's leaders are relatively sheltered from the impact of sanctions compared to ordinary Iranians.
This distinction must also, however, be applied when designing incentives. What the report lists as Iranian aims -- respect, acknowledgement of nuclear "rights," etc. -- appears based on the rhetoric of regime officials. That rhetoric has multiple audiences in mind -- especially public opinion in Iran and the Middle East -- and therefore deliberately obscures the gap between the interests of the regime and those audiences. An examination of Iran's policies and actions, on the other hand, suggests that the regime is primarily interested in the enrichment of regime elites, the projection of power throughout the region to ward off potential foes, and especially in the survival of its "velayat e-faqih" system of rule.
Second, the report draws a false distinction between "diplomacy" and "pressure." There is a widespread misconception that diplomacy means "being nice," which leads to engagement being seen as a reward. In fact, diplomacy is just the conduct of relations between states -- a means of communication. A skilled diplomat will use these communications both to pressure and to entice, as well as to learn about his counterpart. Whether any particular action constitutes a disincentive or incentive depends on whether it damages or advances the Iranian regime's interests, which is why understanding how the regime truly views its interests is critical to diplomatic success.
Third, the report treats Iran's nuclear ambitions as the result of U.S.-Iran hostility. In reality, both likely arise from the regime's desire to preserve itself. Anti-Americanism was a founding pillar of the current Iranian government, and abandoning it would undermine the regime's raison d'etre. As for nuclear weapons, they would under the right conditions provide Iran with a powerful deterrent to external attack. Furthermore, the regime may calculate -- based on U.S. policy toward North Korea during its recent leadership transition, as well as U.S. policy toward Pakistan -- that fears of "loose nukes" would cause outside powers not simply to be deterred, but give them a vested interest in the regime's stability. Because the threats to that stability emanate from within as well as without, Western security guarantees are unlikely to be regarded as an acceptable substitute for a nuclear arsenal.
Fourth, and most problematically, the report assumes that a nuclear agreement could result in a broader strategic shift by Iran. In fact, a nuclear agreement -- and any improvement in U.S.-Iran relations -- is more likely to be a consequence of such a shift than a cause of one. As noted above, both Iran's nuclear ambitions and its hostility toward the West are elements of a strategy to advance the regime's interests, as it conceives them. For a strategic shift to occur, the regime must be convinced that this strategy is no longer tenable.
Far from compelling the regime to rethink its strategy, however, the current Western approach is likely seen in Tehran as vindicating it. U.S. policies at the negotiating table and across the region -- a reduction in our military posture, our inaction in Syria, and our continually improving nuclear offers -- are interpreted as successes by the regime and perceived by it as indications not of good will but of desperation or decline.
Seen in this light, rather than forcing the regime to face a stark choice, the U.S. and our allies have given Iran's leaders the impression that they can have their cake and eat it too: retain an implicitly acknowledged nuclear weapons capability and not only maintain but expand its regional influence without having to adopt a posture of international cooperation.
The U.S. objective, therefore, should be to reverse this dynamic. Such an approach would require a firmer posture in the nuclear arena -- refraining from further improvements to our offer, setting red lines for Iran's nuclear program, taking steps to enhance the credibility of the U.S. military threat, and leaving open for now the question of whether we will hold further talks.
But it would also require putting the nuclear negotiations in their appropriate regional and strategic context. The regime should come to believe that a confrontational, rather than cooperative, approach to its own security will come at a price, exacted by the U.S. and our allies. There are a number of ways to send this message -- pushing back against Iranian support for terrorism, greater support for the Iranian opposition -- but the most important way to do so is through greater involvement in Syria, where Iran has much at stake.
None of these steps exclude continued or even intensified diplomacy. Successful policies should combine a range of tools employed in coordination. But the goal of all of these actions should be the same. A strategic shift by Iran -- from a zero-sum policy of confrontation to one of cooperation -- would benefit the U.S. and the region whether or not a formal nuclear agreement is reached. A nuclear agreement without such a shift, however, will prove a hollow achievement.
LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images
A surprising thing happened on the way to the coronation of Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro as the designated heir to chavismo, the movement created by the obstreperous former President Hugo Chávez, who succumbed to cancer last month. Evidently, a good number of the Venezuelan people decided that bread-and-butter issues like inflation, shortages of basic goods, electricity blackouts, and soaring street crime were more important to them than the circuses Chávez regularly supplied.
Challenger Henrique Capriles, who lost the presidential election to Chávez last October by some 11 percentage points, narrowly missed an epic upset, losing this time to Chávez's chosen successor by a count of 50.7 to 49.1 percent of the vote.
Capriles has rejected the official tally and demanded a recount of the paper receipts of each Venezuelan vote. "We are not going to recognize the result," he said, "until every vote is counted, one by one." He has also called for peaceful street demonstrations outside the electoral council offices. In welcome developments, both the Obama administration and the Organization of American States have backed the call for an audit of the election results.
Maduro's reaction was predictable, rejecting any recount and accusing Capriles of "coup-mongering." He has no doubt calculated that a recount is more dangerous to the continuation of chavismo than trying to tackle Venezuela's myriad post-Chávez challenges while dogged with questions about his legitimacy. Not only must he address declining socio-economic conditions -- including soaring inflation, a bloated public sector, a crippled private one, electricity blackouts, shortages of basic goods, and one of the highest homicide rates in the world -- he must also deal with a reinvigorated opposition while attempting to manage a movement that is splintering under the weight of corruption and competing interests.
Already, Maduro has been put on notice that he is under scrutiny from his own side. Diosdado Cabello, the powerful head of the National Assembly and long-seen as a Maduro rival within chavismo, said of the election: "These results require deep self-criticism ... Let's turn over every stone to find our faults, but we cannot put the fatherland or the legacy of our commander [Chávez] in danger."
What is clear is that Venezuela's contested election likely presages a period of political turmoil not seen in the country since 2002, when Chávez was briefly ousted from power. But it also presents an extraordinary opportunity for the United States to actively defend its regional interests. No one is advocating that the Obama administration engage in mud-slinging contests with Hugo Chávez wannabes, but neither should we remain silent on matters of principle and U.S. security.
For example, the Iranian presence in Venezuela, including the existence of a number of suspicious industrial facilities, and the prodigious use of Venezuelan territory for drug shipments to the United States and Europe have been tolerated for too long without any effective U.S. response. (Several high-ranking associates of the late President Chávez have been designated as "drug kingpins" by the U.S. Treasury Department.
Maduro's shaky standing today within Venezuela means there is increased leverage for the United States to hold the government accountable for its threats to regional stability. It is not likely Maduro will be able to withstand the pressure coming not only from the opposition and his own coalition, but from the United States as well. That can come in the form of more designations and indictments of Venezuelan officials involved in drug trafficking and violating sanctions against Iran, but also repeated public calls to disassociate his government from these criminal activities.
The administration must also continue to stand behind the Venezuelan opposition on matters of principle. Voters deserve a clear accounting of what transpired last Sunday. The future of their country hangs in the balance.
GERALDO CASO/AFP/Getty Images
Since I posted about the myths promulgated by critics of the Iraq war, it is only fair that I follow-up and demonstrate that I do know that (a) war supporters did not have a monopoly on truth either and (b) there are plenty of worthy debates about Iraq that could inform current policy challenges.
My "top five" mistakes that the Bush administration made in the handling of the war (setting aside the obvious ones related to the intelligence failures of overestimating the extent to which Saddam had reconstituted his WMD programs):
1. Prewar: Not having a formal NSC-level meeting where the pros and cons of war were debated before the President after which a clear NSC vote and presidential decision was made. There was, of course, a policy process reviewing options in Iraq and that process identified many problems, some of which were avoided and some of which never arose. Still other problems that did arise were raised as possibilities but not given the attention they deserved. The entire process, however, was kept compartmentalized and somewhat truncated to avoid leaks and thus interfere with the diplomatic track. In retrospect, that was a mistake. I think had there been a more formal process with more extensive consideration of the pros and cons and what-ifs the Bush administration still might have roughly followed the path they took, but I believe some of the later struggles might have been less of a surprise, allowing the administration to adjust more quickly.
2. Prewar: Not thoroughly debating what we would do if the Iraqi state security apparatus collapsed, thus invalidating the war-plan's assumptions that we could count on around 150 thousand Iraqi troops to handle stability operations and that we could just hand over Iraq to a hastily assembled Iraqi governing structure. General Franks' war plan expected many Iraqi forces to surrender en masse as happened in Desert Storm and called for the coalition to use those Iraqi units for basic security and law enforcement in the immediate aftermath of Hussein's toppling. However, rather than maintaining intact, the Iraqi units collapsed, leaving a huge manpower hole for the post-invasion phase of the plan. In other words, the problem with the war plan was not that there were inadequate troops for security and stabilization under Plan A. The problem was that inadequate attention had been given to considering Plan B, should Plan A turn out to be unrealistic, as happened.
3. Post-invasion: Not continuing to pay the Iraqi army even though it dissolved and deciding instead to start totally fresh. That decision was reversed a few weeks later, but by that time the damage was done and the seeds of the insurgency were sown. I think it would have been better to continue to pay the old Iraqi army from the outset while trying to rebuild the army.
4. Post-invasion: Allowing General Franks to walk away and hand over the Iraq mission to General Sanchez. General Franks deserves credit for crafting a remarkably successful invasion plan -- one that defied the critics, many of whom argued that the invasion would be far more difficult and bloody than it was. But he should have been obliged to stay until Iraq was on a more secure trajectory. Transitioning to a new command at such a delicate time would have been difficult even if Franks' successor had been supremely capable. By most accounts, General Sanchez was not capable of handling the mission, and so the transition was doubly disruptive.
And since all of those mistakes took place before I officially joined the Bush Administration NSC in 2005, I should add one that took place on my watch:
5. Post-2005: Failure to engage critics on false claims about the war -- the reluctance to "relitigate the past" -- which allowed the myths to get entrenched. The Bush team acted as if the successful 2004 election settled all historical debates about Iraq and largely ignored the relentless partisan critique that continued without interruption. But the partisan attacks took their toll, and by 2007 or even 2006, President Bush's bully pulpit was all but exhausted.
Of course, I could easily come up with five or ten more errors (just as I could easily come up with five or ten more popular-but-flawed critiques of the Iraq war). And I am not saying that if all of these mistakes had been corrected that the Iraq mission would have gone swimmingly.
I do think, however, that it might have gone better and I am confident that absent those (and other errors) the country would be in a better place to debate the really important issues that remain rather than get stuck on secondary ones.
Which brings me to my second list of five: five debates that still matter. In the vigorous debate over Iraq before the invasion (and another one of the myths is that there was no such public debate), there were many legitimate arguments raised. The arduous course of the war has raised still other valid concerns. Many of these are quite relevant to the new challenges we face. Here are ones I find particularly compelling:
1. How should presidents decide under conditions of intelligence uncertainty? This was the nub of the pre-war policy debate. To my knowledge, there was no major voice in the U.S. policymaking process that correctly guessed the truth about Iraq's WMD program: that Saddam was bluffing that he had kept his WMD stockpile (and may have believed that he was better positioned to restart his programs than he really was because some of his subordinates may have been deceiving him) so as to deter the Iranians. But he was also hoping to persuade enough of the international community that he had fulfilled the UNSC resolution requirements so that the international community would lift the sanctions/inspections, at which point he would quickly reconstitute the forbidden programs. No one posited that as the situation we faced. There were, however, many who argued that we did not know for sure just how extensive Saddam Hussein's WMD programs were and so we should not act until we had greater certainty. The counterargument was that we would never gain such certainty until it was too late. Both sides in that debate had a reasonable case to make and both are directly relevant to the current conundrum with Iran. What should we do about Iran when there are irreducible uncertainties about Iran's progress and intentions toward a nuclear weapon?
2. Could we have lived with an Iraqi WMD capability by simply containing him as we contained the Soviet Union or are currently trying to contain North Korea? Even more war opponents were willing to stipulate that Hussein had a formidable WMD arsenal but argued that this did not require war because we could use classical deterrence and containment tools to manage the threat. The counterarguments were that Hussein was less deterrable than the Soviet Union and that the secondary security concerns raised by a growing Iraqi arsenal would destabilize the region -- and leave us vulnerable to a terrorist WMD threat, which would not be so deterrable. This is precisely the issue in dispute today regarding Iran, with many of the old Iraq critics making the same arguments. Interestingly, President Bush's role in making the case that containment is not an acceptable option is now being fulfilled by President Obama. There is an eerie echo between Obama's Iran rhetoric and Bush's Iraq rhetoric.
3. Is chaos caused by action harder to manage than chaos caused by inaction? One important aspect of the neoconservative argument regarding Iraq was the claim that it would be easier to influence events in Iraq if we took decisive action than if we delayed while threats gathered. It turned out that Iraq was far more difficult to manage than war-supporters believed it would be. However, we now are conducting something of a test-case of the opposite side of the proposition. The Obama Administration has studiously avoided decisive action on Syria and the result is a downward security trajectory in Syria that looks very much like the problems that arose in Iraq. There is a bloody sectarian civil war, radical AQ-sympathizers are growing in power, Iran has increased its influence, the stability of the region is threatened, and the United States has lost much credibility in the eyes of regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, not to mention inspiring resentment among the Syrian people. The United States may not bear as much moral responsibility in Syria since it did not invade and topple Assad, but will it avoid political responsibility for managing the consequences if Syria explodes/implodes, as seems likely? And if we face that worst-case scenario, will the chaos produced by post-collapse Syria be any easier to manage than the chaos produced by post-invasion Iraq?
4. Can we do regime change and walk away? The original Bush administration plan for managing Iraq was to topple Hussein, rapidly create some new governing authority (made up principally of exiles), and then hand over the security apparatus of the Iraqi state to them to let them build the new Iraq. This plan collapsed when the Iraqi security apparatus collapsed. But President Obama has tried something similar with the lead-from-behind approach in Libya. Despite the knock-on effects in Mali and Benghazi, which have taken the bloom off the rose of lead-from-behind, it is probable that the Obama administration still feels like they made the right bet. Would such a plan work in Syria? What about North Korea? Or Iran?
5. Do we encourage the behavior we desire from recalcitrant partners by assuring them of our continued support or by assuring them that we are leaving them? Despite campaigning on a slash-and-burn critique of Bush's Iraq policy, President Obama ended up mostly following the strategy on Iraq that he inherited but for two key differences: (i) the Obama team mishandled negotiations with Prime Minister Maliki over a new Status of Forces Agreement; and (ii) where Bush tried to cajole better behavior by reassuring the Iraqis that they could count on long-term U.S. support, Obama tried to cajole better behavior by threatening Iraqis with U.S. withdrawal/abandonment. Obama's approach in Iraq failed, and as a result today many of the gains of the surge have eroded. It may be too late to win those gains back in Iraq, and, in any case, the focus of the policy debate has shifted to Afghanistan. Here the Obama administration seems on track to following the same script. Will it work better in Afghanistan than it worked in Iraq?
The bottom line of this post is the same as the bottom line of my earlier one: There are reasonable critiques and reasonable debates to have on Iraq and as a country we would be better served to focus on them rather than on the caricatures that dominate the conventional wisdom.
LUKE FRAZZA/AFP/Getty Images
In the months before the latest round of P5+1 negotiations in Almaty, many analysts had been urging the United States to adopt what became known as a "more for more" approach. That is, offer Iran more relief from sanctions in exchange for more nuclear concessions by Tehran.
It is now evident that Washington instead adopted a "more for less" strategy. More relief from sanctions was indeed offered (according to reports -- the U.S. terms have not been made available for public scrutiny), but in exchange for fewer, not more, concessions by Iran. In particular, the P5+1 has dropped its previous demand that Iran shutter its second enrichment facility at Fordow.
Even discounting the fact that the P5+1 appears to be negotiating with itself -- Iran did not respond to the P5+1's last offer and by all accounts made no formal response to the new offer -- the group's approach to negotiating is flawed. To understand why, one must consider the underlying dynamics of negotiations (for a longer version of this analysis, see this article I co-authored with Prof. Jim Sebenius in the latest issue of International Security).
Success in any negotiation depends on the existence of a "zone of possible agreement" (ZOPA) -- in other words, a range of possible outcomes which both sides judge to be better than not making a deal at all. To use a simple example, if the seller of a house will accept a minimum of $200,000, and a prospective buyer will offer at most $250,000, the ZOPA is between those two figures -- $200,000 to $250,000. The existence of a ZOPA does not guarantee that a deal will be made -- there are still plenty of obstacles to reaching agreement -- but it does mean that a deal is at least possible. If there is no ZOPA, then even the most skilled negotiator will be unable to broker a deal.
In the P5+1 negotiations, analysts have frequently sought to blame the long stalemate between the parties on mistrust, miscommunication, or other tactical matters. But in fact the underlying cause of the talks' failure to produce an outcome has more likely been that no ZOPA was present -- the least Iran would accept was a far more expansive nuclear program than the U.S. and its allies could tolerate, rendering the discussions futile.
Faced with the absence of a ZOPA, there are three ways to create one. First, by exerting pressure that imposes upon the targeted side an additional cost associated with failing to reach an agreement. To return to the home-buying example above, if the seller is moving and has another house under contract for which he requires the proceeds from the sale of his current home, the costs of failing to make a deal rise. This should cause him to reconsider his bottom line, and perhaps accept a less generous offer than he would have previously. While the stakes in a nuclear negotiation are much higher, the principle behind sanctions and other forms of pressure are the same -- they raise the cost of failing to make a deal and incentivize the targeted side to reconsider its negotiating position.
The second way a ZOPA can be created is through incentives or deal sweeteners. Just as home-sellers might offer to help with financing or even to throw in a new car or a vacation to motivate prospective buyers, the P5+1 has offered Iran a range of incentives to motivate it to compromise, from assistance with civil nuclear power to science and technology cooperation. In principle, such incentives improve the value of an agreement and thus pry open a ZOPA that much more.
The P5+1 has tried both of these avenues for creating a ZOPA, though undoubtedly has recently focused far more on pressure than on incentives. These efforts, over the course of many years, have nevertheless foundered, likely because the Iranian regime values a potential nuclear weapons capability -- and the prestige and security that it could bring -- far more than even the oil exports and economic opportunity it has sacrificed to pursue it, and certainly more than Western incentives that Iranian officials have previously characterized as a pittance.
There is, however, a third way to open up a ZOPA in negotiations -- to change one's own bottom line. The temptation to do so will be familiar to anyone who has been involved in a negotiation, during which the impetus to make a deal for its own sake can override previous calculations of one's interests. This appears to have been the P5+1's approach in the Almaty round -- faced with Iranian intransigence, the group decided to accept what it had previously declared unacceptable, namely the Fordow enrichment facility. The existence of this facility had been secret until it was revealed with much fanfare by President Obama, French President Sarkozy, and British Prime Minister Brown in a 2009 press conference, at which they described Fordow as "a direct challenge to the basic compact at the center of the non-proliferation regime."
Sometimes a negotiating party revises his bottom line because of pressures or incentives served up by the other side. Sometimes it is done unilaterally in pursuit of a deal or as a result of reconsidering whether one can really stomach the consequences of failing to reach a deal, which may now be the case with the P5+1.
There are good reasons, however, to avoid unilateral changes in one's bottom line. First and foremost, there were presumably good reasons for staking out that bottom line in the first place. This is certainly true regarding the P5+1's previous insistence that Fordow be dismantled. This facility, more than any other element of Iran's nuclear program, offers Iran a clear path to a nuclear weapons capability, as it is buried deep underground and hardened against aerial attack. Allowing Iran to maintain centrifuge cascades there -- even under IAEA seal -- means that they retain the option to make a nuclear weapon.
Second, negotiations are about perceptions, and continual, incremental shifts in one's bottom line can convey to the party across the table that your "true" bottom line has yet to be reached. In other words, Iran may be excused for thinking that if only they hold out longer against international pressure the demand that they suspend enrichment at Fordow or that they cap enrichment at 20 percent, may fall by the wayside just as the demands for shuttering Fordow, suspending enrichment altogether, and refraining from operating centrifuges have in the past.
Iran may thus misperceive the size and scope of a ZOPA, and may be willing to wait a long time to secure the best possible outcome, having taken eight years to extract the Fordow concession from Washington. In effect, this means undoing whatever progress was achieved through sanctions and incentives in opening a ZOPA by conveying a (hopefully) false impression of the P5+1's own flexibility and bottom line.
Most ominously for the P5+1, it is possible that no ZOPA will ever be opened in the Iran nuclear negotiations because the Iranian regime cannot brook the idea of any compromise with the United States, enmity or "resistance" toward which was a guiding principle of the regime's founding ideology. If this is the case, Tehran will simply pocket the concessions offered by the P5+1, and Fordow will be lent legitimacy just as the October 2009 "TRR deal" lent legitimacy to Iran's low-level uranium enrichment activities. In this case, the U.S. and its allies may find themselves in the unenviable position of advocating a military strike on facilities that they have now declared no longer outside the bounds of international law, but tolerable under the right conditions.
STANISLAV FILIPPOV/AFP/Getty Images
For national security conservatives, last week's State of the Union address was something of a wasteland. On the most pressing challenges facing the nation -- Iranian and North Korean nukes, Syria's meltdown, the war in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda's metastasization, the looming disaster of defense sequestration -- we were treated to a heaping portion of presidential mush, platitudes, and happy talk largely detached from the urgency of the historical moment. The overall effect will surely reinforce a dangerous perception that has increasingly taken root among friend and foe alike: America is waning. The world may be unraveling, but as far as President Obama is concerned, it's really not our problem. U.S. leadership is closed for the season. We're busy nation building at home.
Dismal as it was, there was a section of the president's address that may hold unexpected promise. Though wrapped in a bright green bow of climate change, Obama's discussion of energy could have important national security consequences. Of particular note was his embrace of an energy security trust fund. The proposal is the brainchild of an organization called Securing America's Future Energy (SAFE) and its Energy Security Leadership Council (ESLC) -- the "nonpartisan coalition of CEOs and retired generals and admirals" that the president highlighted in his speech.
In a report issued last December, SAFE and the ESLC called for the establishment of an energy security trust that would be funded by royalties derived from expanded drilling for oil and gas on federal lands. The trust would have one purpose only: supporting R&D on technologies designed to break oil's stranglehold over America's transportation sector, which accounts for about 70 percent of overall U.S. consumption.
Importantly, the underlying motive behind the SAFE/ESLC proposal had nothing to do with climate change and everything to do with national security and the country's economic health. Its authors properly see America's dependence on oil as a major strategic vulnerability. Even taking into account today's revolution in North American energy production, the United States for the foreseeable future will remain mired in a global petroleum market characterized by high and volatile prices, domination by an oftentimes hostile cartel, and the constant threat of disruption by geopolitical events in the world's most unstable regions. While convinced that America's current oil and gas boom must be fully exploited for the huge economic benefits it promises, SAFE and the ESLC also believe it must be leveraged for the long-term objective of breaking our dependence on oil once and for all -- thereby achieving true energy security and a measure of strategic flexibility that U.S. foreign policy has not known for decades.
National security conservatives should be sympathetic to the effort. As I've recounted elsewhere, while the idea of targeting Iranian oil sales as a means of pressuring its nuclear program has been around since at least 2007, the trigger on such sanctions wasn't pulled until 2012. For almost five years, both the Bush and Obama administrations were deterred from taking aggressive action due to fears that removing large quantities of Iranian crude from the market might produce a devastating price shock that would inflict major harm on the global economy.
That's five crucial years that were largely frittered away while Iran was allowed to earn hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue, dramatically enhance its enrichment capacity, and accumulate a stockpile of enriched uranium that with further processing could be used to build a handful of nuclear bombs. Five crucial years during which the pursuit of America's most pressing national security priority -- stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons -- was dangerously constrained by our vulnerability to global oil markets. If that's not an intolerable situation for the world's leading nation to be in, I'm not sure what is. If there's a realistic strategy for doing something to mitigate it, we damn well should get started.
Equally worth noting, however, is the fact that when oil sanctions were finally imposed on Iran last year -- cutting Iranian exports by up to a million barrels per day -- a major disruption to global markets was successfully avoided in no small measure because of corresponding increases in oil production from the United States. As the race to stop Iran's nuclear program intensifies in coming months and further steps to curtail Iranian exports are contemplated -- perhaps removing as much as another 1.5 million barrels per day from the world market -- continued growth in U.S. production will only become more vital.
Now that President Obama has sought to co-opt the ESLC's CEOs, generals, and admirals for his purposes, it's vital to keep in mind the details of what exactly their energy security trust entails. Perhaps most importantly, the ESLC proposed that money for the Trust should come from new drilling in currently inaccessible federal lands and waters -- specifically to include the Pacific, Atlantic and eastern Gulf of Mexico areas of the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS), as well as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Moreover, the funds should be drawn from royalties that oil companies already pay as a matter of standard operating procedure when granted drilling rights in areas owned by the federal government. More pointedly, the trust as envisioned by SAFE and ESLC, explicitly ruled out the leveling of any new fees or taxes -- carbon or otherwise -- on oil and gas production. Finally, it's important to note that the money that would be diverted to the trust represents but a small fraction -- much less than 10 percent -- of the total new royalties that would fill federal coffers by opening the designated areas to drilling.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this isn't quite the Obama administration's vision for the Trust -- at least not yet. Most importantly, the administration is proposing that the money should be raised from royalties on existing production rather than from new production in the OCS and ANWR.
While Republicans should see the trust as an idea worth exploring and engage with Obama accordingly, they should hold fast to the ESLC's actual recommendation that explicitly links the trust to the opening of federal areas that were previously off limits. If the president wants to cloak himself in a proposal that "a nonpartisan coalition of CEOs and retired generals and admirals can get behind," Republicans should insist that he at least remain faithful to that proposal's core content.
The weight of the argument certainly favors Republicans. Economically, expanding oil production will serve as a huge boon to a still faltering U.S. economy. Strategically, it can play a vital role in stabilizing nervous global markets, especially in light of the looming showdown over Iran's nuclear weapons program. And politically, the reality is that no deal on an energy security trust is likely to get done unless Republicans get something significant on expanded drilling. Addressing that central pillar in the GOP's energy platform is probably an essential trade-off if Republicans are expected to overcome their deep-seated skepticism and go along with yet more funding for the Democrats' favorite hobby horse of green energy research.
Of course, it was the prospect of a win-win compromise that represented the genius of the SAFE/ESLC proposal in the first place. Republicans get expanded drilling. Democrats get more money for green energy. And in a single package, the sometimes competing goals of economic growth, reducing oil dependence, and lowering carbon emissions could all be addressed in a reasonable way. Something for everyone. That's the basis for broad consensus on a bipartisan energy deal that might actually do the country considerable good. If President Obama turns out to be truly serious about it, Republicans should be prepared to meet him half way.
One final note: For any Washington think tank, having the president of the United States specifically reference your organization in a State of the Union address and endorse one of its policy recommendations is the equivalent of hitting the jackpot. Major kudos to SAFE, an organization that I work with in an advisory capacity. Its success is a great reminder of the extraordinarily important contribution that privately funded non-profit research institutions can make to U.S. policy and the advancement of American interests.
Tom Pennington/Getty Images
No doubt many Republicans in Washington are experiencing a bit of schadenfreude over the controversies swirling around the newly installed chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Robert Menendez. He is a bare-knuckled partisan who never backs down from a political brawl. So investigations into his alleged advocacy on behalf of a major donor -- including a salacious sidebar of unsubstantiated allegations about underage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic -- have not surprisingly stirred some to try and fan the flames of what they hope to be the Senator's immolation.
For example, a group called the American Future Fund (touting itself as, "Advocating Conservative, Free Market Ideals") published a full-page ad in Politico this week with the subtle title: "Senate Ethics Committee: Meet Your New Chairman of ‘Foreign Relations.'" Har har.
Of course, if the worst of the accusations turn out to be true, then no one disputes the fact that the Senator should immediately resign and face the consequences. But there are ample reasons to hope that they are not -- first and foremost, for the sake of the alleged victims. Secondly, conservatives reveling in the senator's current predicament may want to stop and consider what Menendez's possible fall from grace would mean for U.S. national security interests.
That's because on key foreign policy issues during his career -- pressuring Iran, defending Israel, and promoting regional security -- Menendez has been stalwart and, indeed, much more hard-line than his predecessor as chairman of SFRC, John Kerry, and, more importantly, than the next two Democrats in line of succession should he lose the chairmanship: the uber-liberal California Democrat Barbara Boxer and the nondescript, party-line Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat.
As just one example, Menendez recently bucked White House opposition by winning Senate passage of increased Iran sanctions in the 2012 Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act, as well as authoring Iran sanctions provisions in recent defense authorization bills.
Soon after assuming the SFRC Chair, he told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "I'm looking forward to working very closely with the administration, but I will always have my degree of independence on the things I care about." And those of us who have worked with him over the years know he cares about the right things: freedom, human rights, and taking the fight to America's enemies.
No, Menendez is not warm and fuzzy, and more than a few fellow Republicans have borne the brunt of his ire. But looking out over the international landscape, with the U.S. facing myriad challenges in Iran, North Korea, the Middle East, and North Africa, the country can certainly use an SFRC chairman who is unabashed and unapologetic about defending U.S. interests abroad.
Whatever is going to happen with ongoing investigations is going to happen. Conservatives should just let the process play out, without the bells and whistles. If he is found guilty, then he will have to be held accountable. But one thing is certain: If Menendez loses his chairmanship of SFRC, it is not just his loss and the Democratic Party's loss, it is America's as well.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
As I wrote in a recent op-ed for the New York Times, calls for direct talks with Iran have been on the rise, in large part due to the lack of movement in talks between Iran and the P5+1, which includes the United States, the United Kingdon, France, Germany, Russia, and China. The P5+1 is entering its eighth year of discussions with Tehran, yet has made little progress toward a nuclear agreement while Iran has vastly expanded its nuclear capacity. This raises a question I do not address in the op-ed -- is there a continued role for the P5+1?
For diplomats, large international coalitions hold an irresistible allure, especially when dealing with troublesome regimes. Acting in concert through groupings such as the P5+1 improves international compliance with sanctions and reinforces the target state's isolation, in theory amplifying the pressure upon it and enhancing the prospects for achieving the coalition's objectives.
Such a broad grouping has downsides, however. First, coordination -- whether on carrots or sticks - takes time, and lots of it. A host of factors, from each state's domestic politics to unrelated international disputes among the members, prevents quick resolution of differences.
Second, the states all have different interests at stake. The United States sees Iran as a broad threat, given its support for terrorism and its destabilizing activities in the Middle East, which is only magnified by Tehran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. Russia and China see the issue differently. Tehran may target restaurants in Washington, but it avoids entangling itself in Chechnya and Xinjiang. As a result, many in Moscow and Beijing see Iran not as a threat, but as a potential (if difficult) partner in constraining Washington's exercise of power and influence in the region.
The result of these varying interests is a lowest-common-denominator approach, whereby the group focuses on the one thing that they can all agree upon. In this case, that is Iran's compliance with the international nonproliferation rules, which all of the major powers would like to see preserved. Any agreement the P5+1 reaches is likely to focus narrowly on Iran's nuclear capabilities; other issues of interest to the United States and the European Union -- whether Iran's regional activities or human rights record -- are left to be pursued by separate, ad hoc coalitions of likeminded countries outside the official negotiations.
Given these downsides and the plodding pace of the negotiations, it is little wonder that calls for direct U.S.-Iran talks are on the rise. But the dismissal of such talks by Iran's supreme leader and the long and unsuccessful history of U.S.-Iran contacts suggest bilateral talks would not prove any more of a silver bullet than multilateral ones have been. The US offer of direct talks with Iran is likely to make more of an impression on our coalition partners -- convincing them that we are going the extra mile on diplomacy and hopefully pushing them to do the same on pressure -- than on the Iranian regime.
Indeed, while we should not hesitate to employ diplomacy creatively and flexibly in service of our policy aims, Iranian truculence likely ensures that the P5+1 will remain the most meaningful forum for talks on Iran's nuclear program. Tehran appears to see compromise as more dangerous than maintaining its confrontational stance toward neighbors and the West; Iran's leaders must be persuaded that in fact failing to compromise is the greater danger. Doing so will require various forms of international pressure -- diplomatic, economic, and military -- which must be marshaled through multilateral diplomacy. As I note in the Times piece, a broader U.S.-Iran breakthrough, if it occurs, is more likely to be a consequence of a strategic shift by Iran than a cause of one.
Mohammed Ameen - Pool/Getty Images
The United States, protected by two oceans and with a global range of allies and interests, has found for a century that it must go abroad to shape and lead a dangerous world. But President Barack Obama seems, in some respects, to prefer to stay home. Whereas George W. Bush's foreign policy was maximalist, Obama's is minimalist. A foreign policy assessment only halfway through his presidency is no doubt unfair -- he may yet vanquish Iran's nuclear weapons program, put an overdue end to Syria's bloody civil war, stand down Chinese aggression in Asian waters, and oversee a historic wave of trade liberalization. But he has not yet. The Obama Doctrine appears less ambitious. Here are its elements to date:
Nation-building at home, not abroad. President Obama took office so determined to "end the war" in Iraq that he failed to negotiate a follow-on force to sustain stability there. In Afghanistan, after a decade of allied sacrifice and real gains, the administration astonishingly is now flirting with the "zero option" of leaving no U.S. forces there after 2014. Obama prefers to focus on "nation-building at home." But will he be able to if Iraq or Afghanistan backslide into civil war, or if Syria's violent spillover engulfs the Middle East? For all the tactical efficacy of drone strikes, the United States cannot possibly defeat terrorism without at the same time working to build free and prosperous societies in countries, like Pakistan, that nurture it.
Resisting transformationalism. Notwithstanding excellent speeches about bridging the gap between America and the Muslim world, President Obama has treaded more gingerly in his policies. He did not support Iran's Green Revolution and has stood back from the opportunities inherent in the Arab Awakening, allowing post-strongman societies in the Middle East to devise new political arrangements for themselves. Obama has a nuanced understanding of the limits of power and the tragedy of international politics from his oft-cited reading of Reinhold Niebuhr. But the greater tragedy may be declining to use America's great power to more actively support Arab and Iranian liberals desperate to build free societies against fierce opposition from Islamist and ancien regime forces.
"Leading from behind." In Libya, Syria, and now Mali, we have seen Washington's European allies push for, or carry out themselves, armed interventions to uphold human rights and regional stability. Americans are used to being the hawks in world affairs, and Europeans the doves -- but those roles have reversed under President Obama. This turns the transatlantic bargain on its head: Europeans now seem more concerned with policing out-of-area crises, with America playing a supporting role. But is such passivity really in Washington's interest? Can Europe really lead in matters of war and peace without America at the front?
Rebalancing American power toward Asia. America's "pivot" has been welcomed in much of Asia and across party lines in Washington. But as Joseph Nye argues, the United States has been pivoting to Asia since the end of the Cold War. It would be more accurate to say that Obama himself pivoted away from seeking a G-2 condominium with China to balancing against it. His administration's support for liberalization in Myanmar has been historic -- but senior U.S. officials say the process is driven by Naypyidaw, not Washington. It is also unclear if the pivot is more than a rhetorical policy; President Obama has already authorized defense budget cuts of nearly $900 million and supports more.
Unsentimentality towards allies. Even amidst the rebalance, Asian allies like Japan and friends like India have felt neglected by this American president. Similarly, Obama's attention to the transatlantic relationship seems inversely proportional to the affection Europeans feel for him. Despite significant defense transfers, the U.S. administration appears as concerned with preventing Israel from attacking Iran as preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Hard-headedness is a virtue in international relations. America's allies, however, expect it to be directed more at U.S. adversaries than at our friends.
A trade policy high in ambition, if not results. President Obama commendably seeks to double U.S. exports as part of an economic recovery program. His administration has sketched out a transformative vision of an Atlantic marketplace and a Trans-Pacific Partnership. But movement on both has been very slow -- at least as slow as the three years it took for Obama to send Congress free trade agreements, with Korea and other countries, negotiated by his predecessor. The potential for an ambitious trade opening is promising -- if Obama can deliver.
President John F. Kennedy said America would pay any price and bear any burden in support of liberty. President Obama has made clear that under his leadership, America will not do quite so much. But strategic minimalism and a focus on the domestic means problems abroad only grow, inevitably pulling America into crises on less favorable terms. The world looks to America for strategic initiative to solve its thorniest problems. At the moment, demand for this leadership is greater than supply.
This article appeared over the weekend in the special Security Times edition prepared for the Munich Conference on Security Policy and published by Germany's Times Media. The paper as it appeared in print is available at www.times-media.de .
John Gurzinski/Getty Images
Is it possible that the debate and vote on Senator Hagel's confirmation for secretary of defense will be the closest the Senate comes to a debate and vote on the use of force in Iran? As the administration showed on Libya, President Obama believes he can use military force without a prior congressional vote. The administration would be very wary about asking for something it is not absolutely certain it could get, and it would have to be very uncertain of winning such an "authorization to use military force in Iran" vote. Accordingly, it is likely that, if it ever came to it, the Obama administration might believe it must use military force against Iran's nuclear program without the kind of lengthy and contentious congressional debate that preceded the 2003 Iraq war and the 1991 Iraq war.
If my speculations are correct thus far -- a big if, I realize -- then a further, ironic speculation may also be correct: a vote for Hagel may be a vote against the use of force in Iran.
Let's stipulate up front that hawks and doves alike would prefer a negotiated solution with Iran in which Iran verifiably abandoned its nuclear ambitions. The debate between hawks and doves is not a debate between those who think the use of force would be swell and those who know it would not be. It is rather a debate between hawks who think that the "unswell" military option is preferable to learning to live with an Iranian nuclear weapon (and/or accepting a hitherto unacceptable negotiated deal that could not be prevented from devolving into "learning to live with an Iranian nuclear weapons") and doves who think that it is preferable to learn to live with an Iranian nuclear weapon than to resort to force.
Officially, the Obama administration's policy is, by this metric, hawkish. So far as I can determine, Senator Hagel's position has been dovish and has remained dovish.
Hawks and doves differ on one further question: why haven't we been able to get a negotiated solution with Iran thus far? Doves say the reason is that the United States has hitherto botched diplomacy by rejecting legitimate Iranian overtures, failing to adequately negotiate face-to-face, having too many sticks and not enough carrots in the mix, and over-relying on unilateral sanctions; more creative diplomacy from the United States should be able to open up an acceptable deal. Hawks say the reason is that hitherto Iran has not experienced enough pain to be willing to concede on key issues and so the key is to ratchet up the coercive element of coercive diplomacy (whilst keeping the diplomatic element alive as well) until Iran makes the requisite concessions.
Officially, the Obama 2008 campaign was dovish by this metric but the Administration has moved towards the hawkish pole over the past several years. So far as I can determine, Senator Hagel's position has been dovish and has remained dovish.
If you were President Obama and you were in fact still hawkish -- i.e. you believed you might need to use military force -- why would you nominate the dovish Hagel?
One possibility -- call it the "Nixon to China" possibility -- is that a hawkish Obama is nominating a dovish Hagel because only a dove like Hagel could persuade reluctant doves in Congress, in the Pentagon, and in the broader public to support military action on Iran, should it ever come to it (which, I am sure, Obama devoutly hopes it never will). Likewise, only a dove like Hagel could convince skeptics that the Obama administration has done everything it can on the negotiations front and that no further U.S. concessions are warranted. That might be Obama's calculation, but this would be a grave risk to take. Senator Hagel earned his prominence by being an iconoclast, by breaking with his president, by sticking to his anti-interventionist instincts even when it might have seemed disloyal to do so. Such a maverick would be more likely to break with the hawkish Obama when push came to shove than to blot his military copybook by supporting military action on Iran. I can't rule it out, but I think the "Nixon to China" interpretation is the wrong one.
A more likely possibility is that Obama is in fact dovish, despite what the official policy says. That is, I think it is possible that when push comes to shove President Obama may believe it would be preferable to live with an Iranian nuclear weapon (or a bad deal that was tantamount to that) than to use military force. He may also believe that the administration has migrated as far to the hawkish pole on the question of how to structure negotiations with Iran as is wise, and that it is time to try more dovish approaches to negotiations. An Obama that is a dove-in-hawk's-feathers would find a Secretary Hagel fully in harmony with his views.
There is a lot of tea-leaf-reading in the foregoing, in part because Sen. Hagel has not been pinned down on his current views on Iran and the crucial question about which is worse, living with an Iranian nuclear weapon or resorting to force. I expect that to be one of the main foci of the confirmation hearings. And I expect the debate those questions and answers engender to be one of the liveliest debates the political establishment has had to date on the Iran issue.
Which means that Hagel's confirmation hearings and vote may be something of a proxy for congressional action on the use of force on Iran.
Update: Someone much more knowledgeable about the region than I am pointed out another irony about the Hagel nomination. If the hawks are correct both about Sen. Hagel's views and about what hinders negotiations with Iran, then the appointment of Hagel, on the margins, potentially increases the likelihood of the outcome the doves profess most to despise: an Israeli preventive strike on Iran. Here is how the logic plays out: If the hawks are right, the appointment of Hagel undermines the use of force threat, which both undermines negotiations with Iran and undermines Israeli confidence that it can trust the United States to, in Obama's words, "have its back." Failing negotiations, coupled with growing Israeli doubts, intensifies pressure on Israeli leaders to take matters into their own hands, with all of the predictable undesirable consequences that will ensue. Irony of ironies, such Israeli action might be taken to confirm Hagel's critique of Israel, the same critique that some supporters say justifies his confirmation and others say justifies voting against him. Secretary Hagel, my friend suggests, might be a self-fulfilling prophet.
There are too many hypotheticals piled upon hypotheticals to bet the farm on this chain of logic. For one thing, a Secretary Hagel would doubtless work tirelessly to head off such an Israeli preventive strike and the administration may well succeed in preventing Israeli action even if they do not succeed in preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon. And, of course, the hawks might be wrong about Hagel's views or the likely consequences of those views for coercive diplomacy. But if Hagel is as wise and prudent as his supporters claim, it would probably serve him well to think through "what-ifs" like these and to clarify his views in the hearings accordingly.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
President Obama is set to nominate Sen. Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense and his team seems to relish the confirmation battle that will ensue. Obama is calculating that he will be able to rally enough wobbly Democrats and skeptical Republicans to overcome the strong opposition to Hagel. In the end, I think he is probably right: there is usually a strong presumption in favor of a president's nominee and Democrats will be loathe to hand the president another personnel defeat so soon after he was forced to back off nominating Ambassador Susan Rice to be secretary of state. Lower ranking candidates are often stuck in limbo for long periods of time with senatorial holds, but it would be more unusual for one of the top cabinet positions to be blocked that way. Doubtless, Obama is calculating there will be lots of fireworks at the confirmation hearing, but eventually Hagel will get confirmed, albeit without the resounding and enthusiastic support that ushered in Obama's first two SecDef picks (Leon Panetta was confirmed unanimously and Robert Gates, received a 95-2 vote when nominated by President Bush. Quick trivia quiz: Who voted against Gates? Two Republicans, Sen. Jim Bunning and Sen. Rick Santorum, though Senators Joe Biden, Evan Bayh, and Elizabeth Dole did not vote).
My bet is Obama will win this fight, which raises the question, what will he have won? Based on the commentary surrounding the Hagel nomination issue, perhaps the answer is that Obama could win another round in the fight to stigmatize support for the Iraq war. I reached this conclusion after reading two thoughtful pieces, one pro-Hagel and one anti-Hagel. Bill Kristol registers a strong critique of Senator Hagel and raises an important question: beyond the evident appeal of rebuking Obama's critics, what is the case for Hagel? And Peter Beinart indirectly offers an intriguing answer: rebuking Obama's critics is sufficient case for Hagel.
The battle over Hagel is a battle over the meaning of Iraq. The pro-Hagel faction has a distinctive interpretation of what happened in Iraq. They believe that invading Iraq was a strategic blunder so egregiously stupid that it could only be foisted on the American public through a coercive and deliberately deceptive propaganda campaign. The wisest people were those who always opposed Iraq (read: Obama), but those who voted for the use of force in Iraq can be forgiven for succumbing to this folly only if they quickly became vocal critics of the war (read: Hagel, Clinton, and Biden). Once the original folly of invading Iraq had been committed, there was only one plausible outcome: rapid strategic defeat for the United States and equally rapid withdrawal. The critics appeared to want this outcome to be cemented during the Bush presidency, perhaps so as to indelibly mark who was to blame for the fiasco, hence they vigorously opposed Bush's surge at the time and argued instead that U.S. troops should withdraw under fire regardless of the consequences in Iraq. The success of the surge in reversing Iraq's strategic trajectory was an awkward complication, but this faction ultimately overcame it by arguing, against all the evidence, that the surge was irrelevant to any possible positive development in Iraq. Importantly, this interpretation absolves the Obama administration of all responsibility for anything bad that happens in Iraq, thus any sins of omission or commission that occurred in Obama's first term are waived away as utterly inconsequential.
Hagel personifies this interpretation of Iraq -- indeed, he went so far as to claim that the surge was "the most dangerous blunder in this country since Vietnam." Note that: not the invasion of Iraq, but the surge in Iraq, the effort to reverse the strategic trajectory.
The anti-Hagel faction, of course, has a different interpretation of what happened in Iraq. Views on the ultimate wisdom of the initial invasion of Iraq vary widely among this group, but they share two common features: that the decision was (1) well-debated (no coercion or deception) and (2) reasonable, meaning that given the limits of what was known and the associated uncertainties, a reasonable policymaker could conclude that resorting to military force was an acceptable option to replace the collapsing (and believed to be failing) sanctions/inspections regime. With hindsight, one could argue that the decision was a mistake, maybe even a blunder, but not in a way that discredited all of the strategic judgments that led up to it. And, importantly, not in a way that dismissed the importance of all of the strategic judgments that came after it. An important part of this interpretation of Iraq is the claim that, once launched, the best strategic course for the United States was to seek success -- to fight until it could leave behind an Iraq that could govern itself democratically, defend itself, and be a U.S. ally in the fight against violent extremists in the region. By 2006 Iraq was not on a trajectory to success, but the surge changed that. Thus, while the surge may not have compensated in some moral or political sense for all mistakes that went before, it was certainly the right and consequential choice given where the country was in 2007. Finally, this faction argues that the last four years have been consequential as well, and that Obama's choices have resulted in an Iraq that is far less conducive to American national security interests than what other choices would have produced.
The debate over the historical meaning of Iraq matters because it has such obvious implications for the analogous challenge with Iran. Many of the pro-Hagel supporters openly acknowledge that they hope Hagel's pick signals that the President is willing to abandon the military option in dealing with Iran, for much the same reasons that they argue the option was disastrous in Iraq. President Obama has not publicly connected those dots, but I expect he will be challenged to explain whether that interpretation makes sense in the days to come.
By the way, the conventional wisdom is that Obama's other national security pick -- John Brennan for CIA director -- will sail through confirmation. I do think he will be readily confirmed, but I would not be surprised if some Senators used the hearings to register growing concern about President Obama's counter-terrorism policies, especially drone strikes. The Obama administration's drone strike program is broadly popular in the United States, but not among the left and libertarian-right flanks. Brennan is the face of that program -- to the extent that anyone is the face of a program operating so much in the shadows -- and so this will be the single best opportunity critics will have to register their concerns. (The program is under much greater pressure abroad, and I expect the President to have to spend considerable political capital abroad if he wants to maintain it at the level he set in the first term.)
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Watching the nightmare in Syria unfold, you have to ask yourself: Could the Obama administration have made a worse hash out of the situation if it had tried?
Short of an outright Iranian victory that saw the Assad regime's power fully restored, it's hard to imagine a more dire set of circumstances for U.S. interests. The Syrian state is well on its way to imploding. A multiplicity of increasingly well-armed militias are rushing to fill the vacuum. At the forefront of the fight are a growing number of radical Islamist groups, including some affiliated with al Qaeda. The prospect that Assad' s demise will be accompanied by the use (and/or proliferation) of chemical weapons and massive communal bloodletting gets higher by the day. Libya on steroids is what we're looking at, only this time not on the distant periphery of the Middle East but in its heartland, a gaping strategic wound that is likely to threaten the stability and wellbeing of Syria's five neighbors -- critical American partners all -- for years to come.
Does it require saying that it need not have been this way? That with sustained American leadership over the past 21 months the most threatening aspects of this crisis could not only have been seriously mitigated, but U.S. interests significantly advanced?
This isn't simply a case of Monday-morning quarterbacking. The number of articles written since March 2011 urging the administration to action to hasten Assad's end -- short of ground troops, but including a wide menu of coordinated diplomatic, economic, security, and intelligence steps -- would fill volumes. Ditto the number of analysts who repeatedly warned that left to its own internal logic, the Syrian crisis would veer increasingly toward disaster. Abandoned to face Assad's slaughterhouse alone, it was entirely predictable that those masses of average Syrians who week after week, month after month, literally begged for Western intervention to help topple the tyrant and shape a post-Assad future would eventually be eclipsed by jihadism's black flag.
The administration dismissed it all with so much disdain. Reckless. Simplistic. Pouring fuel on the fire, they charged. Down that way, they insisted, was only a parade of horribles: sectarian conflict, civil war, al Qaeda's empowerment, a failed state, loose WMD, and international spillover. Sound familiar? Indeed. Virtually every risk the administration warned might be triggered by U.S. intervention has been made all-too-real in the absence of U.S. intervention.
This was abdication masquerading as serious foreign policy; a flight from leadership gussied up to appear as thoughtful restraint, prudence, realism.
How else to characterize a strategy that repeatedly put its faith in Vladimir Putin of all people -- the arsenal of Syria's dictatorship -- to deliver an acceptable political solution just as Assad's savagery was getting into gear, and after the U.S. had sworn up and down that it had no intention of providing meaningful assistance to the regime's foes? Likewise the subsequent indulgence for months on end of Kofi Annan's well-meaning, but quintessentially toothless diplomacy on behalf of the UN.
Again, there was no shortage of observers at the time highlighting the fact that absent American leadership to help Syria's opposition alter the correlation of forces on the ground, these maneuvers were doomed to fail, and even worse to provide international cover for Assad to massacre thousands more. It would be an insult to their intelligence to say U.S. officials were not cognizant of this reality. This was something more cynical, something more calculated. Not diplomacy as solution, but diplomacy as excuse, a rationale for avoiding the kind of muscular action that the administration was loathe to take -- especially in an election year, especially in a benighted Middle East that in the eyes of most Americans long ago exceeded its allotment of U.S. attention, treasure and sacrifice.
All of which has left us here, confronting an oncoming train wreck of well-armed Islamists, battle-hardened and thirsty for power and revenge on the one hand, and a crumbling, desperate dictatorship on the other, its hands drenched in the blood of its own people and sitting on top of the Middle East's largest arsenal of chemical weapons.
Belatedly, it seems to have dawned on the administration that simply sitting on the sidelines, allowing events to play out while hoping for the best might not accrue to U.S. interests, and could well prove catastrophic. But having waited so long to act, the window of opportunity that was once available for shaping an outcome consistent with U.S. concerns has narrowed considerably, if not closed. A popular movement whose core once clamored for Western leadership and intervention has grown increasingly embittered and resentful at what they perceive to be their near total abandonment by Washington. With more than 40,000 corpses underfoot, frantic 11th-hour moves by the U.S. to mobilize a coherent political opposition, establish influence with armed groups, and marginalize extremist militias like Jabhat al-Nusra that have carried a major brunt of the fighting are widely viewed with a mixture of suspicion and contempt -- not just too little too late, but part of some larger conspiracy to abort the revolution's victory over Assad just as it comes into view.
What to do when no good options remain? If rebel advances have finally convinced the Russians that Assad's days are indeed numbered, a very slim chance may still exist for some form of last-ditch diplomacy that salvages the core structures of a functioning state and averts the black hole of uncontrolled collapse and chaos. The starting point would have to be the rapid exit from power of Assad and his immediate clique, either via voluntary exile abroad or some version of a palace coup. A UN-brokered negotiation on a political transition would then ensue between a remnant of the Alawite regime and the internationally-backed opposition, leading hopefully to a ceasefire, some form of national unity government, and eventually a new constitution with credible guarantees for Syria's minority communities, followed by free and fair elections.
No doubt this is a very tall order. What the Russians could actually deliver with respect to Assad, even if they wanted to, is a major question mark. More importantly, why the armed opposition, especially its most radical elements, would ever agree at this point to stop short of an outright military victory that ended with the storming of Assad's palace is not at all apparent. Convincing them and the Syrian people otherwise would require a unified, full-court diplomatic press by all Syria's major outside stakeholders, equipped with a powerful panoply of both pressures and inducements.
Short of that kind of diplomatic miracle, the outlook is extremely bleak. Battening down the hatches and riding out the storm as Syria fractures may be the best we can do. Working as closely as we can with our key partners in the region and internationally, we should identify those armed groups that are prepared to work with us and have no truck with the most extreme Islamists. Strengthen political and military alliances between them. Provide the humanitarian aid and resources they need to consolidate and expand their popular support, as well as defensive weaponry and training to provide local security and fend off both the jihadists and Iran in the post-Assad era. Critically, we need a viable plan for securing and/or neutralizing Syria's chemical weapons, either in conjunction with these local forces or on our own.
Also vital will be a concerted strategy to buttress our key regional allies and contain the dangerous spillover effects of Syria's implosion. Jordan in particular is under enormous internal strain and requires urgent international support that the U.S. should immediately help mobilize, especially financially from the Persian Gulf states.
It was less than two years ago that the uprising in Syria presented the United States with a historic opportunity to weaken Iran and advance our own regional interests. Today, Syria looms as a potential strategic disaster, where America's options for positively shaping outcomes have all but vanished, and frantic efforts at damage limitation are all that remain. In the arc of that transformation from hope to despair lies the tale of a colossal policy blunder, perhaps the Obama administration's most serious to date, one whose consequences will almost surely haunt us long after the president leaves office.
FRANCISCO LEONG/AFP/Getty Images
While we have no doubt that Bob Schieffer, the moderator of Monday night's foreign policy debate, will have plenty of material to choose from in formulating his questions for the candidates, we couldn't resist a chance to add our own suggestions. Following are some potential questions for the debate as submitted by the Shadow Government crew:
1. Mr. President, is there any foreign policy challenge America faces that you would concede has gotten worse on your watch because of actions you have taken or not taken? In other words, is there any foreign policy problem that you would say can be blamed at least partly on you and not entirely on Republicans or President Bush?
2. Mr. President, what is the fairest criticism of your foreign policy record that you have heard from Governor Romney over the course of this campaign?
3. Mr. President, what is the most unfair criticism of Romney's foreign policy platform that you have heard your supporters levy over the course of this campaign?
4. Mr. President, why do you say that Romney is proposing defense expenditures that the military have not asked for when Romney is just proposing restoring funding to the levels you claimed were needed in your own budget a few years ago. That budget, which you asked for, reflected what the military asked for didn't it? And didn't you order the military to accept deeper cuts -- thus they can't now speak up and ask for those levels to be restored without being insubordinate, so isn't it misleading to claim that they are not asking for them when you ordered them not to?
5. For both: Both campaigns have featured senior retired military endorsements as a way of demonstrating your fitness to be commander-in-chief. Don't you worry that such endorsements drag the military into partisan politics, thus undermining public confidence in a non-partisan military institution?
1. Mr. President, history tells us that prestige matters; that is, nation-states who are regarded for their power, whether military, economic or moral, are less often challenged by those who wish to upset the peace or change the international order that favors the interests of the great powers. Has your administration seen an increase in the prestige of the United States or a decrease, and why?
2. For both: Isn't a reform of our foreign aid system and institutions long overdue, and shouldn't reform have as its primary goal the promotion of direct and tangible US interests, such as more trade with more countries that govern themselves democratically? If this is truly the appropriate goal for international development funds, then why aren't all aid recipients required to practice sustained and real democracy?
1. For both: Do you believe that the economically endangered nations of Europe should adopt policies of austerity, as countries like Germany have argued, or that they should turn instead to more fiscal stimulus? If you prefer stimulus, is there any level of debt/GDP at which you get concerned about their ability to pay those debts? If you believe these countries should borrow more, from whom should they borrow? Should the United States be offering funds?
2. For both: There has been almost no progress on global trade talks since the summer of
2008. How would you assess the health of the World Trade Organization and the
world trading system? Is this important for the United States? What would you
do to strengthen the WTO, if anything?
3. For both: In 2009, in response to the stimulus bill, a top Chinese economic official said, ""We hate you guys. Once you start issuing $1 trillion-$2 trillion... we know the dollar is going to depreciate, so we hate you guys but there is nothing much we can do...." Brazil's finance minister, Guido Mantega, has accused the United States Federal Reserve of igniting a global currency war with its policies of quantitative easing. To what extent does the United States need to consider the international ramifications of its economic policies? Do you believe a strong dollar is in the U.S. interest? If so, what does that mean?
1. For both: What do you consider the top two national security threats to our country?
2. For both: How do you see increasing energy independence for the United States affecting our foreign policy?
3. President Obama, you have threatened to veto any changes to the 2010 Budget Control Act, yet both your Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff believe sequestration going into effect would be disastrous. How will you enact the Budget Control Act without damaging our national defense?
4. Governor Romney, you have committed to increase defense spending; where does the money come from to do that in year 1 of a Romney administration?
5. President Obama, Vice President Biden has said that your administration will withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanstan in 2014, whether or not the Afghan security forces are then capable of taking over the fight. Do you agree?
1. For both: Under what circumstances would you authorize military action against Iran's nuclear facilities? Will you intervene to stop the civil war in Syria? If so, what lessons have you learned from our recent experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya that will shape how you undertake an intervention? How do you plan to accomplish a responsible transition to Afghan leadership for security there? What should be the mission of U.S. troops in Afghanistan after transition, and how many troops will be required to accomplish it? Or do you envision a complete withdrawal of all forces?
2. For both: Should the United States support the spread of democracy abroad? What is the role of democracy assistance in U.S. grand strategy, and how does it relate to our overall national interests? How will you respond to future peaceful uprisings like the Green Revolution or the Arab Spring?
3. For both: Some Americans are concerned that the government has accumulated too much power over the last decade in its effort to develop a robust counterterrorism capability. Others believe we need to keep those powers because the terrorist threat has not abated. Do you plan to sustain the government's new, post-9/11 war-time powers, reportedly including targeted killings and indefinite detentions, indefinitely? If not, will you publicly and explicitly commit to defining a clear end-state to the war against al Qaeda, the achievement of which will terminate the new powers?
Win McNamee/Getty Images
There was plenty of foreign policy fodder for Republicans in last night's Vice Presidential debate, particularly Vice President Biden's claims that the administration was unaware of requests for additional security in Benghazi. In terms of understanding policy differences between the candidates, however, the most significant (and so far largely unreported) moment, came in the exchange on Iran. In response to Chairman Ryan's point that Iran had made enormous progress enriching uranium under this administration, Biden said, "the Israelis and the United States -- our military and intelligence communities are absolutely the same exact place in terms of how close -- how close the Iranians are to getting a nuclear weapon. They are a good way away."
Explaining why he was reassured about the Iranian timeline, Biden continued:
"When my friend talks about fissile material, they have to take this highly enriched uranium, get it from 20 percent up. Then they have to be able to have something to put it in. There is no weapon that the Iranians have at this point. Both the Israelis and we know we'll know if they start the process of building a weapon. So all this bluster I keep hearing, all this loose talk -- what are they talking about? ... We will not allow the Iranians to get a nuclear weapon. What Bibi held up there was when they get to the point where they can enrich uranium enough to put into a weapon, they don't have a weapon to put it into. Let's all calm down a little bit here."
Biden, in other words, didn't contest Ryan's argument about Iran's rapidly growing enrichment capabilities, but said in essence that progress on enrichment was beside the point because Iran does not today have a nuclear device.
There are numerous problems with the vice president's comments, and they raise significant cause for concern about current U.S. strategy for ending Iran's nuclear weapons program.
To begin with, there is no dispute among nuclear experts that the most complicated challenge in developing a nuclear weapon is the production of fissile material, not the process of developing the nuclear device itself. Enrichment is, as experts like to say, the "long pole in the tent." With sufficient weapons grade fuel, the Iranians would already be at the threshold of nuclear breakthrough. In fact, in 2009 the IAEA assessed that as early as 2004, Iran had developed the know-how to build a crude nuclear device that could be delivered by aircraft or ship.
Biden's focus on the development of the device itself, rather than the manufacture of weapons grade duel, suggests that the administration redline in Iran ("we'll stop them from getting a bomb") wouldn't kick in until Iran is on our 5 yard line.
Second, the vice president revealed a worrying overconfidence in the intelligence community's ability to detect nuclear weaponization activities, which are easily concealed. As most intelligence professionals will tell you, they aren't infallible; getting accurate intelligence on a nation's most closely guarded secrets and interpreting it correctly are notoriously difficult tasks.
Although the Vice President cited Israeli agreement with his point, the Israelis have steadfastly taken the opposite view. As PM Netanyahu said in his U.N. speech:
"For a country like Iran, it takes many, many years to enrich
uranium for a bomb. That requires thousands of centrifuges spinning in tandem
in very big industrial plants. Those Iranian plants are visible and they're
In contrast, Iran could produce the nuclear detonator -- the fuse -- in a lot less time, maybe under a year, maybe only a few months.
The detonator can be made in a small workshop the size of a classroom. It may be very difficult to find and target that workshop, especially in Iran. That's a country that's bigger than France, Germany, Italy, and Britain combined.
The same is true for the small facility in which they could assemble a warhead or a nuclear device that could be placed in a container ship. Chances are you won't find that facility either.
So in fact the only way that you can credibly prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, is to prevent Iran from amassing enough enriched uranium for a bomb."
In fact, German, French, UK, and Israeli intelligence believe that the U.S. intelligence community is already missing evidence of Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weaponization capabilities, a point bolstered by the 2011 safeguards report on Iran from the IAEA in which detailed evidence is available here.
Biden's statement -- assuming it reflects the thinking of the administration broadly -- reveals a great deal about the administration's approach to Iran, none of it reassuring. It explains why the administration has been dismissive of Israeli concerns. It may also partly explain administration ambivalence about Congressional sanctions; if there is no urgency to the threat, there is a less compelling case in the administration's view for robust sanctions against foreign companies. And it tells us that the Obama administration may be naively betting U.S. and Israeli security on the assumption that our intelligence community has perfect insight into activities in Iran.
Energy issues have figured prominently in Governor Romney's campaign. Achieving "North American energy independence" has been a central pillar of the 5-point economic plan that he's been touting -- including at last week's first presidential debate. A bit surprising, then, that in the governor's October 8th foreign policy speech, with its heavy emphasis on the Middle East, energy didn't even merit a mention.
Let's face it. Ensuring the free flow of oil has been the main driver of American strategy in the Middle East for decades. Our nation's economic wellbeing depends on a well-supplied global oil market, and countries in the Middle East account for a significant portion of the world's production. The cartel they dominate, OPEC, today controls between 30 and 40 percent of the international market while possessing the vast majority of the world's proven reserves.
As a result, America and the global economy are incredibly vulnerable to what happens in the region. Every U.S. recession but one since World War II has been preceded by an oil price shock. And in the majority of cases, those shocks have been triggered by events originating in the Middle East. Think the 1973 Arab oil embargo, the 1979 Iranian revolution, or Saddam's 1991 invasion of Kuwait.
But you don't have to go back that far to appreciate the problem we face. Last year's revolution in Libya, along with broader unrest across the Arab world, sent oil prices skyrocketing. Ditto Iran's threats in January to blockade the Straits of Hormuz. And concern about an eventual war with Iran continue to impose a significant risk premium on global prices, a reality Americans confront every day at the gas pump. Even short of tipping the economy back into recession, the effects of this kind of price volatility are highly negative: our trade deficit rises; disposable income and consumer spending decline; and economic growth takes a significant hit.
Concerns about oil prices have often badly distorted U.S. policy toward the Middle East. The most acute example is the effort to pressure Iran to give up its nuclear weapons ambitions. U.S. policymakers have long known that the most effective step we could take against the mullahs is to cut off Iran's oil sales and starve them of the enormous revenues they need to keep their repressive regime afloat. Yet for years, first President Bush and then President Obama fiercely resisted sanctioning the Islamic Republic's petroleum sector. The reason? Because they quite legitimately feared that removing Iranian crude from the market would disrupt global supplies and trigger a devastating price shock. Only in late 2011, with Iran rapidly approaching the nuclear threshold, did Congress finally steamroll the administration by forcing through legislation that targeted Iranian oil.
Even then, implementation of the sanctions was watered down. The administration was given a six-month grace period to assess the possible impact that sanctions would have on the global oil market. And rather than demanding that customers of Iranian oil end their purchases entirely, countries were granted waivers from U.S. sanctions if they only "significantly reduced" their buy -- which in practice required them to cut back between 15 and 20 percent. While the U.S. effort, together with complimentary EU sanctions, have no doubt had a major effect on Iran's economy -- reducing its oil exports by as much as 50 percent -- a full embargo would have been far more impactful and the obvious course of action for Washington to pursue if not for the countervailing concern about oil markets. In the meantime, the Iranian regime continues to pocket perhaps $3 billion per month from the million or so barrels of oil that it still exports daily, all the while pressing ahead with its nuclear program.
America doesn't have a higher national security priority than stopping the world's most dangerous regime from going nuclear. And yet the sad reality is that our dependence on oil has for years, and to our great peril, systematically deterred us from fully deploying the most powerful tool in our arsenal -- all-out sanctions on Iran's petroleum sector -- for resolving the crisis peacefully. Not surprisingly, that underlying logic applies in spades when it comes to any discussion about the possible use of force against Iran, where predictions of oil spiking to an economy-crippling $200 per barrel are commonplace.
The fact that our oil vulnerability has put such severe constraints on our freedom-of-maneuver to address the most pressing national security threat we face is deeply troubling. The big question is whether we can do anything about it. Admittedly, history doesn't offer much reason for optimism. For almost 40 years, successive U.S. presidents have promised to tackle the problem with very little to show for it.
Of course, what's different today is that the United States is experiencing an oil and gas boom that promises to transform our energy landscape in very fundamental ways. Thanks to American ingenuity and technology, U.S. production is poised to increase dramatically over the next decade, after years of steep decline. As Governor Romney has correctly emphasized, through close cooperation with democratic allies in Canada and Mexico, the goal of energy self-sufficiency for North America may well be within reach -- an unthinkable prospect just a few years ago, and one whose benefits in terms of job creation and economic growth could be quite profound.
In addition to the potential economic windfall, however, we also need to be thinking hard about how we can best exploit the coming energy boom to really enhance U.S. national security. That's a much more difficult task. The fact is that because there's a global market for oil, Middle East crises are likely to threaten the U.S. economy with major price spikes no matter how much of our own crude we produce. Just look at Canada and England. While both are oil independent, they remain exposed to the same price volatility that currently afflicts the United States. Their economies will be no more insulated than ours if a war with Iran sends the cost of oil through the roof.
It seems that what really needs to be part of the mix is a viable, bipartisan, market-driven strategy for reducing the monopoly that oil has over our transportation sector. If a sensible way could be found to begin moving some significant portion of U.S. cars and trucks to run on cheaper, domestically produced alternative fuels -- natural gas, methanol, electric -- it would largely eliminate the sword of Damocles that Middle Eastern tyrannies like Iran now hold over the West's economic wellbeing and its strategic decision-making. That would put us on the path toward true energy independence, and restore to the United States a degree of flexibility, leverage, and strength to pursue its interests and values abroad, especially in the Middle East, that we have not known for at least a generation.
All much easier said than done, I know -- especially in an environment where energy issues, like the national budget, have become so politically charged. Nevertheless, hope springs eternal. Perhaps once the upcoming election is over, a new administration will be prepared to look seriously at developing a bipartisan, comprehensive energy strategy that both fully exploits America's new oil and gas bonanza while taking meaningful steps to reduce our vulnerability to extortion by hostile, repressive dictatorships in unstable parts of the world.
If it is, one place that a new president should definitely look to mobilize ideas as well as political support is Securing America's Future Energy (an organization that I'm proud to advise), which has brought together an extraordinary group of American business and military leaders to highlight both the economic as well as national security dangers posed by our dependence on oil, and to recommend possible solutions. Co-chaired by Fred Smith, CEO of FedEx and General P.X. Kelley, former commandant of the Marine Corps, the group includes such luminaries as General Jack Keane, former vice chief of the Army; Admiral Dennis Blair, former director of national intelligence; David Steiner, CEO of Waste Management; Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest Airlines; and John Lehman, former undersecretary of the Navy. A pretty hard-nosed bunch, to be sure, that has decades of experience operating on the front lines of the global economy and national security, and is convinced that America can and must get after this challenge as soon as possible.
For the country's sake, we should all hope that they're right.
In a column in the October 7 Washington Post, I argued that "red lines" with respect to Iran's nuclear program, far from leading us automatically to war, are designed to facilitate diplomacy and prevent conflict. As Iran makes continued progress toward a nuclear weapons capability - and according to a new report by the Institute for Science and International Security, it is now as little as 2-4 months away from having sufficient weapons-grade uranium (WGU) for a single bomb -- defining our red lines takes on increasing importance.
For all of its bluster, the Iranian regime has proceeded carefully to reach this point, expanding its nuclear capabilities while avoiding full-blown conflict with the West. The final stage of its nuclear drive will pose a significant challenge to this strategy, however, as any outright lunge for a nuclear weapon is likely to draw a devastating response. Iran could take any of several approaches to this last leg, from throwing caution to the wind and making a mad dash in the open, to proceeding entirely clandestinely. For this reason, we need not just one but several red lines, closing off all routes available to Iran for achieving a nuclear weapons capability.
The route to an Iranian nuclear weapons capability that receives the most attention is the most straightforward, but perhaps the riskiest for Iran -- a dash using Iran's declared enrichment sites and uranium stockpiles. It is this route which both Israeli PM Netanyahu and ISIS warned about recently. Their worry is straightforward -- as Iran expands its nuclear capacity and increases its stockpile of 19.75 percent uranium, its breakout time diminishes even further, perhaps to the point where a military response could not be mounted quickly enough to prevent Iran from producing and secreting away a bomb's worth of WGU or more.
It is this worry that led Netanyahu to declare his redline -- Iran stockpiling sufficient 19.75 percent uranium to, if further enriched, produce a single nuclear weapon. It is important to recognize, however, that Iran can dial its production of enriched uranium forward or back and thus control the pace of its confrontation with the West -- forward, by increasing the number of centrifuges enriching; back, by sending 19.75 percent uranium to be converted into another form unsuitable for further enrichment, such as fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). Iran in the past has done just this -- moving quickly ahead during lulls in negotiations, and then resuming international talks to diffuse the resulting threats and pressure.
Iran could also proceed in a nonlinear manner that skirts this redline -- for example, by producing small batches of higher-enriched uranium without having first stockpiled a single bomb's worth of 19.75 percent uranium. A prominent Iranian legislator has already asserted, for example, that Iran would begin producing 60 percent enriched uranium for use in nuclear submarines. Iran could also simply continue amassing LEU while perfecting more efficient centrifuges, diminishing its breakout time for a future weapons dash.
Rather than a dash in the open, which would give the U.S. and Israel time and opportunity to mount a military response, Iran may prefer to attempt to limit the IAEA's access to its program and achieve a nuclear weapons capability out of sight of international inspectors. This would be in keeping with Iran's history of nuclear deception and subterfuge.
Iran could, of course, simply expel IAEA inspectors and hope that the US does not respond, but this would be a risky proposition. Far more likely would be incremental steps which reduce the IAEA's access or place obstacles in front of inspectors, in order to divert some portion of Iran's uranium stockpile (e.g. the 19.75 percent uranium removed from Fordow for conversion to fuel plates) to a heretofore undisclosed enrichment site, reduce the certainty with which the inspectors are able to account for Iranian activities at declared enrichment sites, or lengthen the time between inspections to a degree that would not permit a breakout to be detected in a timely fashion.
Because such steps might appear modest to a casual observer, Iran may believe that the U.S. would find it difficult to rally an international response to them. Iran has already reduced its cooperation with the IAEA over the last few years. Alarmingly, as detailed in a recent Washington Post article, Iran's far-fetched accusations that IAEA inspectors have engaged in acts of sabotage may represent an effort to establish a pretext to reduce that cooperation further.
There are further routes still that Iran could take to break out and achieve a nuclear weapons capability. It could attempt not simply to divert declared uranium stockpiles to a undisclosed enrichment facility, but to create an entirely parallel, covert uranium supply, conversion, and enrichment chain using the expertise and procurement networks it has gained from its disclosed program. It could also seek to acquire a nuclear weapon, or simply the fuel for one, from an existing nuclear power such as North Korea, with which it already cooperates extensively. Iran would face serious obstacles in either scenario, but neither can be discounted entirely.
By understanding Iran's pathways for completing the final stage of its nuclear drive, the U.S. and our allies can devise red lines -- whether private or publicly announced -- which fence off those pathways. These red lines should take into account not only Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium, but also the level to which it enriches any uranium, the access it affords IAEA inspectors, the expansion of its centrifuge program and other weapons-applicable technologies, as well as any covert efforts to build additional nuclear sites or acquire nuclear materials abroad.
Perhaps more importantly, however, such an analysis of Iran's pathways to a weapon can help policymakers strengthen existing tools and devise new approaches -- from better intelligence collection, to more focused efforts to enforce sanctions and stymie Iranian nuclear procurement efforts, to joint warnings from the U.N. or other multilateral bodies -- to ensure that Iran never approaches those red lines in the first place.
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
Both the Obama administration and Iran's President Ahmadinejad have blamed the recent dramatic fall in value of Iran's currency on international sanctions. It is a convenient explanation for both -- for the White House, it suggests that U.S. strategy towards Iran is working; for Ahmadinejad, it deflects responsibility away from his own policy decisions and toward an external scapegoat.
But as my colleague Patrick Clawson explains, sanctions are only partly to blame for Iran's economic travails. The currency crisis and associated inflationary spiral has its origins in the Ahmadinejad government's mismanaged subsidy reform initiative. Sanctions have indeed exacerbated the problem, both by raising the cost to foreign firms of doing business with Iran and reducing the regime's foreign exchange earnings. The increasing threat of war has also played a role, deepening Iranians' worries about economic stability and increasing their inflationary expectations, and thus leading them to dump rials and seek safe haven in dollars and other hard currency to protect their savings.
However, the regime's maladroit domestic response to the sanctions (for example, its decision to set up "foreign exchange centers," which sparked the current run on dollars) and its loose monetary and fiscal policies have made matters far worse. This is arguably the result of years of economic mismanagement in Iran, particularly under Ahmadinejad, who has subverted what little independence the Central Bank previously possessed and drained it of economic expertise.
Ironically, however, the Iranian regime is relatively sheltered from the present crisis. Although sanctions have reduced its oil exports, they remain high at 1.2 to 1.5 million barrels per day, meaning that the regime's foreign exchange income is considerable, even if diminished. What's more, it has limited external liabilities, and in any event its oil income is dollar-denominated, protecting it from exchange rate risk. This means that as the rial plunges, the regime's fixed rial-denominated payments become effectively cheaper. Meanwhile, Iran's rampant corruption likely shields elites and their families from the worst of the country's economic woes, such as unemployment and increasing scarcity.
As a result, Iran's economic crisis is unlikely to directly cause the regime to change its nuclear calculus. Instead, the sanctions implicitly depend on domestic Iranian outcry -- or the regime's worries of unrest -- to cause the regime to make the desired strategic shift. However, as bad as Iran's economy is, there are few signs of major unrest, and fewer signs still that the regime is responsive to the concerns of the Iranian people (although this will further diminish Ahmadinejad's standing). This is, after all, the regime that showed no compunction in brutally putting down protests in 2009.
By implication, the United States and our allies should be careful not to count on the current sanctions to resolve the nuclear crisis by themselves. Nor should we abandon our focus on targeted sanctions in favor of a return to broad sanctions, which rarely succeed in inducing policy changes in autocratic regimes. Rather than hoping that giving current sanctions "time to work" will force Iran back to the negotiating table, the United States and our allies should add further pressure to the regime and the elites who comprise it, including through additional targeted economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, bolstering the credibility of our military threat to the regime, and support for the Iranian opposition.
On their own, sanctions are unlikely to work. Instead, for the United States to succeed in its aims, sanctions must be just one part of a broad, coordinated, and disciplined policy which brings all policy tools to bear on the goal of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
As the Islamic Republic moves closer to obtaining a nuclear weapons capability, talk of an Israeli attack on Iran is increasingly the subject of articles and reports in the international media. On the one hand, it is certainly understandable why Israel is extremely concerned about the Islamic Republic's nuclear capability, particularly given the escalating anti-Israeli rhetoric coming from Tehran. On the other hand, is an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities really the best solution to the nuclear threat posed by the Islamic Republic?
The answer to this question lies in the effectiveness of the international sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic and whether a coalition of concerned countries, with American leadership, is now willing to support the Iranian freedom movement.
The international sanctions that have delivered the biggest punch to date have been those imposed on Iran's oil and gas industry and its financial institutions. Iran's crude oil shipments have dropped by 52 percent since July 1 and the Islamic Republic is losing $133 million a day all without the devastating oil-price spike that many had feared would happen. Sensitive internal government reports are beginning to leak in Tehran warning of an impending financial crisis in which the regime might not be able to meet the government payroll in the next three months. The regime has warned its ministries to expect a 50 percent cut in the salary of all government employees.
While Ali Khamenei and his minions have been trying to minimize the effects of international sanctions, it appears that the regime's foreign currency reserve may be exhausted in the coming months. The IMF estimated that the regime had $106 billion in official foreign reserves at the end of 2011; estimates by private economists now put the regime's reserves remaining at $50 billion - $70 billion. In spite of Iran Central Bank Governor Mahmoud Bahmani's efforts to hide this alarming situation and halt the dramatic slide of the rial, the rial's unofficial rate is reported to have plunged to record low rates of 25,000 to 29,000 rials to the U.S. dollar. The regime anticipates that the rial may fall to a devastating 67,000 rials to the dollar as the Iranian central bank tries to curb the sharp drop in its reserves.
Inflation has plagued the Iranian economy since the Islamic Revolution. The removal of government subsidies on food and fuel amplified this problem and sanctions have added to the inflationary pressures. With inflation now at 33 percent, prices have escalated to a point that the burden is very difficult if not unbearable for the average Iranian consumer. Discontent with the regime is on the rise. Indeed, if the leaked classified reports are to be believed, the regime should anticipate that riots will occur in border cities where day-to-day conditions are most rapidly disintegrating. The Iranian people blame the regime and its policies for their growing poverty, and food and fuel shortages. Momentum is shifting from the regime to those seeking a free, democratic Iran.
The regime's relentless pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability presents a genuine dilemma. While it is important to keep a credible military strike option on the table, a military attack, especially if Israel executes it unilaterally, will not have long-lasting effects in preventing a nuclear weapons-capable Iran. Israel and all countries concerned about the regime's nuclear threat should not lose sight of the fact that discontent among the Iranians is at its highest level since the Revolution. The Iranian people are capable of surprising the world again by rising up against this oppressive, illegitimate regime just as they did in the 2009 post-election protests.
It is impossible to predict the precise moment when another uprising will happen in Iran, but a military attack will be a serious impediment to the success of any democratic movement in Iran. It will give the mullahs the perfect chance to play victim on the international scene and to impose even greater oppression on the Iranian people. Perhaps this is why the public pronouncements of leaders of the Islamic Republic have been so provocative lately.
The regime believes that a nuclear weapons capability will bestow upon it what the Iranian people will not -- unchallenged legitimacy. Consequently, the Islamic regime will never abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons. A free and democratic Iran is the only permanent solution to the Islamic regime's nuclear threat to the security of Israel and international peace. It requires a concerted international effort to financially paralyze the regime. It also requires a policy by the United States and its allies, including Israel, to support the Iranian freedom movement both inside Iran and abroad.
The Iranian people rose courageously once to show their opposition to this regime and their desire for a peaceful democratic government, but the governments of the free world failed to support them. Today, finally, these same governments, with U.S. leadership, are beginning to take major steps in the right direction through rigorous sanctions. Instead of a military attack, the U.S. and Israel should immediately launch major funding and human rights initiatives to support the Iranian freedom movement in its efforts to bring about a free, democratic Iran that is committed to playing a peaceful and constructive role in the Middle East. The Iranian freedom movement is not asking the United States or its allies to shed blood to advance its struggle with the regime in Tehran. Those seeking a free, democratic Iran are simply looking for strong international public support to secure their God-given freedom and fundamental human rights.
G. William Heiser is a former official in the Reagan National Security Council Staff and currently is an advisor to the Confederation of Iranian Students.
Amir Fakhravar is Secretary General of the Confederation of Iranian Students and a former political prisoner of the Iranian regime. He is presently a Research Fellow and Visiting Lecturer at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of international affairs in Washington, DC.
As the Syrian civil war drags on, and Israel moves ever closer to attacking Iran's nuclear sites, the Obama Administration seems fixated on just one objective: delaying anything from happening in the Middle East before Election Day. The White House remains passive as Bashar al-Assad continues to up the military ante against the opposition. And it continues to send high level officials to Jerusalem bringing gifts of more military machinery that, it is hoped, will assuage the Israelis for the next few months.
Despite assistance from Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular, with some sotto voce help from Turkey as well, after eighteen months the rebels still have been unable to dislodge Assad. Supported by Iranians on the ground, and the Russians and the Chinese in the UN, the Syrian dictator has shown no compunction about killing as many men, women and children as it takes to quell the rebellion. He continues to play the ethnic card as well: his Kurdish PKK allies have stepped up their terrorist attacks in southeastern Turkey, while Syria's Christian communities, long protected by Assad and his father, remain nervously neutral.
At the same time, Assad's Alawi supporters are hedging their bets. They have begun a process of ethnically cleansing those enclaves where they are in the majority. It is presumed that if all else fails for the Alawis, they will withdraw to their mountain fastnesses, and take Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons with them, so as to deter any attacks from the majority Sunnis that will have come to power. Indeed, the increasingly ethnic nature of the Syrian conflict has already spilled over into both Lebanon and Iraq, promising a major regional convulsion that would likely drag in Iran, Turkey, the Gulf States and perhaps Israel as well.
Israel, in the meantime, continues to express its frustration with the lack of progress in the diplomatic talks with Iran, even as Tehran continues to upgrade its centrifuges, build more of them, and increase the number of cascades to enrich its uranium; fortify its facilities, especially at its underground Fordo site; and play cat-and-mouse with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) whose reports increasingly are confirming Israel's worst fears. As if that were not enough, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have stepped up their exterminationist rhetoric, calling for the removal of the cancer that is Israel.
Washington's passivity has only aggravated both situations. The Syrian civil war calls for more drastic American action. After all, when rioters initially threw stones at Assad's men, his forces responded by using light weapons against the demonstrators. When the rebels obtained light weapons, Assad's military resorted to heavy weapons. As the rebels began to use mortars, the Syrian Army attacked with tanks. And so it has gone until now, when Assad has called in his air forces to bomb the opposition into oblivion. While there is no immediate need for American military intervention, the United States could certainly do more to strengthen the hand of the rebels. Washington could ship more, and more sophisticated, arms to the rebels via their allies, who certainly can afford to pay for American equipment. And the United States could also provide more intelligence support, if not directly to the rebels, then indirectly through Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. By failing to step up its support of the rebels, the Administration undermines its credibility, both with the rebels whom it professes to support, and with Assad, whose departure it so vocally seeks.
As for the impasse with Iran, here too, the key to achieving American objectives is the credibility of American pronouncements. There is more than Washington can do as it attempts win the trust of Israel's key decision makers on any Israeli attack-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Supplying missile defense systems is simply not enough for a nation that cannot tolerate even the most minimal probability that a nuclear weapon could penetrate those defenses.
To begin with, the Administration should not backslide on the question of Iran's ability to enrich uranium. The original US position was that enrichment should terminate; any indication of a more pliable position simply reinforces the view in both Tehran and Jerusalem that Washington is not serious about stopping the Iranian program. In addition, the Obama Administration should close the massive loopholes that it has created in the sanctions program: there is no reason why exceptions should be made for China or any of the other seventeen countries that continue to buy Iranian oil without penalty. Washington's willingness to look the other way further intensifies Israeli fears that, at the end of the day, Iran will develop a nuclear capability while America and the West wring their hands.
An Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities is likely to prove counterproductive. Even an American attack may not shut down the Iranian program. As with Syria, so with Iran and Israel: the only way to achieve American objectives is to restore American credibility in the region. It does not help at all that the Administration not only continues to talk of a "pivot" to Asia, but is prepared to tolerate a massive reduction in American defense capability, which will surely signal an abrupt end to American presence in the region. Unless and until the Administration recognizes that it is futile, and dangerous, both to tread water until November, and treat the U.S. defense program as a hostage to tax increases, the situation in the Middle East will continue to deteriorate, to the point where, possibly as soon as October, it may well spin out of anyone's control.
By Amir Abbas Fakhravar and G. William Heiser.
As the Non-Aligned Movement holds its summit this week, we can expect more than the usual finger-pointing at the United States and its allies. This time, the summit is in Tehran. Iran's ruling mullahs plan on using the summit -- and the expected presence of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon -- as cover to snuff out the life of one of their most principled political opponents.
On August 31, unless the U.N. leader and others intervene, the Islamic Republic will impose a death sentence on the sickly but courageous dissident writer Arzhang Davoodi. If all goes according to standard practice, an executioner will place a cable around Arzhang's neck, haul him off his feet by a crane, and slowly strangle him.
Arzhang and Amir Fakhravar became the closest of friends as political prisoners in the regime's notorious Evin Prison. His crime, for which he was arrested in October 2003, was his participation in the PBS Frontline documentary, "Forbidden Iran," about how the regime executes its political opponents. Arzhang spoke to journalist Jane Kokan about human rights violations and in support of the Iranian student movement against the mullahs. I was one of the imprisoned student leaders at the time, heading the organization Arzhang had founded. Arzhang spoke out on my behalf, only to end up joining me in prison.
Following a trial in 2005, a Revolutionary Court imposed on Arzhang a sharia sentence of 15 years' imprisonment and 75 lashes for "spreading propaganda against the system," "establishing and directing a student organization called the Confederation of Iranian Students opposed to the government," advocacy in his writings of a secular and democratic government for his country, and participating in the PBS documentary.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei needs the U.N. Secretary General and the Non-Aligned leaders to remain unaware of -- or at least quiet about -- Arzhang's execution during their visit. The regime has spared no expense to showcase the Iranian capital as a seemingly prosperous and calm city devoid of population and discontent.
Despite a collapsed economy, the regime has spent a fortune in preparation. It constructed a lavish conference hall in the affluent Velenjak area of northern Tehran, along with a new hotel expressly for the foreign dignitaries. Authorities "beautified" the shabby routes from Tehran's two airports to the summit site, as well as other thoroughfares the foreigners are likely to use, and purchased two hundred C Class Mercedes Benz sedans to whisk the Non-Aligned and U.N. leaders to their destinations.
On Aug.5, the regime imposed a mandatory "holiday" during the summit to limit the prospect of protests by keeping people off the streets, matched with a gasoline giveaway program of to all who would leave town during the summit. Regime agents forced 1,400 homeless people out of the area. Most tellingly, the mullahs flooded Tehran with 110,000 police and security forces, as well as Basiji militia -- the force that murdered young violinist Neda Agha Soltan three years ago.
Ahmad Khatami (the cleric who maintained the late Ayatollah Khomeini's death sentence on writer Salman Rushdie) ghoulishly told followers of the reformist Green Movement that he expected no summit-related "occurrences." In the days leading up to the big event, helicopters hovered ‘round the clock over the city as snipers and plainclothes agents deployed on rooftops and in buildings surrounding the conference hall. The government closed local schools for use of security forces.
Eighty of the 120 presidents, prime ministers and dictators invited to the Non-Aligned summit will not attend. Only 51 countries will send high-level delegations.
The mullahs now risk embarrassing the U.N. leader and other dignitaries thanks to Amnesty International, which exposed the plan to kill Arzhang Davoodi. In an urgent action notice released on Aug. 23, Amnesty reported that Arzhang had been transferred in June to Section 209 of Evin Prison, where he was likely tortured. At an Aug. 28 court hearing, the regime imposed a new charge against Arzhang: "enemy against God" (moharebeh), a crime that can be punishable by death.
Few Americans have ever heard of Arzhang Davoodi, but he has sent messages of gratitude to the people of America. Early last year, at great personal risk, he secretly recorded a video from a smuggled mobile phone in Iran's Rajee-Shahr prison. In the video, he addressed the participants of the first Iran Democratic Transition Conference organized and conducted by the Confederation of Iranian Students at the George Washington University, just blocks from the White House and State Department. With Arzhang's approval, attendees were able to view the video as he delivered his illicit message from captivity.
Days later, Arzhang's jailers savagely beat him and banished him to solitary confinement.
This is what Arzhang was beaten and banished for telling the conference: "In the name of God, the Almighty, happy New Year to all.
"From Rajee Shahr prison, I salute all freedom lovers of the world and cordially send my special regard to the great American nation, particularly all those who in the last three decades have never doubted in this principle that, at any rate, does not allow any sort of compromise with the reactionary sword-minded regime that holds no respect for the international community and has taken us Iranians as hostages.
"Hereby I thank all good hearted people who care about others and do their best to let freedom and democracy flourish all over our small planet. I thank all those who strongly believe that freedom is an indispensable right for us. For each and every human being living upon the good earth. I have a dream, I am sure that in the near future we Iranians share our everlasting freedom celebration with Americans. Yes, I have this dream. God bless you all and all those who truly sacrifice for a free Iran.
"God bless our small planet, God bless you all."
That statement was the entirety of Arzhang Davoodi's crime as an "enemy of God," for which he will pay with his life. Unless Secretary General Ban and the 51 national leaders personally intervene.
Amir Fakhravar is Secretary General of the Confederation of Iranian Students and a former political prisoner of the Iranian regime. He is presently a Research Fellow and Visiting Lecturer at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of international affairs in Washington, DC.
G. William Heiser is a former official in the Reagan National Security Council Staff and currently is an advisor to the Confederation of Iranian Students.
According to the New York Times, the International Atomic Energy Agency is ready to report that the Iranian nuclear program continues to expand and to accelerate. Moreover, the Times notes Iran's emphasis on enriching uranium to 20 percent.
The 20 percent level is more than four times what is necessary for power reactor fuel. As I have noted before, according to Professor Graham Allison, also of Harvard, this is like a football team reaching the ten yard line, where nuclear weapons-usable material is in the end zone. Stocks of uranium enriched to 20 percent materially shorten the time it would take Iran to break out or sneak out of its Treaty obligations and produce a nuclear weapon.
Uranium enriched to 20 percent can also be used to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor for medical isotope production, and this Iran claims to be doing. But that explanation is inconsistent with Iran's research reactor fuel requirements. Iran has already enriched more than enough such material to supply its medical isotope production for many years, and its enrichment to the 20 percent level is not only continuing, it is accelerating, again according to the reported IAEA findings.
How did the Obama Administration react to this unsettling if unsurprising news? It insisted that there is still "time and space" for a diplomatic solution.
This is a self-defeating U.S. response. It effectively tells Tehran, "Go ahead, keep enriching uranium, you are nowhere near provoking anything other than more fruitless meetings." Of course, Tehran will use the "time and space" granted by the Obama Administration to increase its stocks of enriched uranium further and to expand further its production capacity.
The only rational explanation for such an extraordinary statement by the Administration is that the White House places a higher priority on restraining a possible Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities than it does on constraining Tehran's nuclear production capacity.Reassuring Tehran that it is in no danger fundamentally diminishes incentives on Iran to negotiate seriously, and thereby undermines the most important U.S. policy priority -- halting and reversing Tehran's capacity to make material for nuclear weapons.
The Iranian nuclear program presents a serious and hard problem. There is no easy solution, and no option that does not entail significant risk, including both diplomacy and military action. But the difficulties and the stakes make it all the more important to avoid unforced errors. A self-defeating policy will never succeed, and unfortunately in rushing to insist that there is still "time and space" for diplomacy, the administration has chosen one.
News reports describing the U.S. role in developing the Stuxnet computer virus, and similar allegations about the existence of a second computer virus, named Flame, have sparked a much-needed debate of cyberwarfare and cybersecurity. President Obama contributed to the discussion last week with a call for greater attention to the latter in the Wall Street Journal.
News of Stuxnet has also, however, generated its share of hysteria. Writing in the New York Times, Columbia University's Misha Glenny painted an alarming picture:
"The ... Stuxnet computer worm ... marked a significant and dangerous turning point in the gradual militarization of the Internet ... If it continues, contemporary warfare will change fundamentally as we move into hazardous and uncharted territory ... Stuxnet has effectively fired the starting gun in a new arms race that is very likely to lead to the spread of similar and still more powerful offensive cyberweaponry across the Internet."
Glenny goes on to warn of the "frightening dangers of an uncontrolled arms race in cyberspace" where viruses "inevitably seek out and attack the networks of innocent parties." He worries that "Nobody can halt the worldwide rush to create cyberweapons" but calls for a treaty to regulate their use in peacetime.
Strong stuff. And certainly there is reason to harden U.S. infrastructure against cyber attack. In doing so, however, we should avoid cyber hysteria. Earlier this year, Thomas Rid of King's College London published an important article on cyberwarfare in The Journal of Strategic Studies (which, in the interests of full disclosure, I edit). Rid argues, persuasively in my view, that it is misleading to talk about "cyberwar" when, in fact, all politically motivated cyber attacks to date are merely more sophisticated versions of three traditional activities: sabotage, espionage, and subversion. Stuxnet clearly falls into the first category; Flame into the second.
I would take the argument a step further. Although many view cyber weapons as tools of the weak, they are likely to be most effective when wielded by the strong. That is because cyber means cannot compensate for weakness in other instruments of power. In other words, if a cyber attack by a weaker power on a stronger one fails to achieve its aim, the attacker is likely to face retaliation. In such a situation, the stronger power will possess more, and more lethal, options to retaliate -- what is known in nuclear deterrence terminology as escalation dominance. A weak power might be able to cause a stronger power some annoyance through cyber attack, but in seeking to compel an adversary through cyberwar, it would run the very real risk of devastating escalation.
In addition to escalation dominance, stronger powers, particularly stronger states, are likely to possess a greater ability to combine cyber means with other military instruments to conduct a combined-arms campaign. As a result, it may very well be that although weak powers may attempt to wage cyberwar, they are likely to face cyber weapons wielded by the strong
Because Glenny overestimates the effectiveness of cyber weapons, he also overestimates the speed and scope of their spread. There is a considerable body of work on the diffusion of innovations, and that research tends to show that new ways of war tend to spread more slowly, unevenly, and incompletely than one might think. Adam Liff of Princeton University has recently argued, again in The Journal of Strategic Studies, that the spread of cyber weapons is likely to have a relatively small influence on the frequency of war and that in some cases it may actually decrease its likelihood.
The growth, spread, and effectiveness of cyber weapons is an important subject. Although cyber-hysteria may grab headlines and sell books, it is a topic important enough to deserved focused, reasoned, and thoughtful discussion. Let the debate begin!
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
As the crisis in Syria heats up, so too has talk of a possible Iranian role in resolving it. Visiting Tehran last week, U.N. envoy Kofi Annan asserted that "Iran could play a positive role" in Syria. Two weeks earlier, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov lobbied for Iran to be invited to Annan's "Syria Action Group" meeting in Geneva, citing the need to invite "everybody who has influence on all Syrian sides." The Iranians themselves have also joined the chorus, pushing to include Syria on the agenda of recent P5+1 talks and, on Sunday, offering to host talks between the Syrian regime and opposition.
The notion that Iran will help to usher in a political transition in Syria has been met with skepticism in the West. According to a recent Defense Department (DOD) report on Iranian military power and strategy, Tehran has provided the Assad regime with "military equipment and communications assistance" during the uprising, and has "probably provided military trainers to advise Syrian security forces." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it more succinctly, asserting that Iran was "helping to stage-manage the repression" in Syria. Iran's actions have not only provoked new U.S. sanctions, they run afoul of preexisting U.N. sanctions prohibiting arms sales by Tehran.
For Western policymakers to understand which view is correct -- that is, whether Iran is a potentially constructive player whose influence could sway Assad to change course, or a spoiler which could be counted upon to stymie efforts to foster an orderly political transition -- they must examine Iranian interests in Syria as well as how Iran's inclusion would affect the dynamics of international diplomacy. Such an examination yields a clear conclusion: Iran should be excluded.
The first question that must be addressed is in regard to Iranian interests in Syria -- that is, what does Tehran want to achieve in Syria? According to the DOD report, Iran as a matter of strategy "seeks to increase its stature by countering U.S. influence and expanding ties with regional actors," and uses tools including "active sponsorship of terrorist and insurgent groups...to increase its regional power." For these reasons, Syria under Assad has been an invaluable asset for Iran: a rare ally in the effort to challenge American interests in the region, a territorial base for coordinating Iranian support to groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and a forward operating hub to exert influence in Lebanon and keep Israel at bay.
Advocates of including Iran in diplomatic efforts on Syria observe that Iran was purportedly helpful in Afghanistan after 9/11, and that the U.S. engaged diplomatically with Iran regarding Iraq during the last decade, both by including Iran in multilateral meetings and by assenting to trilateral U.S.-Iran-Iraq consultations. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, however, Iran was faced with conflicting interests. In both places, Tehran shared an adversary with Washington -- the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Saddam in Iraq -- and wanted to prevent the return of that adversary.
At the same time, and demonstrably more importantly, Iran wanted to see U.S. forces exit these countries, and in both places provided lethal material support to militants waging war on U.S. forces. As it does with Syria today, Iran professed a desire to see peace and stability in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is notable, however, that even after the withdrawal of U.S. forces, Iran continues to support militias and terrorist groups in Iraq, suggesting that Tehran is in fact perfectly content to subvert regional governments and destabilize its neighbors in pursuit of its own security.
In Syria, Iran faces no such conflicting interests. The outcome the West has in mind in Syria is to Iran a worst-case scenario: an orderly transition to a representative government. Any such transitional government -- while it may not feel terribly indebted to the West, given international inaction on the Syrian people's behalf -- is likely to be at best neutral towards Iran, and more likely hostile to it, leaving Tehran deprived of one of its few allies and unable to use Syria to advance its security strategy. Iran's leaders may also worry about the precedent that would be set by Assad's forced departure, given their own recent struggles with domestic opposition.
To safeguard its apparent interests, Iran must preserve Assad or a similarly cooperative proxy, or it must fuel Syria's descent into the chaos in which Iranian agents thrive. Given Iran's track record, it can be expected to try to do both -- to continue funneling aid to Assad's forces and other proxies to battle the opposition, even as they seek to involve themselves in diplomacy with the aim of salvaging Assad's crumbling rule.
Furthermore, inclusion in international diplomacy would serve another Iranian interest at a particularly opportune time. It would bolster Iran's regional prestige and send the message that it is not, as the U.S. and others assert, isolated internationally, but is in fact a key player in shaping the Middle East's emerging security and political landscape. This may sound far-fetched in Washington and the capitals of Europe, but conspiracy theories gain ready purchase in the Middle East. With the P5+1 appearing eager to avoid war and prepared to offer concessions to Tehran, the notion of a U.S.-Iran deal on Syria will be met with credulity.
Given this -- or any alternative -- reading of Iranian interests, a second question must be addressed: How would Iran's inclusion affect the dynamics of diplomacy on Syria? Iran's participation would likely ease Russia's isolation in multilateral forums on Syria, and thus reduce the pressure on Moscow to reconsider its own support for Assad. Given that Western strategy -- wisely or not -- hinges upon persuading Russia to change course and lift its veto of U.N. Security Council action on Syria, inviting Iran to the table would be diplomatically counterproductive.
Despite hopeful pronouncements to the contrary, mere invitations to diplomatic deliberations do not cause states to revise their interests. Rather, they provide them with a vehicle to advance those interests, for better or worse. Nor do such deliberations succeed best when "everyone with influence" is invited. Rather, they work best when enough states which together have enough influence -- and who can find an overlap in their interests which all participants find preferable to the status quo or most likely alternative -- are involved. As long as the Iranian regime seeks to ensure its own security by undermining that of its neighbors, it does not qualify.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
Last month, I wrote how Ecuador's radical populist President Rafael Correa has tasked his ambassador in Washington with launching a charming offensive to secure congressional renewal of trade preferences under the Andean Trade Preferences and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA), which expire next year. Ostensibly, the campaign is designed to make policymakers forget about some of President Correa's more egregious anti-American actions, such as embracing Iran and unceremoniously expelling the U.S. ambassador from Ecuador last year.
One would think then that a looming congressional vote on ATPDEA extension would cause President Correa to rein in his provocative behavior. Far from it. In fact, in the past couple of weeks, he has continued apace his efforts to sever normal ties between the two countries.
First, he announced Ecuador's withdrawal from the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), where Ecuadorean military officers traditionally received U.S. military training. The facility, formerly the School of the Americas, has been a target of leftist agitation for decades.
At the same time, Correa has begun a campaign threatening to now expel the U.S. Agency for International Development mission from Ecuador, which he has accused of "funding the opposition."
Yet, through it all, his ambassador in Washington has been maintaining a brave face. In a recent interview with the Ecuadorean press, she claimed that a recent U.S. Trade Representative report on ATPDEA extension concluded that Ecuador "met all the criteria for eligibility." In fact, it did no such thing.
In one key passage, the report notes, "developments in the past few years give rise to concerns about the government's long-term commitment to international arbitration for the settlement of investor disputes." According to The Hill, "The report could make it harder for lawmakers to renew the program."
The embassy also apparently snookered the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative into hosting next week a senior Ecuadorean official to expound on Correa's efforts to "transform" Ecuador's judiciary, no doubt to assuage U.S. companies concerned about their treatment there. The Ecuadorean judiciary has indeed been transformed by Correa -- into another arm of the executive.
Today, he has the majority of the Supreme Court in his pocket and the politicization of the judiciary was laid bare in Correa's recent $40 million lawsuit against a newspaper for a critical op-ed column. It turns out, for example, that the sentencing documents were not written by the presiding judge, but by Correa's own lawyers.
The incongruence between Correa's behavior and the apparent goal of securing the extension of U.S. trade preferences is striking. As I have written previously, no matter on what front Ecuador is evaluated, the Correa government does not merit a renewal of ATPDEA benefits. At the end of the day, such programs are meant to elicit cooperative, positive behavior from the beneficiaries. Why else would they exist? The Obama administration and Congress ought to make clear to the Correa government that they are no longer interested in subsidizing his bad behavior.
The political scientist Kenneth Waltz, who is known, among other things, for his view that nuclear proliferation is a good thing, recently weighed in on the subject of Iran. Writing in the pages of USA Today in advance of an article in Foreign Affairs, Waltz argues that, "a nuclear-armed Iran would probably be the best possible result of the standoff and the one most likely to restore stability to the Middle East."
Waltz writes that diplomacy and sanctions are unlikely to convince Tehran to abandon its quest for nuclear weapons, concluding that, "a country bent on acquiring nuclear weapons can rarely be dissuaded." He similarly dismisses the possibility that Iran could stop short of producing nuclear weapons, arguing that leaders in Tehran would see a "bomb in the basement" as an insufficient deterrent to Israel. Rather, he believes the most likely future as one in which Iran overtly acquires a nuclear weapon.
Such a diagnosis is hardly unique. What is likely to grab attention is his prescription. He argues that Iranian nuclear weapons would be a good thing for the stability of the Middle East. In his words, "policymakers and citizens worldwide should take comfort from the fact that where nuclear capabilities have emerged, so, too, has stability. When it comes to nuclear weapons, now as ever, more could be better."
Waltz is a serious scholar, and his argument deserves serious attention, even if his embrace of nuclear weapons is the sort of thing that makes policy-makers doubt the value of the academy in policy debates.
As befits an international relations theorist, his arguments about the prospects and consequences of proliferation are categorical. Sweeping statements are fine when it comes to theory, but Waltz's assertions regarding proliferation all too often collide with the facts.
In fact, as Waltz concedes later in the piece, the spread of nuclear weapons is hardly inevitable. Over the last seventy years, a number of countries -- including Argentina, Brazil, Sweden, South Korea and Taiwan -- launched nuclear weapons programs only to abandon them because of foreign pressure and domestic political change. South Africa fielded a nuclear arsenal only to give it up for similar reasons. Most recently, Muammar Qaddafi gave up Libya's nuclear program in response to a series of carrots and sticks. And contrary to the arguments of some, governments have used force to interdict a country's nuclear ambition, including Israel's 1981 attack on Iraq's Osirak reactor and its 2007 attack on Syria's Al Kibar reactor. As Sarah Kreps and Matthew Fuhrmann show in an article in The Journal of Strategic Studies last year, peacetime attacks on nuclear facilities can delay proliferation, particularly when launched well before the nuclear threat is imminent. Such attacks are, however, the least legitimate under international law and are thus most likely to elicit censure.
If Waltz's fatalism regarding the acquisition of nuclear weapons is misplaced, then so too is his optimism regarding the impact of nuclear possession on state behavior. Not all states are alike. Nuclear weapons in the hands of North Korea or Iran are of far greater concern than those in the hands of Israel or India. Nor would all would agree with his assertion that "fears of proliferation have proved to be unfounded." The world is a more, not less, dangerous place because of North Korea's possession of nuclear weapons, and it would be an even more dangerous place should Tehran get the bomb.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
By Aaron Marr Page, Attorney for the Ecuadorians suing Chevron
It is disappointing that José Cárdenas feels the need to throw in a little gratuitous boosterism for Chevron in the middle of an important foreign policy discussion about trade. Chevron is overtly trying to destabilze U.S.-Ecuador relations as part of a self-serving strategy to escape legal accountability for egregious misconduct in Ecuador's Amazon. Cárdenas uncritically recites Chevron's talking points about being the victim of a judicial "shakedown" when in fact overwhelming scientific evidence produced by Chevron itself (and as found by multiple courts) concluded that the oil giant has committed monstrous environmental abuse in Ecuador, decimating indigenous groups and causing an outbreak of cancer. For a summary of the evidence against Chevron, see this video here and this document here.
It was Chevron that insisted the claims filed by more than 30,000 indigenous people and Amazon residents be heard in the courts of Ecuador, declaring the courts in 14 affidavits fair and just. Once the trial started in 2003 and the evidence pointed to Chevron's guilt, the company started a public relations and diplomatic campaign to taint Ecuador of which trade lobbying is an important component. Ecuador's government estimates that cutting trade preferences could negatively impact 320,000 jobs, but to Chevron that's a small price to pay if it means it can politically engineer the legal outcome it seeks.
Chevron was right about the competence of Ecuadorian courts: they performed admirably, supervising an 8-year trial that included over 50 judicial site inspections and the submission of over 100 detailed expert reports containing over 64,000 scientific results from soil and water samples. Dozens of witnesses testified and each and every one of the company's legal defenses was thoroughly briefed and analyzed in the trial court's 188-page final judgment. Classified State Department cables released by Wikileaks reveal that the company repeatedly admitted to U.S. diplomatic staff in private that it had "no real complaints about the administration of the case." See here. Chevron has tried to undermine the rule of law at every turn. For a summary of Chevron's strategy of harassment, delay, obstruction, and misconduct, see this sworn affidavit.
Chevron is now engaged in an ugly bit of diplomatic theater in an effort to end-run a case that it lost. The last time Chevron stormed Capitol Hill with lobbyists to destabilize the trade relationship with Ecuador, twenty-six members of Congress wrote to ask the USTR to steer clear of the issue. As the Los Angeles Times wrote at the time, "punish[ing] Ecuador because its government refuses to halt a private lawsuit against the oil giant" would "harm broader U.S. interests" and "create needless ill will in a region where President Obama has promised to end North American bullying."
José R. Cárdenas responds: "Examples of judicial misconduct and political interference in the Chevron case have been well-documented. I stand by my comments."
JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images
In one of the most memorable lines of his March 4, 2012, speech on the Middle East, President Obama declared, "Iran's leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon." However, containment is rarely a policy one prefers, with its implication of preventing a bad situation from getting worse. Instead, it tends to be the policy one is left with once other realistic options have been exhausted.
Avoiding containment, therefore, has less to do with declarations about the future, and far more to do with sound strategy today: We must prevent ourselves from being maneuvered into a corner where we have little choice other than to accept containment as our de facto Iran policy. Instead of emphasizing what we may do if Iran obtains a nuclear weapon, or is on the cusp of doing so, the U.S. should focus on denying Tehran the necessary building blocks to reach that point -- in other words, a nuclear weapons capability.
North Korea provides a case in point. It would surprise most Americans to learn that the United States provided North Korea with over $1.3 billion in assistance from 1995 to 2008. This aid, along with other benefits, such as North Korea's removal from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and the unfreezing of key assets, was provided even as the U.S. and its allies spent countless dollars more defending themselves from the dangers emanating from Pyongyang, and as North Korea made steady progress toward a nuclear weapon, culminating in a pair of nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.
The North Korean regime was given relief, not in exchange for irreversible denuclearization, but for "confidence-building measures" (CBMs), which stopped short of addressing Washington's core concerns. The net effect, however, is that diplomatic confidence has instead been undermined due to the North's reversals, and Pyongyang has reportedly assembled a nuclear arsenal despite withering international pressure. While Iran and North Korea are different in many regards, these outcomes should nevertheless be bracing for those involved in the nuclear negotiations with Tehran, into which similar language regarding interim agreements and CBMs has crept.
In order for the talks resuming this week in Baghdad to provide a path to Iran's denuclearization -- rather than a slippery slope towards containment -- the Obama administration should avoid three key mistakes.
First, the U.S. should not provide relief from sanctions in exchange for anything less than the full suspension of uranium enrichment by Tehran, and other hard-to-reverse steps such as the removal of Iran's enriched uranium stocks and dismantlement of its key fuel fabrication facilities.
This is necessary for three reasons: First, it prevents Iran from using the talks simply to derail the pressure campaign against it, only to renege on its commitments later, as it has done in the past. Second, it prevents Iran from legitimizing its uranium enrichment program and thereby gaining technical mastery of the enrichment process, which would be a boon should the regime later kick out inspectors. Finally, it would simplify the task of detecting Iranian cheating. If Iran is permitted a legitimate enrichment program, then the IAEA and Western intelligence agencies must seek to detect diversion of uranium or other material and personnel to a possible parallel, clandestine program, whereas if Iran is not permitted such activities at all, any enrichment-related work would be a red flag and a cause for punitive action.
Second, the U.S. must take care not to reward Iran for provocations. Decision-makers in Tehran cannot help but be pleased that the international community is now focused on Iran's 19.75 percent enrichment work and treats its 3.5 percent enrichment as a fait accompli, or that their once-secret facilities at Natanz and Arak seem likely to remain in operation in the nuclear proposals put forward by the P5+1.
Washington has tended to focus its energies on each marginal advance by Tehran, such that what the U.S. now appears willing to do in return for a limit on Iran's enrichment activities is equivalent to what had previously been offered for a full suspension of enrichment. This constant re-drawing of U.S. redlines may seem sensible in the diplomatic heat of battle, but the perverse effect is not to cap Iran's activities, but to encourage further nuclear progress.
Finally, the U.S. must not neglect the bigger picture. It is a common fault of policymakers -- or any decision-maker, for that matter -- that near-term costs and benefits are given a disproportionate weight relative to longer-term ones. For example, there is a great deal of analysis of the impact of military action against Iran on the price of oil, but little on the long-term effect of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon or of a policy of containment on oil prices.
Any nuclear deal which stops short of fulfilling the U.N. Security Council's repeated demand for the full suspension of uranium enrichment by Iran, among other things, holds the possibility of eroding U.S. influence in the Middle East, undermining U.S. deterrence broadly, strengthening the Iranian regime, and damaging the integrity of the global nonproliferation regime. Washington tends to exaggerate the benefits of a deal with Iran, given the short lifespan of past agreements, and underestimate these long-term costs.
Too often, a compromise on Iran's nuclear program has been presented by its advocates as a Hobson's choice -- accept a bad deal, or invite military conflict. The real choice is between ineffective diplomacy which provides Tehran with much-sought relief, yet leaves Washington's concerns unresolved and U.S. policy on a slippery slope towards containment -- or a firmer approach which provides Tehran with no benefits until it yields its nuclear weapons capabilities irreversibly. Negotiations and agreements are useful insofar as they advance our national security interests, but should never be seen as ends in themselves. The leverage the U.S. has built up has been hard-won, but can be easily lost, and should not be yielded too readily.
Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.