Commentary Magazine


Topic: national security

Pakistan Gloats About U.S. Defeat

During my last visit to Pakistan, I had the opportunity to sit down with Asad Durrani, the former chief of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the shadowy military intelligence unit that helped hide Osama bin Laden and sponsored the Taliban. While Durrani’s regular columns in the Pakistani press are full of vitriol, he was a very polite man, and we enjoyed tea and civil but contentious conversation in the Islamabad Club.

While Durrani is more refined than his predecessor Hamid Gul, he nonetheless reflects the dominant strain within Pakistani strategic thinking. Hence, his recent article in Pakistan’s Express Tribune should raise alarm bells and end any belief in the White House and President Obama’s amen chorus that his drawdown of forces will be seen as anything but complete and utter defeat. As Durrani writes, “The presence of the world’s mightiest alliance in Afghanistan gave us another chance as well: to gang up with the tribesmen, once again, and defeat yet another superpower. That is the chance we did not miss.”

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During my last visit to Pakistan, I had the opportunity to sit down with Asad Durrani, the former chief of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the shadowy military intelligence unit that helped hide Osama bin Laden and sponsored the Taliban. While Durrani’s regular columns in the Pakistani press are full of vitriol, he was a very polite man, and we enjoyed tea and civil but contentious conversation in the Islamabad Club.

While Durrani is more refined than his predecessor Hamid Gul, he nonetheless reflects the dominant strain within Pakistani strategic thinking. Hence, his recent article in Pakistan’s Express Tribune should raise alarm bells and end any belief in the White House and President Obama’s amen chorus that his drawdown of forces will be seen as anything but complete and utter defeat. As Durrani writes, “The presence of the world’s mightiest alliance in Afghanistan gave us another chance as well: to gang up with the tribesmen, once again, and defeat yet another superpower. That is the chance we did not miss.”

There is an inverse relationship between pretensions of sophistication and the clarity of goals. Decades ago, the concept of victory was simple: To defeat the enemy. But today, diplomats  and Democrats convince themselves that rhetoric can substitute for victory, even with fundamental goals left unmet and the enemy unchastened. Alas, national security will never be built on rhetoric alone.

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Obama Ignoring CENTCOM on Iran

When history judges President Obama for the schizophrenic debacle that America’s AfPak strategy has become – and it will – his inability to integrate the advice of military leaders will figure prominently:

The president ordered his advisers to start making plans for a U.S. exit. “This time there would be no announced national security meetings, no debates with the generals. Even Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton were left out until the final six weeks.”… the planning process would be left to those who agreed with the president. Dissenters were not invited. It’s hardly the picture of a harmonious policy process or a “tough-guy” leader in sync with the military that the White House was eager to sell….

Max’s post from earlier this week outlines how Obama put his “own political calculations front and center in making national security policy,” from ignoring his generals on the Afghan surge to shutting them out totally from withdrawal planning. The president, having pushed Afghanistan as “the good war” during the election to deflect from his Iraq defeatism, had to at least make a token gesture at trying to stabilize the country. That political necessity clashed with his genuine desire to withdraw, and the combination resulted in the worst possible policy: more American troops in harm’s way, but not enough to win.

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When history judges President Obama for the schizophrenic debacle that America’s AfPak strategy has become – and it will – his inability to integrate the advice of military leaders will figure prominently:

The president ordered his advisers to start making plans for a U.S. exit. “This time there would be no announced national security meetings, no debates with the generals. Even Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton were left out until the final six weeks.”… the planning process would be left to those who agreed with the president. Dissenters were not invited. It’s hardly the picture of a harmonious policy process or a “tough-guy” leader in sync with the military that the White House was eager to sell….

Max’s post from earlier this week outlines how Obama put his “own political calculations front and center in making national security policy,” from ignoring his generals on the Afghan surge to shutting them out totally from withdrawal planning. The president, having pushed Afghanistan as “the good war” during the election to deflect from his Iraq defeatism, had to at least make a token gesture at trying to stabilize the country. That political necessity clashed with his genuine desire to withdraw, and the combination resulted in the worst possible policy: more American troops in harm’s way, but not enough to win.

The same fundamental clash, where the president’s electoral considerations are in tension with his underlying instincts and the result is an incoherent policy, are playing out on Iran. Again, one is tempted to suspect symptomatically, the advice and judgments of military commanders in the field are getting ignored.

Monday the Daily Beast’s Eli Lake exposed strong disagreements between Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, and various figures in the administration. Last January Mattis wanted to respond to Iranian naval provocations by moving a third aircraft-carrier group to the Persian Gulf. He was rebuffed. The incident seems to be a microcosm of broader differences between Mattis and the Obama White House on Iran:

The carrier-group rebuff in January was one of several for the commander responsible for East Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Working for the Obama administration, Mattis has often found himself the odd man out—particularly when it comes to Iran… Those who have worked with Mattis say his views when it comes to Iran are more in line with those of America’s allies in the Persian Gulf and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than with his own government’s…

The official U.S. national-intelligence estimate on Iran concludes that the country suspended its nuclear weapons work in 2003, but sources close to the general say he believes that Iran has restarted its weapons work and has urged his analysts to disregard the official estimate. While Mattis has largely voiced his dissent about recent U.S. Iran assessments in private, on occasion his displeasure has spilled into the public record.

That bit about developing nuclear weapons undermines the administration’s coordinated media campaign and leakfest on Iran, which is designed to preemptively scapegoat Israel for overreacting and getting Americans killed. It appears to be one of many places where the generals in the field disagree with the president. Given the ineptitude with which this White House has handled Iraq and Afghanistan, the dynamic is far from encouraging.

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What Will America’s Oil Boom Bring?

Every now and then, the Iranian regime threatens to close the Strait of Hormuz or some al-Qaeda activist comes close to bombing a major oil facility, and pundits spring up and point out the cost of American reliance on foreign oil, only to be forgotten when the news cycle moves on. The fact that American politicians focus so little on energy security is nothing short of policy malpractice. The Chinese have made energy security their primary strategic ambition and have reaped the benefits. The issue for the United States is not simply jobs—although creating productive, private sector jobs should be the goal of any government—but rather national and economic security.

Enter “Securing America’s Future Energy” (SAFE). Co-chaired by General P.X. Kelley, the former commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, and Frederick Smith, chairman, president, and CEO of FedEx, the organization has assembled a marquee list of top military brass and CEOs, who together make the case that energy security is not only an economic issue, but a national security matter as well. Together, the business and military experts discuss energy issues with greater fluency and depth than politicians of both parties. This is reflected in SAFE’s new report, “The New American Oil Boom,” released yesterday. Because of government regulation, the oil boom may not be as pronounced as it might be but, even so, the United States last year became a net exporter of refined petroleum products for the first time since 1949.

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Every now and then, the Iranian regime threatens to close the Strait of Hormuz or some al-Qaeda activist comes close to bombing a major oil facility, and pundits spring up and point out the cost of American reliance on foreign oil, only to be forgotten when the news cycle moves on. The fact that American politicians focus so little on energy security is nothing short of policy malpractice. The Chinese have made energy security their primary strategic ambition and have reaped the benefits. The issue for the United States is not simply jobs—although creating productive, private sector jobs should be the goal of any government—but rather national and economic security.

Enter “Securing America’s Future Energy” (SAFE). Co-chaired by General P.X. Kelley, the former commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, and Frederick Smith, chairman, president, and CEO of FedEx, the organization has assembled a marquee list of top military brass and CEOs, who together make the case that energy security is not only an economic issue, but a national security matter as well. Together, the business and military experts discuss energy issues with greater fluency and depth than politicians of both parties. This is reflected in SAFE’s new report, “The New American Oil Boom,” released yesterday. Because of government regulation, the oil boom may not be as pronounced as it might be but, even so, the United States last year became a net exporter of refined petroleum products for the first time since 1949.

Petroleum fuels account for 37 percent of U.S. primary energy demand, and during the past five years, U.S. households and businesses have spent a total of $755 billion annually, a major drain on disposable income. Transportation is especially hostage to oil. Liquid fuels provide 97 percent of the energy needed to move cars, trucks, seaborne ships, and aircraft. When the White House pursues policies that limit domestic fuel production, they cripple the economy and empower foreign exporters. Ethanol is no solution. Not only does it drive up the cost of food, but because ethanol-based fuels are priced on the same scale as petroleum fuels, they do not lower the price.

The report, however, is clear-eyed about what the current American oil boom will mean and, as important, what it will not:

As U.S. levels of oil imports continue to fall, the trade deficit will improve, and the transfer of U.S. wealth abroad will decrease. This will help strengthen the dollar and increase investment in the domestic economy… But it is important to be clear-eyed about the effect the boom in oil production will have on American energy security. Rising domestic production will not shield consumers from oil price volatility, and it will not lower gasoline prices over the long term. It will also not allow the United States to abdicate its role in the Middle East.

SAFE is correct that “America’s dependence on oil represents one of the most dangerous and pressing national security threats facing the country today.” Their conclusion that “as long as the United States remains dependent on oil as the primary fuel in our transformation sector, the nation will remain vulnerable to the effects of oil price volatility and debilitating price shocks” will be more controversial. Any strategy, however, that strengthens the economy and marginalizes Saudi and Iranian influence is a noble one to pursue.

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