Commentary Magazine


Topic: NATO

How Rational Is Putin’s Threat Perception?

During the Ukrainian election of 2004, Angus Roxburgh sat down with Sergei Markov, who was helping the pro-Putin candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, at the behest of the Kremlin. Roxburgh, who describes the encounter in his book on Vladimir Putin, asked Markov what he thought of the opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko. He could hardly believe the answer. Markov told him that he believed Yushchenko was completely controlled by his wife, who was a radical Ukrainian nationalist in league with Nazis and with Polish instigators who, through his wife, were installing Yushchenko in order to most likely start a war with Russia.

This is, to put it mildly, not the most rational assessment. Roxburgh continues: “These are quite astonishing claims, but they are important, for it is highly likely that Markov’s apocalyptic view was shared by his masters in the Kremlin.” That is, Vladimir Putin probably believed this nonsense. Putin is nothing if not paranoid–that chapter of Roxburgh’s book is called “Enemies Everywhere”–and his policies are often based on these kinds of ludicrous conspiracy theories. It’s worth recalling at this point that Yushchenko was poisoned during the election.

This is a recurring problem for the West in trying to predict Putin’s behavior. I noted yesterday that the idea that NATO expansion can or should be blamed for Putin’s behavior is not only amoral–those nations should have a say in their own affairs independent of the Kremlin–but nonsensical. And yet, after Russia invaded Ukraine in order to seize the Crimean peninsula and destabilize Ukrainian politics, we heard this canard again from various quarters. Today’s New York Times contains an important response to that claim in what is one of the best articles on the Ukraine crisis yet. The Times writes about European self-delusion toward both Russia and Ukraine, and adds with regard to the expansion of the European Union:

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During the Ukrainian election of 2004, Angus Roxburgh sat down with Sergei Markov, who was helping the pro-Putin candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, at the behest of the Kremlin. Roxburgh, who describes the encounter in his book on Vladimir Putin, asked Markov what he thought of the opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko. He could hardly believe the answer. Markov told him that he believed Yushchenko was completely controlled by his wife, who was a radical Ukrainian nationalist in league with Nazis and with Polish instigators who, through his wife, were installing Yushchenko in order to most likely start a war with Russia.

This is, to put it mildly, not the most rational assessment. Roxburgh continues: “These are quite astonishing claims, but they are important, for it is highly likely that Markov’s apocalyptic view was shared by his masters in the Kremlin.” That is, Vladimir Putin probably believed this nonsense. Putin is nothing if not paranoid–that chapter of Roxburgh’s book is called “Enemies Everywhere”–and his policies are often based on these kinds of ludicrous conspiracy theories. It’s worth recalling at this point that Yushchenko was poisoned during the election.

This is a recurring problem for the West in trying to predict Putin’s behavior. I noted yesterday that the idea that NATO expansion can or should be blamed for Putin’s behavior is not only amoral–those nations should have a say in their own affairs independent of the Kremlin–but nonsensical. And yet, after Russia invaded Ukraine in order to seize the Crimean peninsula and destabilize Ukrainian politics, we heard this canard again from various quarters. Today’s New York Times contains an important response to that claim in what is one of the best articles on the Ukraine crisis yet. The Times writes about European self-delusion toward both Russia and Ukraine, and adds with regard to the expansion of the European Union:

“But once a country signs up, it is in Weight Watchers and, if they follow the regimen, they change,” she said. “Russia realized this and did not like it.” Indeed, she added, Russia had already been deeply alarmed by the transformation of countries like Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania after they entered the European Union in 2004.

Their joining the European Union was followed swiftly by their admission to NATO, a sequence that strengthened Moscow’s view that Brussels served as a stalking horse for the American-led military alliance.

In the case of Ukraine, Europe never offered even the possibility of it one day joining the European Union, and NATO dropped Ukraine as a potential future member back in 2008. This raised hopes in Brussels that Moscow might not object too strongly. Russia initially expressed little unease about Europe’s Eastern Partnership plans, lulling Europe into a false sense of clear sailing ahead.

After Mr. Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012, after a four-year stint as prime minister, previous talk of shared interests in free trade and close cooperation gave way to increasingly forceful calls for the establishment of a Moscow-dominated rival to the European Union called the Eurasian Union.

By last summer, Moscow embarked on a sustained campaign of pressure to dissuade former Soviet lands, including Ukraine, from siding with Europe.

The whole article is worth reading, especially for its portrayal of Brussels as hopelessly naïve to the point of negligence in its conduct of foreign affairs. But the point about economic ties throwing up red flags in the Kremlin is an important one. Russia had been “deeply alarmed” by the financial success of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. It proved, it seemed, that breaking away from Moscow in favor of the West was the way to improve life for your citizens.

Latvia, no matter when it was admitted to NATO, has no plans to invade Russia. And anyway the argument that Putin’s Russia reacts to perceived threats to its security is not one that should govern the West’s conduct, for two main reasons: first, Putin’s perception of risk is not rational, and second, Putin includes economic integration and improvement in his overall assessment of foreign security threats. Hence the Eurasian Union proposal. Putin sees countries as either collaborators or competitors. There is no such thing as neutrality, there is only loyalty and disloyalty.

If Putin sees economic cooperation as a prelude to military cooperation, should the West also cease expanding economic ties with countries Putin wants to control? Ukraine is in Europe; should Europe not be permitted to trade freely with a European country if that’s what both want? What this saga (and the Times piece) makes clear is that Putin does not want to see his neighbors thrive economically or their living standard improved independent from Moscow’s direction.

In other words, what Putin wants is not a multipolar world but a bipolar world; he simply exploits the West’s desire for a multipolar world in order to draw the line as far from Moscow as he can. The Times suggests this whole incident is a wake-up call for Brussels. It should also be one for Washington, which has not been free of its own wishful thinking toward Putin’s Russia.

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Biden’s Disingenuous NATO Promises

Foreign-policy watchers on Twitter had some fun with the Associated Press when the newswire tweeted this morning: “BREAKING: Vice President Biden says US will respond to any aggression against NATO allies.” It wasn’t exactly “breaking” news that an attack on NATO would elicit a response from NATO. But I think Biden’s proclamation–“breaking” or not–is in fact worth discussing, for two reasons.

First, it should be a given that the U.S. will defend its NATO allies, but in the Obama era of resets and red lines, Washington has sought any excuse possible to avoid confrontation, even if it meant reneging on promises or obligations. Add to that the fact that the Obama administration has undercut America’s relationship with strategic allies–such as Poland, with which Obama has picked unnecessary diplomatic fights–and NATO countries probably do need to hear an explicit promise from the White House that this administration would fulfill its obligations.

But the other reason is that this promise–empty or not–is still a disingenuous sleight of hand. The recent crisis took place in Ukraine, which is not in NATO. This is not a coincidence. In recent years, Putin’s Russia has taken to invading and occupying foreign countries in Russia’s near-abroad under the pretext of “protecting” Russian or pro-Russian populations. These invasions are carried out against non-NATO countries. Had they been against NATO countries, Putin would have sparked wars involving stronger countries–such as the U.S.

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Foreign-policy watchers on Twitter had some fun with the Associated Press when the newswire tweeted this morning: “BREAKING: Vice President Biden says US will respond to any aggression against NATO allies.” It wasn’t exactly “breaking” news that an attack on NATO would elicit a response from NATO. But I think Biden’s proclamation–“breaking” or not–is in fact worth discussing, for two reasons.

First, it should be a given that the U.S. will defend its NATO allies, but in the Obama era of resets and red lines, Washington has sought any excuse possible to avoid confrontation, even if it meant reneging on promises or obligations. Add to that the fact that the Obama administration has undercut America’s relationship with strategic allies–such as Poland, with which Obama has picked unnecessary diplomatic fights–and NATO countries probably do need to hear an explicit promise from the White House that this administration would fulfill its obligations.

But the other reason is that this promise–empty or not–is still a disingenuous sleight of hand. The recent crisis took place in Ukraine, which is not in NATO. This is not a coincidence. In recent years, Putin’s Russia has taken to invading and occupying foreign countries in Russia’s near-abroad under the pretext of “protecting” Russian or pro-Russian populations. These invasions are carried out against non-NATO countries. Had they been against NATO countries, Putin would have sparked wars involving stronger countries–such as the U.S.

The previous instance was Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia. In seeking to differentiate the Ukraine invasion from the Georgia invasion–which elicited outrage mostly from the right, as the American left’s anti-Bush hysteria got the better of them and extended to pro-Bush foreign leaders–even some knowledgeable observers have taken refuge in the notion that Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili was goaded “into firing the first shot.”

This is preposterous, and it’s worth reviewing why in order to understand how Putin’s Russia treats its non-NATO neighbors. A good summary of the preceding events is contained in Andrei Illarionov’s essay in a book on the 2008 war, in which Illarionov reviews the Russian preparation for eventual war.

Russia began supplying one breakaway region, South Ossetia, with military equipment–including tanks and ammunition–before Saakashvili became part of the Georgian government. In fact, almost as soon as Putin joined Yeltsin’s government Russia began taking hostile measures against Georgia, which only increased as Putin became president and consolidated power. With tensions rising in 2002, Russia bombed Georgian territory. Soon after that, Putin claimed the right to take military action against Georgia under the guise of anti-terror missions.

Russia then staffed up South Ossetia’s government with Russian defense officials and sent more military equipment. Russia’s defense minister then echoed Putin’s threats to attack Georgia. More military goods along with Russian advisors would follow. The next year, Russia distributed Russian passports to South Ossetians with the declaration that it had an obligation to defend its citizens. More shelling of Georgian territory took place as well as a well-publicized attack on Georgian peacekeepers. Later that year, Georgian power lines were successfully attacked. The following year, a bombing traced to Russia at a Georgian police headquarters killed three.

Russia increased its construction of military bases and its transfer of arms and ammunition to breakaway Georgian territory. The following years had more of the same, with 2007 bringing major shelling of Georgian civilian territory and sustained military attacks. In the days before the war broke out in 2008, South Ossetian forces had begun sustained attacks on Georgian targets and territory. Georgia responded to South Ossetia, and Russia invaded Georgia.

To those who weren’t paying attention, the Russian attack on Ukraine came as something of a surprise. But this is how Russia behaves toward non-NATO states. So Joe Biden’s assurances to NATO states that the U.S. will stand by them is not a show of strength in the face of Russian expansionism. It’s a show of weakness, because it’s an implicit, but unmistakable, declaration that nothing has changed. If you’re not in NATO, you’re on your own. And by the way, the Obama administration doesn’t want you in NATO, whoever you are.

It’s nice to promise protection to states like Poland, which we have a record of betraying and whose leaders probably don’t find it so inspiring when Obama’s fans compare him to FDR. But the question is what to do about non-NATO states. George W. Bush’s preference was to put states like Ukraine and Georgia on the road to NATO membership and fuller democratization. The weak states in the region should ask Biden what he and his boss think they should do since they’re specifically excluded from the White House’s guarantees.

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In Defense of Victoria Nuland

The colorful and crude terms in which American diplomat Victoria Nuland dismissed the European Union’s slow response to Ukraine’s political crisis expectedly overshadowed the other implications of the gaffe. One was discussed by Max Boot at the time: Russia seemingly had recorded the phone call between Nuland and America’s Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, and then released the tape to drive a wedge between the U.S. and the EU.

But the other, more important implication had to do with what Nuland and Pyatt were discussing, and why. Nuland is America’s top diplomatic official for Europe. Pyatt is the ambassador to the country whose capital was convulsed in popular protests demanding the end of the ruling regime of Viktor Yanukovych and constitutional protections against autocracy. Among the topics discussed in the Nuland-Pyatt conversation was an organizational strategy for the opposition. In other words, Nuland and Pyatt were doing their jobs, and quite sensibly so, to tell from the recording.

But for some, the idea of the United States involving itself in Eastern European politics, even when invited, is deemed to be meddling. The Cold War is over, proclaim those who remain obsessed to the point of distraction with the Cold War. I’ve written about this in past, a prominent example being President Obama’s amateurish joke that those who criticize Putin’s Russia are stuck in a “Cold War mind warp,” when in fact it was the president who compulsively brought up the Cold War. And now Nuland is coming in for criticism from such corners.

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The colorful and crude terms in which American diplomat Victoria Nuland dismissed the European Union’s slow response to Ukraine’s political crisis expectedly overshadowed the other implications of the gaffe. One was discussed by Max Boot at the time: Russia seemingly had recorded the phone call between Nuland and America’s Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, and then released the tape to drive a wedge between the U.S. and the EU.

But the other, more important implication had to do with what Nuland and Pyatt were discussing, and why. Nuland is America’s top diplomatic official for Europe. Pyatt is the ambassador to the country whose capital was convulsed in popular protests demanding the end of the ruling regime of Viktor Yanukovych and constitutional protections against autocracy. Among the topics discussed in the Nuland-Pyatt conversation was an organizational strategy for the opposition. In other words, Nuland and Pyatt were doing their jobs, and quite sensibly so, to tell from the recording.

But for some, the idea of the United States involving itself in Eastern European politics, even when invited, is deemed to be meddling. The Cold War is over, proclaim those who remain obsessed to the point of distraction with the Cold War. I’ve written about this in past, a prominent example being President Obama’s amateurish joke that those who criticize Putin’s Russia are stuck in a “Cold War mind warp,” when in fact it was the president who compulsively brought up the Cold War. And now Nuland is coming in for criticism from such corners.

Kenneth Weisbrode has written a piece for Foreign Policy’s website comparing Nuland to the tradition of proconsuls going back to ancient Rome, and then suggesting that to Nuland “it may be that the Cold War never really ended.” It’s an entirely unconvincing piece, in part because the phone call showed Nuland to understand the nuances of Ukrainian politics while it is Weisbrode who can’t help but see the Cold War anytime Americans and Russians disagree. But Weisbrode gives an indication of his perspective on this when he reviews Nuland’s experience:

Nuland’s work for Talbott coincided with a NATO project called Partnership for Peace, similar to today’s E.U. Eastern Partnership, although it was offered publicly (as even the Marshall Plan was) to anyone east of the old Iron Curtain, including Russia. For reasons that are still opaque, Talbott and his team came instead to endorse a policy of enlarging NATO itself, which in effect supplanted the Partnership for Peace. The scholar Michael Mandelbaum, who had been well disposed toward the Clinton administration, called this nothing less than a “bridge to the nineteenth century.”

Quoting Mandelbaum as an authority on this is strange, because Mandelbaum’s judgment on this issue, as we now know, was wrong. (Though it should have been clear at the time that he wrong.) NATO isn’t a bridge to the nineteenth century but a bridge to the twenty-first, by enabling states to move toward democracy, independence, and self-sufficiency. It should actually be considered complementary to Nuland that she understood the future post-Soviet power structure so much better than her critics at the time. And it appears she still does.

It’s worth quoting here the portion of the phone call that raised such suspicion. Here is the relevant segment about Vitaly Klitschko, a prominent but inexperienced opposition figure:

Nuland: Good. I don’t think Klitsch should go into the government. I don’t think it’s necessary, I don’t think it’s a good idea.

Pyatt: Yeah. I guess… in terms of him not going into the government, just let him stay out and do his political homework and stuff. I’m just thinking in terms of sort of the process moving ahead we want to keep the moderate democrats together. The problem is going to be Tyahnybok [Oleh Tyahnybok, the other opposition leader] and his guys and I’m sure that’s part of what [President Viktor] Yanukovych is calculating on all this.

Nuland: [Breaks in] I think Yats is the guy who’s got the economic experience, the governing experience. He’s the… what he needs is Klitsch and Tyahnybok on the outside. He needs to be talking to them four times a week, you know. I just think Klitsch going in… he’s going to be at that level working for Yatseniuk, it’s just not going to work.

You can see how this makes it look like the uprising is being stage managed by the U.S., but it’s not as though Nuland provoked the unrest. If the opposition didn’t want her there, she’d be locked out of the process. What she’s offering is guidance–even if it appears heavyhanded at times–to an inexperienced opposition group representing a significant movement in favor of more democracy.

One lesson of the Arab Spring, and of many popular uprisings before it, is that the transition to a post-authoritarian government is really quite challenging, and that a failed transition to a more democratic model can result in harsh authoritarian backsliding and the discrediting of political liberty. Nuland, to her credit, has been on the ground in Kiev since the early days of the protests supporting those who want her help. That doesn’t make her a Roman proconsul or a Cold Warrior, but a principled American diplomat.

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Abbas’s NATO Gambit Is a Nonstarter

It would be quite an irony if the Obama administration, which has already withdrawn all U.S. troops from Iraq and may yet withdraw all of them from Afghanistan, while refusing to become heavily engaged in Syria or Libya, were to cap its tenure by dispatching U.S. troops to guard a new Palestinian state in the West Bank. It would also be pretty unlikely. It would be downright miraculous if troops from other NATO nations were to join U.S. troops on the front lines of what amounts to a fight against Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and myriad other radical groups.

That seems to be what Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is proposing in this interview with Jodi Rudoren and Tom Friedman of the New York Times. He has told Secretary of State John Kerry, who for mysterious reasons has made the Israeli-Palestinian peace process his top priority, that a future Palestinian state will have its own police force but not army. To make up for the lack of armed forces, he wants to have “an American-led NATO force patrol a future Palestinian state indefinitely, with troops positioned throughout the territory, at all crossings, and within Jerusalem.”

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It would be quite an irony if the Obama administration, which has already withdrawn all U.S. troops from Iraq and may yet withdraw all of them from Afghanistan, while refusing to become heavily engaged in Syria or Libya, were to cap its tenure by dispatching U.S. troops to guard a new Palestinian state in the West Bank. It would also be pretty unlikely. It would be downright miraculous if troops from other NATO nations were to join U.S. troops on the front lines of what amounts to a fight against Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and myriad other radical groups.

That seems to be what Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is proposing in this interview with Jodi Rudoren and Tom Friedman of the New York Times. He has told Secretary of State John Kerry, who for mysterious reasons has made the Israeli-Palestinian peace process his top priority, that a future Palestinian state will have its own police force but not army. To make up for the lack of armed forces, he wants to have “an American-led NATO force patrol a future Palestinian state indefinitely, with troops positioned throughout the territory, at all crossings, and within Jerusalem.”

To understand why this proposal is a nonstarter just think about how such a force would work. Imagine a force of, say, Americans, Brits, French, Germans, and Italians patrolling the West Bank and East Jerusalem. They might as well have a “kick me” sign on their backs–their very presence will make them an irresistible magnet for jihadists who want to score points against the Great Satan. If history is any guide, they will either suffer casualties which will drive most of them out (a la the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut in 1983 or attacks on Spanish forces in Iraq in 2004) or they will hunker down in a “force protection” mode which will make it utterly impossible for them to police the borders.

It is hard to know, in any case, how the multinational force could possibly stop arms smuggling or incursions by terrorists. Certainly U.S. troops, deployed in far greater numbers, with far more firepower and looser rules of engagement, have had little success in policing the borders of Afghanistan or Iraq.

Border interdiction, in any case, is only a small part of a more comprehensive security strategy which must involve gathering intelligence (including running agents) and arresting suspects. Would this NATO force have such powers and, even if it did, would it really exercise them? It’s hard to imagine, because if the outside peacekeepers were actually effective in stopping militant operations they would make themselves an even bigger target for suicide bombers. More likely the presence of foreign troops would hinder and deter effective action by Israeli forces to defend their own homeland.

Israel, of course, knows all this, and it is for this reason that it is unlikely to agree to any such force if it requires the pullback of Israeli troops from the borders of the West Bank. Israel has had experience before with international peacekeepers and it well remembers how little such forces did to protect Israel when deployed to protect against attack from Egypt (before the 1967 Six-Day War) or from Hezbollah when deployed in Lebanon more recently.

Abu Mazen’s proposal is a nice fantasy, and one embraced by ardent “peace processers” who think it will resolve the deep and understandable security concerns that Israel has about ceding power to an entity that continues to deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. But it is not a workable solution, even assuming (which we cannot know for sure) that the West Bank will continue to be overseen by the relatively moderate Palestinian Authority rather than fall to the more radical Hamas. The U.S. should not agree to put ground troops in harm’s way on such a nebulous mission and Israel should not agree to accept them.

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Turkey Endangers NATO

While the U.S. media focused for much of the past two weeks on President Obama’s “bromance” with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the government shutdown, Turkey has made some moves which should raise alarm bells at both the Pentagon and in Brussels.

Three months ago, I blogged here about how Turkey was considering a Chinese bid for an anti-aircraft system. Integrating a Chinese missile system into NATO’s early warning network would require giving the Chinese company access to top secret NATO software. Earlier this week, however, Turkey announced that it would award a $4 billion air defense contract to co-produce a long-range missile defense system with a Chinese firm sanctioned by the United States for its proliferation activities with Iran.

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While the U.S. media focused for much of the past two weeks on President Obama’s “bromance” with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the government shutdown, Turkey has made some moves which should raise alarm bells at both the Pentagon and in Brussels.

Three months ago, I blogged here about how Turkey was considering a Chinese bid for an anti-aircraft system. Integrating a Chinese missile system into NATO’s early warning network would require giving the Chinese company access to top secret NATO software. Earlier this week, however, Turkey announced that it would award a $4 billion air defense contract to co-produce a long-range missile defense system with a Chinese firm sanctioned by the United States for its proliferation activities with Iran.

This is not the first time that Turkey has undercut NATO security to the benefit of the Chinese. The Turkish Air Force has held war games with the Chinese Air Force without first alerting NATO. Turkey has also turned its back on the European Union and sought to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a club for anti-Western dictatorships.

With even the Turkish press questioning the wisdom of the deal, Defense Minister İsmet Yılmaz has defended the purchase. “We had asked for joint production and a technology transfer,” Yılmaz said. “If other countries cannot guarantee us that, then we will turn to ones that can.”

How sad it is that, as Turkey pivots to China, and endangers U.S. security, the Obama administration not only proposes no consequence, but continues to share technology with an untrustworthy regime.

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What Would Scottish Independence Mean for NATO?

In just over a year, Scotland will hold a referendum on independence from Great Britain. At issue is the emotional desire of many Scots for independence versus the realism of other Scots that Scotland gets more financially from the United Kingdom than it contributes: Most paved roads in rural Scotland are a symbol of British largesse that many Scots ignore or forget. Some Scots counter this argument by noting that they stand to gain more in assistance from the European Union if they have full independence than if they are merely part of Great Britain.

Another aspect of devolution could have profound impact on the British navy: Most British submarine bases are in Scotland. This has been discussed in some British papers. Here is an article from The Guardian, for example:

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In just over a year, Scotland will hold a referendum on independence from Great Britain. At issue is the emotional desire of many Scots for independence versus the realism of other Scots that Scotland gets more financially from the United Kingdom than it contributes: Most paved roads in rural Scotland are a symbol of British largesse that many Scots ignore or forget. Some Scots counter this argument by noting that they stand to gain more in assistance from the European Union if they have full independence than if they are merely part of Great Britain.

Another aspect of devolution could have profound impact on the British navy: Most British submarine bases are in Scotland. This has been discussed in some British papers. Here is an article from The Guardian, for example:

The British government is examining plans to designate the Scottish military base that houses the Trident nuclear deterrent as sovereign United Kingdom territory if the people of Scotland vote for independence in next year’s referendum. In a move that sparked an angry reaction from the SNP, which vowed to rid Scotland of nuclear weapons as quickly as possible after a yes vote, the government is looking at ensuring that the Faslane base on Gare Loch in Argyll and Bute could have the same status as the British sovereign military bases in Cyprus. The move would be designed to ensure that the Trident fleet would continue to have access to the open seas via the Firth of Clyde. Under Britain’s “continuous at sea deterrent”, at least one Vanguard submarine armed with 16 Trident nuclear missiles is on patrol at sea at any one time.

If the British military decides to keep the bases as sovereign territory, there is not much the Scots will be able to do about it, but the notion of a diplomatic fight between independent countries over British nuclear weapons and military facilities will quickly sour other aspects of the British-Scottish relationship and could both invite unwelcome diplomatic attention from other European quarters and also raise questions about the many shipyards upon which British shipping depends both for new ships and refurbishments of existing ships.

As President Obama and Defense Secretary Hagel increasingly look to share the burdens of defense, it is important to recognize that the capabilities of some of our staunchest partners in NATO are, at best, uncertain. What happens in Scotland may not be the stuff of headlines right now, but independence and partition within NATO countries—perhaps Turkey will be next should the Kurds there achieve their national desires—will have ramifications far beyond their borders.

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Germany Again Seeks to Cheat on Iran Sanctions

Germany has certainly been among Europe’s weakest links when it comes to upholding sanctions against Iran. While the White House continues to grant waivers to Germany, German companies have attended trade and investment fairs in Iran. The German-Iranian Chamber of Commerce has also helped shepherd German companies through the process of investing in Iran’s energy sector, never mind the sanctions regime. Now it seems the German government is at it again. According to Germany’s “Stop the Bomb” campaign:

Under the patronage of German Federal Environment Minister Peter Altmaier and Federal Minister of Economics Philipp Rösler, on 10 July 2013 a conference will be held with the title “Energy Security – How to Feed and Secure the Global Demand.” Among the speakers are Federal Environment Minister Peter Altmaier and Iranian Oil Minister Rostam Ghasemi, a General of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards… According to a press release on the conference “high level policy maker” will discuss “political developments in producing countries” and “geostrategic implications of changing global energy supply routes.” However, the EU imposed sanctions against Iran’s energy sector and the Iranian Ministry of Petroleum is as an entity on the EU sanctions list.

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Germany has certainly been among Europe’s weakest links when it comes to upholding sanctions against Iran. While the White House continues to grant waivers to Germany, German companies have attended trade and investment fairs in Iran. The German-Iranian Chamber of Commerce has also helped shepherd German companies through the process of investing in Iran’s energy sector, never mind the sanctions regime. Now it seems the German government is at it again. According to Germany’s “Stop the Bomb” campaign:

Under the patronage of German Federal Environment Minister Peter Altmaier and Federal Minister of Economics Philipp Rösler, on 10 July 2013 a conference will be held with the title “Energy Security – How to Feed and Secure the Global Demand.” Among the speakers are Federal Environment Minister Peter Altmaier and Iranian Oil Minister Rostam Ghasemi, a General of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards… According to a press release on the conference “high level policy maker” will discuss “political developments in producing countries” and “geostrategic implications of changing global energy supply routes.” However, the EU imposed sanctions against Iran’s energy sector and the Iranian Ministry of Petroleum is as an entity on the EU sanctions list.

Alas, it seems that the erosion of American credibility has occurred not only among U.S. adversaries but also with regard to U.S. allies. What to do? Germany wants its defense minister to take the helm of NATO. If the Obama administration wanted to be taken seriously, it would make German seriousness regarding one of the greatest collective security threats the West faces a condition of signing off on any such appointment. Alas, it seems, Obama’s strategy appears to assuage Berlin by undermining U.S. credibility even further.

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Turkey Betrays NATO Again

Two years ago, I blogged here about how Turkey had held secret air force war games with China, much to the surprise of both the Pentagon and NATO. The cooperation with China was especially unnerving considering the access to NATO secrets and U.S. technology that Turkey had and which it wanted. Now it seems Turkey is at it again. According to Hürriyet Daily News:

Turkey’s western allies look puzzled by a looming decision by Ankara to select Chinese long-range anti-missile and air defense systems which they think cannot be integrated into the NATO-sponsored early warning architecture currently deployed on Turkish soil. “That would certainly leave many of us speechless,” said one senior diplomat from a NATO country. “Turkey has every right to choose its own air defense system but we do not quite understand the logic of opting for a Chinese system with no interoperability with the existing [NATO] assets.” A NATO ally defense attaché in Ankara said that deploying a Chinese air defense system to protect Turkish airspace could have political repercussions. “Questioning Turkey’s geopolitical trajectory would then be legitimate,” he said.

Indeed. Then, again, Turkey’s leadership has been changing Turkey’s geopolitical trajectory for quite some time.

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Two years ago, I blogged here about how Turkey had held secret air force war games with China, much to the surprise of both the Pentagon and NATO. The cooperation with China was especially unnerving considering the access to NATO secrets and U.S. technology that Turkey had and which it wanted. Now it seems Turkey is at it again. According to Hürriyet Daily News:

Turkey’s western allies look puzzled by a looming decision by Ankara to select Chinese long-range anti-missile and air defense systems which they think cannot be integrated into the NATO-sponsored early warning architecture currently deployed on Turkish soil. “That would certainly leave many of us speechless,” said one senior diplomat from a NATO country. “Turkey has every right to choose its own air defense system but we do not quite understand the logic of opting for a Chinese system with no interoperability with the existing [NATO] assets.” A NATO ally defense attaché in Ankara said that deploying a Chinese air defense system to protect Turkish airspace could have political repercussions. “Questioning Turkey’s geopolitical trajectory would then be legitimate,” he said.

Indeed. Then, again, Turkey’s leadership has been changing Turkey’s geopolitical trajectory for quite some time.

Turkey’s decision to become a “Dialogue Partner” with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was as blatant a hint as could come. If the European Union is a club of democracies, then the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a club for one-party, strongman dictatorships like Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Iran, as an observer. Unfortunately, as the tide has turned in Turkey, it looks increasingly like Ankara belongs in the latter camp, not in the former. Let us hope that neither the Pentagon nor NATO allows Turkey to do significant damage as it reorients itself to the autocratic east. Here, Congress could have much more of a role, if it requires significant Pentagon reporting to explore the damage the Turkish leadership could do should it leak new technologies to the Chinese.

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Israeli Strike Shows Potential for U.S.-Led Action in Syria

Details about the Israeli air strike in Syria last week remain elusive, with various reports describing an attack on both a Syrian military research center on chemical and biological weapons and a convoy carrying SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles to Hezbollah. It is quite possible, indeed likely, that both were targeted by the Israeli Air Force. Either way the Israelis are doing a good turn, not only for themselves but also for the U.S. and other regional allies by trying to limit the fall-out from the Syrian civil war. Would that we were doing as much.

The ease with which the Israeli Air Force penetrated Syrian air space–which replicates a similar Israeli bombing mission in 2007 to take out a Syrian nuclear reactor–shows that it would not be all that hard for the U.S., acting with NATO and Arab allies, to likewise intervene to establish a no-fly zone. The U.S. military has been opposed to such a mission, for understandable reasons, because it could bring about considerable complications and because resources are already being strained by budget cuts. But from a military standpoint there is little doubt that a no-fly zone could be established relatively quickly and easily–the Syrian air defenses, which have raised such alarms in Washington, are not all that formidable after all when attacked by a U.S.-equipped air force.

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Details about the Israeli air strike in Syria last week remain elusive, with various reports describing an attack on both a Syrian military research center on chemical and biological weapons and a convoy carrying SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles to Hezbollah. It is quite possible, indeed likely, that both were targeted by the Israeli Air Force. Either way the Israelis are doing a good turn, not only for themselves but also for the U.S. and other regional allies by trying to limit the fall-out from the Syrian civil war. Would that we were doing as much.

The ease with which the Israeli Air Force penetrated Syrian air space–which replicates a similar Israeli bombing mission in 2007 to take out a Syrian nuclear reactor–shows that it would not be all that hard for the U.S., acting with NATO and Arab allies, to likewise intervene to establish a no-fly zone. The U.S. military has been opposed to such a mission, for understandable reasons, because it could bring about considerable complications and because resources are already being strained by budget cuts. But from a military standpoint there is little doubt that a no-fly zone could be established relatively quickly and easily–the Syrian air defenses, which have raised such alarms in Washington, are not all that formidable after all when attacked by a U.S.-equipped air force.

And the Israelis did not even bother to take out the missile-defense system; they probably used electronic warfare to jam the system for a period to allow their aircraft to get in and out. The U.S. and our allies, if we were to undertake a campaign in support of the rebels, would take out the entire air-defense network, as they previously took out similar networks in Iraq and Libya. That would make follow-on sorties as close to risk-free from the American standpoint as anything gets in the inherently risky and dangerous realm of warfare.

Yet, despite the military feasibility of such a project and the strategic imperative of ousting Assad to end his nation’s suffering and deal a blow to his Iranian backers, there is basically no chance that such an operation will take place. A no-fly zone would require American leadership and there is no sign of such leadership in the second Obama administration, which has lost the most forceful advocates for a strong American role in the world: Secretaries Gates and Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus. The Syrians are on their own, it seems, and the conflict shows no sign of burning out anytime soon.

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Strategy, Not Politics, Should Dictate Troop Levels

The press continues to be full of leaks about the administration’s troop drawdown plans in Afghanistan. The latest is this article in the Wall Street Journal, which reports that, at the White House’s insistence, the Pentagon has offered troop options post-2014 lower than those favored by General John Allen, the commander on the ground. His options call for between 6,000 and 15,000 troops (some other accounts have suggested his top-end figure is 20,000). The new set of options: 3,000, 6,000, or 9,000 troops.

As the Journal notes, this is part of a continuing decrease in the size of forces envisioned for Afghanistan: “In late 2010, some senior administration and defense officials told NATO allies that the U.S. may need to keep at least 40,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014, when the current NATO mission concludes. A year later, officials suggested troop levels could be closer to 20,000. As recently as November, Gen. Allen spoke privately with Pentagon chiefs about the need for 15,000 troops from the U.S. alone.” But now the administration seems to be leaning toward cutting the current force by more than half this year (from 66,000 to 30,000 or so) and leaving perhaps 6,000 or even fewer troops post-2014. And as U.S. troop number decreases, so do those of our NATO allies: nobody is going to do more than we are.

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The press continues to be full of leaks about the administration’s troop drawdown plans in Afghanistan. The latest is this article in the Wall Street Journal, which reports that, at the White House’s insistence, the Pentagon has offered troop options post-2014 lower than those favored by General John Allen, the commander on the ground. His options call for between 6,000 and 15,000 troops (some other accounts have suggested his top-end figure is 20,000). The new set of options: 3,000, 6,000, or 9,000 troops.

As the Journal notes, this is part of a continuing decrease in the size of forces envisioned for Afghanistan: “In late 2010, some senior administration and defense officials told NATO allies that the U.S. may need to keep at least 40,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014, when the current NATO mission concludes. A year later, officials suggested troop levels could be closer to 20,000. As recently as November, Gen. Allen spoke privately with Pentagon chiefs about the need for 15,000 troops from the U.S. alone.” But now the administration seems to be leaning toward cutting the current force by more than half this year (from 66,000 to 30,000 or so) and leaving perhaps 6,000 or even fewer troops post-2014. And as U.S. troop number decreases, so do those of our NATO allies: nobody is going to do more than we are.

Why the decrease? If you believe administration spokesmen, it’s because the Afghan National Security Forces are performing far better than expected and the security situation is far better than envisioned. If that were indeed the case, I, too, would favor keeping substantially fewer troops: drawdowns should be conditions-based. But conditions on the ground are not rosy enough to permit massive troop decreases.

True, there have been some encouraging trends–according to official NATO figures, enemy-initiated attacks fell 7 percent during the January-November 2012 period compared with the same months in 2011. But enemy attacks were rising as recently as May and June and overall attack levels are still higher today than they were when the surge began in 2009.

While Taliban fighters have been routed out of many strongholds in Helmand and Kandahar Provinces, they have proven resilient thanks to their sanctuaries in Pakistan, and similar progress has not been seen in the eastern part of the country. There are still Haqqani sanctuaries located only an hour’s drive from Kabul–and that is with 66,000 U.S. troops still in the country.

While the ANSF are more capable than before, their ability to hold onto, and expand, recent gains without substantial support is highly questionable. The Defense Department’s own “Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan” notes that the ANSF still have considerable deficiencies in areas such as logistics, planning, and air support that will require coalition backstopping for a long time to come; Afghanistan will not even have a functioning air force until 2017 at the earliest.

In reality, the gains that have been made are extremely fragile and dependent on massive U.S. support. Pull that support and there is considerable risk of the Taliban once again extending their control to the gates of Kabul. There is, quite simply, no reason to imagine that Afghanistan could remain reasonably secure with 6,000 or fewer U.S. troops remaining post-2014.

That is why General Allen has recommended a higher troop figure. But there is a very real risk that his recommendations will be overridden not for strategic reasons but for political ones.

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U.S.-Russia Relations Keep Plummeting

Now that Moscow has expelled USAID from Russia and announced it will not renew one of the pillars of U.S.-Russia post-Soviet cooperation–the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program–the Obama administration and other disappointed actors will be looking for a silver lining.

At least the Obama administration can take solace in the fact that while Putin is thoroughly dedicated to publicly and without consequence bullying Obama in the last month of the presidential election, he isn’t only isolating the U.S. As usual, Putin reserved some of his ire for NATO as well. Reuters reports:

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Now that Moscow has expelled USAID from Russia and announced it will not renew one of the pillars of U.S.-Russia post-Soviet cooperation–the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program–the Obama administration and other disappointed actors will be looking for a silver lining.

At least the Obama administration can take solace in the fact that while Putin is thoroughly dedicated to publicly and without consequence bullying Obama in the last month of the presidential election, he isn’t only isolating the U.S. As usual, Putin reserved some of his ire for NATO as well. Reuters reports:

Russia will stop cooperating with NATO over Afghanistan after 2014 unless the alliance gets U.N. Security Council authorization for its new training mission in Afghanistan, a senior Russian diplomat said on Wednesday.

A NATO official said only that it would be “helpful” to have a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the post-2014 training mission, but stopped short of saying it was essential.

Nikolay Korchunov, Russia’s acting ambassador to NATO, did not specify what any halt to Russian cooperation with NATO on Afghanistan after 2014 would mean, but Russia will be an important transit route for NATO as it ships out billions of dollars of equipment from Afghanistan in the next few years.

This morning, the New York Times also reported that Turkish authorities forced a Syrian plane en route from Moscow to land in Ankara, and the Russians–perhaps feeling they were caught red-handed–lashed out in response. “I think that tension will now develop in the relationship between Russia and Turkey,” a Russian Foreign Ministry official told the Times.

Turkey claims there were materials on the plane that violate international regulations, but there were also passengers on the plane, leading a Russian arms export official to offer a quote that is both amusingly arrogant and ominous: “If it had been necessary to ship any military hardware or weapons to Syria, this would have been done through the established procedure rather than in an illegal way.”

Of course Russia will help a dictator murder thousands of his own people in broad daylight–but they’d never do anything illegal.

The question lingers, however: What does Putin want from Obama? The answer is, the last concession remaining: the plans for a missile shield in Europe. Yet regardless of Obama’s decision on that front, Putin’s habit has been to simply pocket concessions and then renegotiate. Which means despite the administration’s attempts to placate Putin, the U.S.-Russia relationship, at a low point during the first Obama term and in many ways since the fall of the Soviet empire, will remain where it is. The new low will become the new normal.

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Will Obama Mourn Georgian Ally’s Defeat?

I share the two cheers Max seems to offer for the slight forward march of democracy, especially in Georgia, where longtime American ally Mikheil Saakashvili has yet again proven his detractors in the global left wrong and his supporters right. Saakashvili’s behavior was exemplary to the point of uniting in thought and praise Max and the Economist, and I join them. The Economist, long a skeptic of Vladimir Putin’s intentions and supporter of post-Soviet demokratizatsiya, writes:

Peaceful political and constitutional change is routine in much of Europe. But it is rare (the Baltic states aside) in the old Soviet Union. By conceding, Mr Saakashvili has admirably secured his reformist legacy, demolishing claims that his rule was Putinesque in its heavy-handedness. Westerners who trusted him can feel vindicated. For his part Mr Ivanishvili stoked suspicions about his own judgment when he demanded that Mr Saakashvili step down immediately (he quickly backtracked). The constitutional position is clear: Mr Saakashvili has another year to go. He is ready to work with his victorious opponent, despite the deepest of disagreements. Mr Ivanishvili should reciprocate.

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I share the two cheers Max seems to offer for the slight forward march of democracy, especially in Georgia, where longtime American ally Mikheil Saakashvili has yet again proven his detractors in the global left wrong and his supporters right. Saakashvili’s behavior was exemplary to the point of uniting in thought and praise Max and the Economist, and I join them. The Economist, long a skeptic of Vladimir Putin’s intentions and supporter of post-Soviet demokratizatsiya, writes:

Peaceful political and constitutional change is routine in much of Europe. But it is rare (the Baltic states aside) in the old Soviet Union. By conceding, Mr Saakashvili has admirably secured his reformist legacy, demolishing claims that his rule was Putinesque in its heavy-handedness. Westerners who trusted him can feel vindicated. For his part Mr Ivanishvili stoked suspicions about his own judgment when he demanded that Mr Saakashvili step down immediately (he quickly backtracked). The constitutional position is clear: Mr Saakashvili has another year to go. He is ready to work with his victorious opponent, despite the deepest of disagreements. Mr Ivanishvili should reciprocate.

That is well said, and also underscores the withholding of that third cheer for Georgia, since Saakashvili has behaved far better (and more democratically) than his ascendant pro-Russian rival. But here is where I diverge slightly from Max, who writes (my emphasis): “The ability to peacefully transition authority from one party to another is crucial, and if Georgia can pull it off, that will be a boon for its nascent democracy, even if the policies advocated by the new government are not those that American policymakers would prefer.”

Those new policies may not be what Max would prefer, nor those of us who have recognized the importance of Georgia’s pro-Western leaning, from its role in the disintegration of the Soviet Union to its sending troops to Afghanistan. But I think it is wishful thinking to assume that the current administration sees it that way.

The Obama administration has shown less interest in expanding NATO–that is to say, none at all–than his predecessors. The most recent NATO conference, which we hosted here in the U.S., was a historic meeting, in that it took not a step toward the inclusion of allies who have made progress at each meeting until this one. In fact, the NATO conference was notable in that it displayed an organization that seemed to have no interest in itself.

Georgia has sent more troops to Afghanistan than some NATO members (and was apparently the highest per-capita troop contributor to the effort). But the Obama administration remains unmoved. Russia is currently occupying chunks of Georgian sovereign territory, violating the ceasefire that ended the 2008 war, which Russian leaders had been planning for about a decade and which included documented cases of anti-Georgian ethnic cleansing. The Obama administration admitted to the New York Times that it was fully aware of Russia’s violations, but that raising the issue would have imperiled the imaginary “reset” that was, at that time, still one of the administration’s prized delusions.

That border dispute was one reason Georgia held fast to its one piece of leverage over Russia: the latter’s accession to the World Trade Organization. U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul wisely made Russia’s WTO membership one of his primary goals–getting Russia to play by the same rules as the international community will bring a certain degree of accountability to Putin’s management of “Russia, Inc.” and give American businesses a boost in new markets as well. But the border dispute remains, even after McFaul strong-armed Georgia into letting go. Both Russia and the U.S. got what they wanted; Saakashvili got an insincere pat on the back.

Because the “reset” was based mostly on Western rhetoric toward Russia, Saakashvili’s bombast proved an annoyance to the administration. So when Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose party bested Saakashvili’s in the recent parliamentary elections, took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to outline his vision for the country he hoped to lead, he knew exactly how to make his pitch. “If elected, my Georgian Dream coalition will drop Cold War rhetoric and do a better job of defusing the real causes of the explosive situation in our region,” he wrote, echoing the hollow nonsense of the Obama administration’s persistent complaints that criticism of Putin is evidence of a mind “still stuck in a Cold War mind warp.”

A better relationship with Russia seems to be exactly what the Obama administration would want for Georgia, since Obama and McFaul have now gotten everything they needed from Georgia and no longer have much use for our ally. Georgia hasn’t been treated much worse than the rest of our allies by the Obama administration, but that’s still pretty terrible. In any event, I would guess the Obama administration is willing to offer all three cheers for the Georgian election.

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Allies Decry Obama’s “Empty Promises”

When Mitt Romney made his infamous remark about Russia being our “No. 1 geopolitical foe,” his inartful sound bite ended up drowning out what he said next, which was an important—and much more nuanced—point. Romney noted that it has begun to matter less how dangerous we perceive nations like Iran or North Korea to be if we can’t take collective diplomatic action and put concerted pressure on them. To do that, we would need to build coalitions at multilateral organizations–something made virtually impossible by Russia’s Security Council veto and their de facto veto over NATO action they don’t like.

While this may not make Russia our “No. 1 geopolitical foe,” it does severely hamper exactly the kind of international cooperation that the Obama administration claims to prefer over (the usually straw-man) unilateral action. Put more simply: sanctions can’t prevent war if they don’t exist. I was initially puzzled by the Obama administration’s relentless mockery of Romney’s point, since he was basically defending the Obama administration’s method of international relations. But then it became clear: President Obama has no intention of using multilateral organizations to advance his foreign policy either. And so we led from behind–which means “followed”—France in Libya, a modest intervention that has been something close to a complete disaster, as we have seen in the events since—and the administration’s cover-up of those events. And now the New York Times reports from Turkey:

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When Mitt Romney made his infamous remark about Russia being our “No. 1 geopolitical foe,” his inartful sound bite ended up drowning out what he said next, which was an important—and much more nuanced—point. Romney noted that it has begun to matter less how dangerous we perceive nations like Iran or North Korea to be if we can’t take collective diplomatic action and put concerted pressure on them. To do that, we would need to build coalitions at multilateral organizations–something made virtually impossible by Russia’s Security Council veto and their de facto veto over NATO action they don’t like.

While this may not make Russia our “No. 1 geopolitical foe,” it does severely hamper exactly the kind of international cooperation that the Obama administration claims to prefer over (the usually straw-man) unilateral action. Put more simply: sanctions can’t prevent war if they don’t exist. I was initially puzzled by the Obama administration’s relentless mockery of Romney’s point, since he was basically defending the Obama administration’s method of international relations. But then it became clear: President Obama has no intention of using multilateral organizations to advance his foreign policy either. And so we led from behind–which means “followed”—France in Libya, a modest intervention that has been something close to a complete disaster, as we have seen in the events since—and the administration’s cover-up of those events. And now the New York Times reports from Turkey:

For weeks, Turkey’s leaders have faced a public backlash over their aggressive posture toward Syria, a sentiment owed partly to a feeling that Turkey may be on the right side in the fight but that it is isolated, without the backing of its Western allies, including the United States, as China, Russia and Iran have lined up forcefully behind the government of Mr. Assad. That feeling deepened after the latest crisis.

“We are now at a very critical juncture,” Melih Asik, a columnist, wrote in the centrist newspaper Milliyet. “We are not only facing Syria, but Iran, Iraq, Russia and China are behind it as well. Behind us, we have nothing but the provocative stance and empty promises of the U.S.”

The Turks also believe something needs to be done about Syria—which killed five Turkish civilians this week—but are hesitant to take too much unilateral action. What they’d really like is to see the West take its hands out of its pockets. Of course, we have a multilateral organization of democracies to do just that: NATO. What are they up to? The Times explains:

NATO held an emergency meeting on Wednesday night and condemned the attack, but it did not suggest that it would invoke the clause in its charter that would require a collective response by NATO allies to the conflagration between Syria and Turkey.

A NATO member was attacked by Syria, so NATO called an emergency meeting to shake their heads and purse their lips. What would the free world do without emergency meetings?

This is, of course, a complex situation. There are clear obstacles to any hopes of repairing frayed ties with Turkey, and those obstacles were not put up by Americans. And as Brian T. Haggerty writes today in Bloomberg, any intervention in Syria would probably mean a lot more than we might think. But Haggerty’s article—intended to explain how difficult it would be for a limited intervention by the West to defeat Bashar al-Assad and his forces—only goes to show that the fall of the house of Assad is far from inevitable, and that the rebels—whose side we claim to support—are nowhere near winning.

If the president wakes up each morning hoping to hear that the conflict in Syria has miraculously ended, he will begin each day a disappointed man. But not nearly as disappointed as the Syrian rebels and Turkish civilians who are learning the hard way that Obama’s interest in multilateral problem solving was a campaign slogan, not a strategy.

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On Afghanistan, Obama Must Speak Up

It’s been a tough few days in Afghanistan.

On September 14, the Taliban attacked Camp Bastion—a giant Anglo-American base in Helmand Province—and managed to destroy six Marine Harrier jets on the ground and to kill a Harrier squadron commander. This was a well-planned, well-executed attack that caused more than a hundred million dollars in damage.

On September 18, a suicide bomber rammed a bus near the Kabul airport, killing 12 people, mostly foreign crew members working on charter flights to support USAID and other agencies in Afghanistan.

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It’s been a tough few days in Afghanistan.

On September 14, the Taliban attacked Camp Bastion—a giant Anglo-American base in Helmand Province—and managed to destroy six Marine Harrier jets on the ground and to kill a Harrier squadron commander. This was a well-planned, well-executed attack that caused more than a hundred million dollars in damage.

On September 18, a suicide bomber rammed a bus near the Kabul airport, killing 12 people, mostly foreign crew members working on charter flights to support USAID and other agencies in Afghanistan.

And in the meantime there have been more “green on blue” attacks in which Afghan security personnel attacked coalition troops, bringing the total number of fatalities from such attacks this year to 51—a record high. As a result, the NATO command in Kabul has temporarily suspended most joint operations between American and Afghan troops, or, to be more precise, it has given regional two-star headquarters the prerogative to suspend such operations if the amount of risk incurred is judged to be unacceptable. Such operations, which are commonplace, will require a two-star general’s approval for the time being—at least until the current storm over the anti-Islam video, which has been much denounced and little watched, blows over. Advisory work at the battalion and above level will remain unaffected, and, with any luck, the temporary ban on lower-level operations can be lifted soon.

Partnering between U.S. and Afghan units, which necessarily involves sharing the hardship and danger of combat, is the single most effective way to improve the Afghans’ combat capabilities—and thus to ensure that the U.S. can draw down our troops without leading to a complete collapse of the country. If partnering is ended indefinitely, the results will be calamitous—for Afghanistan and for American interests in Afghanistan. Even a temporary halt to partnering will have an adverse impact on security, especially coming, as it does, just as commanders are completing an ill-advised drawdown ordered by President Obama to just 68,000 U.S. troops.

I don’t want to make too much (or too little) of these setbacks. There are, after all, losses and failures in all wars. The enemy, despite some setbacks in the south, remains far from defeated and is capable of audacious and professional operations. The Taliban strategy of encouraging insider attacks on coalition forces is proving particularly effective. As Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, notes, “It is a very serious threat to the campaign.”

You would think that under those circumstances it would be all the more important for Obama, the commander-in-chief, to go on television so that he can explain what is happening to the American (and Afghan) people and reassure them that his plan for Afghanistan remains on track—or else to explain what modifications in his plans he is making to deal with the present situation. If the suspension of partnered operations is only temporary, he should make that clear so that the Taliban cannot claim that they are chasing us out. If the suspension is to be more long-lasting, he must explain what impact this will have on his exit strategy.

Instead, of course, we are treated to more radio silence from the White House over this forgotten war. Little wonder that public support for the war effort continues to crater: When there is no alternative narrative to counterbalance the gloomy reports in the news, the public naturally believes that all is lost. I don’t think that’s the case, based on what I have seen during my own visits to Afghanistan. But the battle for hearts and minds on the home front is certainly being lost—or rather not contested by a White House that clearly has other priorities.

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No Need for NATO Ground Troops in Syria

In light of my recent writing on Syria, bemoaning the Obama administration’s strangely passive stance, a knowledgeable reader writes to ask:  “Would you be willing to support US/NATO/UN-backed troops on the ground in Syria?” He explains:

My big concern now is that simple aid, even with a no-fly zone in place, would be too little, too late, and we wouldn’t have enough organic C4ISR assets in country to 1) effectively leverage our assets to best effect, and 2) ensure that hostile or potentially hostile elements weren’t benefiting from our efforts at aid.  But Syria is untenable now.  It’s a failed state, with a rogue state embedded within it, every nasty element in the wider Middle East on the ground, and desperately in need of — and I use this term with some reluctance — Western intervention.

I agree with him about the need for Western intervention. I disagree, at least based on the situation so far, on the need for Western ground troops.

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In light of my recent writing on Syria, bemoaning the Obama administration’s strangely passive stance, a knowledgeable reader writes to ask:  “Would you be willing to support US/NATO/UN-backed troops on the ground in Syria?” He explains:

My big concern now is that simple aid, even with a no-fly zone in place, would be too little, too late, and we wouldn’t have enough organic C4ISR assets in country to 1) effectively leverage our assets to best effect, and 2) ensure that hostile or potentially hostile elements weren’t benefiting from our efforts at aid.  But Syria is untenable now.  It’s a failed state, with a rogue state embedded within it, every nasty element in the wider Middle East on the ground, and desperately in need of — and I use this term with some reluctance — Western intervention.

I agree with him about the need for Western intervention. I disagree, at least based on the situation so far, on the need for Western ground troops.

There is simply not the will in the U.S., or in any of our major allies, to organize the kind of ground force that would be needed to pacify such a volatile country of 20 million people–two-thirds the size of Afghanistan. Using a traditional counterinsurgency rule of thumb, which suggests you need at least one counterinsurgent per 50 civilians, would produce an estimate of 400,000 troops needed to bring peace to Syria. Simply stating the requirement is to suggest how fantastic it is to contemplate–there is no chance that the U.S. or our allies would ante up anywhere close to that number. Of course it’s possible to muddle by with less, as we have done in Iraq or Afghanistan, but there is scant chance of even sending 100,000 or 200,000 troops. And there is no point in sending a small, symbolic force, of the kind that the U.S., France, and other Western allies sent to Lebanon in 1983, following the Israeli invasion and in the midst of the Lebanese civil war. This would simply make our troops an inviting target for extremists, leading to more tragedies such as the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut.

The analogy is a sobering one because the architect of the Marine barracks bombing, which killed 241 sailors and marines, was Hezbollah–and that potent terrorist organization, with ample Iranian backing, is located directly across the border in Lebanon. It could easily extend its operations into Syria to target U.S. troops, as it did already in Iraq. The last thing we want is to fight a counterinsurgency campaign against a foreign-backed organization which enjoys safe havens in a neighboring country.

Luckily, however, I do not believe there is any need for American or other Western ground troops to go anywhere near Syria beyond a small number of Special Operations Forces and intelligence operatives to coordinate with the rebels. Turkey could usefully provide some troops, not to march on Damascus, but simply to protect “safe zones” along the Turkish border where refugees could come and Syrian rebels could organize to take over the country. But the American contribution should be limited to providing intelligence and other types of support for the rebels. At most we should conduct air operations to impose a no-fly zone and to attack regime targets in cooperation with rebel forces, as we did in Libya, Afghanistan (in 2001), Kosovo, and Bosnia. That’s it. The risks of such an operation are exceedingly small–it would take only a few days to neutralize Syria’s air defense, leaving the regime helpless in the face of Western airpower. Even such an operation should be mounted only with allied cooperation, preferably to include the imprimatur of NATO and the Arab League.

Once the Assad regime falls, it is possible that there will be a need for international peacekeeping forces to help an emerging democratic regime to bring order to the country and to safeguard dangerous assets such as Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile. Even then, the U.S. should tread carefully–putting American troops on the ground is a high-risk option and one we need to avoid if at all possible. I advocated the dispatch of an international stabilization force to Libya after the fall of Qaddafi and it may make sense to send such a force to Syria after Assad’s fall, but the U.S. should not take the lead on ground forces, because our troops are such an inviting target for terrorists. We could help as part of a multinational coalition with the backing of the UN, NATO and the Arab League but we should do nothing to convey the impression of an “American invasion.” This is a case where we would be wiser to act primarily although not exclusively through proxies–both external (Turkey, Jordan) and internal (the Free Syrian Army). But we do need to act; we can’t simply sit on the sidelines watching the civil war spiral out of control.

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Extremists Filling Power Vacuum in Syria

The Syrian civil war is not only continuing to claim a ghastly toll within Syria, with a continuing regime assault on Aleppo–it is also now sucking Lebanon into the muck too. Shiite clans within Lebanon are kidnapping Syrian rebel fighters who are said to be holding their clansmen prisoners. In retaliation Lebanese Sunnis are threatening to kidnap Lebanese Shiites. Thus Syria’s instability is upsetting the delicate balance of power within Lebanon, raising concerns that, two decades after the end of its bloody civil war, which claimed 100,000 lives, there could be a recurrence of fighting within Lebanon.

This is yet another indictment of the understandable but misguided hands-off policy the U.S. and its allies are following in Syria, where we appear to be content to stand by and let the fighting take its course–much as previous administrations did in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. The terrible consequences of our inaction can be measured not only in regional destabilization but also in a growing vacuum of power within Syria which extremists are trying to fill. Former journalist Bartle Bull, who recently visited Syria, offers this revealing exchange with a rebel commander:

Mohamed said he would happily accept help from Washington. “We need everything.” He is not interested in help from Al Qaeda. Still, America’s refusal to get serious about military aid provides the extremists with their only opening. “I can take Al Qaeda’s money,” another irate commander told me. “Is that what you want me to do?”

It would be a tragedy if this and other rebel commanders were in fact driven into Al Qaeda’s camp by neglect in the West. It does not have to be this way. As Bull writes: “Providing the rebels with as few as 500 Stinger missiles and 1,000 tank-busting R.P.G.-7’s could potentially cut the conflict’s length in half. And grounding Mr. Assad’s air force, keeping his tanks off the roads, and neutralizing his command-and-control would be likely to bring him down within a couple of months.”

I would hesitate to provide sophisticated surface-to-air missiles to the rebels, given the danger that they could wind up in the wrong hands. But we should provide better anti-tank weapons and, in lieu of Stingers, the U.S. and its allies should simply declare a no-fly zone to ground Assad’s air force. As Bull notes, this, along with some targeted air strikes of the kind that NATO mounted in Libya, could hasten Assad’s ouster and speed attempts to reimpose a semblance of authority in Syria. Allowing the conflict to take its course, by contrast, virtually guarantees that it will foment dangerous extremism inside Syria and out.

The Syrian civil war is not only continuing to claim a ghastly toll within Syria, with a continuing regime assault on Aleppo–it is also now sucking Lebanon into the muck too. Shiite clans within Lebanon are kidnapping Syrian rebel fighters who are said to be holding their clansmen prisoners. In retaliation Lebanese Sunnis are threatening to kidnap Lebanese Shiites. Thus Syria’s instability is upsetting the delicate balance of power within Lebanon, raising concerns that, two decades after the end of its bloody civil war, which claimed 100,000 lives, there could be a recurrence of fighting within Lebanon.

This is yet another indictment of the understandable but misguided hands-off policy the U.S. and its allies are following in Syria, where we appear to be content to stand by and let the fighting take its course–much as previous administrations did in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. The terrible consequences of our inaction can be measured not only in regional destabilization but also in a growing vacuum of power within Syria which extremists are trying to fill. Former journalist Bartle Bull, who recently visited Syria, offers this revealing exchange with a rebel commander:

Mohamed said he would happily accept help from Washington. “We need everything.” He is not interested in help from Al Qaeda. Still, America’s refusal to get serious about military aid provides the extremists with their only opening. “I can take Al Qaeda’s money,” another irate commander told me. “Is that what you want me to do?”

It would be a tragedy if this and other rebel commanders were in fact driven into Al Qaeda’s camp by neglect in the West. It does not have to be this way. As Bull writes: “Providing the rebels with as few as 500 Stinger missiles and 1,000 tank-busting R.P.G.-7’s could potentially cut the conflict’s length in half. And grounding Mr. Assad’s air force, keeping his tanks off the roads, and neutralizing his command-and-control would be likely to bring him down within a couple of months.”

I would hesitate to provide sophisticated surface-to-air missiles to the rebels, given the danger that they could wind up in the wrong hands. But we should provide better anti-tank weapons and, in lieu of Stingers, the U.S. and its allies should simply declare a no-fly zone to ground Assad’s air force. As Bull notes, this, along with some targeted air strikes of the kind that NATO mounted in Libya, could hasten Assad’s ouster and speed attempts to reimpose a semblance of authority in Syria. Allowing the conflict to take its course, by contrast, virtually guarantees that it will foment dangerous extremism inside Syria and out.

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A Vacuum Recognized Is Not a Vacuum Filled

The central pillar of the rebuttal to complaints about American defense spending compared to that of the rest of the world is the fact that other countries–or continents, in Europe’s case–can only afford to skimp on defense spending because the U.S. will pick up the slack. American defense cuts, if not done carefully and responsibly, risk leaving a vacuum in areas where the U.S. military has carried the burden of influence.

So it’s not surprising that the prospect of American defense cuts, together with the “pivot” of resources to the Asia-Pacific region, are making some European allies nervous. Britain’s new defense minister, however, has some advice for his European counterparts: stop whining and pitch in:

Instead of worrying about the cutbacks to U.S. military power in the region, which many NATO countries apparently had been counting on to offset their own deep defense reductions, [Phillip] Hammond said the allies must recognize that “as a result, European nations, including the UK, will need to do much more of the heavy lifting in the security of their own region,” including both Europe itself and the Middle East, Northern Africa, and the Horn of Africa, which he called “the near abroad.”

“This is not the end of Atlanticism, but the beginning of a new, more balanced relationship in the alliance,” Hammond said.

While the U.S.-UK ties will always be Britain’s priority, Hammond said, “to support your rebalancing [to Asia], we will seek to work more closely with our neighbors in Europe, particularly France and Germany, to enhance capabilities in our own region.”

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The central pillar of the rebuttal to complaints about American defense spending compared to that of the rest of the world is the fact that other countries–or continents, in Europe’s case–can only afford to skimp on defense spending because the U.S. will pick up the slack. American defense cuts, if not done carefully and responsibly, risk leaving a vacuum in areas where the U.S. military has carried the burden of influence.

So it’s not surprising that the prospect of American defense cuts, together with the “pivot” of resources to the Asia-Pacific region, are making some European allies nervous. Britain’s new defense minister, however, has some advice for his European counterparts: stop whining and pitch in:

Instead of worrying about the cutbacks to U.S. military power in the region, which many NATO countries apparently had been counting on to offset their own deep defense reductions, [Phillip] Hammond said the allies must recognize that “as a result, European nations, including the UK, will need to do much more of the heavy lifting in the security of their own region,” including both Europe itself and the Middle East, Northern Africa, and the Horn of Africa, which he called “the near abroad.”

“This is not the end of Atlanticism, but the beginning of a new, more balanced relationship in the alliance,” Hammond said.

While the U.S.-UK ties will always be Britain’s priority, Hammond said, “to support your rebalancing [to Asia], we will seek to work more closely with our neighbors in Europe, particularly France and Germany, to enhance capabilities in our own region.”

It’s a nice thought, and it certainly would be the responsible thing to do. But there’s no reason to pretend this will happen. France just excused their pro-Western president from his duties to replace him with the leader of the French socialists, and absent conditions threatening a localized catastrophe–think Libya–it’s difficult to imagine the French increasing their role in defense of the West.

As for Germany, the country was greeted with Nazi catcalls for simply trying to maintain leverage over the conditions of bailing out failing European economies and saving the euro–just imagine what Europe’s reaction would be if Germany so much as hinted at becoming the continent’s new military power. It’s a nonstarter.

And what about Britain? As Max wrote here a couple weeks ago, British defense cuts will pare down the standing army to its lowest level in a century, and its diplomatic influence will wane accordingly. Hammond focused his remarks on, in his words, “the European NATO powers.” This is telling–and unfortunate. As Josh Rogin reported after the U.S.-hosted NATO summit in May:

This weekend’s NATO summit in Chicago is the first in decades to make little to no progress on the enlargement of the organization, leaving several countries to wait another two years to move toward membership in the world’s premier military alliance.

In the official 65-point summit declaration issued Sunday, there were several references to the four countries vying for progress on their road to NATO membership: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Georgia. But none came away from the summit with any tangible progress to tout back at home. NATO expansion was just not a priority of the Obama administration this year, U.S. officials and experts say, given the packed security-focused agenda and looming uncertainly caused by the deepening European financial crisis.

So the crisis in Europe had the opposite effect from what Hammond is suggesting; rather than retrench and build the West’s military alliance, everyone was too busy chewing his fingernails to get any work done.

This is not to say there are no reasons for caution on enlarging NATO. It’s that no progress was even attempted. And countries developing or experimenting with democratic laws and norms don’t usually tread water–they should be helped forward so they don’t fall back. NATO membership action plans can often be useful in this regard, as Heather Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told Rogin:

Conley pointed to the Serbian elections this weekend, where Serbians chose an ultra-nationalist known as “Toma the Gravedigger” to be their president, as evidence that these countries could slip back toward authoritarianism if not given full support and inclusion by Western organizations.

The West is not always to blame. Often a country slipping back toward authoritarianism and corruption poses a chicken-or-egg question: Was Ukraine rejected by the West, or did they choose to reject the West (or orchestrate their rejection by the West)? But the underlying point is valid, and we cannot continue brushing off countries and expecting them not to take a hint. (Georgia, for example, has contributed more to the Afghanistan mission than some NATO countries.)

Now would be a great time to expand the Western alliance. Until that happens, Europe and NATO will continue to recede from the world stage, and Hammond’s good advice will be unceremoniously ignored.

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Will Turkey Expose NATO Secrets to China?

Turkey is currently considering bids to upgrade its air defense system. While a member of NATO since 1952, the Islamist leadership in Turkey has made clear it no longer sees itself bound by the responsibility to protect NATO secrets nor the Turkish leadership factor into its decisions NATO’s security requirements.

Should Turkey decide to go with the Russian S-300 or Chinese HQ-9 it will have two choices: either have its air defense system disconnected from systems involved in NATO, or perhaps betray NATO secrets. If Turkey will not commit to protect sensitive information impacting U.S. defense, it remains curious why the Obama administration seems intent to go ahead with a sale of the next generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to Turkey. Alas, as always, the Congressional Turkey Caucus remains silent.

Turkey is currently considering bids to upgrade its air defense system. While a member of NATO since 1952, the Islamist leadership in Turkey has made clear it no longer sees itself bound by the responsibility to protect NATO secrets nor the Turkish leadership factor into its decisions NATO’s security requirements.

Should Turkey decide to go with the Russian S-300 or Chinese HQ-9 it will have two choices: either have its air defense system disconnected from systems involved in NATO, or perhaps betray NATO secrets. If Turkey will not commit to protect sensitive information impacting U.S. defense, it remains curious why the Obama administration seems intent to go ahead with a sale of the next generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to Turkey. Alas, as always, the Congressional Turkey Caucus remains silent.

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U.S.-Pakistan Relations Still Bizarre

So it appears the standoff which led to the closing of the NATO supply line through Pakistan in November has finally been resolved. After resisting offering an apology for an incident in which a cross-border firefight led to the deaths of two dozen Pakistani soldiers, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has finally delivered language that would satisfy Pakistan. As she said in a statement:

“I once again reiterated our deepest regrets for the tragic incident in Salala last November. I offered our sincere condolences to the families of the Pakistani soldiers who lost their lives. Foreign Minister Khar and I acknowledged the mistakes that resulted in the loss of Pakistani military lives. We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military. We are committed to working closely with Pakistan and Afghanistan to prevent this from ever happening again.”

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So it appears the standoff which led to the closing of the NATO supply line through Pakistan in November has finally been resolved. After resisting offering an apology for an incident in which a cross-border firefight led to the deaths of two dozen Pakistani soldiers, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has finally delivered language that would satisfy Pakistan. As she said in a statement:

“I once again reiterated our deepest regrets for the tragic incident in Salala last November. I offered our sincere condolences to the families of the Pakistani soldiers who lost their lives. Foreign Minister Khar and I acknowledged the mistakes that resulted in the loss of Pakistani military lives. We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military. We are committed to working closely with Pakistan and Afghanistan to prevent this from ever happening again.”

That simple statement was, of course, the subject of many months of contentious negotiations. It is hard to blame the administration for finally kowtowing, at least in a limited way, toward Pakistani sensitivities. After all, the closure of the “GLOC” (ground line of communications), even if it did not disrupt NATO operations, was costing us an extra $100 million a month to ferry goods from Central Asia. But this should not make anyone think relations with Pakistan have been restored to normal–a term tough to even apply to our bizarre relationship with this state which claims to be an ally and yet sponsors terrorist groups which regularly kill American soldiers.

Nor should this deal lead us to shy away from taking some of the tough steps–such as using drones to target Taliban and Haqqani leaders inside Pakistan–that will still arouse Pakistani ire and that could lead to a closure of the GLOC once again. If we don’t do more to strike at the insurgent leadership, we will not be able to leave even minimal stability behind in Afghanistan after 2014.

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Political Victory Out of Battlefield Defeats

The United Nations has hardly been a cheerleader for the U.S.-led NATO mission in Afghanistan. In fact, UN representatives have often been skeptical of the methods and tactics employed by American troops. So it is particularly noteworthy that even the UN is recording a big drop—21 percent–in civilian deaths in the first four months of 2012 compared with the same period a year ago. This tallies with NATO figures showing a drop in insurgent attacks—evidence that the post-2009 surge is working.

Unfortunately, just as American troops and their allies are making demonstrable progress, their political masters are preparing to pull them out. French troops are due to leave this year and more than 20,000 American troops are due to leave in September with more, perhaps, to follow before long. Western politicians would be foolish, now that the coalition actually has the initiative and the Taliban are on their heels, to let up on the pressure. But that is precisely what may happen, allowing the Taliban, Haqqanis, et al., to pull a political victory out of their battlefield defeats.

The United Nations has hardly been a cheerleader for the U.S.-led NATO mission in Afghanistan. In fact, UN representatives have often been skeptical of the methods and tactics employed by American troops. So it is particularly noteworthy that even the UN is recording a big drop—21 percent–in civilian deaths in the first four months of 2012 compared with the same period a year ago. This tallies with NATO figures showing a drop in insurgent attacks—evidence that the post-2009 surge is working.

Unfortunately, just as American troops and their allies are making demonstrable progress, their political masters are preparing to pull them out. French troops are due to leave this year and more than 20,000 American troops are due to leave in September with more, perhaps, to follow before long. Western politicians would be foolish, now that the coalition actually has the initiative and the Taliban are on their heels, to let up on the pressure. But that is precisely what may happen, allowing the Taliban, Haqqanis, et al., to pull a political victory out of their battlefield defeats.

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