“I’m not the man they think I am at home” — Elton John in “Rocket Man”
On Tuesday Mr. Trump gave a speech to the United Nations General Assembly that created controversy. It seems you either hated it or loved it. Some people agree with his “America First” pronouncements and others interpret his remarks as being muddled and inconsistent. Either way, despite the fact that much of the ensuing discussion focused on his use of the term “Rocket Man” in referring to Kim Jong Un of North Korea, there is much more to learn about Mr. Trump and about deterrence. (Besides the third grade use of nicknames to belittle people, perhaps some of our insight into Mr. Trump’s real thoughts starts with the lyrics above.)
You can read the full speech for yourself but the focus here is on his remarks about The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) or North Korea. To me, it shows a lack of understanding of both international relations and the real ways in which nations influence other nations or deter them from taking actions counter to our own self-interests.
“The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime. The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary.” — Donald J. Trump at the U.N. on 19 September 2017
Mr. Trump’s supporters may give him high marks for his bravado and willingness to “tell it like it is.” Okay. But what did he really say?
Let’s put this another way. The goal of the United States and other nations is to “denuclearize” the North Koreans. As discussed previously in this blog, Kim Jong Un has no motivation to give up his nuclear weapons. He cares not what happens to his population as long as he and his ruthless regime survive. The lesson he learned from Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya is that if you give in to the West and give up your Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) your regime falls and you get executed. Not very motivational to someone like Kim.
Lesson number two comes from Mr. Trump’s speech. Whether one likes the nuclear agreement with Iran or not, we do not have the same situation developing in Iran as is developing in North Korea. Iran is not testing nuclear weapons. The criticism of the agreement has many parts, mostly along the lines of the United States not drawing enough concessions from Iran. No mention of terrorism, for example. Forgotten in the criticism is that the agreement is intended to be one aspect of a longer term engagement with Iran that does address other areas of concern to us and to them. It showed that a deal could be made with a regime that refused to have anything at all to do with the West for decades. It ensures that today we have only one “nuclear problem” to deal with and not two. I might also point out that it is a multi-lateral agreement. It is not a U.S. – Iran bilateral agreement as many in the current administration seem to address it. The agreement includes the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the European Union representing all members of that organization, and Germany. If the U.S. pulls out of the agreement, as Mr. Trump indicated yesterday that he will do, do not expect the other participants to follow suit. Additionally, any other diplomatic engagement with Iran by the U.S. will die. Iran simply will not trust that the U.S. will abide by any future agreements.
This is where we get back to North Korea. Mr. Trump demands that North Korea come to the table and negotiate a deal to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. Hmmm. Iran did that and now the U.S. calls the deal an embarrassment and threatens to abrogate the agreement. Or as Mr. Trump said of Iran and the nuclear agreement:
“The Iran Deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into. Frankly, that deal is an embarrassment to the United States, and I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it — believe me.” — Donald J. Trump at the U.N. on 19 September 2017
So, let’s see this from Kim’s viewpoint. (Who cares what he thinks, some may say? Let’s not take any grief from those guys — Korean or Iranian. We should care only about ourselves.) Those sentiments are understandable and in a way, correct. Except for one thing. We cannot get Kim (or the Iranians) to do something they don’t want to do just by bullying them.
From Kim’s point of view, those that have trusted the U.S. when it comes to getting rid of their WMD are either dead or betrayed by the U.S. Not much of an incentive to give them up.
It gets worse.
Kim will not give up his missiles or his nuclear weapons as long as he thinks they are critical to his survival. Period. I cannot stress enough that he is all about his personal survival and the continuation of his regime — like it or not. Diplomatic efforts should focus on providing a way to convince him that his regime will survive into the future with some kind of guarantees from those that share a border with him — China, Russia, and South Korea. It might work. But probably not.
It keeps getting worse.
Deterrence is based on several factors, as I’ve discussed in this space in previous posts. Deterrence cannot work if the nation (or individual) that is the focus of the effort, doesn’t know what it is that they are not supposed to do. Additionally, clear and realistic (emphasis on realistic) consequences need to be conveyed and understood by those being deterred. They cannot do something if they don’t know what that is (or out of ignorance they may do it) and the cost/benefit analysis on their end needs to be clear and of a scale that not doing something is better than doing it. One may think that dying is not a good outcome, but it may be if living with the alternative is unacceptable in their calculus, not ours. Understanding one’s opponent is critical. We know very little about what goes on in the DPRK, but what we do know seems to be ignored by the current administration, or at least the guy in charge.
In sum, there needs to be a clear understanding of the behavior desired and a credible response that is unacceptable to the recipient.
With that in mind, let’s return to Mr. Trump’s U.N. remarks where he says, “…but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies…” (meaning if the U.S. is forced to do so). “Defend” against what? He does not say. In the past, North Korea shelled South Korean islands, sank a South Korean naval vessel, killed a U.S. service man in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and other provocations dating back to the capture of the USS Pueblo (AGER-2) in 1968. Not one of these incidents generated a military response from the United States. Expect Kim to test the efficacy of our intention to “defend” ourselves. What will be our response if he again shells a South Korean outpost? I would not expect that the response will be what Mr. Trump threatens, that “…we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” It is not a credible threat. The implication that we will “totally destroy” a population of 24 million, with the additional implication by Mr. Trump that it will be with nuclear weapons (the only way to totally destroy a nation) is preposterous. Or it should be in this scenario. Kim will not see it as a credible threat. Even if he does, it only solidifies his belief that having his own deliverable nuclear capability is his only saving grace. Boasting, bullying, and all the bravado Mr. Trump can muster will not change that and it certainly will not bring Kim to the negotiating table — other than as a delaying tactic to put the finishing touches on his arsenal.
This is why a long list of presidents, Republican and Democrat, warn that the United States “will respond at a time and place of our choosing” to provocations and attacks. It leaves open a wide range of options from doing nothing all the way to “totally destroying” but with a myriad of options in between. I guess that sounds wimpy to the current administration. But leaving one’s options open is the best course.
With no clear “red line” — a term that is misused and misunderstood — that puts realistic limits on Kim’s behavior, and with no credible response for Kim to weigh in his strategic calculations, there is no deterrence and certainly no incentive for him to give up his nuclear weapons.
Mr. Trump fails deterrence 101. There are, of course, many other branches and sequels involved in deterrence theory. But if one does not understand the basics, that empty threats may only precipitate the action one is trying to deter, then there is little point in trying to get the finer points into play.
Furthermore, since the Korean Armistice of 1953, Kim’s grandfather and father created and hammered home the cult of personality so that today the DPRK is Kim and Kim is the DPRK. Every citizen from the time that they can talk is taught that the Americans are the worst people on earth and that the Americans only aim in life is to destroy the DPRK. They believe it. The Korean War is the example taught over and over, given that North Korea was heavily damaged and lost millions of people, military and civilian, in the course of the conflict. To vilify and belittle their leader only adds gasoline to the fire. Mr. Trump handed the North Korean regime a propaganda coup with his statements about Kim and that we will totally destroy their nation. Roll the videotape! It reinforces everything that the population of North Korea has heard for their entire lives.
Which is not to say that we lay down and roll over. The number one role of our national government is to protect our citizens. If Kim pushes we should shove back. We need to continue to reiterate to Kim that he cannot possibly win any military conflict with us or our allies. End of discussion on that point. What is necessary is to convey clearly what we expect of the North Korean regime. Patience and incremental successes may be the path to a common understanding. We don’t back away from conflict where our national interests are at stake, but we also do not want to precipitate a war that will inevitably lead to massive military and civilian casualties on a whim or because we want to play around with cutesy phrases. If one studies the military conflicts which we have entered since the Vietnam War, a pattern emerges. Foreign adversaries continually fail to understand the nature of our society and misinterpret internal political arguments for a lack of will on our part to act militarily. Mr. Trump may reinforce that perception when Kim tests his proclamation with a relatively minor infraction that we ignore (again) or when we do not “totally destroy” his country.
Kim is not a crazy man, even if he and Mr. Trump are trying to out crazy each other in their rhetoric. It is totally sane to have as one’s primary strategic goal the survival of oneself and one’s regime. If the United States truly wants to remove the North Korean’s nuclear capability, the U.S. will have to be more imaginative and creative in our diplomacy. China, and now Russia which has inserted itself onto the scene, are the key players. It is not a mission impossible, but it will take cool thinking and lots of patience. It remains to be seen whether this administration is capable of either, much less both.
As you probably heard, on Sunday a U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down a Syrian SU-22 Fitter ground attack bomber. This was the first air-to-air destruction of a piloted aircraft by the U.S. since 1999 and the second by a NATO aircraft in the region following the November 2015 shoot down of a Syrian SU-24 by a Turkish Air Force F-16. Both Syria and their ally Russia immediately protested the action. In addition, the Russians declared that any U.S. or coalition aircraft flying “west of the Euphrates River” while Russian or Syrian aircraft are in the area “will be considered air targets” and subject to attack. Today, a U.S. F-15 shot down an armed Iranian drone, the second one this month.
While none of the participants in the many-sided Syrian conflict desire to go to war with each other, and certainly the Russians and the U.S. do not war, the conditions are very volatile in a confined geographic area. This is a dangerous situation that is very susceptible to a mistake or miscalculation by one of the parties leading to a hot war, or at least a serious shooting incident. In short, it is a burning fuse that needs to be snuffed out before reaching the explosives. Given the conflicting goals of those involved, that may be difficult. The situation is exacerbated by the Russian withdrawal from a de-confliction protocol whereby U.S. and coalition aircraft communicate with Russian aircraft to warn and alert each other of their locations and missions. Negotiations are underway to restore that protocol. This is the second time that the Russians withdrew from it, the first coming after the U.S. Navy cruise missile strikes against a Syrian airfield last April. The relationship then was shortly restored.
The shoot downs occurred following Syrian and Iranian attacks on U.S. backed anti-Syrian forces fighting the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. Some coalition advisers were near the forces attacked from the air. Following several warnings, the U.S. says it acted in self-defense.
It is difficult to tell the players without a score card. In short, the major players in Syria are Russia, the United States, Turkey, Iran, the United Kingdom, and France. Supplying arms and money to the anti-Assad regime are Saudi Arabia and Qatar. (Remember also that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are involved in their own dispute which resulted in the isolation of Qatar from the outside world. Both are allies of the U.S. but the dispute is serious and involves Qatari relations with Iran, which is engaged in a major struggle with Saudi Arabia for dominance in the region. And, oh by the way, one of the major airfields used by the U.S. in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) is in Qatar as is the air control headquarters and the Forward Headquarters for the U.S. Central Command. It’s complicated.)
U.S. and coalition forces are mainly fighting from the air, with some U.S. Special Forces on the ground training and advising various militias fighting against ISIS and covertly supporting those aligned against the Syrian regime. Russia supports the Bashar regime and both Russia and Syria consider any group inside of Syria fighting against Bashar’s forces as “terrorists.” This includes those supported by the U.S. coalition. The Russians claim to be fighting ISIS but in actuality they are going after the “terrorists” that oppose Bashar’s regime, which was the case with the recent aircraft and drone attacks leading to the shoot downs. Turkey also opposes the Bashar regime but also opposes the Kurdish PKK (The Kurdistan Workers Party), a group fighting for a Kurdish state carved from Turkey, Syria and Iran. The PKK is considered a terrorist group in Turkey, but many of the forces that have liberated parts of Iraq and Syria from ISIS are other Kurdish forces trained by the U.S. Iran supports the Bashar regime, but also opposes ISIS. Iranian forces and militias are fighting in Syria in support of the regime and in Iraq, in conjunction with Iraqi troops, to root out ISIS. Iran also supports Lebanon’s Hezbollah which is fighting in Syria to support Bashar. In something of a proxy war, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are aiding anti-Bashar forces with money and arms, even as they have their own dispute and Qatar is friendly to Iran.
Got all that? And the country is about as big as the Middle Atlantic states — roughly Richmond to New York City and Pittsburgh to the west.
U.S. policy in Syria has been and is muddled. Since taking over in January, the Trump Administration has not articulated a clear policy or strategy towards Syria. Our focus is primarily on defeating ISIS, an effort that is slowly but steadily eliminating their caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
The lack of a clear strategy in Syria is reflected in the April cruise missile attacks. At the time, I applauded President Trump’s decision to express our dissatisfaction over the Syrian use of chemical weapons. But it was only a one time strike to “send a message” and had no real long-term ramifications or follow-up. There was no strategy behind the strikes. (One way to tell the seriousness of such a military attack is the longevity of the action and the targets chosen. If we really wanted to punish Bashar’s regime the attack would have been centered on Damascus and gone after the Interior Ministry or Ministry of Defense in order to make the decision makers pay a price. Instead we destroyed some aircraft at a remote air base. To truly take on a larger military operation — which I am not advocating — it would have been a much more serious decision that could lead to direct military conflict with Syrian forces, and conceivably Russian forces. While we are concerned with the humanitarian conditions in Syria, it is not currently our policy to resolve the Syrian conflict through combat.)
The take-away from all this is that the Middle East continues to be a tinder box that could go from a smoldering problem to a conflagration without much effort. Despite bluster and name calling, neither the U.S. or Russia want to see the situation escalate — especially against each other. But both nations need to be very careful as other players in the region could relish such a situation in order for them to meet their own priorities and interests, not the least of which is to diminish the stature of the United States in the region and in the world.
These are dangerous times that must be taken seriously. While we are focused on our own internal daily struggles and tweets, we also must keep our heads up and our eyes on the ball. The rest of the world is busy pursuing their own agenda. If we want to be part of events that shape our future, then we must pay attention and clearly state our own goals.
Much has been written, and will continue to be written, about the recently concluded agreement with Iran on behalf of the P5+1 (U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China plus Germany) (also participating was the High Representative of the European Union) concerning curtailment of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Most of the talk is whether or not it is a “good deal” or a “bad deal.” I do not think that such a simplistic approach does anyone any good and certainly does not lead to an understanding of the complexities of this pact — and it is indeed complex. (You may read the entire original text here.) Most of the agreement, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPCOA), consists of annexes of a highly technical nature. I am not a nuclear physicist so I cannot authoritatively comment on its intricacies, but many, many, many (emphasis on purpose) nuclear physicists and other arms control experts call it the most comprehensive arms control agreement ever. There is very little — no agreement is perfect — technical wiggle room.
According to the signatories, the deal increases Iran’s “break out” time (how long until they could produce a nuclear bomb) from about three months to at least one year. It also significantly reduces their stockpiles of enriched uranium (needed to make a bomb), cuts Iran’s centrifuges by two-thirds (needed to make more enriched uranium), precludes the production of plutonium (for really big bombs) and opens up existing facilities for international inspection.
The agreement also puts the restrictions and inspections in place for ten to twenty-five years and allows for re-imposing sanctions at any time for any violation. Note that the inspections in some forms are in place for twenty-five years and in other cases, since Iran is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, forever. Please note that Israel has nuclear weapons and is not a signatory nation of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, along with India, Pakistan and North Korea.
To me, as I understand them, the technical details of the JPCOA are sound. I have heard very little criticism of the actual technical aspects of the agreement. They were after all, primarily negotiated by the world’s foremost experts, including our own Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, a world recognized expert and MIT professor.
The real question to ask is this — is the JPCOA good policy? That is a more difficult question to answer. I happen to think that it is, but it needs to be taken in context. Before explaining that context, I must express my disappointment that many of our leaders in Congress had a knee jerk reaction to the agreement before they even knew the details of what was in it. Coincident with the announcement of an agreement, criticism rained down on the president. Typical of that reaction was Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) who said within minutes of the conclusion of the negotiations, “Given everything I’ve seen so far, this is a bad deal. It paves the way for a nuclear Iran.” By his own admission he had not reviewed the details of the agreement. His reaction was mild compared to some others, and all paled in comparison to those of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R-Israel) who said, “From the initial reports we can already conclude that this agreement is a historic mistake.” He made that statement before the text was released and later he admitted that he had not yet read it.
Some in Congress oppose the JPCOA only because Israel opposes it. As I’ve written before, Israel is a close ally and friend of the United States. We need to protect and support Israel. However, the United States should put its interests first, and not undermine them only because Israel is opposed. I guarantee that Israel would, and has, put its interests above those of the United States and taken actions that were in their best interests, but opposed to those of the United States. Do not oppose the JPCOA “just because” Prime Minister Netanyahu says it is a bad deal.
It is entirely conceivable that policy makers in the United States and elsewhere legitimately do not think that the JPCOA is good policy. But I sure wish they would at least read it and understand it before going public with blanket statements that it is historically bad. Many of the critics of the negotiations said that “a bad deal is worse than no deal.” What they really meant to say was that “any deal is worse than no deal.” I disagree.
The hard part is to put the JPCOA in the total context of Middle East policy. The focus for the P5+1 was eliminating the ability of Iran to produce a nuclear weapon this year. At worst, they delayed it for ten to twenty years. At best, they delayed it forever. Iran’s focus was lifting the sanctions. They got that assuming that they comply with the JPCOA. They were not negotiating the end to terrorism, national ambitions, the recognition of Israel by Iran or the host of other criticisms aimed at the negotiations because those things were not achieved. They were not on the table and arguably we would not have any agreement if they were.
Likewise no P5+1 participant is “trusting” the Iranians. There are very strict inspection regimes with very dire consequences for Iran should they be found in violation. We need to be realistic about what can and cannot be achieved at the negotiating table. And the U.S. Congress needs to recognize that these were not bi-lateral negotiations. If the rest of the world wants to lift sanctions against Iran (and both Russia and China cannot wait to enter the Iranian market), we will have little leverage to stop it.
That said, many of you have heard me say for many years that Iran is one of the baddest actors in the world. Prior to ISIS, the vast majority of terrorist acts in the Middle East and elsewhere can be directly or indirectly traced to Iran. Currently, they are working hard to establish themselves as a regional power in the Middle East with thoughts of domination in that part of the world. We need to stop them and we need to keep up the pressure on other nations to stop them. We must. That, however, is a different issue than stopping their nuclear weapons program.
The JPCAO only makes sense in the context of a comprehensive step-by-step plan in the Middle East to box in Iran and turn it back towards being a productive member of the world society. The JPCOA is, in my mind, only the first of many steps. There was no magic wand that could solve all of the problems with and about Iran in one fell swoop. Just not going to happen. However, as a first step, it is important. As we have seen with China, Russia and other previous foes of the west, slow and steady is the answer. Constant pressure needs to be applied and we must be relentless in our pursuit of national policy. However, just as we have seen with China and Russia, we will make progress on some fronts and we will have conflict on others. The United States needs to take the long view and put in place policies that bolster our friends and allies, oppose Iranian adventurism and exploitation, and enhance our national security. The JPCOA helps to do that by taking the threat of nuclear weapons out of the calculus.
When one takes a step back, it is entirely possible that the world may not know the ramifications of the JPCOA for many years. That is a tough gamble to take. However, from all that I have read, it is a gamble worth taking because it is not irreversible and it has large dividends when it succeeds.
Iran is and will remain a conundrum. We will only make head way in the area by engaging them.
Reports from the Middle East increase my trepidation on a daily basis. Events do not bode well for the future and I am not sure what, if anything, the United States should do.
A tour around the horizon of the Middle East reveals that all hell is breaking loose. In Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu, in the run up to his re-election, repudiated decades of Israeli-Palestinian policy by stating that there will never be a Palestinian state on his watch. Since the election, he has tried to walk it back a bit, but the damage is done and most pundits, analysts, and policy makers take him at his original word. What this portends for any kind of settlement, only time can tell. At best, it has delayed it. At worst, it has scuttled all hope for a settlement and caused the United States, European allies, and others to re-evaluate their unequivocal support of Israel. For the Israelis themselves it means continued occupation of Palestinian territories and a fundamental change to their nation. Either they are no longer a democracy (occupied Palestinians cannot vote) or they will no longer be a mainly Jewish state (if they annex the occupied territories the number of Palestinians and Arabs will out number the number of Jewish citizens).
In Iraq, a loose coalition of Iraqi regular military forces and Shiite militia under the direction of an Iranian Revolutionary Guards Force general (!) taking on ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — Sunnis) forces in Tikrit as a preliminary operational move to retake the key city of Mosul. After preliminary success, the approximately 30,000 Iraqi fighters suffered high casualties, became bogged down and have been stymied for weeks now by the approximately 500 ISIS fighters in Tikrit. Most experts believe this is because neither the regular forces nor the militias have any experience in urban fighting and with dealing with the resulting tactics of sniper fire, booby traps, Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and the like. The (now) most experienced forces in urban fighting? ISIS and the United States military.
The situation was further complicated when the regular Iraqi army forces called in U.S. air strikes to help their offensive. This caused the Shiite and Iranian forces to stop fighting and, indeed, several of their leaders threatened to shoot down U.S. aircraft if they flew overhead. It should be noted that several of those groups previously fought against the U.S. during the Iraq war.
Meanwhile, the U.S. (along with the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) is nearing the deadline for a deal with Iran to curtail its possible nuclear weapons program. It is unclear that a deal can be reached or that it will be satisfactory to all involved.
With this in mind, as Iranian surrogates threaten to totally over run Yemen, the Arab states under the leadership of Saudi Arabia are fighting the insurgent Houthi. The Arab leadership and the ousted government of Yemen are Sunnis. The Iranians and Houthi are Shiite. One reason thought to be behind the Arab action is the belief that the U.S. is becoming too close to the Iranians in the interest of making the nuclear deal. By the way, before the Houthi success — just months ago — Yemen was a model for success in the war on terror and especially the war against Al’ Qaeda. Currently the most active, successful and dangerous branch of Al’ Qaeda is the one in Yemen — known as AQAP or Al’ Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and they are Sunni. Both the Arab coalition and the Houthis would like to eliminate AQAP, but they are too busy fighting each other.
An Arab coalition, led by Egypt, also occasionally conducts air strikes in Libya, just in case you have forgotten that this is another nation that has disintegrated into warring factions, including one that claims to be a part of ISIS.
As has gone on for years, Iranian Shiite surrogates in Syria, Libya, and Lebanon are fighting other Sunni factions (including ISIS which seems to be opening branch offices in other countries). If you really want to get the low-down, Boko Haram in Nigeria now claims to be affiliated with ISIS. Most analysts believe that although troubling, it is mostly a propaganda move by Boko Haram to get on the terrorist band wagon of perceived success.
You can’t tell the players without a scorecard.
In brief, long-standing tension and conflict between two factions of Islam broke out into outright warfare. It is very hard to determine who are the bad guys and who are the less bad guys. Without a comprehensive Middle East strategy, it will be difficult for the United States (and its allies) to deal with all of the various factions and to support the best interests of our country in the region. One might ask what those interests may be. Besides our stated national policy begun under President George W. Bush to bring democracy to the region, we also have an obligation to allies. More to the strategic interests of the U.S., one can summarize our interests in one word — “oil.” Whether or not the U.S. is, or becomes, self-sufficient in fossil fuels, oil is a fungible commodity and integral to the economies of the developed world. Conflict resulting in the closing of the Strait of Hormuz (access to the Persian Gulf — or as U.S. military planners prefer, the Arabian Gulf) and of the Bab al Mandeb (the strait controlling access to the Red Sea and thus the Suez Canal) would drive oil prices very high, seriously inhibiting any recovery from the last recession and conceivably driving us back into a deep recession.
On top of this is the realization from our national experience that failed states lead to the ability of terrorist organizations to act without restraint in developing plots against other nations around the world including the United States.
This developing geo-strategic situation (the technical term is “mess”) creates the question of what should the U.S. do about it? Although in a previous career I was considered a Middle East expert, I have to say “I don’t know.” This is a tough one. In some respects, this escalating situation is fundamentally a conflict between Sunni Islam and Shiite Islam and the resulting governmental control and continued well-being of certain elites on both sides of the equation. To me, our getting into the middle of it would be akin to the Chinese getting involved in the Thirty Years War. As the current order in the Middle East changes, and in many cases collapses, it mirrors in some ways the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire in the 1600s and the resulting war between Protestants and Catholics for the future of Europe. The difference today of course is that the world is interconnected in a way that could not even be conceived of in the 17th century, especially economically. Also different is the ability to project power over long distances and to injure and kill civilians a long way from the battlefield. Yet, the U.S. is not going to settle a war between two factions of Islam, just as in the 17th century the Chinese would never have been able to resolve a conflict between Christians.
We must also balance our desire to reign in Iran with the realities on the ground. Which is the more important result — stopping Iranian adventurism or stopping their nuclear program? The correct answer of course is “c — all of the above” but that is far easier said than done. Is ISIS our primary threat? It appears to me that ISIS is a terrible, evil entity, but that as an organization it will not have a lasting ability to establish their “caliphate.” They will eventually self-destruct if constant pressure is applied. At the same time, air strikes alone will not defeat them and the notion that Iraqi forces in conjunction with Kurdish militia and Shiite militia can drive them out of Iraq is now in question. Air strikes may serve to contain further expansion, but to date it shows no real ability to defeat them.
And that’s in Iraq. The real stronghold for ISIS is Syria. We face yet another dilemma in dealing with that situation. To battle ISIS is to help the brutal dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. The avowed policy of the U.S. is that Bashar must go — leave power and allow a new government to form based on a negotiated settlement among the warring factions. Isn’t going to happen. Not to mention that ISIS will not negotiate any such settlement and neither will Bashar. Middle Eastern dictators know one thing in their gut and it has been re-emphasized throughout their history — govern ruthlessly or you and your family are dead. Our policy to train militant factions opposing Bashar’s government is too little too late and is called into question by the actions in Iraq where trained forces and strong militias are having a difficult time dislodging ISIS fighters. I’m not sure how similar groups will do against ISIS in Syria or against Syrian regular forces, especially since the latter have an effective air-to-ground combat ability.
To me, the last resort, and the worst option, is expanded U.S. military involvement in the region. We have fought three wars there in the last twenty-five years and another now is not in our best interests. We need to prioritize our efforts on the economic and diplomatic fronts while still holding a big stick (the military) in reserve should something go really wrong.
In my mind, our priorities should be (with some possible smudging of the order as events unfold):
- Continue pressure on Iran to get a meaningful deal on stopping their nuclear weapons program. If the deal is not sufficiently transparent, with verifiable steps, then continue and tighten sanctions until Iranian leaders realize that they cannot ease their way out of world scrutiny of their actions.
- Continue to support Iraq in its fight against ISIS. Work to isolate and pressure ISIS through continued coalition air strikes, but no combat troops beyond advisers and intelligence support.
- Pressure Israel to begin serious negotiations to settle the Palestinian issue, including through the United Nations where in the past, the U.S. vetoed every resolution thought to be against Israeli national interests. The free ride is over until meaningful steps are taken. That does not mean that we abandon our long time ally, indeed we continue with our military aid (in the billions annually) and other support. It just means that now there needs to be some reciprocal movement in the direction of a meaningful settlement of a fundamental reason for unrest in the region.
- Continue to support Saudi Arabia and its Arab coalition in the fight in Yemen through coordination and intelligence support. The U.S. should continue to conduct drone and other strikes against terrorist operatives in the country, but should not engage in overt military action.
- Continue to develop alternative sources of energy in the U.S. and develop a comprehensive, forward-looking energy policy taking into account fossil fuels as well as wind, solar and other non-fossil fuel sources of energy. It may be impossible, but such a policy should be devoid of the usual influences from lobby groups invested in their own profit motives.
This is a start and of course does not include the other areas of concern including Egypt, where one dictator replaced another; Libya which is a lawless basket case of a country; Somalia (roughly on the other side of the Bab al Mandeb) where the terrorist group Al-Shabaab is still a disruptive force in the region; Lebanon where the terrorist group Hezbollah basically controls the country and Afghanistan where a fragile government is still fighting elements of the Taliban and is not yet stabilized.
I fear that it will be a long hot summer as each of these situations is likely to get worse before they get better.
I waited twenty-four hours to comment on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint meeting of Congress concerning negotiations with Iran over nuclear weapons to see if my initial incredulous reaction changed with contemplation. It has not. I think that at best it was a text-book case of political theater and at worst a deliberate attempt to undermine United States foreign policy and to embarrass our president.
For the moment, let’s defer a discussion of whether or not there should be a deal with Iran over nuclear weapons — we’ll get to that in a moment — and instead focus on the spectacle we witnessed yesterday. I had the opportunity to watch the entire proceedings live, and hope that you did as well. If not, you will find the complete transcript of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech here.
So here is what transpired. The Speaker of the House invited the head of state of another country to address a joint meeting of Congress, without consulting with the opposition party, the president or the State Department, or even informing them of the invitation until after it was accepted. The head of state of one our closest friends accepted the invitation without informing our Ambassador or State Department that he intended to come to the United States. The Ambassador to the United States from that country, born in the United States and who worked on the 1990s Republican Congress’s Contract with America was integral to arranging the visit with the Speaker. That head of state is in a very tight political fight of his own and is up for re-election in two weeks. In past campaigns, he has used video and audio of his prior speeches in Congress as campaign ads. In his own country, a judge ruled that his speech yesterday could only be broadcast on a five-minute delay so that political references could be blocked because his own government and judiciary thought his motives to be political. And finally, in that speech, he was condescending and nearly insulting to our Congress and especially to our president.
There are very few, if any, other heads of state that could plausibly fill this scenario other than Israel. While technically not a speech to a joint session of Congress (it was a meeting) it had all the trappings of a presidential address to a joint session of Congress, complete with the spouse in the gallery and guests referred to and acknowledged by the speaker as part of the speech. In every respect, it was designed, intentionally or not, but I think intentionally, to help Benjamin Netanyahu get re-elected as Prime Minister of Israel by allowing him to look tough by taking on the President of the United States in the chamber of our own Congress.
I note that the negotiations that are underway with Iran are not bilateral U.S.-Iranian negotiations. They are multi-lateral negotiations involving the “P-5 + 1” (or the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China — plus Germany). It is curious that Prime Minister Netanyahu did not go to the U.K. to address a joint session of the Parliament or otherwise visit with or discuss with, or otherwise engage any of the other nations negotiating with Iran. He only engaged the U.S. in a political spectacle designed to enhance his stature in Israel and to embarrass the president, and he did it at the invitation of the Speaker of the House sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States. Whatever our special relationship with Israel — a relationship I support — in the end, the foreign policy of the United States must support the goals of the United States. I guarantee, and history supports, that Israel will do whatever it sees in its best interests without regard to what the United States may or may not want. Most times the interests of both nations coincide. However, when they do not, the best interests of the United States should take priority over those of any other nation.
I should also note that since 1992, Benjamin Netanyahu has been warning that Iran is only three to five years, or less depending on which assertion of his one wants to quote, away from building nuclear weapons. He’s reiterated this claim time and again including in his book Fighting Terrorism published in 1995 and in previous addresses to Congress. He may eventually be correct, but he has no special insight that is not apparent to the national leaders of many countries.
As to whether or not the negotiations underway with Iran are a good deal or, as Prime Minister Netanyahu claimed, a bad deal, we do not yet know. There is currently no deal. His speech broke no new ground and did not bring forward any points that are not well know by anyone that has even a modicum of interest in the subject. Iran is a bad actor. Nothing new there — they have been the primary source of terrorist activity in the Middle East since the early 80’s.
President Obama already stated, well before Prime Minister Netanyahu, that a bad deal was worse than no deal. President Obama also said in an interview last week that he puts the chances of a deal with Iran at less than 50%. They are not going to take just any old demand that Iran throws out. With this in mind, Prime Minister Netanyahu was merely grandstanding and added nothing to furthering the mutual U.S.-Israeli goal of stopping Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. (Conveniently forgotten is that Israel is commonly known to possess somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 nuclear weapons of its own.)
There may be no deal. The P-5 + 1 have put a deadline of 24 March for Iran to agree to a substantive settlement or they will walk away (another Netanyahu applause line that is already stated policy prior to his speech). No one is naive about the Iranians, and it should come as no surprise that they are going to try to get their own best deal. That is the nature of any nation’s national security policy. This much is fact so far. The interim deal from two years ago allowed for inspectors to visit Iranian facilities for the first time. The Iranians are not currently building any nuclear weapons. If the talks breakdown or scuttled, there is nothing to stop Iran from eventually building a nuclear weapon.
Most troubling to me were the implications near the end of his remarks. While advocating for, in essence, “no deal” with Iran, a move that may in fact lead Iran to build the weapons, he stated that Israel would be willing to act. Or in his words:
We are no longer scattered among the nations, powerless to defend ourselves. We restored our sovereignty in our ancient home. And the soldiers who defend our home have boundless courage. For the first time in 100 generations, we, the Jewish people, can defend ourselves. This is why — this is why, as a prime minister of Israel, I can promise you one more thing: Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand. But I know that Israel does not stand alone. I know that America stands with Israel.
Especially in the context of his speech and the way that he delivered these remarks in person, this sounds like a veiled threat that Israel will take military action to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons. While this is troubling in and of its self — and by all expert testimony will only be a bump in the road for Iran’s ability to build the weapons, and will in fact spur them to increased efforts to do so — it also implies that they would expect the U.S. to join them in that military effort. In essence, a foreign leader is trying to commit the U.S. to another Middle East war.
I am troubled. Troubled by the precedent set by this political spectacle. Troubled by the meddling of a foreign leader of a close and friendly nation to undermine — not influence, undermine — our foreign policy. Troubled by the blatant attempts to scuttle negotiations that are in a delicate phase. Troubled by the terms of the deal which must reign in Iran and remove their ability to build nuclear weapons. Troubled by the consequences of a failure to negotiate a settlement.
These are troubling times around the world in many, many ways. There are no easy answers, although in the rhetoric surrounding complicated issues too many are willing to give one-line sound bite solutions.
While I agree with the caution regarding Iran that Prime Minister Netanyahu outlined in his speech, and while I have no illusions that any agreement with Iran is not fraught with possible problems and that they must be held to account, I am also so very disappointed that our foreign policy is no longer bi-partisan and is used as a political weapon in the face of grave danger to our nation and to our friends and allies.
Yesterday Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address the Congress in February, which he accepted. While on the surface this may seem relatively innocuous, it would not be the first time that he addressed Congress, in reality this invitation is an “in your face” move by Speaker Boehner and a direct challenge to President Obama. While technically not required, as the Speaker pointed out he can invite anyone he pleases to speak to Congress, it is highly unusual as the Speaker gave no advanced notice to the Obama Administration. Diplomatically, historically and in keeping with protocol, not to mention good manners, the Speaker should have coordinated the invitation with the administration. It is customary that a head of state invite, or at least tacitly agree to, another head of state coming to the United States on official business. And oh yeah. According to the Constitution, the Executive Branch is responsible for foreign affairs. This does not, of course, mean that the Congress does not have a role to play in oversight of foreign affairs. Indeed they do have a role and an important one at that. The Senate is tasked with the duty to “advise and consent” to Ambassadorial appointments, treaties and other functions related to foreign affairs. The House does not have that role, but they do control the money and that is the primary way that they influence such matters.
Equally rude was the revelation that Prime Minister Netanyahu did not inform the Obama Administration about the invitation either. It could be because the Israelis did not want to get in the middle of an American political dispute. It could be because the Prime Minister is himself in the middle of a contentious re-election campaign and an appearance before the U.S. Congress can only help him in his bid. It could be because the Israelis, and Prime Minister Netanyahu in particular, could care less about any American policies, they are only interested in protecting their own interests.
Why is this a big deal? Besides the theatrics and political gamesmanship, behind Speaker Boehner’s move is the ongoing negotiation with Iran about its nuclear weapons ambitions. Many Republicans, and some Democrats, (and certainly Prime Minister Netanyahu) believe that President Obama is about to make a “bad” deal with the Iranians that will give them the ability to produce nuclear weapons on short notice. Those that oppose any deal, or at least the deal currently under negotiation, with the Iranians want to impose more and more severe sanctions now on the Iranians and keep them on until they, in essence, capitulate and remove any nuclear capability whatsoever. The current negotiations would allow the Iranians to keep peaceful nuclear reactors for generating electricity and for research, but with significant restrictions and under a severe inspection regime. There are currently sanctions in place with Iran which, coupled with the dramatic drop in the price of oil, have a significant impact on their economy and brought some in their government around to the possibility of agreeing to the constraints on their nuclear program.
To be sure, there are Iranian hard-liners in influential positions in their government that oppose any deal. The current negotiations are not a sure thing. President Obama clearly states that there is “probably less than a 50-50 chance” of the negotiations succeeding. He is willing to put more sanctions in place if the negotiations fail, but strongly opposes any further efforts now as he argues that the chance of success will fall from 50-50 to zero. It will also have an impact on negotiations with other nations as the move would be perceived as the United States (and other nations, more on that shortly) reneging on their good faith negotiations.
These are not unilateral negotiations. Negotiating partners (sometimes referred to as the P5+1) include the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China working to get Iranian concessions on their nuclear program. In a press conference during his visit to the United States last week, British Prime Minister David Cameron said that he told U.S. senators that “it is the opinion of the U.K. that further sanctions at this point won’t actually help to bring the talks to a successful conclusion.” In today’s Washington Post the foreign ministers of France, Britain, Germany and the European Union wrote an opinion piece directed at the United States Congress delineating the progress made to date in gaining International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to Iranian reactors and other progress in providing oversight, and subsequent limitations, on the Iranian ability to produce a nuclear weapon. They ask that diplomacy be continued to allow further progress and specifically make the point that:
“new sanctions at this moment might also fracture the international coalition that has made sanctions so effective so far. Rather than strengthening our negotiating position, new sanctions legislation at this point would set us back.”
Given such overwhelming international support and concern, it baffles me why members of Congress would actively work to undermine our negotiating position. Several have advocated military action to prevent Iran from developing its nuclear capabilities, a view shared not coincidentally by Prime Minister Netanyahu. President Obama did not take military action off the table, stating only that it should, rightly in my opinion, be the “last resort” when no other option remains. We are not there and probably will not be there for some time.
I do not mean to impugn the good intentions or character of members of the House and Senate that truly believe that Iran poses an imminent threat to the United States and its allies. However, I do not believe that all of those that advocate increased sanctions on Iran do so out of that belief. I think that Speaker Boehner’s move to invite Prime Minister Netanyahu, who will undoubtedly advocate for increased sanctions, if not military action, against Iran is motivated by domestic politics to embarrass the president and to imply that the president is not concerned about the well-being of Israel.
Speaker Boehner is playing with fire. Perhaps he is trying to create a self-fulfilling prophecy by pushing harsh sanctions on Iran, causing them to withdraw from the negotiations, and thus providing the opportunity to spout an “I told you so” about the president being naive, weak, a poor leader or all of the above. The usual talking points.
Again, the best analysis is that there is a 50-50 chance that the negotiations will succeed. The best analysis, including from our closest allies, is that harsher sanctions will doom the process and sink that chance of success to zero. The process has only a few more months to play itself out. Why must the Congress act now? Harsher sanctions may indeed be in order if the Iranians withdraw, or dissemble, or otherwise bargain in bad faith. But we are not there yet. This is a serious issue and there are serious arguments that can, and are, made on each side of it. In the end, our national security is only our business and no one else’s, we need to do what is right for our own national interests. Got it. Let the debate begin. But this spiteful move is not what one would expect from the Speaker of the House.
So why would he do this? To use a domestic political ploy to embarrass a sitting president of another party by playing with serious international problems. Speaker Boehner, you’ve made your point. You won’t be ignored. Now let’s get serious.