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.

Don’t Fughettabout Foreign Policy: Risks and Trends for 2014

David Kessler and Peter Kouretsos – Happy New Year, everybody! Big things happened in 2013: Dave and I graduated in May and we’re all still here, which means that the world didn’t blow itself up. And to us here at the Brooklyn Diplomat, that’s a reassuring sign that we’re doing ok and that it could always be worse. Not great, but ok. It helps us put things into perspective.  But we digress. We’ve been reading lots of articles lately about what to expect in 2014, and while we’ve found some of the trends, forecasts and “predictions” out there to be agreeable and insightful, the overall impression we got can only be described by one of our favorite movies (because Brooklyn, that’s why)

Ok, maybe not exactly BS, but lots of this stuff seemed pretty obvious. It’s not very Brooklyn at all. And as the official trendsetter of the modern world, the gentlemen and scholars of Brooklyn ought to have a say in what to expect in a post 2013 world.  Main takeaway from all of what you’re about to read right now: Foreign policy. Start caring about it. While last year’s headlines were dominated by economics, just one look at any of the headlines this past month shows that 2014 will be a “Foreign Policy” year.  This is what Dave and I are thinking about now as we begin 2014.  At the end, we’ll also share with you our New Year’s resolutions.

First Up: PETER KOURETSOS

#5) MENA unrest expands:

2014 is going to be a record year for violence in Iraq (a great primer can be found here). Runner ups in terms of unrest and instability are going to be obvious, Egypt and Libya, where the money is running out and the governments being propped up at the moment simply are not working. There are also serious concerns of a security vacuum in Afghanistan with talks of a U.S. 2014 pullout if a Bilateral Security Agreement doesn’t get hammered out; failure here would mean Afghanistan spirals back to the way it was before the 2001 invasion and we’re back to square one.

Adding fuel to the fire in Egypt, the interim government backed by Sisi (who may very well run for President soon) and the SCAF recently declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Both the Brotherhood and the government have reached a point of no return. By labeling the Brotherhood a terrorist organization and denying them any political voice, they’ve committed themselves to stamping them out for good; or risk them returning to power and destroying them. The Brotherhood, now backed into a corner, doesn’t have much to lose. And when one group has everything to lose while another has nothing to lose, it rarely ends well. It’s a very desperate situation. It’s a very…Syria(ous) situation…

Al-Qaeda is certainly not what it used to be after bin Laden’s death, but that does not necessarily make it weaker or stronger; it just makes it different. And if we don’t adapt to that, “different” will become “dangerous.”

2014 will be a “good” year for al Qaeda.  We will see a proliferation of small, local al Qaeda “units” that will take the jihad locally. This is not to say that some groups won’t target the U.S. directly anymore, but the emphasis will be local, where they can take advantage of economic hardship, weak, ineffective and unresponsive governance, and social unrest.  They have, for example, used Western Syria as a haven to launch operations into Iraq’s Anbar province, most notably in Fallujah.

Violence will grow and al Qaeda and its affiliates will grow.  The willingness of the U.S. and the Allies to devote significant resources to deal with these threats is not what it used to be (as opposed to right after 9/11).  To make matters more troublesome, the capacity for local governments and “partners” to pick up the slack simply isn’t there.  Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan are bursting at the seams and risk becoming more unstable as they take in more refugees from the Syrian war, which is not ending any time soon.  If you want to know whether this new decentralized and fragmented al Qaeda is weaker or stronger than it was before Osama bin Laden’s death, you’re asking the wrong question.  It is certainly not what it used to be, but that does not necessarily make it weaker or stronger; it just makes it different.  In the environment described above, the so-called “al Qaeda 2.0” after 2011 becomes “al Qaeda 3.0” in 2014.

 #4) Consequences of an Iran deal:

As per the accord hammered out last November, Iran has halted its 20% enrichment and just began blending down its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium this January. The West has made good on their end of the bargain by lifting some sanctions.

Hassan Rouhani was elected for this very reason. Sanctions were biting and he has been tasked to stop the bleeding. He does not have the go-ahead from the Ayatollahs to completely eliminate enrichment, but the momentum is there in 2014 for a deal with limited enrichment in exchange for a seat as a member of the international community.

We will find very soon whether a nuclear deal with Iran is going to happen, maybe even by the end of the first quarter.  If it does, oil prices could take a hit when Iranian crude enters the market and the Saudis, Venezuelans and Russians will find themselves in a very difficult position. Petroleum exports account for a disproportionate amount of their national revenues because they have chosen not to diversify, mainly because they just never saw the need to.  Will they decrease production (and lower exports) to keep prices where they’re at now, or do they continue at current production levels and watch prices fall?

Either way, if a deal with Iran happens this year, the funds used to grease the wheels of these petro-states could begin to dry up. But if a deal does not occur, oil prices could spike, the potential for an Israeli strike will go up, the risk of other MENA states going nuclear goes up and the Iranians move much more quickly to a nuclear “breakout” capability.

3) Elections happening just about everywhere:

I know people are talking about U.S. Midterm Elections and are also on the lookout for anyone announcing a 2016 Presidential run, but I’ll let Dave take that one.  Pretty much any emerging market most investors have been talking about that can have elections this year is having elections. China is the exception here since they don’t have elections. I am also not counting Russia in this either.

A little under half of the world’s population will vote some time in 2014. The Economist breaks it down for you.

When I’m talking emerging markets I’m talking Brazil, Nigeria, Indonesia, India, South Africa, Columbia, Turkey (a full list here).  Many of these large economies have one thing in common: most of the parties in power now have been in power for more than a decade.  And for at least the past 10 years, the effectiveness of their governance has been questionable.  These countries are at a crossroads; a case in point is Turkey.  PM Erdogan must step down due to term limits but he can still win and hold the ceremonial office of President this year; we could see a Prime Minister-President seat-holding scenario similar to Putin’s Russia with Dmitry Medvedev.  But Erdogan’s AKP will still need to win local elections, and though they are still generally popular, recent discontent with the AKP’s strongarm tactics and a political crisis sparked by the Gezi Park protests could lose them some seats.

Brazil is another notable country with major elections to watch, and the World Cup (plus with the Olympics two years away) will add more to its complexity.  President Dilma Rousseff’s party will likely stay in 2014, but only because Latin American politics as a whole is uniquely more populist and often lacks strong opposition parties. Economic growth has also plummeted while public funds have been used to prepare the country for the World Cup and the Olympics. Extravagant stadiums next to run-down favelas will present the world with a Latin American version of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.”

And as for the most populous Muslim country in the world in the ever-growing and important Southeast Asian region, Indonesia undergoes both Presidential and Parliamentary elections; it would do the United States some good if they re-engaged and reaffirmed their commitment to an Asia-Pacific “pivot.”  And although the popular topic right now is Ukraine, all eyes will be on Thailand as it navigates a political crisis between rival factions; it’s unlikely that an election will solve anything without an agreement between the clashing parties, and the risk of a military coup is always there.

#2 )Reforming China:

The Peoples Republic of China’s (PRC) Third Plenum launched significant and unprecedented political reforms that will fundamentally alter how China is governed.  In 2014 we will see the beginning of those, and consequently, the beginning of a new China. I’m still optimistic about China in 2014; the PRC’s resilience amid the decades of challenges it’s faced has been far too consistent to bet against.

By a show of hands, who’s betting against China in 2014? Nobody? Ok, cool, just making sure.

In Xi Jinping’s first year of governance, he’s engaged in more reform than in the PRC’s past 20 years.  This means real economic reform, a free-trade zone in Shanghai, anti-corruption moves, things that will get China on track for a serious restructuring.  But reform in China will make lots of people who have an interest in the status quo very unhappy. The Plenum was meant for Xi to consolidate as much power for himself to strong-arm these things through. The core issues and problems have never been external for China.  They have always been about, well…China. China’s core interests have always been domestic security and national unity. In fact, the new National Security body that was established after the Plenum, unlike ours, is focused on cracking down on internal matters like corruption, protests and unrest in the countryside.

China has greatly benefited from globalization, but they also have a long history of getting hurt when they expose themselves too much to the whims of other nations and foreign-based corporations that want to do business there.  The Opium Wars and the Unequal Treaty system during the 19th and early 20th centuries are the most popular examples of this.  This is why China has and will always be wary of any “comprehensive” and “binding” trade agreements and other multilateral treaties. China would much rather negotiate bilaterally, with one nation at a time, and on its own terms. So although the Bali talks and Doha give me hope for comprehensive international trade agreements, I’m not expecting China to commit to anything like it in 2014.

And if things get uneasy internally for China, with discontent and nationalism coming to a head, count on Xi and the Party to release some steam from the tea kettle and deflect those energies towards Japan and its neighbors who are suspicious of a more aggressive China. And in this kind of pressure-cooker environment, with all of their history and provoking the risk for a showdown with the Japanese as the Chinese reform process beings is real.

#1) The U.S. walks alone

The U.S. walks alone at the start of 2014, but it’s never time for it to throw in the towel. 2014 is a pivotal foreign policy year, and if they play their cards right, the United States can mitigate 2014’s risks and repair the damages of 2013.

Ok, Geopolitics 101 stipulates that there are exceptions to this: the British, the Canadians, the Mexicans and the Israelis. These relationships are maintained because of strategic choice and necessity, although there have been discussions about Israel’s discomfort with their U.S. relationship as of late.

Those exceptions aside, I am seeing signs that we’re beginning to live in a world where U.S. Foreign Policy has become less clear and less certain and decisive.  Our cuts in Defense and foreign aid make the rest of the world uneasy, and question our commitments. We’re also beginning to taper, and the money that used to float around and find its way to other nations’ markets isn’t going to be there anymore.  All other countries tied to the U.S. are concerned and are questioning the traditional terms of their relationship: South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brazil, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Germany and France come to mind.  This includes trying to move away from U.S. standards in the global economy and changing the way they think about security, especially in light of the NSA revelations.  There is a level of uncertainty in the world that we have not seen in decades from the world’s only superpower, and I will be closely watching to see how this plays out in 2014.

Am I saying that the U.S. is in decline? No. I won’t go that far and jump on the bandwagon that started picking up steam during the 2008 financial crisis. The dollar is still strong.  The Chinese still want their kids to come to American universities. Any internationals who want to move their money out of the country brings it here.  We are still a safe bet. The legal system works and we are politically stable. In terms of U.S. innovation in energy, agriculture, biotechnology, nanotechnology, etc; the U.S. still dominates. The “dysfunctional Congress” even passed a $1.1 trillion bill that funds the government through 2014.  So no, America is not in decline. Its foreign policy is in decline. It is losing its ability to get what it wants abroad.

The same applies with Obama and Congress.  2014 will be the President’s last best chance to push an agenda for the rest of his term; after 2014 everyone gets so caught up in the election season that it’ll be difficult for his Administration to get any attention or support after this year.

As President Obama goes live in his State of the Union Address on Tuesday, his focus will likely be on the economy, the issues of growing inequality, a partisan Congress and a stagnant middle class, all important concerns.  But after all that’s happened in the last 6 months on the international front, pay close attention to which issues the President will emphasize besides the domestic ones.   I can’t say what he will choose as foreign policy priorities, but a comprehensive agreement with Iran on curbing their nuclear program, wrapping up Afghanistan and repairing the strained friendships with our allies would be a good start.  President Obama still has 3 more years in office, and second-term Presidents in their last couple of years in office often try and leave their mark on foreign policy.  And with the Obamacare rollout leaving a black mark on the President’s legacy, foreign policy can help save what’s left of it.  And I think he knows this.  And with all the talk about “national interests” in foreign policy discussions on the news, most Americans see the only “national interest” as nation building here at home. The polls speak for themselves: A majority of Americans are more disillusioned with the U.S.’s role abroad than ever before.  They just don’t see the point anymore.  And after Iraq and Afghanistan, “fughettaboutit” isn’t just a Brooklyn word anymore.  Let’s just hope that Obama doesn’t fughettabout foreign policy in 2014.

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Last but not least: DAVID KESSLER

#5) Pope Francis and the Catholic Church:

If I had to point to any one trend that I was most excited about or which I thought would be the most profound in 2014, it would be the current direction of the Catholic Church.  After emerging from the College of Cardinals as Pontifex Maximus only a year ago, Pope Francis (Formerly Bishop of Argentina Jorge Bergoglio) has already rocked the boat with his humble demeanor, his progressive tone when making remarks on various “hot topics,” and his focus on social justice for the World’s poor.  Furthermore, Francis was the first Pope to be elected from the Americas and is the first Jesuit Pope. As of late, Pope Francis has even been named Person of the Year by Time for 2013.  And as two young, Jesuit-educated, Christian gentlemen (Pete’s Orthodox and he’s excited for more Ecumenical dialogue between East and West now), we’re pleased with Pope Frank.

I see this pivot in the Church marking a major shift in how it will conduct itself in the 21st century.  While recent Popes have made significant strides toward modernizing the Church, namely Pope John XXIII and Pope John-Paul II, Pope Francis seems to be someone who can strike a balance of fully mobilizing the global youth who have been unable to identify with the Church as of late, while still maintaining the more “traditional” Catholic following.  From what I gather from Pope Francis’ various remarks, the Church will certainly be much more aggressive in the fight to combat poverty in the so-called, “developing,” world.  Furthermore, to conclude endless discourses on questions such as homosexuality, abortion, and other social flashpoints for the Church, the Pope will likely brush those questions aside in favor of addressing what he feels are the most pressing issues: poverty, faith, and community.  These are issues that he can unite the most people around and bring them closer to the Church, regardless of their views on the contentious topics.

#4) Syria:

Assad has taken some hard hits, but he has also been able to exploit and leverage the diverse conglomerate of rebel groups to survive. I don’t think he’s going anywhere in 2014.

The prolonged civil war in Syria seems to encapsulate many different global struggles, both direct and proxy.  There seems to be no immediate end to the fighting, and one can only hope that 2014 is the year that the bloodshed is concluded.  More broadly the Assad regime in Syria, assisted by both Hezbollah and Iran, is struggling to remain in power as an Alawite-led regime in the predominately Sunni state of Syria.  Meanwhile, the Sunni Arab States and al-Qaeda continue to push back against the regime and support the revolution.

Though I foresee a prolonged conflict in the Levant for a while longer, any victor in Syria (if there ever is one) would probably be Assad.  Although the international community has called for him to step down and/or negotiate a settlement, Assad and his regime have shown resilience and an incredible tolerance for pain; thus far this is evidence that he still commands substantial legitimacy among his supporters, and the state is robust enough to survive in 2014 and beyond.  In particular, the military seems to be generally supportive of his leadership, in contrast to what we saw in Egyptian in 2011, where the Egyptian SCAF refused to continue backing then-President Hosni Mubarak.  There have been some defections, but as long as the military remains with Assad, I do not believe he will be defeated unless a greater outside force (al-Qaeda or a foreign power) is able to bolster the rebels to overpower the Syrian military or dissuade them from supporting Assad.

#3) A Strained US – Russia Relationship:

Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney memorably stated in 2012 that Russia is, “without question our [the United States’] number-one geopolitical foe.” For the record, the jury is still out on whether this remark is true.  But as of late there have been many events to suggest that this Cold War mentality may be relevant.  Perhaps the most talked about man involving a deteriorating U.S. –Russian relationship, Edward Snowden, will continue to test US-Russia relations into the coming year.  The slight against the U.S. when Russia agreed to give him asylum against cries for “justice” in the U.S. is ever present. Furthermore, we still don’t know the true extent of the damage he’s done or what it is he took with him. Granting him amnesty is probably off the table at this point, since he’s been to two countries that are two of the U.S.’s greatest cyber-security threats (China and Russia). Continuing points from the previous stated trend, the Syrian Civil War is also an indirect struggle between Russia and the United States.  The United States has traditionally backed the most powerful Sunni nation in the region, Saudi Arabia, while Russia has traditionally backed the most powerful Shia nation, Iran, and consequently, Syria.  Thus, the war in Syria looks ever more like the Cold War-era proxy conflicts. As a positive, the recent deal for Syria to voluntarily give up its chemical weapons for destruction was jointly agreed upon between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has shown that we can find some common ground on some issues.

C’mon guys. It’s only awkward if you make it awkward.

During the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia may also display the status of relations between the two nations.  To prepare for Russia’s gig on the global stage, President Putin has granted amnesty to thousands of prisoners, including his biggest rival, oil-tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.  This is an attempt to show that Russia has not receded to its harsh Soviet ways.  It should be noted, however, that these acts of “good will” may only temporarily improve Russia’s image rather than act as precedent for real reform within Putin’s Russia.  The US-Russian relationship will certainly make headlines over the upcoming year, but if the past is a judge for things to come, it looks like only headlines we’ll be reading will be about a stagnant or deteriorating relationship. Let’s hope at least for the former.

#2) A key year for the U.S. in 2014:

On the U.S. domestic front, another exciting year of political gridlock and debacle is on the horizon.  As President Obama enters the New Year with his lowest approval ratings since his inauguration, he will be quarterbacking the salvation effort for his signature legislation, the Affordable Healthcare Act (ACA, aka “Obamacare.”)   The website setbacks we’ve been reading about will be corrected in the coming weeks and Obamacare will receive its real test: whether the nation is willing to choose to enter healthcare exchanges or pay the penalty of not acquiring healthcare.  From my point of view, the ACA is here to stay and Americans will likely warm up to it if, and only if, enough people choose to enroll in Health Insurance rather than pay the penalty.  Whether the new system will work as efficiently or as cost effectively as legislators suggested is to be seen in the coming years.  However, the Democrats have been running on the ACA (or at least the idea of it) for nearly 50 years. They cannot afford for this to fall through. And it’s unlikely that Republicans will repeal it; it’s much easier to give out a social good than to take it away.  Thus, I would say that Obamacare is here to stay at least for the next 8-10 years.

Democrats, Republicans, and pretty much everybody else may be pointing fingers at each other, but one thing’s for sure: U.S. leaders have their work cut out for them in 2014.

On the flip side of American politics, the Republican Party will look to maximize the Obamacare confusion and win support to its cause while overcoming internal discord.  Within the party, two very distinct groups have emerged that are going to butt heads: the traditional “establishment” Republicans and the Tea Party Republicans.  Outspoken members of the Tea Party faction include Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.  Notable establishment GOP members include Senator John McCain and Governor Chris Christie.  While the traditional Republicans hold the majority of high ranking Republican positions, the Tea Partiers have secured some significant grassroots support.  The Tea Party’s most notable contribution (or lack thereof) to politics was their integral part in triggering the Federal Government Shutdown of 2013.  During this episode, the Tea Party legislators did exactly what they said they would do when running for their seats in government: attack the ACA by any means.  Unfortunately for both the nation and the Republican Party, this “noble stand” was a decisive defeat that cost the country weeks of Federal Government impotence.

From where I stand, the division and subsequent struggle for the Republican Party, ought to happen as soon as possible.  Political infighting followed by consolidation is nothing new, even internationally: Remember how Tony Blair led an internal movement within his Labour Party, moving it from the far-left/left to the center-left. And in 1997 the Labour Party achieved its first election victory since 1979.  Likewise, a strong leader from the center-right in the U.S. can assume a similar Tony Blair-like role over the party before the Presidential election of 2016 and move it in a more moderate direction.  The sooner and more decisive the struggle, the better.  A good barometer of this internal struggle will certainly be the upcoming 2014 congressional elections.

#1) Have No Fear, the Global Economy is Here!:

Finally, in regards to the global economy, I predict a very fruitful year.  [The majority of] Europe will return to greater prosperity and competitiveness than before the European debt crisis began.  The U.S will continue to grow its economy but it too must find solutions to reducing its public deficit so as to achieve sustainable economic growth.   The Chinese will continue to power forward with after a year of robust growth in 2013, although we’re beginning to see signs that they’re beginning to pump the brakes .  Japan will continue to be mired in its incredible public debt (which it will attempt to solve by printing more money) and oncoming demographic collapse (which can be mended by immigration reform, but probably little will be done to address that).  Russia and Brazil will get their time in the sun during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia and the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.  Both events will be great opportunities to show off the economic advantages for foreign investment in their respective countries.  Russia ought to seek continued growth, which has been strong since President Putin came to power. Brazil, on the other hand, has seen rather sluggish economic growth as of late and will certainly try to reverse that trend. As for the smaller economies of the world, they ought to perform positively if history is any judge of future trends.  Overall, the coming year will continue to see a dramatic reduction in Global Poverty and the world economy will grow substantially.

Nobody can account for all the bumps in the roads, and I’m sure 2014 will see its fair share of black swans. But the world will keep spinning.

IMAG1123

Two New Year’s Resolutions from two new graduates:
Pete: “Apply to Grad School in the Fall so I can defer my student loans next year!”
Dave: “See more friends and keep thinking scholarly and happy thoughts! We’ll get through 2014 everybody, let’s also try to enjoy it a little too!”

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.

You Reap(er) What You Sow: The Consequences of America’s Drone Program

This, my friends, is the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper. It is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) capable of both remote controlled and autonomous (can fly by itself a programmed route) flight. The Reaper is the first of its kind. Far more advanced than its predecessor, the MQ-1 Predator, it is a “hunter-killer” UAV designed for long-endurance, high-altitude surveillance.

While there are many other UAVs, the words “Predator” and “Reaper” have taken on another name“drones.” As you all are probably aware, this has been a hot topic for a while now; the development and implementation of these “drones” has led to heated debate surrounding their legality under international and domestic law. In fact almost every debate I have come across has focused on that. But you do not need another person telling you whether it’s legal or not. I’m not saying that I don’t think it’s important, but I find the costs and consequences of their continued use and development far more interesting…and troubling…

The Lockheed U-2 “Spy Plane”

The drone program cannot be fully understood unless you first take a quick crash-course in some Cold War history. It is likely that the idea of UAVs had been floated around as early as we were able to put a man up in a hot-air balloon, but it had to have been seriously considered in the wake of the 1960 U-2 Incident during the Eisenhower presidency. In 1960, an American Air Force pilot flying a reconnaissance mission for the C.I.A. was shot down over Soviet airspace and captured shortly thereafter, resulting in a diplomatic fiasco. The incident inevitably led to the development of faster and more elusive recon aircraft like the SR-71 Blackbird (It’s at the Intrepid in New York, check it out!) And while the U-2 is still being used in the 21stCentury to support U.S. military operations in theatres like Afghanistan and Iraq, the 1960 incident was a tipping point for aerial recon; it was probably at that point when strategists seriously started to consider developing something that could be flown remotely, without having to risk a perfectly good pilot. Fast-forward to 2011 with the loss of one of our RQ-170 Sentinels over Iran; while it’s not clear to the public whether our UAV was shot down or suffered a mid-flight equipment failure, no one was killed or captured, and Iran was unable to exact concessions. Imagine the diplomatic fallout of an American pilot being shot down and captured…in Iran…Scary thought, I know.

One of our UAVs went down over Iranian airspace. If a US pilot was in the cockpit the diplomatic fallout would have been the movie “Argo” on steroids.

In short, the drones of today are a byproduct of the Cold War. Building off of that, with the fall of the Soviet Union, it became clear that major threats could now originate in any corner of the world. But it wasn’t just the USSR that was being carved away, it was also the U.S. defense and intelligence budgets. The mentality at the time was “the Soviet menace is gone, how can we still justify this enormous National Security budget?” Satellite imaging was expensive and slow, and their utility was limited in the sense that they operate on a particular orbit that covers a particular path along the Earth (in this case, Soviet missile silos, airfields, military installations, etc). These orbits couldn’t simply be diverted to new trouble spots, at least in a timely manner; and even if they could, the new threats of insurgencies, terrorists, and transnational criminal organizations do not generate the same kinds of signature (intel-talk for patterns of behavior that are detected through signals intercepts, human sources and aerial surveillance, and that indicate the presence of an important operative or a plot against U.S. interests) as the construction of a missile silo or Soviet-bomber runways. The footprint/signature of many of the Post-Cold War threats are much smaller, subtler and lighter. Aerial recon aircraft like the U-2 and SR-71, though valuable, faced their own problems, the most important of which were survivability (we don’t want another 1960 U-2 Incident), cost (if sold today, one SR-71 would go for around $250 million), and technological capacity (high altitude + fast plane with a camera = blurry pictures). It is in this context that the MQ-1 Predator was developed in the 1990s, though it was originally strictly used for recon purposes.

What makes the drone so special?

From an operational standpoint, slow-flying manned planes like the A-10 and the AC-130 have been particularly useful in places like Fallujah and other complex urban environments, and they will continue to serve in many capacities. Pilots and gunners can get a good sense of the situation from on high, and it’s for that reason they coordinate with platoon commanders and Special Forces team leaders engaged in tactical operations on the ground. But while those manned planes still must fly at 180 knots (~207mph) to stay airborne, the unmanned Predator can fly at 75 knots (a lot less than 207mph). And while many other UAVs have to fly low, drawing attention with that annoying buzzing sound, a Predator flies at 15,000 feet—almost three miles up—where no one on the ground can hear it or see it. Then someone in the U.S. National Security community got the bright idea to strap a missile to it, and after a few successful tests the Predator became a self-contained multi-purpose unit that was able to transmit real-time imagery intelligence (IMINT) and if needed, engage the enemy. Lt. Col. Jay Stout, USMC (retired) quotes Lt. Gen. Walter Buchanan III, U.S.A.F., U.S. CENTCOM in a piece he wrote for the U.S. Naval Institute that speaks to the level of development and integration of our drones into close-air-support roles: “I have seen our UAV force evolve from one that was principally an intelligence-collection platform in Bosnia to one that today has a very potent air-to-ground capability and represents a truly flexible, combat platform.” I think it’s pretty clear that UAVs have shown itself to be an effective instrument for low intensity conflicts, whether for surveillance, assault, or both. And they will forever be in the toolbox of its users.

When people say that they are debating the “Drone Program,” what they’re really talking about is the post-9/11 implementation of using U.S. armed UAVs like the Predator and the Reaper, to kill leaders of al-Qaida, in Afghanistan, Iraq and later in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia (the three “covert action” campaigns that we know of). Since assuming office, President Obama has greatly accelerated the program, and in just 2 years authorized nearly 4 times as many drone strikes as did the Bush administration throughout its entire 8 years in office. The drones are launched from air bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan but are controlled by pilots in the U.S. After Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush ordered U.S. drones to kill leaders of al-Qaida, in Afghanistan and later in Yemen and Pakistan. Since assuming office, Barack Obama has greatly accelerated the program. In just 2 years, the Obama administration authorized nearly 4 times as many drone strikes as did the Bush administration throughout its entire time in office. The most comprehensive list of U.S. drone bases abroad that I’ve come across was from Micah Zenko’s column in Foreign Policy, where he reconciled news sources with satellite photos to determine where the U.S. has kept 12 of its UAV bases. Although most were in Afghanistan, Zenko’s pointed out that we base our UAVs in Turkey, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Seychelles, Qatar, the Philippines, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. The African continent’s US UAV launching bases are so many that it deserves its own hyperlink (the majority of these are used for surveillance flights.)

The implementation of UAVs in the Post 9/11 has enormous costs and consequences that I do not think have been seriously considered. And like I discussed before, I think we have a responsibility to ask more questions besides “is this legal or not?”

What do other people think about it?

I don’t claim to read or speak a lick of Arabic, Bengali, Urdu, or Pashto, but these people and the thousands of other people in pictures like this do not look very supportive of the United States.

Internationally, on a scale of “1” to “Greek mom who can’t let it go that I forgot to take out the garbage last week” lots of people are really, really mad about our drone program. One popular claim that is made is that the program violates the country’s sovereignty; for example, the Pakistani government has condemned their use as such a violation of sovereignty, but evidence that they’re allowing the strikes to happen is pretty clear. To get a better grasp on this, let’s go back to the Cold War: In July 1957, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower requested permission from Pakistan’s Prime Minister Huseyn Suhrawardy for the U.S. to establish a secret intelligence facility in Pakistan and for the U-2 spy plane to fly from Pakistan. Fast forward to the drone debates of today and it seems impossible to not conflate the words “drone” and “Pakistan.” So in fact, our “drone program” in Pakistan that everyone’s been talking about actually has quite a long history, going back almost 50 years! And the drones we have operating in Pakistan are being held in the old baseswe used decades ago. And the sites were built by Pakistani laborers and are guarded by Pakistani security forces. The Yemeni government has also agreed to the strikes, though some opposition has been beginning to emerge. It is unclear how many of the average citizens in these countries deplore the campaigns, since it is likely that they don’t particularly care for mass shootings and bombings by radical jihadis either. One thing is clear: the host governments silently agree for the continued use of American drone strikes in their countries, but publicly denounce them. It is not clear how sustainable this model is, since drones can certainly subject host-governments to high levels of political pressure that make compliance with US requests more costly.

That U2 the Soviets shot out of the sky in 1960 flew out of Pakistan. Does that country sound familiar when talking about drones?

Do our drone strikes “create more terrorists?” that is, do we create more terrorists than we kill? Excellent question, and to tell you the truth, I do not know. By asking this question I am also making the point that we do kill terrorists with these things, lots of them. Imagine showing up to work one morning at your company and the boss tell you that you’ve been promoted to No. 2 because old No.2 got killed by a US drone.  If you Google “al Qaeda number 2,” you’ll find this story, but it’s one of many others. In fact it looks like the average is a little over one-a-year.

But unfortunately, we cannot have a complete, enlightened debate on the drone’s actual effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) without the official numbers, which have yet to be disclosed. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has committed itself to trying to get their own numbers, and the New America Foundation’s database if also often cited. Sen. Lindsey Graham became the first public official earlier this year to have his own number, some 4,700 total deaths attributed to our Pakistan/Somalia/Yemen program. Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations put the number at closer to 3,500.  All of the projects from advocacy groups, other non-profits and think tanks that cite numbers cannot be independently verified.  Though we do know that Faisal Shahzad, the man responsible for trying to set off the car bomb in Times Square in 2011, cited America’s drone program killing civilians as a reason for his actions. Arguments of their accuracy (killing terroritsts) and their inaccuracy (killing civilians) have been butting heads. I can see where someone can be coming from though: “A man in Yemen walking back from a hard day’s work, just in time for dinner, only to find what’s left of his wife and children, maybe even some good friends too, under a pile of rubble that used to be his home. He finds out that it was “the Americans” who blew up his home because they mistook the gathering of so many people in one area “suspicious”. He was pro-American at first; he hates the terrorists that make it unsafe for him and his family to move up in the world. But now his enemy is America, because it’s personal now, they killed the people he loved.” There are too many of these narratives to dismiss all of them as untrue, but it is unclear as to how many civilians have been killed. The Obama administration insists that civilian casualties have been minimal, despite the expansion of these strikes under his tenure. When you see photographs of women and children mangled, it could have been a hellfire missile, but it could have very well been shrapnel from a terrorist’s bomb.  The kicker to all of this is that the program remains shrouded in secrecy, and that although there may be some evidence, there is not enough to accept it (or reject it).

What are the implications for the victims and the pilots?

An eye-opening study was done by students at Stanford and NYU that focused on the psychological effects of living under drones, with a focus on Pakistan. The study is certainly an eye-opener, whichever “side” of the debate you happen to be on. But it seems that not enough is asked about the UAV operators, the pilots who are operating these vehicles from cubicles thousands of miles away in the United States. Are they detached and desensitized from the task of taking someone’s life? Has it turned the “human element” of war to a video game of “joystick killing”? We had a similar debate about the sniper, and the aerial bomber before that, and all the way back to the longbow. Recent numbers show that these pilots are just as prone to mental illnesses like PTSD and Psychosis as those who get into the cockpit and fly overhead on conventional runs. High operational stress is still there.

Inside the “cockpit”.

One epidemiologist was quoted saying: “[Drone pilots] witness the carnage. Manned aircraft pilots don’t do that. They get out of there as soon as possible.”

Proliferation and the future

The technology itself, since it’s now readily available to the public, is only limited by the imaginations of those who wish to be innovative. The most recent military development was just this summer, when the X-47B drone successfully took off and landed on an aircraft carrier. In the next decade drones will have their own floating bases in the form of US Carrier Strike Groups. But Peru is using them for geological surveying, since the terrain is quite rough and human pilots don’t come cheap, especially since the terrain is not suitable for safely landing in an emergency. Even here in the U.S., drone technology is being implemented by the agriculture industry to monitor crops and spray pesticides. For kids, they’re the new racecars and kites. Maybe one day they can even serve as flying billboards in cities. These observation vehicles were around before; it just so happens that someone in the government got the idea to rig one with a hellfire missile and see what would happen. It was bound to happen at some point.

Big, small, fast or slow, if there is a need, there is a drone to help get the job done.

But a natural consequence of our drone program is that by us being the first to design and implement one (especially on the military front), other nation states can do so as well. And they are. China, Russia, Israel, Iran, India, the UK and Turkey all have their own drone programs.  Though not as sophisticated as ours, they are all making strides. In reality though, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about China, it’s that they are not particularly innovative when it comes to hardware; if anything, the recent NY Times story about the People’s Republic’s efforts to hack our networks to acquire our latest drone technology secrets tells me that we are still on top. Granted, this does not mean I am not concerned. Given the advantages of using drones, these countries may be inclined to use them in disputed territories or national airspace to test the resolve of their regional rivals.  Just this month Japan scrambled some fighter jets to address an “unidentified drone” near the Diaoyus islands which China claims is rightfully theirs, along with several others. With the already existent potential for miscalculation and escalation, we could see more conflicts with drones as the instigator.

Senator Rand Paul filibusters John Brennan’s confirmation as Director of the CIA. Made for some riveting CSPAN.

We all remember Sen. Rand Paul’s blitzkrieg of a filibuster that was covered by C-SPAN from start to finish, and perhaps for the first time in a long time, that channel was entertaining television. And once that happened it became pretty clear that the debate about America’s drone program was not going to go away. But elements of the existing debates do not consider the second-order consequences. Do drones subject governments to high levels of political pressure that make compliance with U.S. requests more costly? Do they create more insurgencies and resentment for the U.S.? What does our embrace of drones mean for their proliferation by our allies, but more importantly for our adversaries? Many of these consequences are also discounted in analyses of drones that focus exclusively on how many terrorists are killed relative to civilians. I do not see using UAVs in U.S. counterterrorism tactics going away anytime soon. But beware of the consequences because you will always reap(er) what you sow.

North Koreans appeal for direct talks with U.S.

North Korea’s back in the news again for the gazillionth time when recent dialogue between Asian powers and the United States suggested a revitilization of the 6-Party talks which fell through in 2008.

Ok, so the North Koreans are willing to hold direct talks with the United States, that’s great news! But not so fast.

In an article from the Guardian:

“North Korea’s top diplomat has said the US must unconditionally accept its offer of dialogue if it wants to ease tensions on the divided Korean peninsula, adding that hostile policies by Washington against his country make war a possibility.”

Translation:

“We need another order or potatoes.”

Obama’s Decision to Arm the Rebels: A Syria(ous) Situation

I apologize for the holdup on this one fellas, I promised on Saturday that I’d post my reflections on the recent development concerning the announcement that the U.S. will begin arming the rebels in Syria but I left my readers high-and-dry. Some things came up that prevented me from typing my big thoughts on my 5-year-old, dying laptop so just bear with me.

Ok so in case your head’s been in the sand forever like how Miss. Utah’s is from last night’s Miss. USA pageant, on Thursday the U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor, Ben Rhodes, announced that the U.S. would provide direct military assistance to the rebels, after concluding that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons on several occasions. Good idea or bad idea? Observe:

  1. Recently, in a major blow to the rebels, Assad’s forces took the city of Qusayr and are closing in on Aleppo.
  2. Hezbollah (the Lebanese militants and Iranian proxy group) has not only been helping them with Qusayr and Aleppo, but has also publicly and fully committed to the Assad regime’s survival.
  3. Iran has supported Assad not only through Hezbollah but also with their very own elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard (the same guys who gave us hell by supporting opposition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan when we were there).
  4. Russia continues to support Assad with funding, armaments and a guaranteed veto in every international conference whenever Syria comes up on the schedule.
  5. The Syrian government, by using those chemical weapons we’ve all been hearing about, has crossed that “red line” that Obama mentioned last year.  The use of chemical weapons, he said, would be a game changer that would warrant more action. 

As you can see from the points above, chemical weapons use is but one part in a five part equation. And because Obama pigeonholed himself in a corner by drawing that line in the sand about chemical weapons, and they’re used, what do you expect him to do? He can’t not do nothing; superpowers do not bluff. Oh, and no, Mr. Obama probably didn’t come to the decision because he succumbed to Bill Clinton’s pressure after he called him a wuss; for the record, if someone calls you a wuss for not doing something, and then you go ahead and do it, that just proves you are, indeed, a wuss. President Obama is no wuss.

I’ll start by saying this, though: Obama’s decision is shrewd and realist. The developments likely got Mr. Obama thinking:

  1. Peace-talks are coming up soon, and the rebels are not likely to come to the negotiating table without some sort of a confidence boost in the form of new gains and outside support.
  2. The rebels don’t have to win, they just have to make sure they don’t lose. That is guerilla strategy 101, used by groups throughout history from Latin America to Africa to those insurgents who welcomed us with open arms in our recent Middle Eastern escapades.

With that in mind, what’s the solution if you’re Obama? What if you could get Al Qaeda and Hezbollah to fight eachother in Syria? What if you could do to Iran in Syria what they did to us in Iraq and Afghanistan?: commit them to a resource-draining war with no end in sight. What if you can keep the rebellion alive to the point of bogging down Iran and their allies in their own resource-draining civil war, and all you have to do is give some Kalashnikovs and humanitarian aid  to make sure the rebels live to fight another day? I’ll take it for now.

That being said, I want to tell you all something that you probably don’t want to hear: this whole Syria thing is going to play itself out for at least another 10 years. With about 1,000 militias and roughly 6 major minority groups (All Christian groups, Jews, Druze, Kurds, Alawites, and other Shia Muslim sects), there are too many players with their own agendas and interests. A report by the New York Times states “Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of.” There are only Islamists, and less Islamist groups, some with ties to Al Qaeda, and others with the Muslim Brotherhood. The reality is that the fiercest and most seasoned fighters that have made significant rebel gains in this war are the hardliner jihadis.

And if we do end up intervening any more than just sending light weapons, supplies and moral support, it probably won’t change the reality that with Assad deposed, everyone will keep killing each other anyway. Why? Because that’s what happens in a civil war.  If we intervene, than we own Syria, just like Afghanistan and Iraq, and we will again be forced to control an uncontrollable situation. Think of this: the losers in this war and every war like it know what they have coming to them when they do lose (I’ll give you a hint, the technical term is “massacre”), so they will fight to the very end.  Think of Lebanon and their 15 year-long ‘75-’90 civil war that resulted in the ouster of the Christian-minority regime, and Iraq when we invaded in 2003 to overthrow the minority Sunni regime, only to fight them again as guerrillas all the way up until today. No fly zones have to be enforced, and enforcing those increases the risk of escalation and greater miscalculation that could turn ugly. The only thing intervening any further would do is change the reality of who is massacring whom.

There’s a saying: Things usually get worse before they gets better. Unfortunately for Syria, it looks like things will stay the same for a very long time before it gets worse than that. So good idea or bad idea then? For now, it looks like there are only bad ideas and worse ideas; in fact, it’s kind of like taking sides in Game of Thrones.  Looking forward, I see the U.S. involving itself in some good ol’ asymmetric warfare; that is, everything short of committing U.S. forces.