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The most worrisome aspect of NATO’s collaboration with Qaddafi

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Over the weekend news broke that Libya’s former intelligence services had links to the CIA and MI6. This news shouldn’t shock anyone who acknowledges that after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Libya agreed – through a process that included back-channel negotiations – to relinquish its nuclear weapons program. Reportedly, however, the relationship expanded after 2003, to include cooperation on counter-terrorism efforts.  In this arrangement, Libya shared information on terrorist groups and took-in rendered suspected terrorists. Again, news that shouldn’t shock anyone.

However, criticism against the U.S. and NATO now centers on two things: 1) How immoral it was to collaborate with Qaddafi. And 2) How that collaboration may affect our role in the future government of Libya.

To the first point. Saying it was reprehensible to work with Qaddafi presumes that other options were more preferable. In reality, had the U.S. forgone collaboration it would have lost a strategic asset in Northern Africa and been worse off. Essentially, intelligence played the hand it was dealt.

To the second point. Rebel forces, unless oblivious, most likely had already suspected U.S. and NATO involvement with Qaddafi before the discovery of these documents. At worst, this could deepen suspicion of Western influence, but that does not deny they will still need Western support to survive. Lastly, it would have been significantly more difficult for Western intelligence to grapple with the rebellion in Libya, had it not already established a foothold in the country through Qaddafi.  The reality did not present a choice between good and bad, but instead a chance to choose the less worse of two options.

Perhaps the most worrisome part of this story has been covered in the Christian Science Monitor. By relinquishing his nuclear weapons program, Qaddafi lost his most important security umbrella. This made it easy for NATO to turn on him and aid the rebels. Essentially, this has signaled to countries like Iran and North Korea that by giving up their nuclear weapons program they face greater risk of Western backed rebellion.

Written by gringolost

September 4, 2011 at 12:07 pm

America’s lame-duck war

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I had set out yesterday to write a post about the General McChrystal fallout but at-once decided against it. Mainly because I felt there was nothing I could say that other news agencies weren’t already saying. But also because it was a frustrating ordeal. I put a lot of faith in the U.S. government to make reasoned decisions. This may be a little naive but I like to think the country’s leadership are professional civil servants.

That’s why the Rolling Stone article and the debacle that followed was so disheartening. For one, I have already voice my opinions about President Obama’s reluctance to make hard choices about the Afghan war. Last November at the conclusion of his strategy review, President Obama opted for a middle-of-the-road approach, which was neither a small-scale counter-terrorism mission or a large-scale counter-insurgency operation. This was regarded by most as a bad approach that would only postpone the inevitable while putting U.S. service men and women at risk. I felt it was the most irresponsible decision of his presidency.

Now comes the recent McChrystal news. Sadly, this is just another in a long line of poor decisions and irresponsible behavior by the civil servants in charge of this war.

To illustrate, through this blog’s series on the 8 best generals of the industrial warfare era (see parts I, II, III, and IV), we have begun to identify some running themes which contribute to successful war effort. 1) is the knowledge of key intelligence and the ability to understand the context and circumstances in which you fight – to take the “big picture” view; 2) the ability to mobilize the nation’s resources for the war front. And 3) a strong relationship and shared vision between the political leadership and military leadership.

But none of these exist in America’s Afghan campaign.

Two posts on an overloaded national security strategy and China’s angering behavior

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In back-to-back posts, Professor Dan Drezner talks about strategy. In the first case, Drezner talks about President Obama’s National Security Strategy, which last month was released and meant to detail everything that the president thought was a national security risk and, consequently, the actions his administration could take to reduce those risks.

Drezner’s assessment of the document is that it is “mostly harmless,” if maybe a bit contradictory on nuclear policy with a stated aim at retrenchment (which requires a strong deterrent) and nuclear disarmament (which nuclear weapons provide the best/cheapest deterrent). Drezner also points out the deficiencies in President Obama’s plan to get America’s fiscal house in order, saying that it is short on actions that could improve American economic strength.

These criticisms aside, the National Security Strategy has some other major flaws. Principally, it includes too much. There are sections covering the economy, environment, “international science partnerships”, and promoting democracy abroad. These things are well and good, but their placement on a national security document waters down its purpose: to identify security threats and formulate plans to address those threats.

In his second post, Drezner writes about how China’s behavior over the past nine months – angering officials at international conferences and not placating to the interests of others – is stupidly endangering their own strategic interests. In a way, I agree with Professor Drezner in that strategic communications are important and China needs to do them better. But, in the end, does how you talk to another country matter if you hold the hard sources of power?

Drezner states:

China’s strategy here is of a piece with their behavior over the past nine months or so, which, intentionally or not, could be characterized as “Pissing Off as Many Countries As Possible.”

[...]

This is a long and distinguished list of countries to alienate [Drezner identified numerous].  It certainly signals a shift, intended or not, from the “peaceful rising” approach of the past decade or so.  It also appears to be bad strategy — simultaneously angering the countries that could form a balancing coalition is not an exercise in smart power.  And as I’ve said before, China has badly overestimated how it can translate its financial capabilities into foreign policy leverage.

Here I disagree. Only on the grounds that China’s actions simply exist in the realm of international opinion. What they are doing does not alter global hard power dynamics. The soft power aspect is important but not as much as Drezner implies.

China is making poor strategic communications. Arguably this is a bad move but large powers often say things that anger other countries. While maybe an idealist would want a friendlier dialog, a realist would know that it doesn’t matter so much.

Smoke and minerals: Afghanistan’s “new” riches don’t matter

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You would think $1 trillion worth of minerals would not go unnoticed for so long. But apparently, the Pentagon believes it just “discovered” a vast wealth of minerals in Afghanistan which could be the treasure chest needed to fund the Afghan treasury (something the U.S. currently does). Sounding more like a marketing agency, the Pentagon revealed in an internal memo that the minerals offered so much potential that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of Lithium.”

Altogether this hoopla is reminiscent to Paul Wolfowitz’s proclamations at the beginning of the Iraq War that oil revenues would cover the costs of occupation and fund the transitional government.  But really, everybody knows that it would take years, if not decades, to develop Afghanistan’s mines. And even by then, the likely beneficiaries of those mines will be Afghan power-brokers (not the people) and unscrupulous investors (such as in the Chinese-Aynak copper deal).

For further reading: This subject was broached in “Who competes over failed states?

Written by gringolost

June 15, 2010 at 11:03 am

Was Israel’s flotilla raid illegal or legal?

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Not that legality really matters in this case because Israel’s actions have caused a PR disaster. But was Israel’s raid on the aid flotilla from Turkey legal or illegal according to international law?**

I would say yes and no, depending on where you stand:

If you support Israel. Then you believe that Gaza is a “disputed” territory without its own sovereignty. Consequently, you believe that the blockade on commerce coming into that tiny strip of land is perfectly legit (because it occurred off the shores of Israeli waters). As a supporter of Israel, you can understand their efforts to board the ship. Since it was okay to board the ship, you believe that none of the ship’s crewmen should have attacked the fast-roping commandos. Once the crewmen attacked the Israeli soldiers with lead pipes, rods and other weapons, you feel that it was well within the confines of Israel’s right to defense to repel the attackers with terminal force.

Now comes the question of “proportionate and disproportionate response in the use of force.” Was the killing of 10 flotilla aid workers proportionate or disproportionate? I think no matter where you stand, the argument that force was proportionate is hard to justify. Nevertheless, international law is murky in this area and since you support Israel, you can say that the force employed was proportionate and nobody can really prove you wrong.

If you support Gaza. Then you believe that Israel is “occupying” Gaza, and Israel is in violation of international law because it is denying Gaza’s sovereign right to trade and aid. Furthermore, the blockade is an act of war, casus belli, because Israel attacked a foreign flagged ship from Turkey. Under the Law of the Sea (more or less), any ship harboring in international waters that is forcefully boarded by a foreign entity is having its sovereignty violated.

Regarding the question of (dis)proportionate use of force. You feel that Israeli commandos acted aggressively against aid workers who were trying to defend themselves. To you, Israel’s use of force was disproportionate and reprehensible. But of course, when an unjust amount of force is used by a government there is no international law that can actually punish that government. Instead, you can only use this episode to demonstrate how Israel acts as an oppressive aggressor, inclined to use violence when it sees fit.

Now that’s my take, for some more good commentary check out these 3 articles:

**I’m no international lawyer by any means. But I do have a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy so maybe I can speak on this subject, at least somewhat. Still, please correct me where I’m wrong and fact check to make sure I’m not completely off the map.

America’s disappearing strategy

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Strategy is like magic. Both the magician and strategist use art and science to wow their audience by seemingly pulling off the implausible. It’s not the rabbit emerging from the hat that is magic, it’s the process making it happen that is magic. The same goes for strategy. So when President Obama makes “Disrupting, Dismantling, and Defeating Al-Qa’ida and its Violent Extremist Affiliates in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Around the World” a key component of this year’s National Security Strategy (NSS), he is missing the point. That is a goal, not a strategy.

Of course, it is intriguing that the U.S. would even feign interest in publishing its national security strategy for the entire world to see but that’s not the point. The point is no matter which document you read, whether the Quadrennial Defense Review, this year’s NSS, the NSPD (for G.W. Bush) or PPD (for Obama), there is hardly any coherent plan in any of these so-called “grand strategy” documents. All these documents get strategy wrong. They fail to recognize how strategy is more than just stating a goal; it is establishing preferences, prioritizing interests, and employing the available means in a coherent plan to achieve those interests.

Going back to the previous example, the NSS aims to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qa’ida … through a comprehensive strategy that denies them safe haven, strengthens front-line partners, secures our homeland, pursues justice through durable legal approaches, and counters a bankrupt agenda of extremism and murder with an agenda of hope and opportunity.” These statements are hyperbole more than strategy. The U.S. should strengthen partners and secure the homeland anyway, regardless of any al Qa’ida threat.

A better strategy against al Qa’ida would recognize that the organization has morphed into an ideological program that can be adopted by self-starters who want to carry out homegrown terrorism. America’s strategy has to distinguish between what it wants to do and what it can do against these types of organizations. Fighting a global amorphous threat requires infinite reach and infinite resources. Without these, the U.S. must prioritize and seek defenses where it knows it can protect. Extending itself in distant theaters only exposes America to greater security risk.

In addition to violent extremism, there are two other areas where the NSS falls woefully short: Iran and North Korea. Admittedly, these challenges are hard. But if the U.S. wants Iran to “live up to its international responsibilities” it must recognize that Iran has different perceptions of these responsibilities. As well, the U.S. must recognize that Iran has sufficient leverage over American policy in the region that it can avoid certain amounts of coercion. The U.S. should make a sober assessment of itself to see exactly what it can coerce Iran to do. Trying to alter Iran’s behavior beyond America’s capability to do so is really just wasting time. The same goes for North Korea and the developing problems on that peninsula. The U.S. is severely handicapped in what it can make North Korea do. The U.S. must reassess its position in that region as well.

Lastly, the national security strategy should include only those things which are absolutely imperative. Needlessly adding peripheral interests complicates planning. Thus, while interests such as countering nuclear proliferation, combating terrorism, and securing cyberspace are all a must. It is less true that growing America’s space capabilities, opening foreign markets to trade, or cutting carbon emissions are essential to national security. To be sure, these are all valuable goals but they do nothing but add complexity to the already difficult task. Likening it to magic, the objective of strategy is to draw in the audience with one hand while the other performs the important functions which make the trick work. By overloading America’s national security strategy it can ruin the trick.

Memo: US response to Iran’s nuclear program

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It’s the end of the semester here at The Fletcher School. With that comes finals. One of my finals was a policy options memo on how the U.S. could respond to the current Iranian nuclear issue. The memo is about 1,500 words, but I just wanted to share about 600 words that cover, what I think, are the 3 courses of action available to U.S. policy-makers. Here goes:

The Obama administration has essentially three viable courses of action in which to proceed: engagement, containment & deterrence, and rollback. These three options cannot be pursued simultaneously but exist along a continuum. These options can be augmented by supplementary inducements, both political and economic.

  • Engagement has been “Plan A” for this administration. Whether in a multilateral framework or bilateral talks, negotiations with Iran have been shrouded with threats of punitive economic action. To compel Iran to put its nuclear program on the negotiating table will likely require harsher sanctions on the regime. However, it will be tremendously difficult to gain international support for what essentially would be a near-boycott of Iran.
    • The downside to engaging Iran with the threat of economic sanctions is the policy’s risk of hardening disapproval against the U.S. in the region. Further, the success of this policy is inextricably linked to our ability to gain an international coalition to impose such sanctions.
  • Connected to engagement is the “Plan B” option of what the U.S. could do to oppose an Iran with nuclear weapons. Here, U.S. policy would be one of containment and deterrence against the regime. This option becomes enacted whence the failure of engagement. To maximize the utility of containment and deterrence, the U.S. will need to form multinational strategic partnerships and explicitly convey these partnerships to Iran.
    • Necessarily, the U.S. would have to extend its nuclear umbrella to allies, deterring Iran based on our second-strike capabilities. As with engagement, containment will require increased international cooperation to isolate Iran.
  • The rollback option will emphasize less engagement, although engagement can be a tool to gauge Iranian intentions. Rollback will begin with increasingly stringent sanctions; then it will be followed by preventative strikes against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. The rollback policy will require significant calibration to signal our resolve against Iran. Necessarily, regime change will be seen as an escalation of this policy. By gradually escalating the use of force, the U.S. could dissuade Iran sufficiently to cease its nuclear activities.
    • The risks posed by this option are great. The American image abroad will suffer should another attempt at regime change occur. Additionally, there is the risk that escalation could draw the U.S. into a larger war with Iran. Further, it will be difficult to predict the behavior of an Iran that has been directly attacked by the U.S.
  • Supplementary inducements include the repeal of current sanctions against Iran. Additionally, political concessions to Iran will have to be made. The U.S. will most likely have to back Iran’s ascent to greater regional leadership.
    • As an supplement, inducements are most likely to succeed with the rollback option. However, this combination still holds the most risks to American interests. Inducements coupled with engagement could produce positive results, but the “Plan B” containment and deterrence option must remain as a safety mechanism.

Recommendation: Engagement coupled with political and economic inducements should be this administration’s priority. However, this policy should be prefaced with explicit statements that any and all available means will be employed to contain and deter Iran if engagement does not work. Although this strategy may strengthen Ahmadinejad’s hold on power, it offers the best chance of de-nuclearizing the country without having to resort to force.

Obama’s message of internet freedom in China, censored by China

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Speaking in front of a town hall meeting in Shanghai yesterday, President Obama called for more internet freedom in China and took on the issue of the country’s “great firewall” blocking internet traffic.  While many event attendees seemed to be members of the China Communist Youth League, one lone Twitterer was able to slip in a question about China’s ongoing internet censorship.  In response to the question, President Obama said:

I’ve always been a strong supporter of open Internet use. I’m a big supporter of non-censorship. This is part of the tradition of the United States that I discussed before, and I recognize that different countries have different traditions. I can tell you that in the United States, the fact that we have free Internet — or unrestricted Internet access is a source of strength, and I think should be encouraged.

Reports were that this Q & A was not aired by China’s state owned new agency, Xinhua.  Additionally, Obama’s statements on internet freedom and open communications were being glossed over by more trivial inquiries into his Facebook account.

In my opinion, President Obama should maintain his calls for open communication to “draw the world together,” as he said.  Maybe even 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Obama can echo ex-President Reagan and say: Mr. Jintao, tear down this firewall!

Written by gringolost

November 17, 2009 at 3:13 am

A Strategy To Die For?

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75 U.S. military personnel died in Afghanistan last month during Operation Enduring Freedom.  More than 900 have lost their lives since that war began over 8 years ago.  Of the dead, almost 350 occurred in the last 6 months.  A potential decision by President Obama to increase troop levels will result in yet more unnecessary American, NATO, and Afghan civilian deaths.

Increasing America’s troop presence in Afghanistan will be the most irresponsible decision Obama has made as president. It is time to re-focus our mission there and re-direct attention to where it belongs, the homeland.  Already top military leaders – to include General Petraeus and General McChrystal – have said that al Qaeda cannot stage attacks against the U.S. from Afghanistan.  Maintaining this level of security only requires an operational capacity to do counter-terrorism in Afghanistan.  Supplying a counter-terrorism mission will require far fewer resources in terms of both troops and dollars spent.

For relatively cheap, the U.S. can conduct drone attacks, special operations, and train Afghanistan’s own security forces.  Each of these has been done since the war’s beginning.  In 2002 and 2003, these missions were done with less than 20,000 troops in theater – at a cost of less than $20 billion a year.  Roughly Operation Enduring Freedom costs American taxpayers $1 billion a year to sustain each 1,000th American military service member in Afghanistan.  Obama’s plan to add an additional troops will likely push the costs of Operation Enduring Freedom over $100 billion a year.

How long can the U.S. spend so much?  Most estimates are that “victory” is still years ahead.  Yet, it has already been 8 years of “nation-building” and, at best, we can say the Karzai-led government is a weak and corrupt ally.  To paraphrase the old proverb: with allies like these, who needs enemies? Obama must re-think his definitions of success, unless the U.S. is to get bogged down in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future.

Al Qaeda has not re-established Afghanistan as a stronghold since October 2001. That was some sort of victory; maybe it’s the only sort of “victory” needed. Operation Enduring Freedom needs to be concentrated, not expanded.

Instead of trying to build a government in Afghanistan, Obama should focus on what’s a priority to every American. Namely, America.

The Department of Homeland Security’s 2010 budget tops in at just around $50 billion. That’s half of what we’re likely to spend in Afghanistan.  Tax revenues for Afghanistan’s own government barely surpass $700 million a year; still Washington chooses to devote American debt to a cause that has no clear end-point. With a record budget deficit of nearly $1.6 trillion, Afghanistan does not deserve the resources.

The argument that a troop increase in Afghanistan will help us meet some sort of strategic victory is tenuous when placed against what we are defending ourselves from.  A large troop presence in Afghanistan destabilizes Pakistan by pushing militants into the tribal areas and providing ample propaganda for Muslim separatists.  Aside from the Taliban and al Qaeda, a destabilized Pakistan is the last thing anyone in the world wants.

Meanwhile, trying to garrison Afghanistan when we cannot do the same to Pakistan, the Horn of Africa, or Yemen will be fruitless against a terrorist enemy not bound by territory. An honest assessment would show that protecting the homeland should start at home, and not 8,000 miles away. Knowing this, it is time to re-direct many of our finite resources back to the U.S.

The Obama administration should strengthen efforts to protect against cyber-warfare and espionage. Resources should be devoted to border enforcement and towards forming a better immigration process that increases the U.S. government’s ability to keep track of who exactly is inside the country. The Coast Guard should be enlarged.  And lastly, all efforts to increase security at airports, seaports, and other points of entry must be taken.  If we cannot afford any of these measures, then partial blame must go to an obtuse Afghan war strategy with no end in sight.

Secretary Clinton’s visit to Pakistan tainted with bad blood

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Fatima Bhutto at The Daily Beast blogs about Secretary Clinton’s visit to Pakistan today, amidst a disastrous explosion in Peshawar that killed over 90 and injured more than 200.

In the post, Bhutto blusters over the controversial Kerry-Lugar aid package and Clinton’s cordial relationship with President Zardari.

Bhutto’s most choice quote:

Clinton promised today to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with Pakistan. Hillary, I think we’re standing close enough as it is.

Benefactor beware, the U.S. must be growing cognizant of Pakistan’s growing rancor.  In all likelihood, inter-state collaboration between the U.S. and Pakistan may have passed its peak.

Written by gringolost

October 28, 2009 at 2:52 pm

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