Frozen competition: the future of the Arctic

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin arrived unannounced in Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost city and located in the Norwegian province of Svalbard in the Arctic Circle.  The problem with that is Mr. Rogozin (along with many other Russian officials and businessmen) has been sanctioned by the EU, US and Norway since 2014, when Russia decided to annex Crimea. These sanctions bar visits to these countries and forbid use of Western banks. But he did it anyway:

But Rogozin wasn’t going merely to troll the Norwegians (although he accomplished that too), rather he was on his way to visit Russia’s new North Pole Station. Rogozin heads the new Russian government commission overseeing projects in the Arctic. And they plan on spending upwards of $4 billion developing Russian energy and mineral resources between now and 2020.

Should we be panicking? Panic is a strong word, but perhaps suspicious is more appropriate.  When I did my undergrad, one of my professors made a comment about the U.S.’s geopolitical standing in the world after World War II, when we came out on top and forged the new global order: “Today there are few countries that make us dance around like a three-year-old without a bathroom on a bus. One of those countries happens to be Russia.”

The Arctic, or “High North,” is considered to be one of the last “great frontiers” for human development, particularly in the realm of mineral and energy extraction (i.e. oil and natural gas).  It is also a potential shipping route that can be a shortcut between Asian and European markets. In any case, because of global warming, a melting Arctic presents many strategic issues and implications which stem from economic opportunities.

I can try to get into explaining this map, but to be honest, it's sort of confusing. But all the red and pink shades means there's fossil fuels that are potentially extractable. But the ice has to melt first.

I can try to get into explaining this map, but to be honest, it’s sort of confusing. But all the red and pink shades means there’s fossil fuels that are potentially extractable. But the ice has to melt first.

Developing offshore oil and natural gas fields here is just one example of the multidimensional challenge the Arctic presents.  The U.S., Canada, Norway, Russia will all want a piece of the pie. And they will want to defend that piece of their pie.  Before the recent confrontation over Ukraine and Crimea grabbed headlines, the Russian government announced in September 2013 that they would be rebuilding a naval base and an airbase in the Arctic and begin patrols there.  The last time Russia had a functional military base in the Arctic was during the Cold War.  This would give Russia the ability to put air power over most of the Arctic, and possibly deny Arctic countries their right to their respective territories. In 2007, they trolled the world and planted the Russian Tricolor at the bottom of the ocean at the North Pole, officially staking their claim and making the case that Russia’s continental shelf extends well into the Arctic. Estimates vary, but the consensus is that the Arctic carries roughly 1/5 of the world’s undiscovered hydrocarbons (~90 billion barrels of oil and ~1.76 trillion cubic feet of natural gas), and you can be sure the Russians will want to access some, if not all, of it.

Depending on where you’re sailing from, shipping goods via the Arctic instead of through the Suez and Panama Canals can cut the travel time back significantly. Currently there are 3 sea routes in the Arctic.  The Northwest Passage, the Transpolar Passage, and the Northern Sea Route.  These routes are not consistently open to maritime traffic, but even seasonally they can provide economic benefits.  The Transpolar Passage is only navigable with ice-breakers or submarines, while the other two are only navigable in the summer – and inconsistently at that.  When they become economically significant in comparison to the present alternatives is anybody’s guess.

It is difficult for many Americans to grasp since Alaska is geographically separated from the rest of the U.S., but we are indeed an Arctic nation. U.S. interests in the Arctic are also partially a legacy of World War II. For the last seven decades the United States Navy has underwritten the international free trade system by enforcing freedom of navigation and safety of shipping lanes. Remember, 90% of the world’s trade travels by water. As a new body of water slowly becomes more navigable, will the U.S. take it upon itself to project power there to enforce international norms? Well, in order to project power in the Arctic we will have to get there first, and you can’t escort ships without icebreakers (Russia has more than two-dozen, and the U.S. only has one). We must also ensure that we can operate well with countries who have territorial claims to the Arctic, not just militarily, but also for a wide variety of missions such as search-and-rescue (some of which are allies like Canada, Norway and Denmark). A role for NATO in the Arctic must also be considered, as many countries in the High North are also NATO allies, and how can NATO get involved without antagonizing Russia?

Does China get a seat at the table in this Arctic conversation, even though they’re not geographically in the Arctic? After all, they have investments in Iceland and Greenland, and are pouring money into just about every country you can think of. What if they offer to help fund Arctic coastal infrastructure, ports, airfields, and sea routes? And if China is trying to vie for some influence in the Arctic, you could be sure that Japan will try to do the same. Other shipping nations like Singapore and Indonesia will probably want their voices heard too. Significant obstacles remain, but the more the ice melts, and stays melted, the more important the Arctic will become on the geopolitical chessboard. For a more in-depth analysis of the challenges a thawing Arctic presents, check out this guide/explainer from the Council on Foreign Relations.



Mexico: Fire on our doorstep

Though the U.S. and Latin American authorities make the occasional high-profile arrest, like the recent arrest of Mexico's Public Enemy #1 Joaquín

Though the U.S. and Latin American authorities make the occasional high-profile arrest, like the recent arrest of Mexico’s Public Enemy #1 Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, there is little reason to believe the drug war has any end in sight.

–Peter Kouretsos– No group seems to be more threatening to U.S. interests and national security than the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). ISIS has certainly been an attention-grabber; beheadings, mass executions, and public displays of their victims are just a few tactics in their toolkit. Their rampage and trail of carnage has been dubbed by many as not only medieval, but unique, an uncommon sight in the 21st century. However, while ISIS continues to dominate headlines through their atrocities in faraway lands, many are oblivious to the far more immediate and gruesome atrocities committed by Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs), commonly known as the “drug cartels” just south of our border, and the threat they pose to the United States and the Western Hemisphere.

A recent report read that in 2014, only Iraq and Syria had more deaths than Mexico. Estimates put conflict-related civilian death tolls in Iraq last year at roughly 18,000, and Syria 70,000, with thousands more wounded. Mexico? 15,000. That’s down from last year’s Mexican government estimates of 16,000, and another 60,000 since 2006. Judging from the Mexican government’s record of deflating these figures, the true numbers are likely far worse. Beheadings, dismemberments and acid baths are among the many tools they use to terrorize the public. ISIS routinely makes the headlines for killing journalists, but it is not uncommon to see a journalist’s or a local politician’s hanging corpse on public display in Mexican local plazas, with signs that read “This is my punishment for talking.” In fact, more than 60 journalists have been silenced for covering the drug war.

The immediate concern is Mexico, but the TCOs have plagued many countries. Out of the world’s 50 most violent cities, 34 are in Latin America. To be sure, this is not all of the violence is directly attributed to drug violence. Systemic corruption, political instability and poverty are all core issues, but the TCOs thrive in these environments and perpetuate the cycle. In many areas, the authority of the Mexican state appears to be extremely weak or nonexistent. A clear example of the extent to which the authority of the Mexican state is being challenged happened earlier this month, when a Mexican military helicopter was shot down by members of the up and coming Jalisco New Generation Cartel. In another incident in September 2014, TCOs kidnapped and murdered 43 students connected to drug-war protests at a college in Guerrero . It was later revealed this was made possible with the help of local politicians and the police. It is clear that the Mexican state has trouble protecting its own citizens, but it is even more troubling and embarrassing when it cannot protect the citizens of other countries. Since 2002, more than 600 Americans have been killed in Mexico by TCOs.

Further, once merely just a part of the narcotics supply chain, Mexican TCOs have begun taking control of the whole thing, interfacing directly with raw-product suppliers in South America at the top, and consolidating their control of retail distribution at the bottom. The biggest retail market of course is the U.S. It would be understandable for our public and the media to play down the TCO threat if the violence was restricted to south of the border; but since 2006, nearly as many Americans died in the U.S. from TCO-related violence (some 6,000) than American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. They are covered as U.S. based “gang-wars,” but make no mistake, the TCO connection is there. Just last week the DEA seized 50kg of heroin in New York, the largest bust in New York state history; the drug ring which was busted had been receiving similar sized shipments each month, all from suppliers in Mexico. Over the last decade, Mexican TCOs have infiltrated thousands of U.S. cities and municipalities on a level that groups like ISIS can only dream about.

As in Mexico and Central and South America, once the TCOs have consolidated their control of major distribution networks here from local gangs, they will fight each other and anyone else who stands in the way, for market share. U.S. intelligence officials have publicly asserted that the ISIS poses no specific or credible threat to the U.S. homeland. However, can the same be said of the Mexican TCOs? The Middle East may be burning with no end in sight, but there’s a fire on our doorstep.

Baltimore’s Unrest: A Manufacturing Crisis?


John Angelos is right. Yes, American manufacturing jobs are being lost. But that issue is not limited to America.

I love spring. I especially love spring in Baltimore, where I did my undergrad, too. For one, it meant the end of the semester for all of us at Loyola. All the studying and hard work paid off, and summer was around the corner. It also meant baseball. Yes, even as a Yankees fan, the Baltimore Orioles grew on me. As students we could get tickets on Fridays for $5 and sit up in the cheap-seats, but it was always a great time, with great view, and with great people.

This week I was saddened to learn that springtime, a time marked by the start of baseball season, was disrupted. My Jesuit upbringing has taught me that justice requires those destroying property and endangering the lives of others to be held accountable, but it also requires that those who have abused their authority to be held accountable too. It’s a sad state of affairs. And caught in the middle of all this is baseball, America’s pastime, which was overshadowed by events that remind us that our nation’s past isn’t so easily buried.

Buck Showalter and the dugout have pretty much kept to themselves. But in response to a Baltimore sports broadcaster’s complaints that the protests were now negatively affecting the daily lives of other citizens, John Angelos, son of Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, and Chief Operating Officer of the team, took to Twitter to defend the protests, delivering a passionate reply that caught the Internet’s attention and went viral. You should read the whole thing, but I’ve managed to find a connection between this sad state of affairs and international relations:

That said, my greater source of personal concern, outrage and sympathy beyond this particular case is focused neither upon one night’s property damage nor upon the acts, but is focused rather upon the past four-decade period during which an American political elite have shipped middle class and working class jobs away from Baltimore and cities and towns around the U.S. to third-world dictatorships like China and others, plunged tens of millions of good, hard-working Americans into economic devastation, and then followed that action around the nation by diminishing every American’s civil rights protections in order to control an unfairly impoverished population living under an ever-declining standard of living and suffering at the butt end of an ever-more militarized and aggressive surveillance state.

A good chunk of those “middle class and working class jobs” being “shipped away” that Angelos is referencing are manufacturing jobs. A popular case study for Baltimore in particular is the Bethlehem Steel mill, once a booming sector and proud employer of many residents of Baltimore. No more though, but not for the reasons you would think if you read Angelos’ words.

A case can be made that free trade policies are partially responsible for some job losses cited in Angelos’ argument. But the larger, less sexy explanation is that it’s also a phenomenon driven by better technology and increased productivity and automation, which also leads to a decline in manufacturing jobs across the board, not just in the U.S. The decline in U.S. manufacturing as share of GDP between the 1970s and today is part of a larger global phenomenon, and it’s one I touched on in an earlier post. But here’s a nice graph with some examples:


That’s only a small piece of the pie. If you want to take a look at the whole thing, go here for the raw data.

The trend is pretty clear. Australia’s manufacturing/GDP ratio went from 22% to 9.3% between 1970 and 2010. Brazil’s went from 24.5% to 13.5% in the same period. Canada’s dropped roughly 9%. Even the “industrious” Germans went from a little over 30% down to 18%, and Japan’s from 35% to 20%. China is no exception to this. As its economy goes through a fundamental restructuring from a heavily export-based economy to one slightly more geared towards domestic consumption, manufacturing as a % of GDP is also beginning to fall in China, along with manufacturing employment.

So is Angelos missing the forest for the trees, aside from the fact that globalization is a big reason why the Orioles have been able to get some pretty good players from other countries? That said, the snippet that I highlighted and italicized in the beginning is a popular narrative, and it’s a narrative that is getting even more attention with the heated debate surrounding the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free-trade agreement between 12 countries that account for 40% of global GDP, including the U.S. and Japan but not including China. As the chief negotiator for foreign relations, the Executive Branch negotiates these agreements, but Congress must ultimately sign off on any foreign trade agreement. In the past, the Congress has granted presidents “trade promotion authority” (TPA), also known as “fast track,” which would give presidents the authority to place trade agreements before Congress for a simple up-or-down vote (no filibusters or adding amendments to the deal). Will the Congress let TPP happen? President Obama is doubling down on it, so he’s certainly determined to make it part of his Administration’s legacy, even if it fails. But don’t expect opponents or proponents of this to go down without a good fight. For more information on TPP, check out this backgrounder. And while you’re at it, pray for Baltimore. I can promise I’ll be rooting for the city extra hard this season.

Arming Ukraine: Breaking it down

Should we arm the Ukrainian government forces?

Since the conflict began last year, the U.S. and Europe have been limiting military support for Ukraine to non-lethal equipment; things that enable the individual soldier like body armor, medical supplies, and night-vision goggles. Late last year, President Obama signed a bill that authorized the provision of more lethal weaponry to Ukraine’s military but left it up to the White House to decide whether to follow through on that move. So technically speaking, the decision has already been pre-approved. The question is, should POTUS follow through, or leave it as an option down the road for him or for the Clinton Administration next administration?

Looming over the Minsk negotiations currently underway is the prospect of deeper sanctions on Russia, an economic collapse in Ukraine, and the risk that the conflict descends into an all out war. I would use the phrase “descend into proxy war” as a piece in Bloomberg did, but is it a proxy war if one of the supposed sponsors of said “proxy war” has been openly engaging in the war since last year? A technicality I suppose.  But I digress.

So far, sanctions have failed in their aim of pressuring the Kremlin to reverse course in Ukraine. That’s not to say sanctions haven’t hurt the Russians, but it looks like they are willing to tolerate much more pain than the West is likely to give. And the increase in violence has brought back a question that the Europeans and NATO would rather not ask again: what is the next step if the Russians do not stop?

Below is a collection of most of the arguments for and against the U.S. providing the Ukrainians with lethal defensive weaponry. I read a lot, and I tend to get lost in my own thoughts, so a lot of times I jot things down like this. Welcome to my brain:

Do it:

Perhaps the most cited case for arming Ukraine is a joint report from the Atlantic Council, the Brookings Institution, and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Among the authors are former Supreme Allied Commander for NATO Admiral James Stavridis, former Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy and former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer. If you want to have an opinion on this issue, you should definitely read the report, but for the purposes of this blog post, here are some of the key points:

  • The U.S. should give Ukraine “lethal defensive arms.” This includes more capable counter-battery systems, UAV’s for reconnaissance, electronic countermeasure systems, light-armored vehicles, and anti-armor missiles. Providing them with things such as these will raise the costs for a new Russian offensive.
  • Giving Ukraine weapons will help bring the conflict to a stalemate. Moscow will get the message: the cost of further military action will be too high. From there, a political solution can be seriously discussed.
  • If the U.S. and NATO don’t support Ukraine in a concrete, military-oriented way, the Kremlin will see this inaction as a redux of Georgia in 2008, and turn its attention to destabilizing the Baltics in a similar fashion.
  • The aid won’t allow Ukraine to defeat a new full-scale attack by the Russian military. But it would allow Kiev to inflict significant costs on Moscow if they chose to attack.
  • Deterrence is the main takeaway here. Providing these lethal arms to Ukraine will deter further escalation by Putin. Providing these arms reduces the likelihood that Russia will escalate the crisis.

Pretty straightforward.  Another decent summary is in an Op-Ed written by some of the above-mentioned authors of the report.

Don’t do it:

There has been equal, if not more, push-back by a number of scholars and subject-matter experts of similar stature to the authors of the joint reports. But it’s more scattered.

One piece that stood out was from Eugene Rumer, a Russia and Eurasia expert formerly at the U.S. National Intelligence Council, and Thomas Graham, a former senior director for Russia at the National Security Council. They have made a compelling case against sending lethal arms to Ukraine. Major points of their case, along with a some others:

  • Giving lethal arms will not sway the Kremlin to back down in Ukraine. And it could bring the West one step closer to a direct military confrontation with Russia.
  • We cannot be certain that these arms won’t go to the Ukrainian volunteer armies and private militia groups, which lack adequate training and discipline.
  • It will take many years to reform and bolster the Ukrainian military and security service, which is undertrained, underfunded, scowering for recruits, and crawling with Russian spies, making it unlikely that a delivery of such lethal arms would make a meaningful difference when going toe to toe with the Russians and the separatists.
  • What happens if Russia decides to escalate? Is the U.S. and NATO willing to enter a direct military confrontation with Russia?
  • Short of sending in the 82ndAirborne, it’s extremely doubtful that the U.S. and NATO won’t gain any significant comparative advantage over Russia in Ukraine.
  • If the Kremlin wants to destabilize Ukraine and ensure it does not successfully pivot Westward towards Europe, it will not stop until that happens.
  • Giving lethal arms and aid to Ukraine reinforces the narrative that the Kremlin tells the Russian people: Ukraine is now a puppet of the West, and the next stop for the West after Ukraine is regime-change in Moscow.

If the U.S. provides lethal arms to Ukraine, what next?  Would doing this really change the Kremlin’s calculus? Similar lines of thought are presented herehere, and here.

Since last year’s escapades, each set of talks and ceasefire agreements has only moved towards deeper conflict. The violence in eastern Ukraine has created a humanitarian crisis – aside from the thousands killed and wounded, some one million have also been displaced – and a geopolitical crisis, between a European community that has hoped to put armed aggression in its past, and an insecure petro-state in decline determined to relive its imperial past and stick it to the West through armed aggression.

It seems that both sides agree that the Kremlin sees no reason to stop. It is also likely that Putin will try to solidify his gains in eastern Ukraine before the delivery of any more supplies or weaponry to Kiev can make a difference on the battlefield. Long-term, I see a frozen conflict in Eastern Ukraine, and I think this is something Putin would not mind having in his hand. I think it is also pretty clear to all parties involved that Ukraine matters much more to the Kremlin than it does to Washington, Brussels, Berlin, and the rest of Europe. What to do about that reality is the million dollar question (or if you’re in Russia, the 6,5109,500 ruble question.)

From “¡Viva la Revolución!” to “¡Viva la Normalización!”?

mandela-obama-castroOn January 3, 1961 the United States withdrew diplomatic recognition of the Cuban government and closed its embassy in Havana. But on December 17, 2014, after more than five decades of hostility and isolation, the two countries took a major step towards normalization. –Peter Kouretsos– Calm down and light yourself a cigar. Preferably a Cuban one. There are plenty of reasons to worry about President Obama’s announcement that the United States will begin to normalize relations with Cuba. But overall, it’s still the right thing to do.

Normalize: (verb); (pronounced “\ˈnȯr-mə-ˌlīz\”); to establish or resume (relations) in a normal manner, as between countries.

What exactly are we actually talking about here? Truthfully, we don’t know what will become of this development, other than “normalization of relations.” What does that mean? It means the U.S. and Cuba now have the ability to begin talks on how to establish official embassies, have diplomatic relations, and negotiate over trade with one another. But while the President has the power push to re-establish these diplomatic relations that were severed over five decades ago, the Senate still has a lot to say about what this all means going forward. For example, when the President nominates his ambassador to Cuba, the Republican-controlled Senate must confirm that nomination. And if at some point down the road, the President announces his intention to lift the U.S. embargo of the island-nation, the Republican-controlled Senate must sign off on that too. The elephant in the room is, of course, the embargo. Probably the most important sentence of the President’s address yesterday was “I look forward to engaging Congress in an honest debate on lifting this embargo.”   Taken to its logical conclusion, this is where normalization could eventually lead.

This is not to say that severing relations with the Cubans and implementing the embargo didn’t always work. Our Cuba policy had its place in the context of the Cold War; it forced enormous costs on the Soviet Union, both politically and economically. But even back then, there were efforts to begin what ultimately happened yesterday, from several administrations. But for now, the Obama administration’s decision to begin warming U.S. – Cuban diplomatic ties will not result in a surge of imports and exports between the two nations. Further, restoring full relations with the United States will not solve all of Havana’s problems either; its restrictive policies have and will continue to make it difficult for companies to do business in Cuba. Their poor economy is not so much a result of the American isolation and embargo as it is the result of long-term structural problems; problems that will take considerable time and political will to reverse.

So what happens now? It’s important to keep in mind that this is just the initial start of negotiations between the two, which can cover a whole host of issues and take many years. If, as some critics fear, this initial warming of Cuban – American relations does not erode Cuban oppression, then the Congress surely won’t even think about eliminating the embargo, and President Obama or a future president can reverse these policy changes should they find the regime in Cuba to be uncooperative.  But who knows? Maybe Hyman Roth can finally get that casino deal he was looking for all those years ago.

Hyman_Roth_GF2Let’s get one thing straight though: the Cubans are no angels. But the folks who make the argument that Cuba is too evil to have any sort of relationship with the United States quickly forget that we normalized relations with China, Vietnam and even Myanmar. Our foreign policy is littered with other examples of relationships with “immoral” nations. It’s a hard pill to swallow for some, but a strictly Wilsonian-based foreign policy only gets you so far. The world is complicated. We could do better to reserve our more coercive diplomatic and economic tools for other situations: like for the Islamic Republic of Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons program; for Russia’s recent escapades in eastern Europe; and for North Korea doing what North Korea does best.

There are many reasons to cry for a trial and public hanging for the Castros, but when the Castro brothers die, is the last building we want to have the most influence 90 miles from Jimmy Buffett’s house in Key West to be the Chinese embassy? We could either be part of the making of a potentially free Cuba in the future, or be bystanders. Because one thing is clear, Cuba is not going to collapse with the current status quo. And a pivot to the Asia-Pacific is nice, but the most important long-term commitment the U.S. can make is improving relations within our own hemisphere. It starts with things like this, and it can end with a reshaping of Latin American geopolitics. (More on that later.)

Food for thought: Currently, Senator Rand Paul is the only Republican-hopeful in the 2016 Presidential race to comment favorably on the President’s move on Cuba. And it turns out, this breakthrough in relations with Cuba was a lot of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s doing.

Today there is no longer such a thing as strategy, there is only [ISIS] management.

President Obama's prime-time address to the nation on September 10th got mixed reviews, mainly because while he articulated a course of action to deal with the ISIS, there are many questions still left unanswered.

President Obama’s prime-time address to the nation on September 10th got mixed reviews, mainly because while he articulated a course of action to deal with the ISIS, there are still many questions that need answering.

–Peter Kouretsos–  President Obama repeatedly and definitively states that there will not be US combat troops fighting the ISIS (The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria).  The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says they may become necessary if the situation ever warranted it.

I have only been alive for 23 years, but for these past 23 years (4 presidential administrations), we have been bombing Iraq more or less continuously:

BxSsw8_IUAAmfq_.jpg large

The reality is that air power by itself is not enough to defeat insurgents.  Bombing runs can give our forces control of the battlefield, but a JDAM cannot solve the political problems that lead people to take up arms against a government they see as illegitimate. Bombs can clear territory, but bombs cannot hold territory. To make matters more complicated, consider your options if you begin to see groups like the ISIS moving away from sparsely populated areas and into cities. American commanders are watching as the ISIS has begun using the kind of tactics used by the Hamas in Gaza: avoiding detection by dispersing themselves and their weapons and hiding them among the civilian population. A ground force is necessary.

But three examples of recent Middle Eastern interventions are also pretty telling, even with the aid of ground forces:

  • After 9/11 the Afghan Northern Alliance successfully ousted the Taliban and set up a new government with our help from the air.  We controlled the airspace, dropped thousands of tons of bombs, and fielded a U.S. force that, at its max totaled 100,000 troops and hundreds of thousands of U.S.-trained Afghans.  Some 13 years later the Taliban is still a threat to a government teetering on default and collapse. Taliban frequently boast “NATO has all the watches,” referencing our superior arms and technology, “but we have all the time.” And are they wrong?
  • Following a heavy air campaign in 2003, a U.S. ground force made quick work of Iraq’s military.  But waiting for us around the bend was an anti-American insurgency and a blown lid on a pot of sectarian conflict that was simmering for decades.  The surge “worked” and the counterinsurgency campaign “worked,” but pundits today forget those things were a tactical objective linked to a strategic end; it gave the new Iraqi government an opportunity to start governing and control the country. But the Maliki government squandered this opportunity, and instead used the surge to consolidate Shia influence and begin purging dissidents, mainly Sunnis.  So after the US combat troops left, the government began to dissolve, as did the Iraqi Army, trained and equipped by the US, when the ISIS began launching their attacks.  To make matters worse, many of the ISIS’s military leadership and regional governors are former generals and ministers who served in Saddam Hussein’s military and Ba’ath Party.  Pundits who claim that the reason why ISIS is in Iraq now because we pulled out in 2011 are only partially correct; they must also acknowledge that the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 helped create the conditions under which the insurgency grew.
As if insurgents weren't bad enough, there are also ginger insurgents.  Saddam Hussein's former deputy, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, is now an ISIS field commander.

As if insurgents weren’t bad enough, there are also ginger insurgents. Saddam Hussein’s former deputy, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, is now an ISIS field commander.

  • The most recent example here is, of course, Libya, where a NATO-led air campaign (no Western ground forces, unless you’re including small Special Operations forces) aided rebels against the Gaddafi government in 2011.  But as in Iraq, while the initial tactical success was hailed as a victory, the security situation eroded, as the militias we supported with our airstrikes began fighting among themselves and the interim government in what can be described now as a low-intensity civil war. Today Libya is a failed state, a geographical expression at best.

Now, what does all this tell us about the fight against the ISIS in 2014?

The strategy outlined by President Obama on September 10th is to provide air support and training to the Iraqi army, the Shiite militias, and the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, to drive the ISIS out of Iraqi territory; while training select groups of Syrian rebels and supporting them to defeat the ISIS in Syria (airstrikes have not been ruled out to accomplish this in Syria either). Assuming that this plan succeeds – and the ISIS is degraded and defeated without US troops having to engage in heavy combat in Iraq and Syria – then what?

Iraq, under intense U.S. pressure, formed a new unity government, promising the inclusiveness and openness that was denied to half of the country under the Maliki government. But what if it turns out to be the same movie with a different title, and the sectarian divisions don’t go away as easily as everyone would like to? And in Syria, if the ISIS is destroyed, there’s still a civil war with the Assad regime to be had; will we continue supporting those rebels against Assad?

I don’t think the question here is if the US and its coalition will be able to take on the ISIS. I think the real question here is if we have the capability and the capacity to leave behind structures that ensure the ISIS or something like it doesn’t come back. Any action undertaken by the U.S. needs to be tied to realistic national goals and determine what resources are necessary to achieve those aims. Engaging Sunnis and convincing them that the Shia militias sent to “liberate” your city are better than ISIS will be a tall order; even during the famously referenced Anbar Awakening, where we convinced Sunnis in western Iraq to switch sides and help us defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq, it took thousands of U.S. troops on the streets and millions of dollars in bribes to local leaders ($16 million a month) to make a difference.

But 10 years and $1 trillion later, how far have we come? According to the President, the plan for combating the ISIS could follow the models for dealing with the insurgencies in Yemen and Somalia; failing states where U.S. and U.S.-backed counter-terrorist forces utilize airstrikes and clandestine Special Forces raids to manage groups like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Al Shabaab. This could be the future of Iraq and Syria for many years.

To rephrase the words of Bob McNamara, JFK’s Secretary of Defense, who after the Cuban Missile Crisis lamented the reality that we would face perpetual crisis, “Today there is no longer such a thing as strategy, there is only [ISIS] management.”  It’s worth entertaining the thought that perhaps not all problems are meant to be “solved,” at least not all of them by us; the only thing we can do on our end is try to manage them.

What can the new Taylor Swift music video teach us about the Iraq crisis?

Absolutely nothing, but you clicked on this, so it worked. Keep reading.

It’s amazing what can happen in 2 weeks when you’re on vacation. Ongoing conflict in the Levant (a fancy word for Syria, Lebanon Israel and Jordan), what looks like the beginning of a Third Iraq War, failing states in the Middle East, war between Russia and Ukraine, the usual tensions in East Asia, and an Ebola epidemic that just puts this all over the top.  I’m probably missing some things, but you get the idea. Not exactly a good year for geopolitical stability. I suppose it could have been worse.

But then the week I get back, and American photojournalist James Foley gets beheaded by ISIS barbarians and the video is posted on YouTube for the world to see.  I never knew him, but like me, I know that James was a History major from Marquette, a Jesuit University in the Midwest. He was a teacher who wanted to tell the world’s most difficult stories and make a difference, much like the Jesuits that educated him and myself.  His grizzly murder, however, cannot be separated from the seriousness of the threat that radical Islam (the Salafi jihad movement in particular) poses to the world, and the Iraq crisis we are reading about on the cover of every major newspaper.

Which brings us to the Islamic State (also known as the ISIS/ISIL).  Dealing with the Iraq crisis and the ISIS threat is a rough subject.  There are a ton of folks that got the ISIS wrong, possibly even President Obama.  The President’s take on this jihadist enemy has never inspired confidence in the counterterrorism community, and many have argued that his reaction over time to the rise of the ISIS does not reflect the seriousness of the threat we now face. In many ways, I understand it. President Obama sees other foreign policy objectives as more important in the long-run, and the Middle East crises are just one big distraction. The big one, of course, is the “pivot/re-balance to the Asia-Pacific.” In the wake of James Foley’s beheading by the ISIS, General Dempsey started his part of last week’s DOD press conference, not by speaking about the ISIS, but by discussing his recent trip to Vietnam, the first by a Joint Chiefs chairman in decades. The administration has faced setbacks to their Asia policy, but this, when paired with things you probably haven’t read about like this, this and this, is a sign that this “pivot” which pundits have criticized as “hollow” is more than just words. It’s for real and it’s strategic priority #1 for the Administration. We’re doing it the Chinese way: slowly, patiently and subtlety. And Obama wants people to understand that.

You can find a lot online about the Executive Branch’s remarks about the ISIS. For one, the President has called them a “cancer” that must be rooted out; Secretary Kerry tweeted that “ISIL must be destroyed/will be crushed,” and Secretary Hagel remarked that ISIS is a threat unlike anything we’ve seen before. So what must be done?

In the long run, President Obama’s remarks about the ISIS hold some truth; this group, and the wave of Salafi jihadism will burn itself out, that “People like this fail…because the future is always won by those who build, not destroy.”  But we would be naive to expect it to recede anytime soon. It is possible that the ISIS can be crushed in what time remains of President Obama’s second term, while defeating Salafi jihadism itself is far more ambitious. But refusing to use the time between now and January 2017 to fight the ISIS will not only give them time to grow, it would also be irresponsible.

Paul Pillar’s piece this week rightly points out that the keys to the ISIS’s destruction lie within its own unique methods and objectives.  For example, one thing that distinguishes the ISIS from other organizations is this “caliphate” they established, their conquered territory, which spans from Syria to Northwestern Iraq. It is essential to keep in mind that this “caliphate” exists in a desert region which offers few places to hide and where clear skies permit constant, pitiless bombing. What will be challenging is when they wise up and take refuge among regional towns and cities.

Airpower is only useful when forces move through open terrain. Bombing more populated areas is fine and everything, but it just so happens to be frowned up by 21st Century standards. Kurdish militias like the Peshmerga and a few battle-hardened Shia militia and Iraqi Military brigades have been able to fight back with some help from U.S. airstrikes, but their ability to seek out and defeat the group is still a big unknown.

Success against the Islamic State is going to require renewed help from the people of Iraq and Syria a la 2003 to provide human, local, on the ground, intelligence; this is known as HUMINT, or “human intelligence.” HUMINT can’t be gathered from a drone (that’s IMINT and in some cases SIGINT), nor can it be gathered from the business end of a cruise missile (that’s BOOMINT. Just kidding I made that one up).  You get the point; the lynchpin for any measurable success against a group like the ISIS requires firing up our old intelligence networks in Iraq or building new ones. It is going to require these guys, and there are rumors circulating that the band is getting back together again. If that’s true, the ISIS had better watch out.

So in short, Western airpower and Special Forces which empowers and aids locals, can set the stage for the strategic defeat of the ISIS. But a permanent solution to the problem would require local actors to step up. And not just the government in Baghdad and regional leaders in Iraq; putting pressure on regional partners and allies to help is equally crucial. Many radicalized westerners have been attending SCIS (Summer Camp In Syria) via Turkey to join the ISIS.

If I didn't know any better, I'd say Syria's border with Turkey seems like a safe place for these guys to operate, arm and organize.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d say Syria’s border with Turkey seems like a safe place for these guys to operate, arm and organize.

We must find ways to compel the Turkish government to make good on their NATO membership and secure their border. The Gulf States are also a key set of regional partners that must understand that their lackluster attitude towards money-laundering schemes and terrorist funding is unacceptable, and the ISIS, and groups like them, are awash in cash because of it; they must crack down on their citizens funneling money through Kuwait that support Salafi jihad.

Bomb ISIS, Help Assad

Another key factor to decisively defeating the ISIS is defeating them in Syria. General Dempsey, Chairman of the JCS admits this, and earlier this week, President Obama reportedly ordered surveillance flights over eastern Syria this week to give the U.S. some better sense of what’s happening on the ground. These could lay the groundwork for airstrikes in Syria similar to what American planes have dropped on Iraq. The timing of all this couldn’t be more ironic: Exactly a year ago this week we were waiting to see if the U.S. would bomb Syria (Assad), but this week in August 2014 we’re waiting to see if the U.S. will bomb Syria (ISIS).

The West may have to live with, and possibly even work with, a  Syrian and an Iranian regime they have for years sought to remove. In international relations, it's sometimes like family: you don't get to pick them.

The West may have to at least entertain the thought of living with, and possibly even working with, a Syrian and an Iranian regime they have for years sought to remove. In international relations, it’s sometimes like family: you don’t get to pick them.

If we bomb Syria, who are our allies on the ground that would fill the void and retake the territory?  The moderate groups in Free Syrian Army?  I’m still waiting for someone to tell me what that actually means.  Al Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda affiliate?  Or is it Assad?  If we attack the ISIS in Syria it looks like that means we’d be helping Assad.  And if we’re helping Assad, what kind of message does that send, when our administration repeatedly calls for regime change? That if you’re a homicidal autocrat and you yell “terrorist!” loud enough, the U.S. won’t just work with you, it’ll work for you. Are we prepared to step back from our policy of “Assad must go“?

We have to try and also think not just about who we’d be fighting against, in this case the ISIS, but also about who we’d be fighting for as a consequence, in this case Assad. We have to tread carefully.  Any notion that we’d be working with Assad, a Shia dictator, would be a propaganda goldmine for Sunnis worldwide.  We would also indirectly be empowering Hezbollah, a Shia terrorist group and Iranian proxy.  Moreover, there are reports circulating that Assad’s strategy from the get-go was detente with the ISIS; he leaves them alone while they kill off the other rebel groups fighting against him. In short, it looks like Assad has allowed these radicals to thrive in order to demonstrate his own value to the U.S.  Not bad for an ophthalmologist who never wanted to be president of Syria in the first place.

Aside from the above-mentioned concerns, I think an analogy can be made here. Consider FDR’s allying with the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin, a homicidal maniac, was used to defeat what was perceived as a mutual, shared threat. There was an implicit understanding that we wouldn’t be buddy buddies after the war, but eliminating Nazi Germany was in both of our national interests.  We did business with Joseph Stalin, but we never trusted Joseph Stalin. Which brings me to my next analogy. Observe below. Skip to 01:55 and stop it at 02:23

Michael Corleone: C’mon Frankie… my father did business with Hyman Roth, he respected Hyman Roth.

Frank Pentangeli: Your father did business with Hyman Roth, he respected Hyman Roth… but he never *trusted* Hyman Roth!

Point is, we’ve played this game before. A lot.  If an understanding is made with Assad, it doesn’t have to be advertised.  In fact, the White House repeatedly denies that it will work with Assad in rooting out the ISIS in Syria.  We don’t have to trust them, but we may have to work with them.  Or work alongside them, however the Obama Administration wants to phrase it.

The other elephant in the room is Iran.  We cannot talk about dealing with the ISIS without Iran in the equation. In fact, there is a slow, gradual process of detente between the U.S. and Iran that some analysts see as inevitableThey can help, but what will it cost?  Here’s what I think they want in return: no more sanctions and a wink and nod to stop hampering their nuclear programme. It may sound ridiculous, but even if we end up not budging on those things, the thought exercise lends itself to an important lesson: no situation being dealt with can be handled in a vacuum. Things you perceive as unrelated could be the deal breaker for the other guy. We have to be careful when we compartmentalize issues. This not only applies internationally but domestically too.

To an outside observer like myself, the bright idea factory looks like it’s putting out a lot of smoke, but no one is offering policy and strategy options.  Let’s ease back on the rhetoric and think this one through, even if it means not talking about the ISIS for a while. These guys couldn’t imagine, nor afford, the western media PR campaign that is currently covering them.  They aren’t the world’s first militant organization, and they certainly won’t be the last.