There's a lot going down in the world this week -- unpopular government shutdowns, popular negotiation preliminaries with Iran, ongoing terrorism in Africa, United Nations action on Syria, damaging intelligence leaks by
Edward Snowden U.S. intelligence officials.
In this kind of current events overload, it would be easy for North Korea to get lost in the shuffle. This would be a shame, because China has done something rather extraordinary over the past week. Jane Perlez explains in the New York Times:
longtime patron, produced a list of equipment and chemical substances it banned for export to North Korea, fearing that the North would use the items to speed development of an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear bomb on top.
The publication of the 236-page list of banned items came as a surprise to many who follow North Korea and China, given China’s longstanding reluctance to do anything that might destabilize the North and allow the United States any more power on the Korean Peninsula.
Both Chinese and Western analysts called the export ban an important development — if it is implemented fully — especially since the list appeared to have been approved at the highest levels of the Chinese government. Either the Politburo, or the group’s seven-member Standing Committee, the apex of Chinese power, gave the green light, they said.
The compilation of the items, down to their measurements in both inches and millimeters, was probably months in the making, and almost certainly involved the expertise of China’s nuclear and military bureaucracies, they said. The export ban would give a boost to United Nations sanctions imposed this year that were meant to starve the North’s increasingly sophisticated nuclear programs. The North gets many important materials from China, and American officials had long said sanctions would not work without more Chinese cooperation.
Why is this a big deal? Well, based on what I know about this topic, I'd say there are two reasons these sanctions matter. The first and more obvious reason is that China is doing the sanctioning, which counts for one hell of a lot more than the United States doing it. The odds of economic coercion yielding actual concessions goes up when it's an ally rather than an adversary doing the sanctioning.
The second a less obvious reason is that China is implementing these sanctions very, very publicly. This is more unusual. Allies usually don't like to talk about sanctions, because it acknowledges a rift in bilateral relations. It also elevates audience costs on both sides, which makes it harder to negotiate concessions. In this case, even the publication of the sanctions list itself is something of an intelligence find for the United States -- as Perlez notes:
“The list gives a good insight into what China knows about the missile and bomb development of North Korea,” said [Roger] Cavazos, the former Army intelligence officer who now works as an analyst at the Nautilus Institute, which studies international security issues. “From what I can tell, it lays out almost all China knows about North Korea’s missile and nuclear program.”
Now it's possible that these two effects cancel each other out, and Beijing decided to go public with sanctions in part to signal exasperation with its troublesome ally. Still, this appears to be yet another data point suggesting that on North Korea, Xi Jinping has shifted China to a policy position closer to the United States.
One last note -- Perlez hints that the U.S. opening to Iran could have a bank shot effect in Pyongyang:
The diplomatic opening between the United States and Iran on Friday would give China another opportunity to “put the squeeze” on North Korea, said Zhu Feng, the deputy director of the Center for International and Strategic Studies at Beijing University. “Now Beijing can say to North Korea: ‘If you want to breach your isolation, you should do more.’”
What do you think?
One of the more fascinating aspects of the Syria debate has been the divide between policymakers and academics over the question of credibility and reputation in international politics. In essence: Does Washington's reversals of course in Syria signal to allies and adversaries alike that the U.S. will not honor its other defense commitments?
I bring this up because -- tucked into the Wall Street Journal's tick-tock on the Obama administration's post-August 21 gyrations on Syria policy -- there was this little nugget:
The U.K. parliamentary vote happened as National Security Adviser Rice, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel were beginning a conference call with congressional leaders. During the call, Mr. Hagel, who was traveling in Asia, raised the question of U.S. credibility. He said South Korea was concerned U.S. inaction would make North Korea think it could get away with using chemical and biological weapons. [Emphasis added.]
This is not the only time Hagel has brought up this connection:
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel cited North Korea as a country that he said could be emboldened if global norms against use of chemical weapons are weakened by US inaction in response to the Aug. 21 attack that killed more than 1,400 people in the suburbs of Damascus.
The focus of US diplomacy with North Korea has been its expanding nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. But Hagel told US lawmakers that Washington and Seoul were also concerned about chemical weapons.
"I just returned from Asia, where I had a very serious and long conversation with South Korea's defense minister about the threat that North Korea's stockpile of chemical weapons presents to them," Hagel told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He described the North Korean stockpile as "massive."
While Secretary of State John Kerry has made similar references, Hagel seems to be asserting that it's not just a valid comparison to make, but that South Korean officials have actually been making it to American officials. This would be direct evidence to support the claim that credibility matters more in world politics than the current academic research indicates.
The thing is, it's not at all clear whether Hagel's assertions have any grounding in fact. First of all, Korea experts have seen almost no chatter inside the ROK making this comparison as the Syria debate has heated up.
Second, these really are apples-and-oranges cases. Syria's government used chemical weapons on its own people during a civil war; the DPRK would be using such weapons against another sovereign state that happens to be an important U.S. treaty ally. Any decision by the DPRK to use its chemical weapons would trigger an international war -- a fact that Pyongyang knows already.
Third, as Scott Snyder noted a few days ago, the North Koreans can spin any U.S. action or inaction in Syria as an argument in favor of bolstering their WMD:
North Korea has successfully avoided accountability for its persistent efforts to expand its WMD capacity. The United States intervened in Iraq at the same time that North Korea was on the verge of conducting its first nuclear test. North Korea has publicly stated that the Obama administration’s intervention in Libya affirms that North Korea has taken the right path by pursuing its nuclear development. A U.S. focus only on Syria, despite evidence of North Korea’s support for the latter’s WMD programs, will strengthen Pyongyang’s belief that its nuclear weapons program is successfully deterring U.S. and international efforts from holding it accountable for its actions.
Thus, a precision strike to teach Syria a lesson on WMD use will not deter North Korea from building a capacity to directly threaten the United States or from using WMD if it deems necessary. It may instead strengthen the position of North Korean hardliners that it must build this capacity to strengthen deterrence.…
North Korea is indeed watching, but its leaders are unlikely to take a lesson from U.S. intervention in Syria and instead will use whatever happens in Syria to its advantage. It is self-delusion to tell ourselves that action or inaction in Syria will prevent North Korea’s efforts to build a nuclear blackmail capability.
Finally, there's the fact that South Korea has publicly welcomed the chemical weapons deal on Syria.
To be fair, Snyder also suggested that "A U.S. strike on Syria will however provide a measure of assurance to U.S. allies who live under the threat of North Korean chemical and nuclear weapons use." So there's that, and whatever the ROK defense minister said to Hagel.
These things can't be dismissed out of hand. I do think they can be dismissed after further reflection, however.
What do you think?
Your humble blogger has been too hard at work
trashing his diminished reputation for seriousness working on other projects to blog about North Korea as of late. Now, the situation on the Korean Peninsula has been such a predictable cycle of DPRK provocative action, measured response, and more provocative action that I've been tempted to automate these posts the same way I have with Iran.
Still, as one reviews recent behavior, it's necessary to acknowledge that this cycle looks a little different. When Nick Kristof tweets that "I've been covering North Korean pugnacity and brinksmanship for 25 years, and I'm nervous about what might happen," the rest of us snap to attention.
1) There was the novel threat from a North Korean general to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the United States, causing Washington to "be engulfed in a sea of fire."
2) North Korea has also declared that the 1953 armistice with South Korea is now "invalid," cutting off the direct phone link with South Korea at Panmunjom.
3) North Korea's propaganda machine has ramped up against new South Korean leader Park Geun-hye in a rather sexist fashion, decrying the "venomous swish of skirt" coming from the Blue House. In Korean, this language implies an "overly aggressive" woman.
4) Something something Dennis Rodman inanity something.
5) North Korea has dramatically ramped up the number of air force sorties, from 100 a day last summer to at least 550 a day now -- a number that comes close to matching the South Korean daily number.
So, seriously, WTF, Kim Jong Un? Is this simply a more severe version of typical DPRK brinkmanship, or is this something altogether new and destabilizing?
Well … I think it's the former. First, let's just ignore the DPRK's rhetoric, because it's always over the top -- or, as with Rodman, completely disingenuous. Let's look at the DPRK's actions. Here, even the cancellation of the armistice doesn't necessarily mean much, as McClatchy's Tom Lasseter points out:
Pyongyang is infamous for issuing dramatic but empty threats, like turning its enemies into an apocalyptic "sea of fire." The North has also announced on several previous occasions that it was pulling out from the armistice, most recently in 2009.…
The last time North Korea disconnected the hotline, in 2010, was a year when the North killed four South Koreans when it shelled an island and was accused of torpedoing a South Korean naval ship, killing 46 sailors.
But Yonhap also reported that the North had not severed another North-South communication line, this one related to a North Korean industrial zone where South Korean companies operate.
So … nothing much new here. Beyond that there's the ramping up of air sorties, which does seem like a more powerful signal, if for no other reason than that it's actually a costly act. And beyond that … a lot of hot air.
So does that mean I can automate my North Korea posts? Well, Fareed Zakaria has a different spin:
No one knows for sure what is going on. It is highly unlikely that these moves are being conceived and directed by Kim Jong Un, the young leader who succeeded his father, Kim Jong Il. North Korea’s military dictatorship has wedded itself to the third generation of the Kim dynasty, which now seems to serve mostly as a unifying symbol for its people. But it is unlikely that a 28-year-old with almost no background in politics or experience in government is conceiving and directing these policies. (He does appear to have free rein on basketball policy in the hermit kingdom.)
The most likely explanation for North Korea’s actions is that it is trying to get attention. In the past, its provocations usually led to international (especially American) efforts to defuse tensions. Then came negotiations, which led to an agreement of sorts, which the North soon cheated on, which led to sanctions, isolation and, finally, North Korean provocation again.
The pattern may be repeating — but it’s a high-stakes game, with nuclear weapons, brinkmanship and hyper-nationalism all interacting. Things could go wrong. The most important new development, however, is China’s attitude change. In a remarkable shift, China — which sustains its neighbor North Korea economically — helped draft and then voted last week for U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang.
For decades, Beijing saw Pyongyang as a historical ally. But now, a senior Obama administration official told me Wednesday, “We are clearly hearing increasingly levels of frustration and concern” from Beijing about North Korea.
Zakaria is correct to point out Beijing's growing disenchantment with Pyongyang. But I tend to share Jennifer Lind's assessment that this disenchantment won't necessarily lead to any dramatic changes:
One shouldn't exaggerate the significance of these recent developments. After all, in the U.N. negotiations over sanctions -- this time as before -- the Chinese have consistently played the role of watering down the degree of punishment imposed against Pyongyang. And in the past Chinese firms have helped North Koreans evade sanctions. It remains to be seen whether Beijing intends to enforce the new measures.…
Because the specter of North Korea's collapse could potentially destabilize the Korea peninsula, Beijing may continue to shield Pyongyang. But the two country's [sic] increasingly divergent interests suggest that China's dissatisfaction with North Korea is only likely to grow.
I'd be even more skeptical. Obviously, China's leadership would prefer North Korea to act in a less provocative manner -- but they really don't want a disintegrating North Korean state. So even if they're disenchanted, they won't apply the necessary pressure to foment regime change or regime collapse. Which means that Pyongyang will still have carte blanche to provoke everyone else.
So my take is … not much has changed. I suspect that the reason for all of the amping up has to do with domestic politics on all sides. On the one hand, Kim Jong Un is playing to his own military base. On the other hand, North Korea is also trying to suss out the policy preferences and resolve of the new leadership in both South Korea and China.
Unless and until Beijing gets fed up enough to desire a strategic shift on the Korean Peninsula, I'm dubious that anything will change.
Am I missing anything?
Your humble blogger is a busy man. There are books to write, referee reports to complete, committee meetings to attend, grant proposals to craft,
silver prices to fix at the behest of the Council on Foreign Relations, tweets to tweet, witty blog posts to devise, and petty acts of professorial revenge to enact. He doesn't have time to revisit an ongoing international crisis with no changes in the dynamic.
So, after reading Thomas Erdbrink and David Sanger's front-pager in the New York Times and Jason Rezaian's story in the Washington Post, I think we're at the stage where it's possible to automate any blog post on the Iran crisis. Here are the seven key points to make in any \post of this nature going forward, with quotes from one of these two stories as evidence:
1) There is a deal on the nuclear issue that can be agreed upon any time both sides are interested in an agreement. From Erdbrink and Sanger:
The outlines of a nuclear deal have been clear for months: an Iranian agreement to limit the number of centrifuges that produce uranium, a cap on the amount of fuel in Iranian hands, and an agreement to ship its most potent stockpiles — the stuff that can be quickly converted to bomb fuel — out of the country. It would also have to agree to expose its history of nuclear work, including any on weapons technology, which it has refused to show international inspectors. In return, Iran would get an acknowledgment that it has a right to peaceful nuclear enrichment, and a gradual lifting of the sanctions.
2) The sanctions against Iran will be tightened until there is a nuclear deal. From Erdbrink and Sanger:
The existing sanctions on financial transactions have also forced Iran to engage in unfavorable oil-for-goods barter trade with its biggest customers, China and India. Chinese goods and medicine from India are prominently featured in stores and pharmacies across the country.
And now Iranian economic ingenuity will be tested again. Under the new crackdown, the United States is tightening the rules governing countries it has allowed to keep buying Iranian oil, as long as they show they are weaning themselves of it. From now on, when China, Japan, South Korea and India, among others, pay for oil deliveries, they will be required to put that money into a local bank account, which Iran can use only to buy goods within that country.
It is a way of keeping the money from ever being repatriated to Iran, even through third parties.
3) Iran will reject any linkage between negotiation and coercion, even though any final deal will be a function of both factors. From Rezaian:
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that will not solve the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program.
"I’m not a diplomat, I’m a revolutionary, and speak frankly and directly,” said Khamenei, according to a report by Iran's Mehr News agency. “You Americans have pointed guns toward Iran, but at the same time you want to negotiate. The Iranian nation will not be intimidated by these actions."
4) American officials will express concerns in public about the rationality of the Iranian leadership. From Erdbrink and Sanger:
Obama administration officials were disturbed by a new analysis, prepared for the president and his staff, that paints a picture of the supreme leader as so walled off from what is happening with his country’s oil revenues that he is telling visitors that the sanctions are hurting the United States more than they are hurting Iran.
“The people may be suffering in Iran,” one senior official involved in Iran strategy said last week, “but the supreme leader isn’t, and he’s the only one who counts.”
5) The sanctions will continue to inflict serious damage on the Iranian economy without beinging the regime to its knees. From Erdbrink and Sanger:
The Iranian economy’s resiliency could surprise Westerners. The way Iran’s economy is structured, with strong links between state bodies and semiofficial and private businesses, helps shield the country, said Saeed Laylaz, an economist and columnist for the Sharq newspaper, which is critical of the government....
Others are more pessimistic, saying the effects of the sanctions have still not been fully felt.
“If the sanctions, government mismanagement and inflation continue naturally in the future, we will encounter serious difficulties,” said Mohsen Farshad Yekta, a professor of economics at the University of Economic Sciences in Tehran.
6) Force will be brandished as an option but not used against Iran. Nick Burns is not known for being a terribly militaristic diplomat, but here's what he told Erdbrink and Sanger about how to deal with Iran:
[T]he U.S. must remain patient and commit to direct talks at the highest levels. But, ultimately both Obama and Netanyahu also need to make the threat of force more credible to Tehran. Combined with sanctions, this may be the most effective way to convince Iran to agree to a peaceful, negotiated settlement.
Chuck Hagel said similar things during his confirmation hearing. No U.S. official is gonna take force off the table -- but short of a deliberate Iranian provocation in the region, it's not gonna be used.
7) And the last, most important point: everyone involved -- with the possible exception of Israel -- is pretty comfortable with the status quo. The U.S. is delighted to keep Iran contained. The Iranian leadership is content to blame the U.S. for all of its woes and possess a nuclear breakout capacity, without actually having nuclear weapons. Iran's economic elites are delighted to engage in sanctions-busting -- more profit for them. And Iran's neighbors are happy to see Iran contained and not actually develop a nuclear weapon. I think even Israel would be copacetic with the current arrangement if they knew that the Iranian regime had no intention of crafting an actual weapon unless it felt an existential threat.
So... unless and until there's a change in the status quo -- and there hasn't been for some time -- I'll just link back to this post when I need to post my quarterly musings on What to Do About Iran. Or I'll program a bot to cull the updated version of the quotes above to point out that nothing fundamental has changed.
Despite the fact that the administration appears to have the votes to confirm Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, activist groups like the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI) continue to pound away
at a brick wall at Hagel's dovishness towards Iran. In essence, ECI's ads and rhetoric argue forcefully that both Hagel and Obama are not fully committed to defending Israel by revving up for an attack on Iran now.
Don't take my word for it, though -- here's one of ECI's ads:
Now, as I've blogged before, this kind of interest group campaign is a waste of money if the goal is a partisan effort to weaken Obama and bolster the GOP. What if the effort is sincere, however? In other words, if groups like ECI care only about eliminating the Iranian threat as soon as possible, is this their best expenditure of resources?
Based on Sheera Frakel's McClatchy story from yesterday, I'd say the answer is no. Clearly, the greatest threat to a softening Western posture towards Iran comes from... dare I say it... Israel itself!!!
Israeli intelligence officials now estimate that Iran won’t be able to build a nuclear weapon before 2015 or 2016, pushing back by several years previous assessments of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Intelligence briefings given to McClatchy over the last two months have confirmed that various officials across Israel’s military and political echelons now think it’s unrealistic that Iran could develop a nuclear weapons arsenal before 2015. Others pushed the date back even further, to the winter of 2016.
"Previous assessments were built on a set of data that has since shifted," said one Israeli intelligence officer, who spoke to McClatchy only on the condition that he not be identified. He said that in addition to a series of "mishaps" that interrupted work at Iran’s nuclear facilities, Iranian officials appeared to have slowed the program on their own.
Oh. My. God. We already knew that there was a fifth column of Israelis who were pooh-poohing the notion of a pre-emptive strike on Iran. Now, with this intelligence walkback, the credibility of the Israeli national security establishment has taken a pretty serious hit.
If ECI and like-minded groups really think that Iran poses an existential threat and that the time to act is now, then I think they're targeting their resources at the wrong country. Trying to convert Rand Paul to their point of view isn't enough, and opposing Hagel is fruitless at this point. No, only a full-throated ECI campaign in Israel itself will be sufficient to prevent Jerusalem from falling into the appeasement camp. And if they fail to redirect their activities, then I have no choice but to conclude that ECI has gone soft on Iran as well.
Am I missing anything?
One of the points I was trying to make in my CFR working paper on global economic governance is that the system, while far from perfect, did in fact prevent the worst from happening. That might sound like lowered expectations, but anyone who knows anything about the history of global governance would appreciate that this would represent a significant upgrading from past centuries.
I bring this up because of this maddeningly-short-on-detail New York Times front-pager by Eric Shmitt and David Sanger on what went down when the Syrian government inched closer to using its chemical weapons stockpile:
In the last days of November, Israel’s top military commanders called the Pentagon to discuss troubling intelligence that was showing up on satellite imagery: Syrian troops appeared to be mixing chemicals at two storage sites, probably the deadly nerve gas sarin, and filling dozens of 500-pounds bombs that could be loaded on airplanes.
Within hours President Obama was notified, and the alarm grew over the weekend, as the munitions were loaded onto vehicles near Syrian air bases. In briefings, administration officials were told that if Syria's increasingly desperate president, Bashar Al-Assad, ordered the weapons to be used, they could be airborne in less than two hours — too fast for the United States to act, in all likelihood.
What followed next, officials said, was a remarkable show of international cooperation over a civil war in which the United States, Arab states, Russia and China have almost never agreed on a common course of action.
The combination of a public warning by Mr. Obama and more sharply worded private messages sent to the Syrian leader and his military commanders through Russia and others, including Iraq, Turkey and possibly Jordan, stopped the chemical mixing and the bomb preparation. A week later Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said the worst fears were over — for the time being.
Now if you read the whole thing, it's entirely unclear exactly who communicated to whom and whether these messages were planned and coordinated in advance -- though it reads like it was.
But this episode, again, seems like an example of the great powers making sure that the worst-case scenario -- for them, at least -- did not transpire. Now this might seem like small beer compared to the appalling loss of life in Syria and the discomfiting tolerance the Obama admiinistration has with the status quo. Still, compared to, say, the interwar period of 1919-1939, or the Cold War deadlock from 1945-1990, it's not nothing either. Clearly, the great powers do seem pretty invested in the idea of keeping the Syrian civil war limited to Syria and not allowing it to consume the entire region.
In no way should this be taken as a shining moment for global governance, but it does suggest that there is some governing and policing going on, no matter how suboptimal the level. In much of the social sciences, there's a focus on constrained optimization and maximization. What's going on in global governance right now highlights the "constrained" part of that equation more than anything else. Still, compared to some who argue that we operate in a world where no one is powerful enough, perhaps it would be more accurate to phrase it differently. Formal and informal global governance structures still perform some important tasks at preventing worst-case scenarios from metastasizing, be it in security or economics. Call it "'good enough' global governance" -- it's not a new world order or anything, but it's also not as chaotic or dysfunctional as many pundits proclaim.
What do you think?
As events in Syria unravel, there is a growing concern that Syrian despot Bashar Assad will use his chemical weapons arsenal to punish those rising up against him in a desperate bid to stay in power. Eli Lake reports that the CIA is, as I type this, "scrambling to get a handle on the locations of the country’s chemical and biological weapons."
What can the U.S. do? Elsewhere on Foreignpolicy.com, Andrew Tabler argues that the U.S. needs to be firm:
Washington and its allies must lay down and enforce red lines prohibiting the use of Syria's chemical and biological weapons (CBW), one of the Middle East's largest stockpiles. To do so, Washington should push for a U.N. Security Council resolution under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, which sanctions the use of military action, on mass atrocities in Syria -- including a reference that those responsible for the use of CBW would be held accountable before the International Criminal Court. Washington should not water down the text to make the measure toothless, as it has done repeatedly on Syria over the last year in an attempt to avoid a Russia veto. In the event of further Russian obstructionism, the United States should lead its allies -- Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia -- in issuing a stark warning to Assad that mass atrocities in Syria will be met with an immediate military response. (emphasis added)
I'm neither a Middle East nor a nonproliferation expert, but I know a little bit about compellence, and Tabler's strategy sounds like an unsuccessful one in compelling the Syrian leader. Assad's behavior to date suggests that he really doesn't care about anything other than staying in power -- and he's perfectly willing to use whatever tactics are necessary to stay in power. He is now facing an adversary that, based on this week's bomb attack in Damascus, is perfectly content with using unconventional tactics. There is simply no way that Assad will constrain himself in response to a Western threat -- no matter how credible it is -- when his alternative is losing power.
Let's be blunt -- the only "immediate military response" that would matter would be a full-blown ground invasion (I don't think Seal Team Six could pull off an Assad decapitation at a tolerable amount of risk). It will take quite some time for that kind of operation to mobilize. And even if there is a ground assault, Assad would likely find his way across Iraq to Iran. Using ground force might be an advantage to using this kind of force as a signal to future leaders contemplating the use of WMD -- but I suspect it's a very weak effect.
One obvious way to strengthen the incentive structure would be to pose a cornered Assad with a different choice: If you don't use chemical weapons, and just give up power peacefully, you can have a long and happy life.
But it's hard to offer him that option, because the Syrian army has already committed enough atrocities to get Assad indicted and convicted by an international tribunal and locked up for the rest of his life. So, to him, surrender may seem to entail a fate not much more attractive than death....
Suppose that, 10,000 Syrian lives ago, we could have offered Assad the option of safe haven if he surrendered power peacefully. Or, maybe, we could have offered him the option of safe haven after serving a year of jail time. Or two years, or whatever.
Now, you might argue that to let him off that lightly would have been to dishonor the 8,000 or so Syrians who had already died. Point taken. But tell that to the other 10,000. And tell that to the many thousands who may die yet.
The problem with this is that one has to assume that both the United States and Russia likely did make this offer to Assad a year ago - and he likely rejected it.
Unfortunately, Syria is not a case that will end well. An external ground invasion would put Western troops in the middle of a sectarian conflict. No external intervention will allow the sectarian conflict to fester even more. As for the United Nations, well, fuhgeddaboutit.
This is one of those cases in which the limits of U.S. influence -- or any great power's influence -- over the situation can be exaggerated. This seems obvious to me -- but I thought it might be a useful point to make to the rest of the foreign policy community.
Am I missing anything?
This has been an exceedingly weird week with respect to the escalating dispute between Iran and countries not thrilled with Iran's nuclear program. On the one hand, you have the United States going to great lengths to widen and deepen the sanctions regime against Iran and deter Iran from trying to close the Straits of Hormuz. On the other hand, you have U.S. officials contradicting themselves and backtracking from statements made to the Washington Post over the precise purpose of the sanctions. On the third hand, you have signals that Turkey is brokering another round of negotiations between Iran and the P5 + 1.
And then, in the last hand, you have... Israel. Some weird s**t has been going down. Following the apparent assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took great pains to "categorically deny" U.S. involvment. In a New York Times front-pager, U.S. officials were even more explicit:
The assassination drew an unusually strong condemnation from the White House and the State Department, which disavowed any American complicity. The statements by the United States appeared to reflect serious concern about the growing number of lethal attacks, which some experts believe could backfire by undercutting future negotiations and prompting Iran to redouble what the West suspects is a quest for a nuclear capacity.
“The United States had absolutely nothing to do with this,” said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared to expand the denial beyond Wednesday’s killing, “categorically” denying “any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran.”
“We believe that there has to be an understanding between Iran, its neighbors and the international community that finds a way forward for it to end its provocative behavior, end its search for nuclear weapons and rejoin the international community,” Mrs. Clinton said.
Also this week, FP ran a story by Mark Perry describing Israel's "false flag" operation to recruit Pakistani terrorists. In the essay, Perry gets the following quotes from retired U.S. intelligence officials:
There's no question that the U.S. has cooperated with Israel in intelligence-gathering operations against the Iranians, but this was different. No matter what anyone thinks, we're not in the business of assassinating Iranian officials or killing Iranian civilians....
We don't do bang and boom... and we don't do political assassinations.
Contrast this with the Israeli quotes in the NYT story:
The Israeli military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, writing on Facebook about the attack, said, “I don’t know who took revenge on the Iranian scientist, but I am definitely not shedding a tear,” Israeli news media reported....
A former senior Israeli security official, who would speak of the covert campaign only in general terms and on the condition of anonymity, said the uncertainty about who was responsible was useful. “It’s not enough to guess,” he said. “You can’t prove it, so you can’t retaliate. When it’s very, very clear who’s behind an attack, the world behaves differently.” (emphasis added)
I think the bolded section in the last paragraph suggests some intuition about what is happening. If it's true that ambiguity about who is responsible for covert action is useful, and the United States is categorically denying its role in the assassination part of the covert action, then the Obama administration is openly and clearly signaling to Israel to cut it out.
As to why the United States is doing this, I'd posit one or a combination of the following reasons:
1) Washington might have moral or legal qualms with the assassination dimension of these covert actions;
2) Such assasinations give the Iranian government cover to conduct its own assassinations campaign, which winnows the number of scientists the United States can recruit for its own intelligence;
3) The Obama administration thinks it can topple the regime, but these assassinations will be counterproductive;
4) The Obama administration has been trying to get Iran back to the bargaining table, and this kind of covert action stops that from happening;
5) The Obama administration is fragmented and therefore not entirely certain what it's aims are in Iran, but the policy principals know that what Israel is doing ain't helping.
I'm leaning towards (5) at this point, but I'd entertain other explanations in the comments below.
Developing... in some very bizarre ways.
UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal has some further reporting that reveals a bit of the current uncertainty and the bureaucratic wrangling that appears to be going on. Some key parts:
U.S. defense leaders are increasingly concerned that Israel is preparing to take military action against Iran, over U.S. objections, and have stepped up contingency planning to safeguard U.S. facilities in the region in case of a conflict.
President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other top officials have delivered a string of private messages to Israeli leaders warning about the dire consequences of a strike. The U.S. wants Israel to give more time for the effects of sanctions and other measures intended to force Iran to abandon its perceived efforts to build nuclear weapons.
Stepping up the pressure, Mr. Obama spoke by telephone on Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will meet with Israeli military officials in Tel Aviv next week....
Mr. Panetta and other top officials have privately sought assurances from Israeli leaders in recent weeks that they won't take military action against Iran. But the Israeli response has been noncommittal, U.S. officials said.
U.S. officials briefed on the military's planning said concern has mounted over the past two years that Israel may strike Iran. But rising tensions with Iran and recent changes at Iranian nuclear sites have ratcheted up the level of U.S. alarm.
"Our concern is heightened," a senior U.S. military official said of the probability of an Israeli strike over U.S. objections.
Tehran crossed at least one of Israel's "red lines" earlier this month when it announced it had begun enriching uranium at the Fordow underground nuclear facility near the holy city of Qom.
The planned closing of Israel's nuclear plant near Dimona this month, which was reported in Israeli media, sounded alarms in Washington, where officials feared it meant Israel was repositioning its own nuclear assets to safeguard them against a potential Iranian counterstrike.
Despite the close relationship between the U.S. and Israel, U.S. officials have consistently puzzled over Israeli intentions. "It's hard to know what's bluster and what's not with the Israelis," said a former U.S. official.
ANOTHER UPDATE: Well, this is just peachy:
The IRNA state news agency said Saturday that Iran's Foreign Ministry has sent a diplomatic letter to the U.S. saying that it has "evidence and reliable information" that the CIA provided "guidance, support and planning" to assassins "directly involved" in Roshan's killing.
The U.S. has denied any role in the assassination....
In the clearest sign yet that Iran is preparing to strike back for Roshan's killing, Gen. Masoud Jazayeri, the spokesman for Iran's Joint Armed Forces Staff, was quoted by the semiofficial ISNA news agency Saturday as saying that Tehran was "reviewing the punishment" of "behind-the-scene elements" involved in the assassination.
"Iran's response will be a tormenting one for supporters of state terrorism," he said, without elaborating. "The enemies of the Iranian nation, especially the United States, Britain and the Zionist regime, or Israel, have to be held responsible for their activities."
It's been a busy week for Iran-watchers. The European Union is mulling a phased-in oil embargo, prompting Iranian officials to label the move as "an economic war" against Iran. Now Iran's Asia customers are trying to diversify away from Iranian oil. These expectations of future cutoffs, combined with pre-existing sanctions, are taking their toll on the Iranian economy in the form of dollar-hoarding and a free-falling national currency. Fareed Zakaria sums up the current state of play nicely:
[T]he real story on the ground is that Iran is weak and getting weaker. Sanctions have pushed the economy into a nose-dive. The political system is fractured and fragmenting. Abroad, its closest ally and the regime of which it is almost the sole supporter -- Syria -- is itself crumbling. The Persian Gulf monarchies have banded together against Iran and shored up their relations with Washington. Last week, Saudi Arabia closed its largest-ever purchase of U.S. weaponry.…
The Obama administration has put tremendous pressure on Iran on a variety of fronts -- far more pressure than the Bush administration was ever able to muster. This is, in part, because the pressure has been brought to bear, wherever possible, with other countries. The United States does not buy oil from Iran. But European nations, Japan and South Korea do, and if they go along with a new round of sanctions, Iran faces the real prospect of an economic freefall.
Iran's response to these moves has been a mixture of tough talk, empty gestures, backtracking on threats, and an acknowledgment of economic difficulties. It's therefore no wonder that the Washington Post reports, "U.S. officials are increasingly confident that economic and political pressure alone may succeed in curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions." Walter Russell Mead observes that, "public opinion in Iran does not seem to be rallying behind its unpopular government as the economic storm intensifies."
At the same time, however, Iran is trying to demonstrate that its uranium enrichment will continue unabated. Trita Parsi argues that overconfidence in the sanctions track will cause the Obama administration to rebuff any negotiated breakthrough on the nuclear issue. This leads to the obvious question: What's the endgame in Iran? Will sanctions "work"?
To get Clintonian, this depends on your definition of "work." One could argue that the current and projected actions taken by the EU and Pacific Rim might have been a wake-up call to Tehran that it's more isolated than it had previously thought. Iran is not merely facing the United States; it's facing a multilateral coalition that's growing stronger, not weaker. Unless potential benefactors like China take proactive steps to function as a "black knight," these sanctions really will cripple Iran's economy. The alienation of Iran's bazaari from the leadership in Tehran would ... let's say complicate the domestic situation in Iran.
That said, I'm skeptical that it will push the current regime toward making a substantive accommodation on its nuclear program. Based on how the leadership has treated domestic unrest, it seems clear that the top leadership is perfectly comfortable following The Dictator's Handbook approach to staying in power. More-powerful sanctions will therefore simply lead to more-powerful crackdowns. If Iranian elites view the nuclear program as the key to preventing outside attempts at forcible regime change, there's no way they'll compromise.
So would negotiation work? I'm skeptical here too. In part the problem is determining whether the Iranians are capable of negotiating in good faith. I don't mean that Tehran will act duplicitously; I mean whether the fractious regime can act in a coherent manner. Its behavior over the past week or two suggests otherwise. So does Zakaria:
The Obama administration seems to have concluded that the Iranian regime is not ready or able to make a strategic reconciliation with the West. The regime is too divided and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the ultimate authority, the Supreme Leader, is too ideologically rigid. So for now Washington wants to build pressure on Iran in the hopes that this will force the regime into serious negotiations at some point.
I suspect the Obama administration's hopes are more ambitious. They want the sanctions to be so crippling that Khamenei's ultimate authority comes under challenge, to the point where factional divisions open up space for a substantive change in the regime.
This might work, but I'd put the odds of this happening at less than 1 in 3. Still, this is the thing about instances in which economic sanctions are deployed. Even if their prospects don't look great, they're usually employed because the other options have even worse odds. For the next, say, six months, pursuing this course of action makes sense. It weakens Iran at a key moment in the Middle East, and it might lead to some positive developments down the road. That said, even if the sanctions work in crippling Iran's economy, they likely won't work at altering Iran's objectionable nuclear policies -- the expectations of future conflict are too great. At that point, the United States is going to need to consider whether it's prepared to pursue a longer-term containment strategy or alter course.
What do you think?
One of the drawbacks of being a foreign policy blogger is that it becomes very awkward to avoid discussing international relations events that make the front page for consecutive days. I am therefore duty-bound to comment on Kim Jong Il's death, Kim Jong Un's ascension to leadership, and what it means for North Korea.
Except I have no friggin' clue what will happen.
I am in good company on this total lack of knowledge. I'm bemused by all the U.S. officials anonymously commenting on what Kim Jong Un is like, given that our intelligence on this country is so awesome that Washington didn't know his father was dead until 50 hours after he died, and then only because the North Koreans announced it on television. To be fair, however, it's not like the South Koreans knew either, and some reports I've seen suggest the Chinese were in the dark as well.
Despite the near total lack of information outside of North Korea about North Korea, the International Brotherhood of Foreign Policy Pundits require I provide at least two predictions per post. So, here's my first prediction, courtesy of Mr. T:
What we do know about the triumvirate of Kim-Jong-Il selected leaders guiding Kim Jong Un into power does not bode well for the North Korean economy. The only bright spot for the DPRK's economy in recent years was a modest step towards private economic activity. The fact that one of them "published articles about the need for the government to curtail market-oriented activity" does not bode well for the per capita income of your average North Korean.
My second prediction is that Kim Jong Un will hold power for longer than any Western analyst expects him to hold power. Most of the pundit chatter has been about the Kim the Youngest's lack of gravitas and the asbsence of sufficient time to groom him as the successor to Kim Jong Il. As I'm hearing this, I keep thinking of Hua Guofeng, Mao's successor. It's an imperfect analogy, but Hua was a relative unknown plucked from obscurity by Mao only a few years before his death. In the end he was outmaneuvered by Deng Xiaoping and his allies, but even Hua managed to stay in power for a few years before that happened, putting down an attempted coup by Mao's wife Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four.
To use more game-theoretic language, I'm not sure there is a first-mover advantage to any ambitious North Korean challenging Kim the Youngest. Because of that, and because the entire DPRK elite likely fears internal division when concerned about natiional survival, the tyranny of the status quo will likely persist for longer than anyone realizes. Which, unfortunately, in this case, happens to be actual tyranny.
Am I missing anything?
As I'm typing this very sentence, it looks like the New START treaty will be passed. This happened even though GOP arms control pointman Senator Jon Kyl
acted like a petulant child for the last month came out in opposition to the treaty (along with Mitch McConnell).
David Weigel Fred Kaplan has an excellent summary of why the GOP leadership failed to halt ratification, even though the threshold for blocking it was only 34 senators:
If a Republican were president, the accord would have excited no controversy and at most a handful of diehard nays. As even most of its critics conceded, the treaty's text contains nothing objectionable in substance.
There were two kinds of opponents in this debate. The first had concerns that President Barack Obama would use the treaty as an excuse to ease up on missile defense and the programs to maintain the nuclear arsenal. In recent weeks, Obama and his team did as much to allay these concerns as any hawk could have hoped—and more than many doves preferred.
So that left the second kind of opponent: those who simply wanted to deny Obama any kind of victory. The latter motive was clearly dominant in this debate (emphasis added)
Let's step back here for a second and contemplate the truth and meaning of that last sentence. Is it true? Kevin Drum and Greg Sargent clearly think the answer is yes, and they've got some damning quotes to back up their argument. Rich Lowry is particularly revealing on this point:
As the sense builds that ratification is inevitable, Republicans are lining up to get on the “right side.” Lamar Alexander’s support, noted below, is a crucial sign of which way the wind is blowing, although he’ll probably be the only member of the Republican leadership to vote for it. At least Jon Kyl was able to get more money for modernization and that letter from President Obama making assurances on missile defense. Otherwise, this is a dismaying rout (emphasis added)
Um... at best, this is a dismaying rout for the GOP, not the USA. As
Weigel Kaplan points out, however, it's not elements of the GOP didn't favor the treaty:
The task of Obama and the Democratic floor managers, Sens. Harry Reid and John Kerry, was to convince enough Republicans to view the issue not as political gamesmanship but as an urgent matter of national security. Hence their rallying of every retired general, former defense secretary, and other security specialist—Republican and Democrat—that anyone had ever heard of. (At one point, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she might vote for the treaty if former President George H.W. Bush endorsed it. A few days later, Bush released a statement doing just that.)
A few other things happened as well. Beyond the U.S. foreign policy establishment, the Eastern European foreign policy establishment got behind the treaty. There's also the fact that some GOP senators are still nursing a grudge against other GOP senators. Josh Rogin also points out that the treaty always had GOP supporters. And, finally, the Obama administration wisely decided to go to the mat on what was a rather unobjectionable treaty, no matter how hard John Bolton bloviates on the matter.
What does this mean going forward? In my bloggingheads with Matthew Yglesias last week, I was optimistic that Kyl's blatant obstructionism was a step too far, and that maybe this will lead to a little less needless obstructionism when it comes foreign policy. There's also the fact that the American people seems to really like what's happened during the lane duck session. Perhaps the GOP legislators that want to get re-elected will take note of that fact and decide that some cooperaion with the Obama administration on things like KORUS and arms control are a decent idea (there's also the fact that more GOP legislators from Democrat-friendly territory means more moderate Republicans).
That said, the nuclear negotiations with Russia only get harder from here. Plus, my gut tells me that the GOP leadership will become even more obsteperous going forward in order to bolster their reputation as the really tough bargaining party and eliminate the bitter aftertaste they're feeling from the lame duck session.
What do you think?
So I see that Jackson Diehl's Washington Post column attracted a lot of eyeballs yesterday. He argued that Obama thinks that the same things that were important 25 years ago are important now. Diehl closes with the following:
[T]his administration is notable for its lack of grand strategy - or strategists. Its top foreign-policy makers are a former senator, a Washington lawyer and a former Senate staffer. There is no Henry Kissinger, no Zbigniew Brzezinski, no Condoleezza Rice; no foreign policy scholar.
Instead there is Obama, who likes to believe that he knows as much or more about policy than any of his aides - and who has been conspicuous in driving the strategies on nuclear disarmament and Israeli settlements. "I personally came of age during the Reagan presidency," Obama wrote in "The Audacity of Hope." Yes, and it shows.
1) If one takes Diehl's list of grand strategists as given, I'd have to conclude that presidents do much better without one. If you reflect on the Nixon, Carter and Bush 43 administrations, only one of them had a grand strategy that looks even semi-respectable at the present moment. Maybe grand strategists don't lead to great foreign policy (then again, I'm not sure I'd take Diehl's list as given -- Condi Rice is many things, but no one thought of her as a grand strategist. Even if she was, I don't think the Buswh administration's foreign policy followed this blueprint at all. And, let's face it, the word "strategist" is already in mortal danger of being demeaned into nothingness).
2) Having edited a book on the subject, I've become more and more dubious of those who complain about grand strategy in foreign policy. Bemoaning the lack of a grand strategy is the first refuge of the foreign policy critic. Often, it's not that the president in question lacks a strategic vision, it's that the president has a grand strategy that the critic doesn't like. If the last decade has taught us anything, it's that it is possible to have a coherent, well-articulated grand strategy that is nevertheless completely counterproductive in advancing the national interest.
3) Even though it's possible to nitpick Diehl's op-ed to death, there's a grain of truth buried in those last few paragraphs. No one disputes that Obama has a White House-centric foreign policymaking process, but I'm not sure Obama's White House staff merits that allocation of power. The recent shifts in foreign policy personnel have narrowed the foreign policy circle even more than before. And there are real mismatches between the Obama administration's grand strategy and its current foreign policy priorities.
4) Ordinarily, none of this would matter. So long as really stupid policies are avoided, I don't think that grand strategies matter for most countries most of the time -- what matters are good fundamentals like a robust economy. The thing is, this is one of those rare moments when strategy does matter. Any time you have a systemic shock -- like a great power war or a massive global recession -- you get massive uncertainty about the future direction of world politics. Add on the fact that there's now a potential challenger to the most powerful state in the world, and there are a lot of key actors in the world wondering what's going to happen next.
These are moments when a well-articulated and executed gramd strategy can reassure allies and signal possible rivals about a country's future course of action. And I'm unconvinced that the Obama administration's existing strategy documents provide any kind of clear signal at all.
What do you think?
The only thing I dislike more than admitting I'm wrong is admitting that Spencer Ackerman was kinda sorta right.
Cautiously in March and then more confidently in July, I predicted that new START was going to be ratified. Right now, however, Josh Rogin reports that the odds don't look so hot:
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), the key Republican vote in the drive to ratify the New START treaty, said Tuesday he doesn't believe the treaty should be voted on this year.
"When Majority Leader Harry Reid asked me if I thought the treaty could be considered in the lame duck session, I replied I did not think so given the combination of other work Congress must do and the complex and unresolved issues related to START and modernization," Kyl said in a statement. "I appreciate the recent effort by the Administration to address some of the issues that we have raised and I look forward to continuing to work with Senator Kerry, DOD, and DOE officials." ?
Kyl spoke with Defense Secretary Robert Gates about it last week. A possible meeting between Kyl, Biden, Gates, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in the works and could happen on Wednesday. The treaty was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by a vote of 14 to 4 on Sept. 16, and is awaiting a vote on the Senate floor.
The Washington Post reported that the White House is offering an additional $4.1 billion for nuclear facilities. This latest offer comes on top of the other promises related to nuclear modernization, which have a price tag totaling over $80 billion, that the administration has offered in an effort to win over Senate Republicans.
I thought Kyl was making some not unreasonable requests back in the summer, but as near as I can read the Obama administration had pretty much given him what he wanted.
It's possible that the treaty will be ratified in the next Congress, though that's a tougher road, and there's now some bad blood between Kyl and the administration to work away.
Substantively, the treaty itself is not a nothingburger, but it's not that big a deal either. There are two implications that flow from Kyl's decision, however. First, he's given the Russians a great excuse to become even more obsteperous. As Bob Kagan pointed out earlier this month:
Few men are more cynical players than Vladimir Putin. One can well imagine Putin exploiting the failure of New START internally and externally. He will use it to stir more anti-Western nationalism, further weakening an already weak Medvedev and anyone else who stands for a more pro-Western approach. He will use it as an excuse to end further cooperation on Iran. He will certainly use it to win concessions from Europeans who already pander to him, charging that the Americans have destroyed the transatlantic rapprochement with Russia and that more concessions to Moscow will be necessary to repair the damage. There's no getting around it: Failure to pass START will help empower Putin.
Second, even if START passes eventually, this little episode, combined with the
endless ongoing negotiations over KORUS, are highlighting the massive transaction costs involved with trying to negotiate any hard law arrangement with the United States. The rest of the world is now recalculating the cost-benefit ratio of doing business with the U.S. government.
Anyway, the real point of this post is that I was wrong... again. Let the pillorying in the comments section begin.
A little more than a month ago I wrote the following:
The sanctions and the lack of technical competence are probably helping [slow down Iran's nuclear program], but if I had to guess, I'd wager that the covert attempts at sabotage are yielding the most promising results. The thing is, no administration can publicly say, "hey, everyone should relax about Iran's nuclear program, cause we've got covert operatives crawling all around Natanz, Bushehr, and Qom."....
Now, I don't know this to be true -- it's possible that covert action has yielded little in the way of results. Still, this might be a situation in which no news on Iran is actually good news.
I still don't know this to be true, but after reading this Financial Times story by Joseph Menn and Mary Watkins, my confidence in this assertion is rising:
A piece of highly sophisticated malicious software that has infected an unknown number of power plants, pipelines and factories over the past year is the first program designed to cause serious damage in the physical world, security experts are warning.
The Stuxnet computer worm spreads through previously unknown holes in Microsoft's Windows operating system and then looks for a type of software made by Siemens and used to control industrial components, including valves and brakes....
At a closed-door conference this week in Maryland, Ralph Langner, a German industrial controls safety expert, said Stuxnet might be targeting not a sector but perhaps only one plant, and he speculated that it could be a controversial nuclear facility in Iran.
According to Symantec, which has been investigating the virus and plans to publish details of the rogue commands on Wednesday, Iran has had far more infections than any other country.
“It is not speculation that this is the first directed cyber weapon”, or one aimed at a specific real-world process, said Joe Weiss, a US expert who has testified to Congress on technological security threats to the electric grid and other physical operations. “The only speculation is what it is being used against, and by whom.”
Experts say Stuxnet’s knowledge of Microsoft’s Windows operating system, the Siemens program and the associated hardware of the target industry make it the work of a well-financed, highly organised team.
They suggest that it is most likely associated with a national government and that terrorism, ideological motivation or even extortion cannot be ruled out.
Stuxnet began spreading more than a year ago but research has been slow because of the complexity of the software and the difficulty in getting the right industry officials talking to the right security experts.
Unless there's an Iranian John McClane running around Iran, this looks like something that could help retard Iran's nuclear program.
Now, I'm very uncomfortable with a lot of the rhetoric surrounding the notion of "cyberwarfare." It needlessly equates actions in cyberspace with real-world warfare, when I'm not at all sure that either the logic of consequences or the logic of appropriateness are the same in both spheres.
That said, I do wonder about the long-term effects of this kind of cyberattack. The very way the FT is reporting this story suggests that some kind of line has been crossed. Not to mention the fact that the news coverage itself suggests that this gambit has run its course.
Developing... in ways that I cannot begin to fathom.
The Obama administration, citing evidence of continued troubles inside Iran’s nuclear program, has persuaded Israel that it would take roughly a year — and perhaps longer — for Iran to complete what one senior official called a “dash” for a nuclear weapon, according to American officials.
Administration officials said they believe the assessment has dimmed the prospect that Israel would pre-emptively strike against the country’s nuclear facilities within the next year, as Israeli officials have suggested in thinly veiled threats.
As a general rule, a lack of bombing certainly seems like good news. The question is, why? What's slowing down the Iranians?
It is unclear whether the problems that Iran has had enriching uranium are the result of poor centrifuge design, difficulty obtaining components or accelerated Western efforts to sabotage the nuclear program....
Some of Iran’s enrichment problems appear to have external origins. Sanctions have made it more difficult for Iran to obtain precision parts and specialty metals. Moreover, the United States, Israel and Europe have for years engaged in covert attempts to disrupt the enrichment process by sabotaging the centrifuges.
The sanctions and the lack of technical competence are probably heloping, but if I had to guess, I'd wager that the covert attempts at sabotage are yielding the most promising results. The thing is, no administration can publicly say, "hey, everyone should relax about Iran's nuclear program, cause we've got covert operatives crawling all around Natanz, Bushehr, and Qom." So, the public face of U.S. foreign policy towards Iran's nuclear program remains sanctions and a willingness to negotiate. The optics of this policy posture don't look good.
Now, I don't know this to be true -- it's possible that covert action has yielded little in the way of results. Still, this might be a situation in which no news on Iran is actually good news.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
Peter Baker provides some lay of the land on START in his New York Times write-up:
With time running out for major votes before the November election, the White House is trying to reach an understanding with Senate Republicans to approve its new arms control treaty with Russia by committing to modernizing the nuclear arsenal and making additional guarantees about missile defense.
The White House pressed allies in Congress in recent days to approve billions of dollars for the nation’s current nuclear weapons and infrastructure even as administration and Congressional officials work on a ratification resolution intended to reaffirm that the treaty will not stop American missile defense plans....
The critical player is Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Republican whip, who has criticized the treaty but also signaled that his reservations could be assuaged. In particular, he has sought to modernize the nuclear force, and the administration has proposed spending more than $100 billion over 10 years to sustain and modernize some strategic systems.
“I’ve told the administration it would be much easier to do the treaty right than to do it fast if they want to get it ratified,” Mr. Kyl said Thursday in an interview. “It’s not a matter of delay,” he added, but “until I’m satisfied about some of these things, I will not be willing to allow the treaty to come up.”
Mr. Kyl sounded hopeful that he could reach agreement, ticking off three ways the White House could assure him that the proposed nuclear modernization program would be adequate: ensure enough first-year money in the next round of appropriations bills, include enough second-year money in a follow-up budget proposal and revise the long-range modernization plan to anticipate additional costs in later years.
“I’m not questioning the administration’s commitment to this,” he said, “but this is a big deal, and it needs to have everybody’s commitment to it at takeoff, and I really don’t see that the groundwork has really been laid.”
Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has met with Mr. Kyl once and invited him and other senators to talk about the treaty again next week. Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has likewise been talking with Mr. Kyl regularly and is trying to help resolve Republican demands to inspect at least some of the secret negotiating record.
For all the hand-wringing, this sounds like START is gonna get ratified. Kyl has been very careful to avoid boxing himself into a situation where he has to vote no. His asking price is not unreasonable, and it sounds like the Obama administration will meet it.
This would be good - not because START is all of that and a bag of chips, but because it suggests some Very Useful Conclusions:
1) Mitt Romney's Know-Nothing anti-START gambit failed to have any effect;
2) Republicans are being reasonable and constructive on arms control (Kyl's requests make a good deal of sense to me);
3) There can be bipartisan cooperation on important foreign policy questions.
4) Spencer Ackerman was wrong and I was right. Ha!! [It's all about score-settling with you this week, isn't it?--ed. It's the summer -- allow me my small, petty victories.]
Am I missing anything?
Mitt Romney wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post earlier this week calling the New START Treaty Obama's "worst foreign policy mistake yet." This prompted a fair amount of blowback. The New York Times' Peter Baker and Slate's Fred Kaplan
tore Romney a new one dissected the substance of Romney's argument and found it wanting. Senator John Kerry wrote a WaPo op-ed the next day that had a pretty contemptuous conclusion:
I have nothing against Massachusetts politicians running for president. But the world's most important elected office carries responsibilities, including the duty to check your facts even if you're in a footrace to the right against Sarah Palin. More than that, you need to understand that when it comes to nuclear danger, the nation's security is more important than scoring cheap political points.
Now reading through all of this, it seems pretty clear that Romney's substantive critique is weak tea. Objecting to the content of a treaty preamble is pretty silly. Claiming that the Russians could put ICBMs on their bombers because of the treaty indicates
Romney's ghost-writer doesn't know the first thing about the history of nuclear weapons some holes in the research effort.
Putting the substantive objections aside, there are some interesting implications to draw from this kerfuffle. First, START will be an easy test of the remaining power of the foreign policy mandarins. As Time's Michael Crowley points out, START has the support of former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and James Baker, former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, former National Security Advisers Brent Scowcroft and Stephen Hadley, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Senator Richard Lugar.
If the Obama administration can't get Senate ratification of START despite the bipartisan support of the foreign policy community, well, it suggests that the foreign policy community doesn't have the political capital it once did. I posited earlier this year that START would pass because it was pretty unobtrusive and wouldn't play a big role in political campaigns. If GOP senators think differently, however, then you can kiss any foreign policy initiative that requires congressional approval bye-bye.
This could seriously hamper U.S. foreign policy. Politically, Romney was wise to pick on START, because its importance is not in the arms control. Boosters like Kerry will talk about START like its the greatest thing since sliced bread, when in point of fact it's a modest treaty that yields modest gains on the arms control front. No, START matters because its a signal of better and more stable relations with Moscow (much in the same way that NAFTA was not about trade so much as about ending a century-long contentious relationship with Mexico).
So even if Romney gets chewed up and spit out by the foreign policy mandarins, there's a way in which he'll win no matter what. By belittling the treaty, Romney will get its defenders to inflate its positive attributes. This will force analysts to say that "both sides have exaggerated their claims," putting Romney on par with the foreign policy mandarins.
Developing... in a bad way for the mandarins.
UPDATE: Barron YoungSmith makes a similar point over at TNR. He's even more pessimistic than I am:
[T]he responsible Republican foreign policy establishment is not coming back. Mandarins like George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, and James Baker, who have all testified or written on behalf of the START treaty—calling it an integral, uncontroversial way of repairing the bipartisan arms-control legacy that sustained American foreign policy all the way up until the George W. Bush administration—are going to be dead soon (or they've drifted into the service of Democrats). The people who will take their place will be from a generation of superhawks, like John Bolton, Liz Cheney, and Robert Joseph, who are virulently opposed to the practice of negotiated arms control. Mitt Romney, though a moderate from Michigan, is not going to be the second coming of Gerald Ford.
Well.... this might be true, if you think Mitt Romney has his finger on the pulse of the GOP voter. Based on past experience, however, Mitt Romney has never been able to find that pulse.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
So, in the past 36 hours there has been news about two deals involving Iran. The first one involved an arrangement brokered by Turkey and Brazil:
In what could be a stunning breakthrough in the years-long diplomatic deadlock over Iran's nuclear program, Tehran has agreed to send the bulk of its nuclear material to Turkey as part of an exchange meant to ease international concerns about the Islamic Republic's aims and provide fuel for an ailing medical reactor, the spokesman for Iran's foreign ministry told state television Monday morning.
Whether this was really a breakthrough or just a last-minute dodge by Iran to fend off sanctions, commentators mostly agreed on two things: A) This showed how Turkey and Brazil were new heavyweights in international relations; and B) This would complicate and delay a new round of United Nations sanctions.
All well and good, except that now there's another breakthrough.... on a new round of Security Council sanctions:
The United States has reached agreement with Russia and China on a strong draft resolution to impose new United Nations sanctions on Iran over its uranium-enrichment program, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced Tuesday.
Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a scheduled hearing on a new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia, Clinton shrugged off a surprise deal announced Monday in which Iran would swap a portion of its low-enriched uranium for higher-grade uranium to power a research reactor that produces medical isotopes. The deal, brokered by Turkey and Brazil during a high-level visit to Tehran, was meant in part to assuage concerns over Iran's nuclear program and discourage new U.N. sanctions.
"Today I am pleased to announce to this committee we have reached agreement on a strong draft with the cooperation of both Russia and China," Clinton said in an opening statement. She said the United States has been working closely for several weeks with five other world powers on new sanctions and plans to "circulate that draft resolution to the entire Security Council today."
Well, this is an interesting development. What's going on?
I think the key is that Russia was not persuaded by the Turkey-Brazil-Iran deal:
Sergei B. Ivanov, the deputy prime minister of Russia, was similarly skeptical at a lunchtime speech in Washington. He said he expected the sanctions resolution to “be voted in the near future,” and said that the new Iranian accord should not be “closely linked” to the sanctions effort. “Iran should absolutely open up” to inspectors, he said. That statement was significant because Russia had been reluctant to join sanctions several months ago. China, which has also been hesitant, issued no statement.
With Russia firmly on board, and China apparently unwilling to ge the lone P-5 holdout, Monday's Iran deal had no effect on the calculus of the Security Council.
Why was Russia unpersuaded? To date, Russia and China have taken advantage of any Iranian feint towards conciliation as an excuse to delay sanctions. What's different now?
I'd suggest three possibilities, which are not mutually exclusive:
1) Russia is genuinely unpersuaded that Monday's deal is anything more than marginally useful;
2) Russia is just as annoyed as the United States at the
young whipperrsnapper countries rising powers of the world going rogue in their diplomacy. Russia is, in many ways, more sensitive to questions about prestige than the United States;
3) Cynically, there's little cost to going along with the United States on sanctions that will have very little impact on the Russian-Iranian economic relationship.
Commenters are encouraged to provide additional explanations below.
The story of the day, from David Sanger and Thom Shanker:
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has warned in a secret three-page memorandum to top White House officials that the United States does not have an effective long-range policy for dealing with Iran’s steady progress toward nuclear capability, according to government officials familiar with the document.
Several officials said the highly classified analysis, written in January to President' Obama’s national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones, came in the midst of an intensifying effort inside the Pentagon, the White House and the intelligence agencies to develop new options for Mr. Obama. They include a set of military alternatives, still under development, to be considered should diplomacy and sanctions fail to force Iran to change course....
One senior official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the memo, described the document as “a wake-up call.” But White House officials dispute that view, insisting that for 15 months they had been conducting detailed planning for many possible outcomes regarding Iran's nuclear program.
In an interview on Friday, General Jones declined to speak about the memorandum. But he said: “On Iran, we are doing what we said we were going to do. The fact that we don’t announce publicly our entire strategy for the world to see doesn’t mean we don’t have a strategy that anticipates the full range of contingencies — we do.”
But in his memo, Mr. Gates wrote of a variety of concerns, including the absence of an effective strategy should Iran choose the course that many government and outside analysts consider likely: Iran could assemble all the major parts it needs for a nuclear weapon — fuel, designs and detonators — but stop just short of assembling a fully operational weapon.
In that case, Iran could remain a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty while becoming what strategists call a “virtual” nuclear weapons state.
Now, if one doesn't read carefully, the obvious implication to infer from this lead is that the Obama administration has been lax on both policy planning and thinking about military contingencies.
If one reads the entire story carefully, however -- something I highly recommend -- two important facts stand out. First, Gates wrote this in January, but it's being leaked now, in mid-April. As Spencer Ackerman notes, the Obama administration has geared up on a variety of fronts on both Iran and nonproliferation. You can criticize the response as inadequate or misguided -- but it's safe to say that there was a policy response.
So why leak the memo now? The Power Line's Scott Johnson asks that very question:
As always with stories like this, one wonders about the motives of the Times's sources. Why would anonymous officials leak word of a highly classified memorandum suggesting that the administration has no policy beyond what has proved to be empty talk? These apparently well-informed officials must think that we have something to worry about.
That's one possibility. Another (not mutually exclusive) possibility is that whoever leaked was on the losing side of the policy debate. The White House has been centralizing the foreign policy process, which inevitably leads to some hurt feelings. Furthermore, the bureaucratic politics on Middle East policy have become both nasty and personal. It wouldn't surprise me if someone in the administration thinks that it's payback time. Which isn't to say that the leaker is necessarily wrong, but Marc Ambinder is right -- there are multiple possible motivations for the leak in the first place.
The second useful nugget of information comes from this paragraph:
Mr. Gates’s memo appears to reflect concerns in the Pentagon and the military that the White House did not have a well prepared series of alternatives in place in case all the diplomatic steps finally failed. Separately, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote a “chairman’s guidance” to his staff in December conveying a sense of urgency about contingency planning. He cautioned that a military attack would have “limited results,” but he did not convey any warnings about policy shortcomings (emphasis added).
If the senior uniformed officer is skeptical of the utility of a military attack, that strikes me as pretty important. Sure, one option could be to really ramp up the military option to include a ground assault, but even Iran hawks acknowledge that this is off the table.
So, what do I know now that I didn't know prior to reading Sanger and Shanker? I'd say the following:
1) All policy options on Iran stink.
2) The bureaucratic politics of U.S. Middle East policy are getting worse;
3) The administration has responded to the Gates memo, but not in a way that pleases all of the bureaucratic heavyweights inside the administraion.
4) January is apparently a month of foreign policy "wake-up calls" and "bombshells" in the White House.
What I don't know, after reading Sanger and Shanker, is whether someone like Gates would approve of the administration's current contingency planning on Iran.
Alex Wong/Getty Images)
If there is an Obama doctrine emerging, it is one much more realpolitik than his predecessor’s, focused on relations with traditional great powers and relegating issues like human rights and democracy to second-tier concerns. He has generated much more good will around the world after years of tension with Mr. Bush, and yet he does not seem to have strong personal friendships with many world leaders.
“Everybody always breaks it down between idealist and realist,” said Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff. “If you had to put him in a category, he’s probably more realpolitik, like Bush 41,” the first President George Bush, Mr. Emanuel said.
He added, “He knows that personal relationships are important, but you’ve got to be cold-blooded about the self-interests of your nation.”
Stephen G. Rademaker, a former official in the George W. Bush administration, said: “For a president coming out of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, it’s remarkable how much he has pursued a great power strategy. It’s almost Kissingerian. It’s not very sentimental. Issues of human rights do not loom large in his foreign policy, and issues of democracy promotion, he’s been almost dismissive of.”
Well, a couple of thoughts. First, the idea of George H.W. Bush disdaining personal relationships is somewhat absurd. Bush 41 was notorious for his thank you cards and supersized Rolodex. On the margins, personal rapport among leaders does count for something, so this certainly helped Bush advance the national inrest.
So that makes Bush different from Obama, right? Well, let's click over to Scott Wilson's story in today's Washington Post now, shall we?
[I]n convening his first international summit -- the largest on a single issue in Washington history -- [Obama] focused more squarely on his relationship with world leaders. He slapped backs, kissed cheeks and met one on one with more than a dozen heads of state, leavening his appeal to shared security interests with a more personal diplomacy.
The approach marked a shift for Obama as he seeks to translate his popularity abroad into concrete support from fellow leaders for his foreign policy agenda, most urgently now in his push for stricter sanctions against Iran.
"He's in charge, he's chairing the meetings, and this is where his personality plays a big part," said Pierre Vimont, the French ambassador to the United States, who compared Obama's role during the summit to the way he led the bipartisan health-care meeting at Blair House in February....
Obama's attention to his guests began on the summit's opening night, when he spent more than an hour and a half greeting the 46 foreign leaders and three heads of international organizations he invited.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom administration officials describe as high on the list of the European leaders Obama most admires, received a kiss on each cheek at the final bilateral meeting.
Obama bowed formally to Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. He used both hands to shake the hands of some leaders and joked with others.
David Miliband, Britain's foreign secretary, said such personal diplomacy is "quite important" at summits, especially one about an issue he said is "often seen as administrative."
"When Obama stands up and says 'My friend Dmitry Medvedev' or 'My friend Nicolas Sarkozy,' he's right, and that's important," Miliband said. "He's made a number of friends of world leaders, and I think that's a testament to why so many arrived to take part in this."
Wow, so it really is George H.W. Obama, right?
As someone who thinks George H.W. Bush has been vastly underrated, I'd love to say yes. But this gets confusing to your humble blogger. After all, some have argued that Obama is really no different than George W. Bush. I'm also pretty sure I've read somewhere, way back in early 2010, that Obama is really Jimmy Carter. So I'm not sure this comparison can or should stick.
Moving from personalities to ideas, the realist/idealist divide, you still wind up with a muddle. Bob Kagan is right to say that Obama's desire for a nuclear-free world is about as idealistic as one can get. Similarly, Obama's affirmation of multilateralism doesn't seem terribly realist either. On the other hand, his policies towards great power rivals like Russia and China, and dependent allies like Israel and Afghanistan, seem pretty damn realist. Much like his Nobel Peace Prize address, the Obama administration's latest foray into the less shallow waters of international relations theory offers a sliver of support to all major IR approaches.
Which box you put him in, I suspect, depends on which policy dimension you think matters most. Human rights advocates will use the r-word; fans of nuclear deterrence will use the i-word. As someone concerned with the management of great power politics, I'd be comfortable calling Obama an realist, but I'm biased -- I speculated that this was the approach the post-Bush president would be forced to pursue.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
When I read the first few sentences of David Kay's National Interest essay on Iran and nuclear inspections, I said, "uh-oh":
There is a global consensus that any agreement with Iran on ensuring its nuclear program is for civilian purposes only will have to involve inspections to verify its disarmament. But as a former weapons inspector, I have very bad news for you: a weapons-inspection regime in Iran will not work. Inspections themselves are most effective when both the state being inspected and the inspecting countries are fully on board—and even then there are limits. An inspection regime can never ensure full disarmament.
David Kay knows a lot about inspections, so this looked to be depressing reading.
As I read the rest of the essay, however, it dawned on me that while Kay's point was correct, it was also banal. Of course inspections will not be foolproof.* The thing is, I don't think anyone really believes that to be true. Indeed, Kay provides no evidence or quotations for the "global consensus" that inspections will be perfect.
You would also think, from that first paragraph, that Kay believes that inspections have no utility. But then we get to this section:
[T]he purpose of IAEA oversight remains one of the most misunderstood elements of discussions about establishing an effective international inspection and verification regime. Inspection and verification are often thought of as ways to prevent a state from developing nuclear weapons. This is certainly not the case, and what’s more, it would be well beyond the capabilities of any conceivable inspection regime tasked with this verification mandate. If a country decides to break its international obligations and proceed with a nuclear-weapons program, the only options are military action by other countries or the acceptance of an atomically armed state. Inspectors simply do not have the military force that would be required to dissuade Iran or any other nation determined to breach its obligations and acquire nuclear weapons....
Instead, the goal is to create the equivalent of a strong plate-glass window that Iran would have to shatter if it were to embark upon a militarily significant nuclear program—and that inspectors could be reasonably expected to detect that shattering.
Um... that's exactly what I think are the purpose of IAEA inspection. The first metaphor that came to my mind was "tripwire," but you get the idea.
Kay's essay is extremely odd. Any realistic appraisal of IAEA safeguard inspections would posit that they are an imperfect but useful method of divining Iran's intentions with regard to their nuclear program. I'm pretty sure that is Kay's assessment as well. The entire tenor of his essay, however, seems designed to deflate some mythical belief in the power of inspections that no one possesses.
*Readers are encouraged to suggest other hyperbolic feats of strength that IAEA safeguard inspections cannot accomplish.
Later today I promise to mock the Obama administration's National Export Initiative to within an inch of its life; on a Friday morning, however, FP readers deserve a dose of whimsy.
With pitchers and catchers due to report later this month, I bring you the greatest nexus between sports, world politics, and Web 2.0 technologies yet discovered: Ichiro Suzuki as a both a precision-guided munition and a weapon of mass destruction.
Hat tip: ESPN's Rob Neyer.
my boss U.S. envoy Stephen Bosworth arrives in Pyongyang, I think it's worth noting that the North Korean government has not been endearing itself to its citizenry. Hmmm... let me rephrase that -- the DPRK government has been acting with even more disregard fo its citizens than usual.
The nub of the problem has been a currency revaluation/reform in which North Korean citizens will be forced to trade in their old notes for new ones -- and each citizen is limited in the amount they can exchange. This move was designed to do two things: lopping off a few zeroes of the North Korean won, and flushing out private traders along the Chinese border who are sitting on currency notes that will soon be worthless.
It appears, according to AFP, that the DPRK regime has finally come up with a move that actually roils their population:
Amid reports that some frustrated residents have been torching old bills, South Korean aid group Good Friends said authorities have threatened severe punishment for such an action.
Many residents would burn worthless old bills rather than surrender them to authorities, in order to avoid arousing suspicions about how they made the money, Good Friends said.
The banknotes carry portraits of founding president Kim Il-Sung and his successor and son Kim Jong-Il. Defacing their images is treated as a felony.
With nascent private markets for food collapsing because of the currency reform, citizens are finding it difficult to obtain basic staples. The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization is already projecting another grain shortage for the country.
Over at the U.S. Institute for Peace, John S. Park does a nice job of explaining the political economy effects of this currency move:
As North Korean people in key market-active regions benefited from growing commercial interactions, low- to high-level DPRK officials figured out ways to get a cut of the money made. These officials used most of these bribes (viewed by traders as a "cost of doing business") to line their own pockets, but also used a portion of these for their respective organization's operating budget. With less to skim from the markets due to this revaluation, these officials will have funding gaps to fill. Given that these officials also enjoyed a higher standard of living, the discontent of the North Korean people will be aligned with these "skimming" officials. New groups of losers from this revaluation may be more advanced and better organized than protesters during previous periods of government-initiated economic and currency reforms....
If the DPRK government had improved and restored the inconsistent Public Distribution System and other public services on a national basis (a massive undertaking), a revaluation may have triggered greater state control by minimizing the benefits from the non-formal market system and making the North Korean people dependent on the state again. It does not appear that the DPRK government has improved these national systems. In an apparent effort to restore discipline through this revaluation, the DPRK government may have initiated a period of economic, social, and political destabilization by undermining a widely used coping mechanism for the people, as well as a growing number of officials.
[So a buckling DPRK regime is a good thing, right?--ed.] From a nonproliferation perspective, not so much, no.
Any domestic instability in North Korea is bad for Bosworth, the Six-Party Talks, and nonproliferation efforts in general. The June uprisings in Iran have led the Iranian regime to adopt a more hardline position on the nuclear issue, both to bolster the conservative base and engage in "rally round the flag" efforts. I see no reason why this logic would not apply to North Korea as well -- indeed, domestic instability is the likely explanation for Pyongyang's bellicose behavior earlier this year.
Developing.... in a very disturbing way.
UPDATE: My FP colleague Tom Ricks has more.
The Financial Times' Simeon Kerr and Harvey Morris report on one of those stories that the Bush administration would have killed for about, oh, seven years ago:
The United Arab Emirates has seized a ship secretly carrying embargoed North Korean arms to Iran, say diplomats.
The interception comes at a sensitive time. North Korea has invited the US for bilateral talks on nuclear issues and the UN Security Council’s western members are pressing for greater Iranian co-operation over its nuclear programme.
The UAE has reported the seizure of the vessel to the UN sanctions committee responsible for vetting the implementation of measures, including an arms embargo, imposed against North Korea under Security Council resolution 1874, according to diplomats in New York. The committee, chaired by Turkey, has made no formal announcement about the case.
Diplomats at the UN identified the vessel as the Bahamian-flagged ANL-Australia. The vessel was seized some weeks ago. The UN sanctions committee has written to the Iranian and North Korean governments pointing out that the shipment puts them in violation of UN resolution 1974.
The authorities seized “military components”, but the vessel has since departed, a person familiar with UAE thinking said. The seizure took place in the UAE, but not the shipping hub of Dubai, the person added.
So, in the past two years, North Korea has been linked to arms build-ups in Syria, Myanmar, and Iran.
Come to think of it, maybe it's not an Axis of Evil so much as North Korea desperately trying to export the one thing they make that has market value.
Reports like these are actually good news, I suspect. It suggests that the enhanced sanctions regime is making it tougher for North Korea to export its ilicit wares. Which means that the status quo favors the other members of the Six-Party Talks more than it favors Pyongyang.
Gosh, maybe there's something to this containment idea.
UPDATE: More info on the shipment itself here.
Reuters' Inal Ersan reports on a shocking announcement from Al Qaeda:
If it were in a position to do so, Al Qaeda would use Pakistan's nuclear weapons in its fight against the United States, a top leader of the group said in remarks aired Sunday....
"God willing, the nuclear weapons will not fall into the hands of the Americans and the mujahideen would take them and use them against the Americans," Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the leader of al Qaeda's in Afghanistan, said in an interview with Al Jazeera television.
Well, blow me down!! I had no idea that this would have been their intent! It's a good thing Al Qaeda clarified their policy on nuclear weapons, because there had been some ambiguity on the matter. I, for one, am also unclear about Al Qaeda's position on Israel, or whether they think Adam Lambert got jobbed in American Idol.
Seriously, there was one interesting wrinkle in the interview:
The militant leader said al Qaeda would be willing to accept a truce of about 10 years' duration with the United States if Washington agreed to withdraw its troops from Muslim countries and stopped backing Israel and the pro-Western governments of Muslim nations.
I'm not saying the United States should take Al Qaeda up on the bargain, but I do find it interesting that they occasionally float bargains like this out there.
As you can tell from my last post, I think here's an excellent chance that the status quo persists in Iran, with a small chance that the entire edifice crumbles in the wake of a social movement unafraid of security forces. What does this mean for U.S. foreign policy towards Iran? Here's a dirty little secret -- this might actually be the best possible outcome for the Obama administration.
Well, not for the next few days. The administration is going to have to tap-dance for the next few days in order to avoid the Schylla of a "Chicken Kiev" moment and the Charybdis of going all in with the reformers only to see them crushed.
After that, then what? Well, I think the only way the reformers win is with Khamenei going down, which would mean a genuine regime change, which is a game-changer. A new Iranian regime is not going to give up its nuclear program lightly, but I do suspect that negotiations with a reformist regime would be pretty fruitful.
What if, as I suspect, the current regime keeps its grip on power? Well, the Obama administration still has a stronger hand to play. Here's why:
1) Tehran's influence in the region is going to ebb. Iran's power in the Middle East in recent years has emanated from a mix of hard power (nuke progam, oil, support of Hebollah) and soft power (Ahmadinejad's economic populism, ranting against corrupt Arab elites, and general pugnaciouness towards Israel). Regardless of the result now, the election has killed their soft power in the region. This doesn't mean that Iran's influence disappears -- see all the hard power stuff. Still, with each passing day of protests, Ahmadinejad looks more like a bully than a leader of a transnational social movement.
2) Multilateral coordination just got easier. Just as with North Korea, it gets ever easier for the United States to create a united front among its allies and other great powers when dealing with Iran going forward. The reaction in the West has been pretty uniform on the election results. When the nuclear negotiations break down -- and they will break down -- it should be easier to coordinate both the security and foreign policy responses.
3) No more two-level games for Iran. If Mousavi had won outright, the Obama administration would have been in a serious bind on the nonproliferation question. The president of Iran doesn't control the nuclear program; the supreme leader controls it. With Mousavi as the public face of Iran, however, it would have been tougher for the Obama administration to describe Iran as unyielding when it refused to make any serious concessions on its nuclear program. Furthermore, Mousavi could always ask the Obama administration to back off on the nuclear question because of hardliner resistance back home. That gambit won't play, now.
This doesn't mean that nuclear negotiations will go swimmingly -- I expect they will fail. What it does mean, however, is that the rest of the world will be hard-placed to blame the end of the negotiations on the Obama administration. Iran is going to look like the intransigent actor from here on in.
Just to be clear: I'm not saying that this outcome is a great one for the United States. Washington has a weak hand to play. My point is that, compared to the counterfactual of an Iran with Mousavi as its public face and Khamenei remaining the true leader, this is somewhat preferrable. The "pleasing illusions" of clerical power in Iran have now been stripped bare.
My pace on commenting on Iran has been about as sluggish as CNN's. By my rough estimate, I'm now approximately 4,567 posts behind Andrew Sullivan on the Iran election. Let's try to get back in the game!
In this post I want to look at what's likely to happen in Iran; the next post will look at what the Obama administration's response.
OK, so, Iran. There are protests, riots, and Twitters galore -- will it amount to regime change?
Alas, I think the answer is no. I don't want this to be the answer. No matter how I slice the data, however, I get to that outcome.
Let's stiputlate that the election results were rigged. Here's the question -- why were they so blatant about it? The speed and skewness of the "official" results seemed design to trigger disbelief. Was that intentional?
Hey, you know what, I think it was. University of Chicago political scientist Alberto Simpser has written about why authoritarian leaders like Khamenei would engage in electoral corruption (.pdf). The answer is not pretty:
[A]n overwhelming victory today can send a powerful signal to the citizenry tomorrow – a large margin of victory can deter opposition turnout, discourage opposition coordination (e.g. when the opposition is fragmented into a number of parties), and increase the winner’s bargaining power with respect to electorally important social actors by rendering it less likely that they are pivotal in a winning coalition.
I suspect that this was the intent in Iran. The question is whether it will work. Khamenei has backtracked a little from his endorsment of Ahmadinejad as the winner, and now wants the Guardian Council to investigate allegations of election fraud. I suspect this is an effort to play for time, however, in order to get his security apparatus prepped for a more brutal crackdown. Twice in the past 10 years (1999 and 2003), this regime has been perfectly willing to crack down on reformist groups to secure its hold on power. I see no reason for Khamenei to hold back this time around.
In other words, unless Iran's security apparatus starts to split, I don't see how this ends in any outcome other than Khamenei staying in power.
What does this mean for the rest of the world? On to the next post!
In the past 24 hours, there's been some interesting stuff coming out on both North Korea and Israel.
On the North Korea issue, Bob Gates' chat with an FT reporter is worth reading just to savor the man's obvious efforts to signal to the North Koreans that they can't control the agenda. However, Mark Landler and David Sanger's New York Times story today suggests that China is thinking about putting the economic and financial hurt on North Korea.
Meanwhile, the United States and Israel appear to be at loggerheads on the question of West Bank settlements. This is particularly interesting:
[T]he tenor of Mrs. Clinton’s comments Wednesday indicated to some analysts that the Obama administration was unlikely to budge from its position, even at the risk of putting Mr. Netanyahu’s government into jeopardy.
“She is stripping away whatever nuance, or whatever fig leaf, that would have allowed a deeply ideological government to make a settlement deal that is politically acceptable at home,” said Aaron David Miller, a public policy analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “They’ve concluded, ‘We’re going to force a change in behavior.’”
Within the Israeli government, however, there is a consensus that the ever-growing settler population must be accommodated.
No one is talking about sanctions just yet on Israel, but the historical precedent here is telling. The last time the U.S. sanctioned Israel was in 1991 on the question of housing settlements. The eventual result was the fall of the Yitzhak Shamir government.
So China is contemplating sanctions against North Korea, and the United States a step away from doing the same thing vis-a-vis Israel. This highlights a cruel irony when it comes to the use of economic pressure -- it works on your friends a lot better than it does against your foes.
[I see where this is going. Stop it!--ed.] Of course, countries are understandably more reluctant to pressure their allies than their adversaries. [I'm warning you!--ed.] Why, it's almost like there's a paradox when it comes to economic sanctions. [All right, that's it, this ridiculously self-promotional blog post is over!!--ed.]
UPDATE: Ed Morse and Michael Makovsky have an excellent essay in The New Republic on the prospects of sanctioning Iran.
By Daniel W. Drezner
I think the Obama administration has come up with a novel way of dealing with the North Koreans -- get everyone to talk about something else.
Half-seriously, this is not a bad idea, because I'm not sure that anything else is going to work better (beyond my modest Britney Spears proposal). For this decade, the following facts have held:
The one thing that seems different this time around is that North Korea is really pulling out the stops this time to strip away the "pleasing illusion" that the U.N. Security Council will do something. Paradoxically, this might actually goad China and Russia into doing something -- sanctions that might increase the likelihood of a DPRK collapse but also increase the likelihood of Pyongyang altering its behavior before that happens.
If I, rather than my boss, were advising the Obama administration on this issue, the one other deliverable I would aim for in response to this latest provocation would be to get China to join the Proliferation Security Initiative. China has resisted this for a whole bunch of reasons unrelated to North Korea. If Beijing were to reverse course, it would make it much easier to engage in interdiction activities along North Korea's coast. It would also signal to Pyongyang that, yes, there actually are some serious costs to thumbing one's nose at the U.N. Security Council.
Am I missing anything?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.