How to Argue with your family about Foreign Policy tomorrow: Thanksgivukkah Special

There are three things people always talk about: Sports, Politics and the Weather. This Thanksgivukkah you’ll be hearing about all three, so here’s a handy guide on how to hold your own against misinformed family and friends at the dinner table.

Guaranteed your first course is going to start off something like: “We don’t make stuff here anymore”

One of the most popular claims that I have wishbone to pick with is when people claim our country’s going to hell in a hand basket because everything’s made in China and all we have to show for it is a “service economy” that just gets us into financial crises. They’ll point out that there are fewer manufacturing jobs in the US today than there were when they were growing up. If you have your smartphone out, pull up this graph and tell them to give it a look:

Industrial Production...Manufacturing


However, like a good debater, you’ll concede that fewer people are employed in manufacturing today than “back in the day.” And you’ll even show ‘em the numbers to prove it:

All Employees...Manufacturing

The takeaway here is American manufacturing output is enormously higher today than it was 40 years ago [actually, ever…]. However, that growth is at the expense of fewer employees, which in economic jargon means increased productivity; doing more with less. This is because of all sorts of things, like improved business processes and technology to increase efficiency. So we DO make things, lots of things actually. It’s just that we make more things with less people.

Second course: “Jeez, you see Putin lately? Russia’s shoving our face in the dirt and looking better every day. Cold War all over again!”

International Badass? Absolutely. Geopolitical rival? Not quite.

I’m really not sure why Forbes called Putin the most powerful man in the world this year, maybe it has something to do with him being a real-life Bond villain or his Judo black-belt.  In all fairness, in terms of awesomeness and manliness, Vladimir Putin is the Russian Teddy Roosevelt. But back to the point. Snowden’s bound to come up in the discussion, but that’s small potatoes when you’re talking a geopolitical rivalry. The Russians also like to troll us every now and then, especially at the U.N. but that’s to be expected. But put this into some perspective: Russia’s latest achievement was persuading Obama to not bomb a country he didn’t really want to bomb anyway to preserve a norm that not really vital to the U.S. national interest. To call the Russian Federation a rival you’d have to prove that wherever we go, the Russians counter us. Latin America? No. Africa? Nothing. South Asia? Don’t see them. The only exception here is Central Asia, where all of the countries ending in “-stan” are. That’s it. Showing some graphs and numbers for this point is pointless. There’s not much to compare.

By far, the most heated topic is probably going to be: “Blehblehbleh [something about China]”

China may very well surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest economy, but let’s not eat all the stuffing before you get to the turkey here.

China is rising and taking over the world and the U.S. and the West is in decline. This is the debate of the century, something that’s been the topic of heated discussion by scholars, policymakers, academics, journalists, just about everybody. There’s no way you’re going to “win” this one.

But if you wanted to have an educated conversation about it, here goes nothing. In a Pew survey, 23 of the 39 countries surveyed said China is or will soon become the “world’s leading superpower.” By 2030 (or sooner for some) the People’s Republic will take over the U.S.’s role as the world’s largest economy. So it may actually become the world’s largest economy. But it will not become a superpower. Although it has seen impressive levels of growth over the years, China has its constraints too. China’s leaders know they must slowly reduce the role of the state in the economy; in other words a transition away from model that is too dependent on corporate and government investment. But that’s what the Communist Party has been running on since its inception, so there’s also an identity crisis surfacing. It’s also pretty clear that it’s fudging its growth data. It also doesn’t help that the proportion of the Chinese population of working age peaked in 2011 and has started decreasing in 2012. By 2025, 14.3% of the population will be 65 and over. An aging population will increase labor costs, reduce savings and investments, and strain healthcare and social welfare systems. Then there’s also the daily challenge of feeding 1 billion people and keeping them unrebellious. And you can’t really fudge your way out of that.

Fundamentally, the Chinese military has been, at its core, an internal peacekeeping force for the provinces. Though there are signs of China seeking to project power outward in the form of developing a blue-water navy, there are rivals in Japan, India, South Korea and a bunch of Southeast Asian nations. Territorial disputes are just part of the trouble. It’s uncertain how this will all play out, and then there’s always the North Koreans a wild card in itself. There are some choices that China has to make down the road if it wants to avoid a war.

Bottom line: Agree to disagree on this one. It’s kind of 50:50 here. Strong economy? Yes, but in many ways it’s still a developing country. Superpower? Maybe in the future, but not yet.

Deal or No Deal?: A Primer on the Iran Deal, Your Questions Answered

So after playing some catch up on the Iranian nuclear negotiations, it’s pretty clear that the U.S. has made a lot of people in policymaking positions quite angry. But not everyone has been following it, and if you want some quick answers to those questions that you’re too embarrassed to ask, I’m here to help.

Pete, what’s this whole Iran thing about?
Ok, short story: The question revolves around the status of their nuclear program. Iran has always maintained that its nuclear program is purely for peaceful purposes (nuclear power/energy). Even though Iran has denied working toward nuclear weapons, it has said it will not submit to any plan that would totally eliminate its nuclear program. By this they mean the right to enrich their own uranium for energy.

Ok, so they said it’s for peaceful purposes, nuclear power is fine, what’s the problem?

A lot of people are uncomfortable with the fact that they possess the infrastructure and technology to manage the entire nuclear fuel cycle from start to finish – from digging uranium out of the ground to generating power with it. An offshoot of mastering the fuel cycle is that you can take it to the next level by making a nuclear bomb. The problem here is that you can use the same centrifuges that enrich uranium to low quantities (~3.5% for nuclear energy) for enriching uranium to higher quantities (90% for nuclear weapons). Iran has enriched some 200kg of its uranium stockpile up to 20%. Why 20%? I don’t know, it seems like a random number but I’ve read that once you break 20%, enriching to 90% is not so difficult anymore. And that’s enough to get some people worried.

Another issue is that they’ve built facilities without reporting them to the International Atomic Agency (IAEA) beforehand, some in urban areas, others under mountains (Those make them tough targets for a military strike). One such reactor that you may have heard about recently, the “Arak” reactor, that once completed, would be able to make plutonium fairly efficiently, another possible source for nuclear weapons. The Iranians have also deliberately deceived inspectors about secret sites and the status of their program. They’ve also been developing ballistic missile technology and reports surfaced a few years ago that they’ve been trying to develop a nuclear warhead. And it’s not just us who want them to stop; in 2006 the Chinese and the Russians got on board with the U.S. and the rest of the UN Security Council and began pressuring Iran to halt their nuclear program. I’ll say it again: in 2006 the Chinese and the Russians got on board and began pressuring Iran to halt their nuclear program. Considering all the things we can’t get Moscow and Beijing to agree with us on, I’d say that if they’re concerned about this, it’s becoming a problem.

Hmm, sounds like it may be a problem. What have we been doing about it?

So since Iran has not complied, it’s been punished with economic sanctions, a great deal of which has hit its oil and gas industry. If you want to learn more about them, here’s a good backgrounder on them, courtesy of BBC. The Iranians have also been experienced technical setbacks, the most widely cited example courtesy of a computer virus known as Stuxnet, allegedly developed by the Israelis and the United States (which has been denied by both). Also every now and then a nuclear scientist doesn’t show up to work at the lab because he’s too busy getting blown up [possibly by Israeli intelligence]. And while not explicitly using the phrase “military strike,” President Obama and other senior administration officials have repeatedly claimed that “all options are on the table” when handling this issue.

Yikes, so why aren’t the Iranians backing down?

The 1968 NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), which almost every country in the world abides by, says that parties of the treaty have the “inalienable right…to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.” So the quick answer is that international law says they can.

The more complicated answer is that the Iranian Revolution of ’79 still lives. What do I mean by that? The same people who are in power are vanguards of the anti-Western revolution that established the Islamic Republic of Iran when they overthrew the Western-backed Shah in 1979. They’re still pretty upset about the decades of interference on the part of the U.S. and Western Europe in the Iranian political economy during the 19th and 20thcenturies. And as the heirs of the great Persian Empire, they are a proud people. They want to be recognized as a regional power again, and a nuclear program is a way into the country club.

Another reason, if Iran really does want a nuclear weapons capability, is defense. Iranian leaders believe that the U.S. and her allies (namely Saudi Arabia and Israel) will stop at nothing to overthrow their regime. The last President of the United States called the regimes in Iraq, Iran and North Korea the “axis of evil” and so far we’re 1 for 3 in the regime-change business. Another leader by the name of Muammar Gaddafi willingly relinquished his nuclear stockpile years back but just a few years ago saw his country bombarded by NATO before he was dragged through the streets of Tripoli and executed. And let’s not forget that in the 80s Saddam was on our side, and we gave him plenty of help in his war with Iran that lasted 8 years and killed hundreds of thousands on both sides. With this kind of baggage weighing on the leadership’s mind, a nuclear deterrent may be an attractive option.

But even if they didn’t want a nuclear weapon, the Iranians have managed to give many countries good reason to suspect that their “peaceful” nuclear program is actually a cover for a covert push to develop a weapons program.

What about Israel? Their Prime Minister was trolling the negotiations and just called this deal we brokered with Iran “a historic mistake.”

In many ways, Israel has good reason to be worried about a more powerful Iran. The Iranian leadership has repeatedly called the Jewish state a “cancer that must be removed” and actively supports Hezbollah and Hamas, the Lebanese and Palestinian militant groups with a long history of attacking Israel. But it’s pretty doubtful that the Iranians are going to fire a nuke over Tel Aviv or Riyadh (the Saudis are also a party with security concerns about a nuclear Iran). If they do that, Tehran just signed their death warrant and it’s game over for the regime. I’m sure they know that. But a nuclear Iran may be emboldened enough by their new deterrent to support and finance Hezbollah and Hamas. It may also start a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, with governments in Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc. all pursuing a nuclear weapons capability to counter Iran. So it’s a mixed bag, but if you stick your hand in it, you’ll probably get stung pretty bad. That being said, Iran is a problem for Israel, but not in the same way that it’s a problem for the emirs in the Gulf. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Israel may not like it, but it can probably live with a belligerent Iran.

That actually kind of really sucks. What’s our plan?

The options are really contingent on what you want to achieve. All around though, they’re not all that great.

The first not-all-that-great plan is to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites (the ones we know about). Best case scenario, this would probably set them back a year or two, maybe even just a few months. Bottom line though, it will make Tehran more likely to develop a nuclear weapon if they weren’t going to already. We’d also probably lose support from key international players to stop Iran’s nuclear program. In fact, we’ll probably lose international support for a lot of other things going forward.

The second not-all-that-great plan is a follow up of the first bad plan: an invasion by our Armed Forces and a coalition of the willing (whichever countries want to help out) to overthrow the regime. Why not go all the way? You bomb them and give them a chance to recover? You’re not sure if you got all the nuclear sites? All that fissile material lying around waiting to get stolen now? C’mon bro, finish the job…Unfortunately whichever President authorizes that is doomed. After Iraq, this option is not happening.

The third not-all-that-great plan is to try and overthrow the regime in other ways. This is problematic, since the regime has shown and incredible amount of resilience since ‘79. Even during the “Green Revolution,” the 2009 protests after the disputed Iranian presidential elections, citizens were calling for government reforms, not the overthrow of the ayatollahs. Furthermore, any internal movements that we give even moral support to would lose all their legitimacy anyway.

The fourth not-all-that-great plan is to just keep doing what we’re doing: Force Iran to unconditionally surrender and give up its nuclear program in its entirety. Like I said before, those sanctions have definitely been biting, and covert action like cyber-warfare and assassinations have been successful in setting their program back some. But despite what we’ve been doing, the Iranian nuclear program has continued to grow. We can try to delay it, but that’s all we’d be doing: delaying.

The fifth not-all-that-great plan: negotiating a deal directly with Tehran. If my Spidey senses are spot on this time, this seems to be the thrust of what the P5 +1 (U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France, + Germany) actually hopes to accomplish in the near future: Iran gets its nuclear program, but with enough restrictions and inspections that everyone can accept it as peaceful. The downside is that this would be difficult to enact and no deal will please the Israelis, the Saudis or our Congress. Another thing to think about is that this all hinges on actually trusting Iran with a nuclear program, after it has cheated on past deals.

Ok, so we are negotiating with them, that looks like the least worst option. What’s this “deal” or “agreement” everyone’s talking about now?

The most straightforward explanation I found was this one by the New York Times; it has lots of pictures and short sentences. The agreement does not guarantee that Iran will make a bomb, but it certainly complicates it. The agreement lasts 6 months, when a more permanent agreement is supposed to get hammered out: No more enrichment above 5%; nuclear-related activity (no production of fuel, no nuclear research) on the Arak reactor stops; no new centrifuges; daily inspections to all nuclear facilities; all in exchange for unfreezing some overseas assets and some limited relief of sanctions that only amount to a few billion.

Good deal or bad deal?

It’s actually really not the deal that we should be thinking about now. This is an interim agreement that is easily revocable in six months if a comprehensive deal falls apart. It’s a test to see whether the Iranians are for real about this.  But if I had to judge, it’s a relatively safe deal that puts the burden of proof on Iran while at the same time showing some goodwill on our part to negotiate a settlement down the road.  Diplomacy is a two-way street, and easing some basic sanctions while maintaining the overreaching architecture let’s the Iranians walk away with something while not giving away too much on our part. And it’s pretty likely that the negotiators needed approval from the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in order to agree to the abovementioned agreement and bring home the bacon [ok, bad analogy, especially for a Muslim country] so that’s a pretty good sign. Only he can give the “ok” to build a bomb, and to our knowledge he has not given the order. This agreement blocks the most likely avenues for the Iranians to go forward with that. But as with all things, the devil is always in the details, and if any comprehensive agreement falls through, it will be because of those. I do still think that criticisms of this agreement are premature; the real deal hasn’t even started yet. And if the Iranians do end up cheating, we’ll be in a better position to ratchet up the sanctions again and dust off the war-plans.

Long-term though, it’s not so much the nuclear thing that I’m thinking about so much as Iran’s future in the Middle East. Strategically, we have nothing to gain by artificially weakening a country with a young, educated, large population that can be used to balance the Sunni-dominated Middle East. I’ll be looking for signs that we’re ready to start talking about reintegrating them into the international community. Bottom line: We have nothing to lose by gaming this thing out. And speaking out gaming it out, enjoy the football games and have a Happy Thanksgivukkah!

Halloween Scenario: Thoughts on the Cuban Missile Crisis

JOHN F. Kennedy confided to his brother, Bobby, that he thought the chances for nuclear war were 1 in 3, maybe even 50/50. Though that figure has been the subject of great debate ever since, we know things now that JFK did not know in the midst of the Crisis. In the words of Donald Rumsfeld, “There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.” To me, the scariest Halloween movies aren’t the ones with all the obvious and out-in-the-open shock factor, with blood and gore; it’s those stories that leave room for your imagination to wander. Fear of the unknown. To contemplate what could go wrong when you know you only get one shot at this; one shot to get it right or else the world is over. But this just isn’t any Halloween story. This is the Cuban Missile Crisis. This is History, and History can be very, very scary.

FOR one, Kennedy and the EXCOMM knew that there were plenty of IRBMs and MRBMs on the island, however they were not confident that they were all operational; what they didn’t know was that in addition to those missiles on the island, the Soviets had already sent 100 tactical nuclear weapons to Cuba that were under the command of the local commander; these were nukes designed to be used on the battlefield and ready to launch at the discretion of the commanders without any further orders, codes or procedures from the Kremlin.

SECONDLY, estimates put the number of Russians on the island at roughly 3-4,000 “technicians” but we now know there were over 40,000 heavily armed “technicians” alongside over 200,000 Cuban troops with expert knowledge of the terrain. Would the Kremlin or Soviet commanders on the ground tolerate any casualties from a U.S. airstrike? If you were a Soviet commander on that island, where you could have probably cut the tension with a knife, would you have been able to distinguish between a “surgical” strike and an all out bombardment?

THIRDLY, there was no guarantee that an airstrike, even with over 1,200 sorties (a lot of planes), was going to take out all of the missiles, and that was only for the missiles that we knew about. That meant that a ground invasion would have to follow, involving tens of thousands of Marines, for on-the-ground confirmation of destroyed targets, to secure the other sites, and to overthrow the Castro regime. Estimates by the Joint Chiefs that just came out a few years ago estimated 18,500 American casualties in the first 10 Days, all under the assumption that there were only 3-4,000 Russians on the island. Those estimates also assumed nuclear weapons would not be involved: “If nuclear weapons were used by Soviet/Cuban personnel, there is no way to estimate the casualties”. If the airstrike had been carried out, followed by an invasion, which Kennedy was originally in favor for in the first EXCOMM week of the Crisis, and which he had on tap for the third week if the crisis hadn’t been resolved by then, it is quite likely that those tactical nuclear weapons would have been used against the American invaders. Moreover, our naval base at Guantanamo Bay probably would have been turned into a glass parking lot, along with the 9,500 Marines stationed on it. So what happens when tens of thousands of American troops get nuked? I don’t have to tell you what would probably happen after that.

BUT we know JFK didn’t opt for the strike. What actually happened? How was it ultimately resolved? The story was that in the first instance that the US, with a spy plane, discovered the Soviets had been sneaking nuclear missiles into Cuba. There was a week of private/secret deliberation during which Kennedy changed his mind several times. At the end of that week he ordered a blockade of the island (Oct 22) which he called a “quarantine,” of any further arms shipments going to Cuba (technically a “blockade” is an act of war, and that . That gave them time, and gave Khrushchev some breathing room and step back from the brink. That went on for a week, during which time the Soviets continued finishing construction of the missile sites as Adlai Stevenson embarrassed the Soviet Union for the entire world to see at the U.N. to drum up international support for the U.S. Check this out, you rarely see this stuff at the U.N. anymore:

By the end of the second week, tensions were fraying: 1) a US U-2 spy plane on a recon mission over Cuba was shot down over Cuban airspace, 2) a nuclear weapons test was conducted in the Pacific which Kennedy forgot about, and 3) another U-2 flew off course in Alaska and entered Russian airspace (which alarmed the Russians since they speculated this could have been a recon mission to prepare for a nuclear attack) and both sides scrambled their fighter planes to intercept it (or destroy it depending on which side you’re on). On the 20th, China invaded India. These were just a handful of events that could have bode ill for the Crisis, but it was clear that taken together, things were happening in such a way that made people think “this can’t go on for much longer.” The stress was unbearable.

IN the end, the President went with a creative option that consisted of what can be broken down into 3 parts: 1) a public deal, if you (the Soviets) withdraw the missiles, we (the U.S.) will pledge to never invade Cuba, 2) a private ultimatum in which Bobby Kennedy, sent by his brother, told Soviet ambassador Dobrynin, that if in 24 hours we find that you’re not taking action to withdraw those missiles, we’re going to do it for you and 3) a secret sweetener where Bobby essentially said “we’re not saying that we’ll trade for our missiles in Turkey, but if this crisis is resolved successfully, those missiles won’t be there anymore. But if you mention anything about it being part of the Cuba deal, the whole deal is off.” So to bring it together it was a public carrot, a private stick, and a private carrot. In fact, a VERY private carrot; so private in fact that only a handful of EXCOMM knew it had been offered; we know this because the night Bobby is at Dobrynin’s residence, some officials in the EXCOMM are still talking about how we can’t give up those missiles in Turkey.”

Fine, it was a close call. SO WHAT?

Clockwise from President Kennedy: President Kennedy, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Maxwell Taylor, Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Nitze, Deputy USIA Director Donald Wilson, Special Counsel Theodore Sorensen, Special Assistant McGeorge Bundy, Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson (hidden), Ambassador Llewellyn Thompson, Arms Control and Disarmament Agency Director William C. Foster, CIA Director John McCone (hidden), Under Secretary of State George Ball, Secretary of State Dean Rusk

A thought. Bundy, Rusk, LeMay, McNamara, Thompson, the whole gang. These guys and just about everyone else in Kennedy’s circle during the Crisis were the A Team. The Wiz-kids and the Wizards (older guys). Strategic Giants. I can go on and on. I’m not saying that the people who have Obama’s ear are not qualified (they’re sure as heck more qualified than me), and it may be too early to tell, but I just don’t see many people like the ones who formed the original EXCOMM 51 years ago in Obama’s circle. Granted, those same guys got us into Vietnam, though. That being said, I think the debate we’ve been having about Iran has become so politicized that it will be difficult for our national security decision-makers to find a creative solution.

Let’s not kid ourselves about Iran’s intentions. Critics dismiss Israel as the “boy who cried wolf” when Netanyahu calls for red lines against Iran as it inches closer to developing a nuclear weapons program. But let’s not forget the most obvious lesson of that children’s story: the wolf eventually does come, and it eats the boy. It’s pretty clear that even if Iran does not want a nuclear weapon outright (a very conservative assumption) they may want the capability to produce one. But just because that’s true, let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that there are only two options for the U.S. and its allies here either.

Every President since Kennedy has looked to the Cuban Missile Crisis for lessons to better handle contemporary crises. Obama is no exception.

Graham Allison, one of the foremost experts of the Crisis, has compared the situation with Iran to a “Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion,” where a President (Obama) will eventually come to a confrontation where he will be forced by his advisors to make a decision: 1) attack 2) reluctantly accept a nuclear Iran. If you ask me, those are two really lousy options. But remember, those were the same options presented to Kennedy in the Missile Crisis, and Kennedy spent those 13 days searching for an alternative. Bomb Iran and you may delay their program, but that’s pretty much all you’d accomplish: delay, foster further mistrust, and convince them to develop the capability in secret. Acquiesce to their new status as a nuclear power once they develop the capability and you just took back years of rhetoric about “red lines” and “credibility” and may have very well started a nuclear arms race in a region. It’s clear that like Kennedy, Obama does not want either option. The big lesson for Iran is this: if allowing Iran to get a nuclear bomb is as unacceptable as the White House and every other U.S. official make it out to be, and if an air strike on Iran could have a catastrophic chain of events and therefore is an equally terrible option, we should be aggressively searching for something in the space between these. I don’t think it was a coincidence that the new negotiations with the Iranians began on the anniversary of the Missile Crisis this year, and you can be sure that all leaders on both sides have looked to that event for lessons. Let’s just hope that they don’t draw the wrong conclusions from it.