Commentary Magazine


Topic: Persian Gulf

Remove the Carriers from the Persian Gulf

Several months ago, I asked a retired admiral what sign the United States could give that its patience had truly worn thin with Iran. “Remove the carriers from the Persian Gulf,” he responded. At first, that struck me as dumb: The Iranians would depict the American withdrawal as another sign that the United States was weak and in retreat. “Don’t worry,” he assured me. “Any Revolutionary Guardsmen worth his weight would understand.”

The Persian Gulf is shallow and the international shipping lanes relatively narrow. The Iranian navy has long drilled swarming American vessels with small boats. Even if Iran can’t sink an aircraft carrier, if it manages even to disable one, it will receive a huge propaganda boost. If the Pentagon kept its carriers outside the Persian Gulf in the deeper and open waters of the Sea of Oman, however, they would retain the same strike capabilities but could maintain greater maneuverability and remain outside the reach of the Iranian navy.

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Several months ago, I asked a retired admiral what sign the United States could give that its patience had truly worn thin with Iran. “Remove the carriers from the Persian Gulf,” he responded. At first, that struck me as dumb: The Iranians would depict the American withdrawal as another sign that the United States was weak and in retreat. “Don’t worry,” he assured me. “Any Revolutionary Guardsmen worth his weight would understand.”

The Persian Gulf is shallow and the international shipping lanes relatively narrow. The Iranian navy has long drilled swarming American vessels with small boats. Even if Iran can’t sink an aircraft carrier, if it manages even to disable one, it will receive a huge propaganda boost. If the Pentagon kept its carriers outside the Persian Gulf in the deeper and open waters of the Sea of Oman, however, they would retain the same strike capabilities but could maintain greater maneuverability and remain outside the reach of the Iranian navy.

At present, the United States keeps two carrier strike groups in the Persian Gulf; that’s a tremendous allocation of resources. It wasn’t always like this. Carriers seldom if ever entered the Persian Gulf prior to Iran’s 1979 revolution and, throughout the 1980s and as the Iran-Iraq war waged, we had a single carrier in the Persian Gulf only about half the time. This changed as a result of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and that small emirate’s subsequent liberation. After that war ended, the average carrier presence again fell below one, although Bill Clinton raised it to between one and two carriers throughout much of his term. Ironically, Pentagon statistics show that carrier presence in the Persian Gulf declined during the George W. Bush administration—but never fell below one—and only increased back to two, on average, under President Obama.

The United States has limited numbers of naval assets, and it is nonsensical to make our most valuable assets also our most vulnerable. Sending in the destroyers and the cruisers, and flying sorties over the Persian Gulf, will reassure our allies. Behind Iranian bluster will be real—and deserved fear—the Americans can strike them anytime, anywhere and, to borrow and adapt a slogan from the Revolutionary Guards, “the Iranians won’t be able to do a damned thing.”

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The Navy Gets Serious About Gulf Action

Looks like the U.S. Navy is getting serious about a potential war with Iran. Witness the news that four Avenger-class minesweepers are being sent to Bahrain from the U.S., doubling the number of American minesweepers in the Persian Gulf. More minesweeping MH-53E helicopters are also being sent.

This is a significant deployment given how few of each the Navy has—there are only 14 Avenger-class minesweepers in the entire fleet and only about 20 helicopters outfitted for mine sweeping. This is less dramatic than moving an aircraft carrier but potentially more effective because of Iran’s repeated threats to close the Strait of Hormuz in the event of any crisis—something the Iranians will no doubt attempt to do primarily with mines augmented by small attack boats and missiles. Enhancing our ability to respond to that threat should help deter Iran from any precipitous action.

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Looks like the U.S. Navy is getting serious about a potential war with Iran. Witness the news that four Avenger-class minesweepers are being sent to Bahrain from the U.S., doubling the number of American minesweepers in the Persian Gulf. More minesweeping MH-53E helicopters are also being sent.

This is a significant deployment given how few of each the Navy has—there are only 14 Avenger-class minesweepers in the entire fleet and only about 20 helicopters outfitted for mine sweeping. This is less dramatic than moving an aircraft carrier but potentially more effective because of Iran’s repeated threats to close the Strait of Hormuz in the event of any crisis—something the Iranians will no doubt attempt to do primarily with mines augmented by small attack boats and missiles. Enhancing our ability to respond to that threat should help deter Iran from any precipitous action.

And with time running out to stop the Iranian nuclear program, the odds of an Israeli strike are going up. From a political viewpoint Israel has an incentive to attack before the November presidential election on the assumption that President Obama will have to be more supportive of Israel before an election than after it—the Republican nominee would certainly pounce on the president were he to offer anything but unqualified backing to our closest ally in the region.

It’s a good thing the Navy is getting ready to deal with the possible consequences of an Israeli air raid, although the very fact that there are so few minesweepers available should alert us to the alarming decline in the size of the fleet and the need to build up our naval capacity—rather than continue to degrade it as we are currently going to do because of wider defense cuts.

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Beware the Egyptian School Teacher?

Egypt’s greatest export has always been its school teachers, at least in the Middle East. In the 1950s and 1960s, not only did President Gamal Abdul Nasser export Egyptian teachers, but many Arab states—especially in the Persian Gulf—used the Egyptian curriculum as well. It was not simply Nasser’s rhetoric which propelled Arab nationalism beyond Egypt’s borders, but also Egyptian expatriates.

I’m in the Persian Gulf region, interviewing a number of government and opposition officials. While American policymakers debate whether the Muslim Brotherhood has moderated (it hasn’t), or whether the new Islamist-dominated government in Egypt will void the Camp David Accords, thereby signaling to the world that treaties made with Arab countries are meaningless, the perspectives here differ.

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Egypt’s greatest export has always been its school teachers, at least in the Middle East. In the 1950s and 1960s, not only did President Gamal Abdul Nasser export Egyptian teachers, but many Arab states—especially in the Persian Gulf—used the Egyptian curriculum as well. It was not simply Nasser’s rhetoric which propelled Arab nationalism beyond Egypt’s borders, but also Egyptian expatriates.

I’m in the Persian Gulf region, interviewing a number of government and opposition officials. While American policymakers debate whether the Muslim Brotherhood has moderated (it hasn’t), or whether the new Islamist-dominated government in Egypt will void the Camp David Accords, thereby signaling to the world that treaties made with Arab countries are meaningless, the perspectives here differ.

Egyptian teachers still work throughout the region. While the Persian Gulf states no longer use Egyptian curricula, many still employ a disproportionate number of Egyptian teachers. If Egypt radicalizes religiously, will Egyptian teachers propel that radicalization through Arab states’ education systems, much as Saudi Imams and the oil wealth which fueled them spread religious radicalism through the mosques? Other Arab governments could always, of course, fire the Egyptian school teachers, assuming they could find others to replace them. This would be a further disaster for the Egyptian economy, but the cost of not doing so in such a case where Egyptian teachers become engines for radicalism could be a slow motion disaster for the entire region.

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U.S. Carriers Surging Toward Gulf

The USS John C. Stennis is back in the news as Iran threatens to block its passage back through the Strait of Hormuz, an international waterway through which more than one-third of the world’s oil tankers pass.

For reasons I explain here, Iran’s threats are more bluster than bite. I spent about two weeks aboard the Stennis earlier this year, and there is not an abler ship or admiral. Meanwhile, while Iran perceives weakness in the Oval Office, they should be very careful about what they attempt. After all, not far behind the Stennis is the USS Carl Vinson—last in the headlines after the disposal of Bin Laden’s corpse—which turned around in near record time. The USS Abraham Lincoln is also heading to the Fifth Fleet area of operations. While there is normally only an aircraft carrier or two in the Persian Gulf or Sea of Oman, it seems there is a mini-naval surge ongoing. If Iran wants to pick a fight, they should think twice and then think again.

The USS John C. Stennis is back in the news as Iran threatens to block its passage back through the Strait of Hormuz, an international waterway through which more than one-third of the world’s oil tankers pass.

For reasons I explain here, Iran’s threats are more bluster than bite. I spent about two weeks aboard the Stennis earlier this year, and there is not an abler ship or admiral. Meanwhile, while Iran perceives weakness in the Oval Office, they should be very careful about what they attempt. After all, not far behind the Stennis is the USS Carl Vinson—last in the headlines after the disposal of Bin Laden’s corpse—which turned around in near record time. The USS Abraham Lincoln is also heading to the Fifth Fleet area of operations. While there is normally only an aircraft carrier or two in the Persian Gulf or Sea of Oman, it seems there is a mini-naval surge ongoing. If Iran wants to pick a fight, they should think twice and then think again.

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Lebanon: An Inflection Point for the Status Quo

The stakes are as high as they could possibly be in Lebanon: Hezbollah, the terrorist group backed by Iran, has obtained coalition approval to nominate its own candidate for prime minister as a replacement for Saad Hariri. (Hezbollah’s first choice, Omar Karami, declined to accept the nomination, so the group has moved on to another “consensus” candidate, Najib Mikati.) If this nomination goes forward and the installation of a new government can be enforced, the Hezbollah-led coalition will rule Lebanon.

Hezbollah is overlaying the process — in effect, an unfolding coup — with a veneer of parliamentary order. This isn’t fooling the Lebanese, who were out in force Monday protesting the move. But has it muted the Obama administration? We may well wonder. On Thursday, the brief comment on Lebanon by State Department spokesman Philip Crowley featured this disingenuous assessment: “There’s a constitutional process underway.” On Monday, the U.S. issued a narrow ––and pointless — warning about American support being “difficult” to continue if Hezbollah assumes a dominant role in the government.

The crucial element in Lebanon’s current crisis will be what the U.S. and the West do about Hezbollah’s power move. This hinge point is crucial not merely because it affects the future of Lebanon and the stability of the Levant, but because its outcome, one way or another, will be a signal to everyone around the globe who has plans to challenge the status quo. Analogies between the Cold War and today’s confrontation with organized Islamism are notoriously inexact, but Hezbollah’s move this month has many features in common with the political subversion campaigns that were the hallmark of Soviet-backed Marxist factions from the 1940s to the 1970s.

In this context, there is a poignant rumor being reported in Arab press that highlights one particular aspect of the West’s current posture. According to this blogger’s quote of a Kuwaiti daily, two “Western” aircraft carriers have been urgently dispatched from the Persian Gulf to the waters off Lebanon. Citing an EU official, the referenced news report offers completely unrealistic numbers (including “210 fighter jets”) for the force supposedly converging on the Eastern Mediterranean. The only realistic aspect of the report is that there have been, in fact, two Western carriers in the Gulf region: USS Abraham Lincoln and the French carrier Charles de Gaulle. Read More

The stakes are as high as they could possibly be in Lebanon: Hezbollah, the terrorist group backed by Iran, has obtained coalition approval to nominate its own candidate for prime minister as a replacement for Saad Hariri. (Hezbollah’s first choice, Omar Karami, declined to accept the nomination, so the group has moved on to another “consensus” candidate, Najib Mikati.) If this nomination goes forward and the installation of a new government can be enforced, the Hezbollah-led coalition will rule Lebanon.

Hezbollah is overlaying the process — in effect, an unfolding coup — with a veneer of parliamentary order. This isn’t fooling the Lebanese, who were out in force Monday protesting the move. But has it muted the Obama administration? We may well wonder. On Thursday, the brief comment on Lebanon by State Department spokesman Philip Crowley featured this disingenuous assessment: “There’s a constitutional process underway.” On Monday, the U.S. issued a narrow ––and pointless — warning about American support being “difficult” to continue if Hezbollah assumes a dominant role in the government.

The crucial element in Lebanon’s current crisis will be what the U.S. and the West do about Hezbollah’s power move. This hinge point is crucial not merely because it affects the future of Lebanon and the stability of the Levant, but because its outcome, one way or another, will be a signal to everyone around the globe who has plans to challenge the status quo. Analogies between the Cold War and today’s confrontation with organized Islamism are notoriously inexact, but Hezbollah’s move this month has many features in common with the political subversion campaigns that were the hallmark of Soviet-backed Marxist factions from the 1940s to the 1970s.

In this context, there is a poignant rumor being reported in Arab press that highlights one particular aspect of the West’s current posture. According to this blogger’s quote of a Kuwaiti daily, two “Western” aircraft carriers have been urgently dispatched from the Persian Gulf to the waters off Lebanon. Citing an EU official, the referenced news report offers completely unrealistic numbers (including “210 fighter jets”) for the force supposedly converging on the Eastern Mediterranean. The only realistic aspect of the report is that there have been, in fact, two Western carriers in the Gulf region: USS Abraham Lincoln and the French carrier Charles de Gaulle.

But the days when the Western navies had plenty of carriers to move around from crisis to crisis are behind us. Two carriers may be in the Mediterranean shortly, but not because they were urgently dispatched. Abraham Lincoln is tethered to our requirements in Southwest Asia; USS Enterprise, on the way to relieve Lincoln on-station, is transiting through the Mediterranean. Charles de Gaulle, France’s only aircraft carrier, has been scheduled since her deployment in October to return home in February.

NATO’s non-U.S. carrier force is razor thin. Charles de Gaulle’s departure from France last fall was marred by a breakdown that delayed this very rare deployment by several weeks. Britain, once a reliable dispatcher of aircraft carriers, is in worse shape: just this weekend, the Royal Navy sent its last fighter-jet carrier, HMS Ark Royal, to be decommissioned. Britain won’t have a carrier that can deploy fighter jets again until 2020. In this capability, Italy now outstrips Britain: the Italians have two carriers that can each transport eight Harrier jump-jets. Spain has one.

For the U.S., as for France, putting a carrier off Lebanon entails rigorously prioritizing crises: either leaving some unattended or accepting schedule gaps down the road. With enough effort, the U.S. and France could still seek to affect the outcome in Lebanon with an offshore show of force. But the regional expectation implied by the Arab press rumor — the sense that Western navies can easily bring overwhelming force to a crisis — is outdated today.

Margin and latitude in our force options are casualties of the extended post–Cold War drawdown. At a juncture evocative of previous dilemmas for U.S. presidents, Obama would do better to take his cue from Harry Truman in the late 1940s than from Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s. One way or another, this crisis in Lebanon will have a disproportionate impact on the future.

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Iran: Calculus Changing for the “Force Option”?

There’s more than one way to undermine America’s ability to conduct military strikes on the Iranian nuclear program. Iran has been working hard on one of those methods over the last six months: denying us our use of regional military bases for the attack.

Of the bases we use in the Persian Gulf region, the most significant to an attack campaign are in the small kingdoms of Bahrain and Qatar, which host, respectively, our fleet headquarters and a very large multi-use facility at Al-Udeid Air Base. For security operations in the Strait of Hormuz, we also rely on the use of airfields and ports in Oman.  We have additional facilities in Kuwait and the UAE, but for waging an offensive campaign in any part of the Gulf region, the necessary bases are the ones in Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman.

These are the nations Iran has been concentrating on. The approaches are different for the different nations: in Bahrain, where a majority of the Arab population is Shia and the emir’s government is justifiably concerned about unrest fomented by Tehran, the Iranians have alternated between threats and cajolery. In August their intimidation campaign paid off: the Bahraini foreign minister announced that Bahrain would not allow its territory to be used as a base for offensive operations. Because the U.S. military doesn’t usually operate strike aircraft out of Bahrain, the impact of this is uncertain – but it could well jeopardize the U.S. Navy’s ability to command and supply its fleet during an air campaign.

With Qatar and Oman, Iran has sought bilateral defense-cooperation agreements. That approach introduces ambivalence in the host nation’s strategic orientation – and hence in the status and purpose of the U.S. forces on its territory. Last week, for example, Qatar hosted a visit by three Iranian warships and a military delegation. The unprecedented event concluded with an announcement of Qatar’s readiness for joint military exercises with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

And in August, Oman signed a defense-cooperation agreement with Iran. The pretext focused on by the media was the explosion that rocked a Japanese oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz on July 28, an event that remains unexplained. But the agreement, ratified by the Iranian parliament in December, portends joint defense drills, intelligence sharing, and cooperative administration of security in the Strait of Hormuz. This is no mere technicality: Oman has signed up to make difficult choices if Iran seeks to shut down the strait in response to a U.S. strike. The new agreement posits a definition of security in the strait that excludes U.S. oversight. At the very least, Oman is now more likely to deny the use of its airfields and port refueling facilities to American forces.

These consequences are not inevitable. But Washington’s latitude to “calibrate” force against Iran is effectively gone. If we hope to operate from bases in Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman now, we will have to be “all in”: we will almost certainly have to guarantee to our hosts – who would be breaking agreements by siding with us – that they won’t be caught in a protracted cycle of retaliation from a still-dangerous Iran. Perceiving that prospect themselves, they have started hedging their bets. We may validly perceive benefits in waiting to take action, but doing so always carries costs. This is one of them.

There’s more than one way to undermine America’s ability to conduct military strikes on the Iranian nuclear program. Iran has been working hard on one of those methods over the last six months: denying us our use of regional military bases for the attack.

Of the bases we use in the Persian Gulf region, the most significant to an attack campaign are in the small kingdoms of Bahrain and Qatar, which host, respectively, our fleet headquarters and a very large multi-use facility at Al-Udeid Air Base. For security operations in the Strait of Hormuz, we also rely on the use of airfields and ports in Oman.  We have additional facilities in Kuwait and the UAE, but for waging an offensive campaign in any part of the Gulf region, the necessary bases are the ones in Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman.

These are the nations Iran has been concentrating on. The approaches are different for the different nations: in Bahrain, where a majority of the Arab population is Shia and the emir’s government is justifiably concerned about unrest fomented by Tehran, the Iranians have alternated between threats and cajolery. In August their intimidation campaign paid off: the Bahraini foreign minister announced that Bahrain would not allow its territory to be used as a base for offensive operations. Because the U.S. military doesn’t usually operate strike aircraft out of Bahrain, the impact of this is uncertain – but it could well jeopardize the U.S. Navy’s ability to command and supply its fleet during an air campaign.

With Qatar and Oman, Iran has sought bilateral defense-cooperation agreements. That approach introduces ambivalence in the host nation’s strategic orientation – and hence in the status and purpose of the U.S. forces on its territory. Last week, for example, Qatar hosted a visit by three Iranian warships and a military delegation. The unprecedented event concluded with an announcement of Qatar’s readiness for joint military exercises with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

And in August, Oman signed a defense-cooperation agreement with Iran. The pretext focused on by the media was the explosion that rocked a Japanese oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz on July 28, an event that remains unexplained. But the agreement, ratified by the Iranian parliament in December, portends joint defense drills, intelligence sharing, and cooperative administration of security in the Strait of Hormuz. This is no mere technicality: Oman has signed up to make difficult choices if Iran seeks to shut down the strait in response to a U.S. strike. The new agreement posits a definition of security in the strait that excludes U.S. oversight. At the very least, Oman is now more likely to deny the use of its airfields and port refueling facilities to American forces.

These consequences are not inevitable. But Washington’s latitude to “calibrate” force against Iran is effectively gone. If we hope to operate from bases in Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman now, we will have to be “all in”: we will almost certainly have to guarantee to our hosts – who would be breaking agreements by siding with us – that they won’t be caught in a protracted cycle of retaliation from a still-dangerous Iran. Perceiving that prospect themselves, they have started hedging their bets. We may validly perceive benefits in waiting to take action, but doing so always carries costs. This is one of them.

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Lieberman: It’s About American Interests

Sen. Joe Lieberman gave a speech today at the Council on Foreign Relations. It was everything the Obama Middle East policy is not — realistic, attuned to America’s national interests, and bold.

He smartly began describing the nervousness that has greeted the administration’s “smart diplomacy”: “I have been struck as I have traveled in the region in recent months by what seems to me to be a heightened uneasiness about the future of American power there. Behind closed doors, one hears an unmistakable uncertainty about our resolve and staying power.” He enumerates several reasons, but it is clear what the primary problem is:

I believe, the major geopolitical driver for the heightened anxiety about America’s staying power in the Middle East is the Islamic Republic of Iran — more specifically, its determined push to become the dominant power in the region and tilt the balance of governance there towards Islamist extremism — and whether the United States has the will to stop that push. The Iranian regime’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability cannot be separated from its long-term campaign of unconventional warfare, stretching back decades, to destabilize the region and remake it in its own Islamist extremist image.

Or, to put it bluntly, the problem is the administration’s seeming unwillingness or inability to thwart the rise of a nuclear-armed revolutionary Islamic state. It’s not about Israel; rather, it is about the U.S.: Read More

Sen. Joe Lieberman gave a speech today at the Council on Foreign Relations. It was everything the Obama Middle East policy is not — realistic, attuned to America’s national interests, and bold.

He smartly began describing the nervousness that has greeted the administration’s “smart diplomacy”: “I have been struck as I have traveled in the region in recent months by what seems to me to be a heightened uneasiness about the future of American power there. Behind closed doors, one hears an unmistakable uncertainty about our resolve and staying power.” He enumerates several reasons, but it is clear what the primary problem is:

I believe, the major geopolitical driver for the heightened anxiety about America’s staying power in the Middle East is the Islamic Republic of Iran — more specifically, its determined push to become the dominant power in the region and tilt the balance of governance there towards Islamist extremism — and whether the United States has the will to stop that push. The Iranian regime’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability cannot be separated from its long-term campaign of unconventional warfare, stretching back decades, to destabilize the region and remake it in its own Islamist extremist image.

Or, to put it bluntly, the problem is the administration’s seeming unwillingness or inability to thwart the rise of a nuclear-armed revolutionary Islamic state. It’s not about Israel; rather, it is about the U.S.:

If Iran succeeds in acquiring a nuclear weapons capability, it would severely destabilize the Middle East, a region whose stability has been an important long-term American national and economic security goal.

It would also damage America’s ability to sustain the commitments we have made in the Middle East: our commitment, dating back to the Carter and Reagan administrations, to prevent the domination of the Persian Gulf by a revisionist or extremist power; our commitment to secure lasting peace and security between Israel and its neighbors; and our commitment to deter, disrupt, and defeat state-sponsored Islamist extremist groups, who would suddenly be able to wage attacks from under the protection of Iran’s nuclear umbrella. …

That is why the single most important test of American power in the Middle East today is whether we succeed or fail in stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability. How we do on that test will significantly affect our standing in the rest of the world.

It is particularly telling that as Lieberman identifies the principle concern in the region (arguably anywhere), the Obami are flitting about trying to get Mahmoud Abbas to return to the negotiating table, where nothing much has or will be accomplished.

Lieberman praises the “cascade” of sanctions, but cautions: “Iran’s nuclear efforts are continuing forward. Despite some apparent technical difficulties, Iran’s centrifuges keep spinning, and its stockpile of fissile material continues to grow.” In other words, the sanctions have failed, and we now need to consider other measures.

Sensing that the Obami are excited by the prospect of new talks with the mullahs, he warns: “The test is not whether the Iranian regime is talking, but what the regime is doing.” So what do we do?

Our sanctions effort should therefore increasingly aim not just to add pressure on the existing regime, but to target the fissures that already exist both within the Iranian regime itself and between the regime and Iranian society.

This should include much more robust engagement and support for opposition forces inside Iran, both by the United States and like-minded democratic nations around the world. The Obama administration missed an important opportunity in the wake of last year’s election in Iran. But it is certainly not too late to give strong support to the people in Iran who are courageously standing up against their repressive government.

In addition to regime change, we — not tiny Israel —  must make clear we will use force if need be:

It is time for us to take steps that make clear that if diplomatic and economic strategies continue to fail to change Iran’s nuclear policies, a military strike is not just a remote possibility in the abstract, but a real and credible alternative policy that we and our allies are ready to exercise.

It is time to retire our ambiguous mantra about all options remaining on the table. It is time for our message to our friends and enemies in the region to become clearer: namely, that we will prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability — by peaceful means if we possibly can, but with military force if we absolutely must. A military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities entails risks and costs, but I am convinced that the risks and costs of allowing Iran to obtain a nuclear weapons capability are much greater.

There should be no effort to “outsource” this task, Lieberman explains. “We can and should coordinate with our many allies who share our interest in stopping a nuclear Iran, but we cannot delegate our global responsibilities to them.”

This is a powerful, mature speech that, I would suggest, should and can be the basis of a bipartisan policy. The new Congress as well as private citizens and groups concerned about the rise of a nuclear-armed Iran should make every effort to persuade the administration of the wisdom of Lieberman’s approach. There is no substitute for a determined commander in chief, but the president should know that resigning ourselves to a nuclear-armed Iran or another round of fruitless talks are non-options and will garner no public or congressional support. Moreover, Obama should know that the blame for a nuclear-armed Iran will fall on him.

A final note: Lieberman never uttered the word “Israel.” Israel certainly has a greater stake than any nation in disarming Tehran, but what the country and Obama must understand is that America’s national security is the primary issue.

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Saudi Arms Sale: Which War in View?

The sheer size of the proposed $60 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia makes it worth critical reflection. The types of weapon systems in the Saudi shopping list are even more eye-catching. News outlets report that the sale is to be understood as a means of bolstering Saudi defenses and security confidence in the face of the threat from Iran. But the weapon systems in question don’t support that theory.

Other Persian Gulf nations like Bahrain and Kuwait have been loading up on missile-defense systems and air-defense fighters. The proposed Saudi sale, however, is weighted heavily toward strike aircraft (F-15s configured for ground attack) and anti-tank attack helicopters. The proposed sale includes 84 strike-configured F-15s along with the retrofit of the Saudis’ 72 existing F-15s, more than doubling the Royal Saudi Air Force’s (RSAF) inventory of medium-range strikers. Significantly, the purchase extends the range at which the RSAF can conduct ground strikes beyond the shorter, defense-oriented range of its British Tornado force.

The Saudis will also buy 70 Apache Longbow helicopters with laser-guided Hellfire missiles and 72 Black Hawk helicopters for combat transport. It’s not clear if any of these aircraft will supplant some of the 150 attack and multi-purpose helicopters the Saudis negotiated to buy from Russia a year ago. If all are delivered, the Saudis will have increased their heliborne ground combat capability by 500 percent.

The question is what they plan to do with all these aircraft. During the Saddam Hussein years, the threat of land attack against Saudi Arabia was obvious. Today, it’s not. The Saudis are buying for a major armed conflict on land, but nothing indicates that Iran presents a threat of that kind. Iran isn’t prepared militarily to invade the Arabian Peninsula, either by land or sea, nor is it making the effort to be. Iran is building up its navy, missile forces, and nuclear options; its regional “power projection” effort on land is accomplished through sponsoring terrorism. But the counterinsurgency warfare model (e.g., the U.S.’s in Iraq) is inapplicable in this case: population numbers and terrain inhibit the rise on the Arabian Peninsula of insurgencies with the profile of Hezbollah or the Taliban. The number of modern systems the Saudis propose to purchase outstrips such a requirement considerably.

They can’t be contemplating the invasion of Iran, even as a counter to an Iranian attack. Numbers and terrain are decisively arrayed against that as well. Riyadh is buying an unusually large number of weapons with which to project power and fight a land campaign at a greater range than ever before – but the weapons are a mismatch for the likely dimensions of a confrontation with Iran.

Perhaps the Saudis see a potential need to fight Iran on Iraqi or Kuwaiti territory in the future. It would certainly have to be a distant future, given the substantial U.S. military presence in those countries. This expeditionary concept would also be highly uncharacteristic in Saudi strategic thinking.

But Riyadh may be arming as a regional rival to Iran – not for the defense of its own territory but as the leader of an Arab coalition, formed to gain ascendancy over Iran as the power broker in the Levant. Western analysts tend to miss the fact that Iran’s moves against Israel constitute a plan to effectively occupy territory that the Arab nations consider theirs to fight for. The concerns on both sides are more than ethnic and historical: they involve competing eschatological ideas.

The resurgence of Turkey, erstwhile Ottoman ruler, only accelerates the sense of powerful regional rivals polishing up their designs on the Levant. The Saudis’ military shopping list doesn’t match their defensive requirements against Iran, but if the strategic driver is a race to Jerusalem, it contains exactly what they need. Congress should take a critical look at the numbers involved – and the U.S. should take one at our disjointed and increasingly passive approach to the region.

The sheer size of the proposed $60 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia makes it worth critical reflection. The types of weapon systems in the Saudi shopping list are even more eye-catching. News outlets report that the sale is to be understood as a means of bolstering Saudi defenses and security confidence in the face of the threat from Iran. But the weapon systems in question don’t support that theory.

Other Persian Gulf nations like Bahrain and Kuwait have been loading up on missile-defense systems and air-defense fighters. The proposed Saudi sale, however, is weighted heavily toward strike aircraft (F-15s configured for ground attack) and anti-tank attack helicopters. The proposed sale includes 84 strike-configured F-15s along with the retrofit of the Saudis’ 72 existing F-15s, more than doubling the Royal Saudi Air Force’s (RSAF) inventory of medium-range strikers. Significantly, the purchase extends the range at which the RSAF can conduct ground strikes beyond the shorter, defense-oriented range of its British Tornado force.

The Saudis will also buy 70 Apache Longbow helicopters with laser-guided Hellfire missiles and 72 Black Hawk helicopters for combat transport. It’s not clear if any of these aircraft will supplant some of the 150 attack and multi-purpose helicopters the Saudis negotiated to buy from Russia a year ago. If all are delivered, the Saudis will have increased their heliborne ground combat capability by 500 percent.

The question is what they plan to do with all these aircraft. During the Saddam Hussein years, the threat of land attack against Saudi Arabia was obvious. Today, it’s not. The Saudis are buying for a major armed conflict on land, but nothing indicates that Iran presents a threat of that kind. Iran isn’t prepared militarily to invade the Arabian Peninsula, either by land or sea, nor is it making the effort to be. Iran is building up its navy, missile forces, and nuclear options; its regional “power projection” effort on land is accomplished through sponsoring terrorism. But the counterinsurgency warfare model (e.g., the U.S.’s in Iraq) is inapplicable in this case: population numbers and terrain inhibit the rise on the Arabian Peninsula of insurgencies with the profile of Hezbollah or the Taliban. The number of modern systems the Saudis propose to purchase outstrips such a requirement considerably.

They can’t be contemplating the invasion of Iran, even as a counter to an Iranian attack. Numbers and terrain are decisively arrayed against that as well. Riyadh is buying an unusually large number of weapons with which to project power and fight a land campaign at a greater range than ever before – but the weapons are a mismatch for the likely dimensions of a confrontation with Iran.

Perhaps the Saudis see a potential need to fight Iran on Iraqi or Kuwaiti territory in the future. It would certainly have to be a distant future, given the substantial U.S. military presence in those countries. This expeditionary concept would also be highly uncharacteristic in Saudi strategic thinking.

But Riyadh may be arming as a regional rival to Iran – not for the defense of its own territory but as the leader of an Arab coalition, formed to gain ascendancy over Iran as the power broker in the Levant. Western analysts tend to miss the fact that Iran’s moves against Israel constitute a plan to effectively occupy territory that the Arab nations consider theirs to fight for. The concerns on both sides are more than ethnic and historical: they involve competing eschatological ideas.

The resurgence of Turkey, erstwhile Ottoman ruler, only accelerates the sense of powerful regional rivals polishing up their designs on the Levant. The Saudis’ military shopping list doesn’t match their defensive requirements against Iran, but if the strategic driver is a race to Jerusalem, it contains exactly what they need. Congress should take a critical look at the numbers involved – and the U.S. should take one at our disjointed and increasingly passive approach to the region.

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Obama and Ideas of Force

I‘m in broad company, from what I can tell, in detecting from Obama’s speech last night no outline of a policy for Middle Eastern security or the use of U.S. power. As Peter Wehner and others point out, the president spoke emphatically of deadlines (especially regarding Afghanistan) and only vaguely of purposes. The strongest signal he sent was his intention to remove large formations of ground troops.

We rarely parse the mental idea leftists like Obama have when they speak of military force. Obama didn’t like the war in Iraq; he doesn’t like the war in Afghanistan. But he seems fine with the growing war in Yemen, as he apparently is with the expansion of a similar kind of war in Pakistan. He is not opposed to all methods of imposing American will by force.

After his speech, the TV commentariat rose up to advance the narrative that Obama had no obligation to acknowledge Bush’s surge decision, because there was never a valid justification for regime-changing Iraq to begin with. This reminded me forcibly of the alternative proposed often in the period between October 2001 and March 2003 (and now looked back on with an affectionate nostalgia in some quarters): that is, simply continuing to “contain Saddam” with sanctions.

Sanctions on Saddam’s Iraq represented a type of force approved by the political left. The UN sanctions were inaugurated under George H.W. Bush in conjunction with Desert Storm, but Bill Clinton continued them, presiding over refinements to them and dedicating the U.S. military as the principal enforcer. He combined them on several occasions with air and missile strikes. In theory, they were part of an overarching political effort centered on UN inspections of Iraq’s suspect facilities.

The containment of Saddam dragged on for more than 12 years. It necessitated a growing, permanently based U.S. military force in the Persian Gulf. It dramatically distorted the region’s economy, generated tremendous blockade-running revenue for Iran, and produced the spectacle of kickbacks through the UN Oil-for-Food program. A tolerable burden for American power, the sanctions on Iraq were an agent of change — for the worse — in global politics, regional relations, and UN practices. The one thing they did not change was Saddam.

It is easy, and not without utility, to view Obama’s antipathy to large formations of ground troops as part of a modern Democratic pattern of resisting that “level” of engagement. There’s some fairness to that. But there is a more important aspect of this pattern. Democratic presidents have been willing to use all kinds of other military options, for almost any purpose except forcing a change in the political situation that keeps the problem going. It’s the latter objective that typically necessitates ground troops to secure territory for political purposes. The objective itself is what no Democratic president since Harry Truman has felt able to justify.

It shouldn’t surprise us that Obama didn’t unequivocally endorse our success in Iraq. He belongs to a political faction that never saw its purpose — never sees any purpose of its kind — as justifiable. But the occasion of Obama’s speech is a good time to reflect on the alternatives to which modern Democratic presidents (along with some Republicans) have regularly resorted. The American people may not always be politically prepared for goals as decisive as regime-changing dictators, but containment is not really the low-impact alternative it often seems to be. It deforms the situations that concern us without providing any path to a conclusion. As with sanctions on Iraq, the U.S. can probably continue headhunting terrorists for years without breaking a sweat. And as with sanctions on Iraq, we are likely to induce changes in almost every aspect of the situation except the one that matters: the incidence of willing terrorists.

I‘m in broad company, from what I can tell, in detecting from Obama’s speech last night no outline of a policy for Middle Eastern security or the use of U.S. power. As Peter Wehner and others point out, the president spoke emphatically of deadlines (especially regarding Afghanistan) and only vaguely of purposes. The strongest signal he sent was his intention to remove large formations of ground troops.

We rarely parse the mental idea leftists like Obama have when they speak of military force. Obama didn’t like the war in Iraq; he doesn’t like the war in Afghanistan. But he seems fine with the growing war in Yemen, as he apparently is with the expansion of a similar kind of war in Pakistan. He is not opposed to all methods of imposing American will by force.

After his speech, the TV commentariat rose up to advance the narrative that Obama had no obligation to acknowledge Bush’s surge decision, because there was never a valid justification for regime-changing Iraq to begin with. This reminded me forcibly of the alternative proposed often in the period between October 2001 and March 2003 (and now looked back on with an affectionate nostalgia in some quarters): that is, simply continuing to “contain Saddam” with sanctions.

Sanctions on Saddam’s Iraq represented a type of force approved by the political left. The UN sanctions were inaugurated under George H.W. Bush in conjunction with Desert Storm, but Bill Clinton continued them, presiding over refinements to them and dedicating the U.S. military as the principal enforcer. He combined them on several occasions with air and missile strikes. In theory, they were part of an overarching political effort centered on UN inspections of Iraq’s suspect facilities.

The containment of Saddam dragged on for more than 12 years. It necessitated a growing, permanently based U.S. military force in the Persian Gulf. It dramatically distorted the region’s economy, generated tremendous blockade-running revenue for Iran, and produced the spectacle of kickbacks through the UN Oil-for-Food program. A tolerable burden for American power, the sanctions on Iraq were an agent of change — for the worse — in global politics, regional relations, and UN practices. The one thing they did not change was Saddam.

It is easy, and not without utility, to view Obama’s antipathy to large formations of ground troops as part of a modern Democratic pattern of resisting that “level” of engagement. There’s some fairness to that. But there is a more important aspect of this pattern. Democratic presidents have been willing to use all kinds of other military options, for almost any purpose except forcing a change in the political situation that keeps the problem going. It’s the latter objective that typically necessitates ground troops to secure territory for political purposes. The objective itself is what no Democratic president since Harry Truman has felt able to justify.

It shouldn’t surprise us that Obama didn’t unequivocally endorse our success in Iraq. He belongs to a political faction that never saw its purpose — never sees any purpose of its kind — as justifiable. But the occasion of Obama’s speech is a good time to reflect on the alternatives to which modern Democratic presidents (along with some Republicans) have regularly resorted. The American people may not always be politically prepared for goals as decisive as regime-changing dictators, but containment is not really the low-impact alternative it often seems to be. It deforms the situations that concern us without providing any path to a conclusion. As with sanctions on Iraq, the U.S. can probably continue headhunting terrorists for years without breaking a sweat. And as with sanctions on Iraq, we are likely to induce changes in almost every aspect of the situation except the one that matters: the incidence of willing terrorists.

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Sanctions: A Hole Big Enough to Drive Anything Through

Many in the West think of sanctions on Iran as potentially involving a naval embargo — imposed in the Persian Gulf — or cargo inspections at sea. For a lot of people, there’s a mental picture of naval action in or near the Strait of Hormuz provoking an Iranian backlash against world shipping. But that image is largely outdated. From a much broader geographic perspective, the sanctions on Iran are porous to an absurd degree: a fact nicely demonstrated by a cargo-transit path emerging this month, which features America’s NATO ally Turkey.

I’ve written here and here about the options afforded Iran by its new continuous rail link with Turkey and Pakistan. Today, Aug. 12, is the day announced by the three nations’ railway officials for the freight line’s first commercial run.

There can be no pretense now that it’s possible to enforce sanctions in the absence of Turkey’s cooperation. The newly capable cargo-transit option through Turkey changes everything about the problem for the West’s would-be enforcers. Turkey’s ports are wide open and will remain so. There is no will within NATO to do more than complain gently to this increasingly troublesome ally. Turkey also has robust and growing trade with every nation that might act as a waypoint for sanctioned shipments to Iran. Brazil, meanwhile — Turkey’s partner in brokering a nuclear deal with Iran — has ramped up trade dramatically in the last year with North Korea. These factors make it easier to hide sanctioned shipments among the unremarkable ones.

Iran’s long borders and multiple trade corridors were always going to make enforcing commercial sanctions a very difficult proposition, even with the cooperation of nations like Russia, China, and Turkey. We don’t have that cooperation, however. There is no way to clamp down on Russian gasoline shipments to Iran (which may well go across the Caspian Sea, outside our naval reach). We would assuredly try to intercept prohibited weapons or nuclear-related cargo heading by ship to Bandar Abbas — but there is no longer a logistic need to ship them through the Persian Gulf, nor does refined gasoline have to take that route. It doesn’t matter which route is cheaper; what matters is that Iran has options we can’t close off.

One counterproductive feature of the sanctions on Iran is that they amplify the reasons for all the Asian actors in this drama to leverage each other. The Turks would be happy to gain influence over Iranian strategy with their growing role in Tehran’s access to global trade. Naturally, Iran doesn’t want to be that dependent on Turkey and will probably seek transit alternatives with Pakistan and the other Persian Gulf nations. China will shape its own opportunities from that Iranian outreach. Similar calculations enliven the strategic debate in every capital in the region. Obama’s unenforceable sanctions won’t have their intended effect, but their unintended effects are likely to reverberate for decades. Such are the consequences of using soft power for soft power’s sake.

Many in the West think of sanctions on Iran as potentially involving a naval embargo — imposed in the Persian Gulf — or cargo inspections at sea. For a lot of people, there’s a mental picture of naval action in or near the Strait of Hormuz provoking an Iranian backlash against world shipping. But that image is largely outdated. From a much broader geographic perspective, the sanctions on Iran are porous to an absurd degree: a fact nicely demonstrated by a cargo-transit path emerging this month, which features America’s NATO ally Turkey.

I’ve written here and here about the options afforded Iran by its new continuous rail link with Turkey and Pakistan. Today, Aug. 12, is the day announced by the three nations’ railway officials for the freight line’s first commercial run.

There can be no pretense now that it’s possible to enforce sanctions in the absence of Turkey’s cooperation. The newly capable cargo-transit option through Turkey changes everything about the problem for the West’s would-be enforcers. Turkey’s ports are wide open and will remain so. There is no will within NATO to do more than complain gently to this increasingly troublesome ally. Turkey also has robust and growing trade with every nation that might act as a waypoint for sanctioned shipments to Iran. Brazil, meanwhile — Turkey’s partner in brokering a nuclear deal with Iran — has ramped up trade dramatically in the last year with North Korea. These factors make it easier to hide sanctioned shipments among the unremarkable ones.

Iran’s long borders and multiple trade corridors were always going to make enforcing commercial sanctions a very difficult proposition, even with the cooperation of nations like Russia, China, and Turkey. We don’t have that cooperation, however. There is no way to clamp down on Russian gasoline shipments to Iran (which may well go across the Caspian Sea, outside our naval reach). We would assuredly try to intercept prohibited weapons or nuclear-related cargo heading by ship to Bandar Abbas — but there is no longer a logistic need to ship them through the Persian Gulf, nor does refined gasoline have to take that route. It doesn’t matter which route is cheaper; what matters is that Iran has options we can’t close off.

One counterproductive feature of the sanctions on Iran is that they amplify the reasons for all the Asian actors in this drama to leverage each other. The Turks would be happy to gain influence over Iranian strategy with their growing role in Tehran’s access to global trade. Naturally, Iran doesn’t want to be that dependent on Turkey and will probably seek transit alternatives with Pakistan and the other Persian Gulf nations. China will shape its own opportunities from that Iranian outreach. Similar calculations enliven the strategic debate in every capital in the region. Obama’s unenforceable sanctions won’t have their intended effect, but their unintended effects are likely to reverberate for decades. Such are the consequences of using soft power for soft power’s sake.

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Sanctions on Iran: A Tale of Two Narratives

In a session with journalists at the White House last week, President Obama reportedly “made the case that his Iran policy is working.” He also hedged his bets by acknowledging that the “Iranians may be impervious to sanctions.” Friendly journalists being a quiescent filter, the Obama narrative comes through quite well: our president, earnest and competent, is doggedly wielding every tool in his toolbox. He sees some progress — reportedly in the form of “rumblings” that sanctions are prodding Iran to rethink its nuclear ambitions — but he recognizes the recalcitrant character of the Iranian leadership. He’s no fool, but this is, after all, a big problem.

That’s one narrative. It’s not a narrative about what Iran wants or is going to get, or what kind of threat that might pose to the Middle East or the U.S. It’s a narrative about what Obama is doing and how he sees the problem. We can call this one the Narrative of Obama.

The other narrative running in parallel with it is what we might call the Narrative of Events. Its elements are brought to our attention primarily by nontraditional media. The Obama administration simply ignores them in formulating its media themes, focusing instead on what Obama is doing and what he might have to do. Three developments in particular have cropped up in the last week.

One is the confirmation by IAEA inspectors that Iran has begun enriching uranium more efficiently. It’s a technical point, but it shortens the timeline to a weapon. As the Institute for Science and International Security observes, the procedure Iran has inaugurated mirrors the steps to a nuclear weapon outlined in the A.Q. Khan plans recovered from Libya. The Khan method essentially allows Iran to squeeze the most medium-enriched uranium possible from a given amount of low-enriched uranium, accelerating its progress toward the high-enriched uranium needed for a bomb. As the Reuters report notes, analysts say Iran “could advance to weapons-grade level in months.”

The other developments are interrelated and concern the economic sanctions themselves. One is the extent to which China — along with Turkey, India, and Russia — is stepping into the void created by tightened Western sanctions. This article from the new-right journal Il Foglio (available only in Italian) summarizes a number of mutually reinforcing factors, from Iran’s significance in China’s petroleum strategy to the dramatic increase in trade between the two countries and India’s determination not to be sidelined. According to Il Foglio, Turkey has proposed that Iran use major Turkish ports — rather than Dubai — as hubs for its foreign business. As I wrote in July, the rail lines are in place to make this a reality, allowing Iran to simply bypass the Strait of Hormuz for much of its trade.

Worrying about the danger it might create to inspect cargo ships in the Persian Gulf may soon be an outdated concern. Meanwhile, the third development reported in the last week is South Korea’s dilemma over the sanctions. This editorial reflects the significant concerns in Seoul about oil imports and the impact on medium-size businesses; Il Foglio points out, moreover, that if South Korea cooperates fully on sanctions, it will be abandoning one of its fastest-growing foreign markets to China. South Korean enthusiasm for effective cooperation is by no means assured.

Indeed, we are reaching the point at which it’s just as likely that patterns of trade and regional power will shift as it is that nations will continue to respond reflexively to American requests. Rick’s piece today is a timely reminder that the Narrative of Obama is an especially verbose one. It is also increasingly divorced from the Narrative of Events.

In a session with journalists at the White House last week, President Obama reportedly “made the case that his Iran policy is working.” He also hedged his bets by acknowledging that the “Iranians may be impervious to sanctions.” Friendly journalists being a quiescent filter, the Obama narrative comes through quite well: our president, earnest and competent, is doggedly wielding every tool in his toolbox. He sees some progress — reportedly in the form of “rumblings” that sanctions are prodding Iran to rethink its nuclear ambitions — but he recognizes the recalcitrant character of the Iranian leadership. He’s no fool, but this is, after all, a big problem.

That’s one narrative. It’s not a narrative about what Iran wants or is going to get, or what kind of threat that might pose to the Middle East or the U.S. It’s a narrative about what Obama is doing and how he sees the problem. We can call this one the Narrative of Obama.

The other narrative running in parallel with it is what we might call the Narrative of Events. Its elements are brought to our attention primarily by nontraditional media. The Obama administration simply ignores them in formulating its media themes, focusing instead on what Obama is doing and what he might have to do. Three developments in particular have cropped up in the last week.

One is the confirmation by IAEA inspectors that Iran has begun enriching uranium more efficiently. It’s a technical point, but it shortens the timeline to a weapon. As the Institute for Science and International Security observes, the procedure Iran has inaugurated mirrors the steps to a nuclear weapon outlined in the A.Q. Khan plans recovered from Libya. The Khan method essentially allows Iran to squeeze the most medium-enriched uranium possible from a given amount of low-enriched uranium, accelerating its progress toward the high-enriched uranium needed for a bomb. As the Reuters report notes, analysts say Iran “could advance to weapons-grade level in months.”

The other developments are interrelated and concern the economic sanctions themselves. One is the extent to which China — along with Turkey, India, and Russia — is stepping into the void created by tightened Western sanctions. This article from the new-right journal Il Foglio (available only in Italian) summarizes a number of mutually reinforcing factors, from Iran’s significance in China’s petroleum strategy to the dramatic increase in trade between the two countries and India’s determination not to be sidelined. According to Il Foglio, Turkey has proposed that Iran use major Turkish ports — rather than Dubai — as hubs for its foreign business. As I wrote in July, the rail lines are in place to make this a reality, allowing Iran to simply bypass the Strait of Hormuz for much of its trade.

Worrying about the danger it might create to inspect cargo ships in the Persian Gulf may soon be an outdated concern. Meanwhile, the third development reported in the last week is South Korea’s dilemma over the sanctions. This editorial reflects the significant concerns in Seoul about oil imports and the impact on medium-size businesses; Il Foglio points out, moreover, that if South Korea cooperates fully on sanctions, it will be abandoning one of its fastest-growing foreign markets to China. South Korean enthusiasm for effective cooperation is by no means assured.

Indeed, we are reaching the point at which it’s just as likely that patterns of trade and regional power will shift as it is that nations will continue to respond reflexively to American requests. Rick’s piece today is a timely reminder that the Narrative of Obama is an especially verbose one. It is also increasingly divorced from the Narrative of Events.

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Why Obama Just Might Fight Iran

Walter Russell Mead argues in the American Interest that President Barack Obama is more likely to go to war with Iran than many conventional observers believe. “In my view,” he wrote, “Iran and this president are headed toward a confrontation in which President Obama will either have to give up all hope on the issues he cares most about, or risk the use of force to stop Iran.”

The president is not likely to go to war with Iran for Israel’s sake. He’s even less likely to go to war with Iran on behalf of the Middle East’s Sunni Arabs. He’s not even all that likely to go to war with Iran to protect American interests in the Levant and the Persian Gulf. He just might, though, as Mead says, go to war to protect what he values most and hopes to accomplish as president.

Obama is often described as a cold-blooded “realist,” but in some ways he’s a Wilsonian. He’s a different kind of Wilsonian from President George W. Bush, but he is one nonetheless. “In many ways a classic example of the Wilsonian school of American foreign policy,” Mead writes, “President Obama believes that American security can best be safeguarded by the construction of a liberal and orderly world,” like a loose and less centralized European Union on a planet-wide scale. And yet, as Mead points out, “Iran’s success means the complete, utter and historic destruction of everything President Obama wants to build.”

He’s right. If Iran emerges as a nuclear-armed terrorist-sponsoring hegemon over the world’s primary energy fields, Obama’s neo-Wilsonian project — which is already a long-shot, at best, as it is — will stand no chance at all for the duration of his tenure and most likely beyond. His domestic American agenda will go sideways, as well, if he loses a re-election bid in 2012 for sending the Middle East and the stability of the world’s energy economy into a tailspin.

Surely, Obama knows he is often compared to former President Jimmy Carter by his domestic opponents — and not in a good way. Carter’s presidency was cut short for a number of reasons, the most memorable being his inability to rescue or negotiate the release of 52 hostages seized from the American Embassy in Tehran by Ayatollah Khomeini’s radical Islamists during Iran’s post-revolutionary struggle for power. That very same regime now threatens Obama’s presidency and place in history, too. As much as he fears and loathes the thought of going to war with Iran, he can’t relish the possibility of becoming Jimmy Carter Redux and losing everything.

American presidents, like all leaders everywhere, are forced to choose between bad and worse options. And it’s not always clear which option is which. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s likely Obama will use the military power at his disposal to prevent Iran from going nuclear, but it’s not unthinkable that he’ll surprise everyone — for good or for ill — if he feels those who destroyed Carter are on the verge of scalping him, too.

Walter Russell Mead argues in the American Interest that President Barack Obama is more likely to go to war with Iran than many conventional observers believe. “In my view,” he wrote, “Iran and this president are headed toward a confrontation in which President Obama will either have to give up all hope on the issues he cares most about, or risk the use of force to stop Iran.”

The president is not likely to go to war with Iran for Israel’s sake. He’s even less likely to go to war with Iran on behalf of the Middle East’s Sunni Arabs. He’s not even all that likely to go to war with Iran to protect American interests in the Levant and the Persian Gulf. He just might, though, as Mead says, go to war to protect what he values most and hopes to accomplish as president.

Obama is often described as a cold-blooded “realist,” but in some ways he’s a Wilsonian. He’s a different kind of Wilsonian from President George W. Bush, but he is one nonetheless. “In many ways a classic example of the Wilsonian school of American foreign policy,” Mead writes, “President Obama believes that American security can best be safeguarded by the construction of a liberal and orderly world,” like a loose and less centralized European Union on a planet-wide scale. And yet, as Mead points out, “Iran’s success means the complete, utter and historic destruction of everything President Obama wants to build.”

He’s right. If Iran emerges as a nuclear-armed terrorist-sponsoring hegemon over the world’s primary energy fields, Obama’s neo-Wilsonian project — which is already a long-shot, at best, as it is — will stand no chance at all for the duration of his tenure and most likely beyond. His domestic American agenda will go sideways, as well, if he loses a re-election bid in 2012 for sending the Middle East and the stability of the world’s energy economy into a tailspin.

Surely, Obama knows he is often compared to former President Jimmy Carter by his domestic opponents — and not in a good way. Carter’s presidency was cut short for a number of reasons, the most memorable being his inability to rescue or negotiate the release of 52 hostages seized from the American Embassy in Tehran by Ayatollah Khomeini’s radical Islamists during Iran’s post-revolutionary struggle for power. That very same regime now threatens Obama’s presidency and place in history, too. As much as he fears and loathes the thought of going to war with Iran, he can’t relish the possibility of becoming Jimmy Carter Redux and losing everything.

American presidents, like all leaders everywhere, are forced to choose between bad and worse options. And it’s not always clear which option is which. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s likely Obama will use the military power at his disposal to prevent Iran from going nuclear, but it’s not unthinkable that he’ll surprise everyone — for good or for ill — if he feels those who destroyed Carter are on the verge of scalping him, too.

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Riding the Rails

The success of certain sanctions on Iran will always depend on the cooperation of Iran’s neighbors as to their enforcement. Major railway developments in 2010 are aligning to present Turkey and Pakistan, in particular, with decision points in that regard. With cargo and passengers moving in both directions, Iran’s reach in support of terrorists has the prospect of being significantly extended as well.

Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan have been working on a continuous railway link since 2007. Variously known as the Istanbul-Islamabad line or the “Zahedan corridor” — for the hub transits in Iran — the link was completed in mid-2009. With the three nations planning to inaugurate regular passenger and freight service on August 1, the obvious questions are whether the security arrangements in Turkey and Pakistan will reflect the intent of the UN sanctions, and whether they will be brokered with transparent honesty.

Turkey has a heavily-trafficked railway link to Europe as well as domestic concerns about the Kurdish insurgency. The Turks are certain to exercise a high level of vigilance over passengers and cargo at their borders. But that doesn’t mean they will enforce UN sanctions in brokering cargo passage to Iran, nor does it mean they will interdict shipments from Iran destined for Syria (and, ultimately, for Hezbollah). Indeed, light cargo can be transported to Syria with particular ease now, rail service having been restarted between Mersin, Turkey, and Aleppo in June 2010. An additional transport hub is scheduled to open in December between Gaziantep, Turkey, and Aleppo — this one linked with a new rail service between Turkey and Iraq that transits through northern Syria.

On the Pakistani side, railway security will operate according to Islamabad’s domestic priorities; the primary effort will be interdicting foreign support to internal insurgencies. If the Pakistani authorities don’t act as reliable enforcement agents, it won’t be difficult (although it will probably be expensive) to move UN-prohibited cargo to Iran through Pakistani ports and the national rail system. Moreover, given the extent of the emerging rail network — by which passengers will be able to move continuously on rail between Syria, Iraq, and Pakistan –terrorist operatives will have the ability to travel more directly and conveniently than by sea, but still avoid the international law-enforcement vulnerability of commercial air travel.

Iran’s options for evading sanctions are many; it has three other long borders besides the one on the Persian Gulf. Russia’s trade access to Iran across the Caspian Sea has long given Moscow a central position in multilateral negotiations with the mullahs. But with the new rail service joining Turkey and Pakistan, Iran will have a modern, convenient transport option that doesn’t involve Russia. On the Pakistani end, the influence of the EU will be less of a factor than it is with Turkey — and the useful “cover” of a thriving regular trade with China will be more important. For both Iran’s nuclear program and Islamist terror logistics, much will shortly depend on how Ankara and Islamabad handle security and law enforcement on the rails.

The success of certain sanctions on Iran will always depend on the cooperation of Iran’s neighbors as to their enforcement. Major railway developments in 2010 are aligning to present Turkey and Pakistan, in particular, with decision points in that regard. With cargo and passengers moving in both directions, Iran’s reach in support of terrorists has the prospect of being significantly extended as well.

Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan have been working on a continuous railway link since 2007. Variously known as the Istanbul-Islamabad line or the “Zahedan corridor” — for the hub transits in Iran — the link was completed in mid-2009. With the three nations planning to inaugurate regular passenger and freight service on August 1, the obvious questions are whether the security arrangements in Turkey and Pakistan will reflect the intent of the UN sanctions, and whether they will be brokered with transparent honesty.

Turkey has a heavily-trafficked railway link to Europe as well as domestic concerns about the Kurdish insurgency. The Turks are certain to exercise a high level of vigilance over passengers and cargo at their borders. But that doesn’t mean they will enforce UN sanctions in brokering cargo passage to Iran, nor does it mean they will interdict shipments from Iran destined for Syria (and, ultimately, for Hezbollah). Indeed, light cargo can be transported to Syria with particular ease now, rail service having been restarted between Mersin, Turkey, and Aleppo in June 2010. An additional transport hub is scheduled to open in December between Gaziantep, Turkey, and Aleppo — this one linked with a new rail service between Turkey and Iraq that transits through northern Syria.

On the Pakistani side, railway security will operate according to Islamabad’s domestic priorities; the primary effort will be interdicting foreign support to internal insurgencies. If the Pakistani authorities don’t act as reliable enforcement agents, it won’t be difficult (although it will probably be expensive) to move UN-prohibited cargo to Iran through Pakistani ports and the national rail system. Moreover, given the extent of the emerging rail network — by which passengers will be able to move continuously on rail between Syria, Iraq, and Pakistan –terrorist operatives will have the ability to travel more directly and conveniently than by sea, but still avoid the international law-enforcement vulnerability of commercial air travel.

Iran’s options for evading sanctions are many; it has three other long borders besides the one on the Persian Gulf. Russia’s trade access to Iran across the Caspian Sea has long given Moscow a central position in multilateral negotiations with the mullahs. But with the new rail service joining Turkey and Pakistan, Iran will have a modern, convenient transport option that doesn’t involve Russia. On the Pakistani end, the influence of the EU will be less of a factor than it is with Turkey — and the useful “cover” of a thriving regular trade with China will be more important. For both Iran’s nuclear program and Islamist terror logistics, much will shortly depend on how Ankara and Islamabad handle security and law enforcement on the rails.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Don’t expect a better description of the world’s unique treatment of Israel. From Mark Steyn: “North Korea sinks a South Korean ship; hundreds of thousands of people die in the Sudan; millions die in the Congo. But 10 men die at the hands of Israeli commandos and it dominates the news day in, day out for weeks, with UN resolutions, international investigations, calls for boycotts, and every Western prime minister and foreign minister expected to rise in parliament and express the outrage of the international community. Odd. But why? Because Israel is supposed to be up for grabs in a way that the Congo, Sudan or even North Korea aren’t. Only the Jewish state attracts an intellectually respectable movement querying its very existence, and insisting that, after 62 years of independence, that issue is still not resolved.”

Don’t miss the latest from Lee Smith on appeasing Muslim extremists: “The way Obama sees it, the upside is that it will not be a war without end, like the war on terror. All the extremists in the Muslim world want is money and the power that will flow their way as the consequence of the U.S. withdrawal from the Persian Gulf. The faster the United States leaves, the cheaper the cost. This is why the Jewish state is isolated today and why Washington stands with her only reluctantly: Distancing ourselves from Israel is part of the deal we are preparing to strike.”

Don’t expect her to get a cushy White House job after leaving office: “Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm says the oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico has become a symbol that Barack Obama’s got to shake.”

Don’t think Obama’s foreign policy can’t get worse: “The Obama administration is secretly working with Russia to conclude an agreement that many officials fear will limit U.S. missile defenses, a key objective of Moscow since it opposed plans for a U.S. missile defense interceptor base in Eastern Europe, according to American officials involved in arms control issues.” Aside from the inanity of unilateral disarmament, how does he think this is going to get through the U.S. Senate?

Don’t hold your breath. The Washington Post editors go after Obama for his counterproductive timeline in Afghanistan: “It’s time for him to make clear whether the United States is prepared to stay long enough to ensure a stable and peaceful Afghanistan.”

Don’t imagine Republicans are ungrateful for a speech this bad: “President Barack Obama’s less-than-specific Oval Office address on energy has White House aides and Senate Democrats scrambling to find a way to pass climate change legislation. What it will be — if anything — remains an open question.”

Don’t let your guard down, but Obama finally seems to have been effective at killing some bad legislation: “Senate Democrats emerged from a special caucus meeting in the Capitol on Thursday with no clear consensus yet on the fate of energy and climate legislation due on the floor before the August recess.”

Don’t expect a better description of the world’s unique treatment of Israel. From Mark Steyn: “North Korea sinks a South Korean ship; hundreds of thousands of people die in the Sudan; millions die in the Congo. But 10 men die at the hands of Israeli commandos and it dominates the news day in, day out for weeks, with UN resolutions, international investigations, calls for boycotts, and every Western prime minister and foreign minister expected to rise in parliament and express the outrage of the international community. Odd. But why? Because Israel is supposed to be up for grabs in a way that the Congo, Sudan or even North Korea aren’t. Only the Jewish state attracts an intellectually respectable movement querying its very existence, and insisting that, after 62 years of independence, that issue is still not resolved.”

Don’t miss the latest from Lee Smith on appeasing Muslim extremists: “The way Obama sees it, the upside is that it will not be a war without end, like the war on terror. All the extremists in the Muslim world want is money and the power that will flow their way as the consequence of the U.S. withdrawal from the Persian Gulf. The faster the United States leaves, the cheaper the cost. This is why the Jewish state is isolated today and why Washington stands with her only reluctantly: Distancing ourselves from Israel is part of the deal we are preparing to strike.”

Don’t expect her to get a cushy White House job after leaving office: “Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm says the oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico has become a symbol that Barack Obama’s got to shake.”

Don’t think Obama’s foreign policy can’t get worse: “The Obama administration is secretly working with Russia to conclude an agreement that many officials fear will limit U.S. missile defenses, a key objective of Moscow since it opposed plans for a U.S. missile defense interceptor base in Eastern Europe, according to American officials involved in arms control issues.” Aside from the inanity of unilateral disarmament, how does he think this is going to get through the U.S. Senate?

Don’t hold your breath. The Washington Post editors go after Obama for his counterproductive timeline in Afghanistan: “It’s time for him to make clear whether the United States is prepared to stay long enough to ensure a stable and peaceful Afghanistan.”

Don’t imagine Republicans are ungrateful for a speech this bad: “President Barack Obama’s less-than-specific Oval Office address on energy has White House aides and Senate Democrats scrambling to find a way to pass climate change legislation. What it will be — if anything — remains an open question.”

Don’t let your guard down, but Obama finally seems to have been effective at killing some bad legislation: “Senate Democrats emerged from a special caucus meeting in the Capitol on Thursday with no clear consensus yet on the fate of energy and climate legislation due on the floor before the August recess.”

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The Beinart Critique, Dismantled

In his new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, Peter Beinart, formerly editor of the New Republic and now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, takes aim at the syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer.

“There are no normal times.” With those words, written in 1991 and aimed straight at Jeane Kirkpatrick, the younger conservative generation fired its first shot.

The marksman was columnist Charles Krauthammer, an acid-tongued ex-psychiatrist from Montreal, and a man young enough to be Kirkpatrick’s son.

Beinart spends several pages summarizing and quoting from Foreign Affairs magazine, in which Krauthammer’s essay, “The Unipolar Moment,” appeared. Krauthammer argued: “We are in for abnormal times. Our best hope for safety in such times, as in difficult times past, is in American strength and will — the strength and will to lead a unipolar world, unashamedly laying down the rules of world order and being prepared to enforce them.” Krauthammer wrote that we must “confront” and, “if necessary, disarm” nations he called “Weapon States” like Iraq under Saddam Hussein and North Korea.

Beinart didn’t like “The Unipolar Moment” and wrote this:

It was no coincidence that Krauthammer published his attack on Kirkpatrick soon after the Gulf War. As usual in the development of hubris bubbles, it was only once things that formerly looked hard — like liberating Kuwait — had been made to look easy that people set their sights higher. Had America proved militarily unable to keep Saddam from gobbling his neighbors, Krauthammer could not have seriously proposed launching a new war, inside Iraq itself, to rid him of his unconventional weapons.

That all sounds very intriguing, except for one thing. On the first page of the Krauthammer essay, in the by-line, we read this:

Charles Krauthammer is a syndicated columnist. This article is adapted from the author’s Henry M. Jackson Memorial Lecture delivered in Washington, D.C., Sept. 18, 1990.

Why does that matter? Because Krauthammer’s essay was adopted from a lecture he gave months before there could possibly have been a “hubris bubble.” Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait occurred on August 2, 1990. Krauthammer delivered his lecture on September 18. Operation Desert Storm didn’t begin until January 17, 1991. And hostilities ceased on February 28. The timeline of events, then, demolishes the Beinart critique.

The Krauthammer lecture itself, it’s worth adding, was no state secret. It was public, it was published, and it has been available as a monograph, in addition to the reference in the Foreign Affairs essay. In reading “The Unipolar Moment” — which was published months after the lecture on which it was based and which is not substantively different from the September 18 lecture — it is clear that the outcome of the war was unknown at the time it was written.

So Krauthammer didn’t set his sights higher because the liberation of Kuwait had been “made to look easy.” When he articulated his views on the “unipolar moment,” Kuwait had been invaded but it hadn’t been liberated. The U.S. was still months away from war. And, in fact, many predicted that if America went to war, it would be a difficult and bloody undertaking. (“Amid talk of body bags, honor and patriotism, the U.S. Congress yesterday began a formal debate on whether to go to war in the Persian Gulf,” the Toronto Star reported on January 11, 1991. “‘The 45,000 body bags that the Pentagon has sent to the gulf are all the evidence we need of the high cost in blood,’ said Senator Edward Kennedy. He added some military experts have estimated American casualties at the rate of 3,000 a week.”) That explains, in part, why the Senate vote on the Gulf War resolution was so close (52-47).

All of this is noteworthy not simply because of Beinart’s sloppiness (which is noteworthy enough), but because Beinart concocts an interpretative theory that is utter nonsense. It is based on a completely wrong premise. He builds a false explanation based on a false fact.

Beinart is not the first to have done so. On November 29, 2009 Andrew Sullivan, in a posting titled “The Positioning of Charles Krauthammer,” charged that while he had advocated a gasoline tax in December 2008, in Krauthammer’s “latest column” on climate change, “the gas tax idea is missing.” The reason, Sullivan informed us, was that “In the end, the conservative intelligentsia is much more invested in obstructing and thereby neutering Obama and the Democrats than in solving any actual problems in front of us. It’s a game for them, and they play it with impunity.”

There was one problem with Sullivan’s analysis: the column he refers to was published not in November 2009 but in May 2008 — when George W. Bush was still president and Barack Obama hadn’t yet won the Democratic nomination. Krauthammer proceeded to eviscerate Sullivan, who had the decency to issue an abject apology and correction. I wonder if Beinart will show the same decency, having made the same error.

I have some advice for liberals in general, but most especially for those who formerly edited the New Republic. First, learn to read dates on essays and columns before you attack them. Second, don’t impugn a person’s motives when your charges can so easily be shown to be false. And third, if you decide to target an individual and engage in a public debate, you might think about choosing someone other than Charles Krauthammer. Otherwise you will be made to look like fools.

In his new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, Peter Beinart, formerly editor of the New Republic and now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, takes aim at the syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer.

“There are no normal times.” With those words, written in 1991 and aimed straight at Jeane Kirkpatrick, the younger conservative generation fired its first shot.

The marksman was columnist Charles Krauthammer, an acid-tongued ex-psychiatrist from Montreal, and a man young enough to be Kirkpatrick’s son.

Beinart spends several pages summarizing and quoting from Foreign Affairs magazine, in which Krauthammer’s essay, “The Unipolar Moment,” appeared. Krauthammer argued: “We are in for abnormal times. Our best hope for safety in such times, as in difficult times past, is in American strength and will — the strength and will to lead a unipolar world, unashamedly laying down the rules of world order and being prepared to enforce them.” Krauthammer wrote that we must “confront” and, “if necessary, disarm” nations he called “Weapon States” like Iraq under Saddam Hussein and North Korea.

Beinart didn’t like “The Unipolar Moment” and wrote this:

It was no coincidence that Krauthammer published his attack on Kirkpatrick soon after the Gulf War. As usual in the development of hubris bubbles, it was only once things that formerly looked hard — like liberating Kuwait — had been made to look easy that people set their sights higher. Had America proved militarily unable to keep Saddam from gobbling his neighbors, Krauthammer could not have seriously proposed launching a new war, inside Iraq itself, to rid him of his unconventional weapons.

That all sounds very intriguing, except for one thing. On the first page of the Krauthammer essay, in the by-line, we read this:

Charles Krauthammer is a syndicated columnist. This article is adapted from the author’s Henry M. Jackson Memorial Lecture delivered in Washington, D.C., Sept. 18, 1990.

Why does that matter? Because Krauthammer’s essay was adopted from a lecture he gave months before there could possibly have been a “hubris bubble.” Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait occurred on August 2, 1990. Krauthammer delivered his lecture on September 18. Operation Desert Storm didn’t begin until January 17, 1991. And hostilities ceased on February 28. The timeline of events, then, demolishes the Beinart critique.

The Krauthammer lecture itself, it’s worth adding, was no state secret. It was public, it was published, and it has been available as a monograph, in addition to the reference in the Foreign Affairs essay. In reading “The Unipolar Moment” — which was published months after the lecture on which it was based and which is not substantively different from the September 18 lecture — it is clear that the outcome of the war was unknown at the time it was written.

So Krauthammer didn’t set his sights higher because the liberation of Kuwait had been “made to look easy.” When he articulated his views on the “unipolar moment,” Kuwait had been invaded but it hadn’t been liberated. The U.S. was still months away from war. And, in fact, many predicted that if America went to war, it would be a difficult and bloody undertaking. (“Amid talk of body bags, honor and patriotism, the U.S. Congress yesterday began a formal debate on whether to go to war in the Persian Gulf,” the Toronto Star reported on January 11, 1991. “‘The 45,000 body bags that the Pentagon has sent to the gulf are all the evidence we need of the high cost in blood,’ said Senator Edward Kennedy. He added some military experts have estimated American casualties at the rate of 3,000 a week.”) That explains, in part, why the Senate vote on the Gulf War resolution was so close (52-47).

All of this is noteworthy not simply because of Beinart’s sloppiness (which is noteworthy enough), but because Beinart concocts an interpretative theory that is utter nonsense. It is based on a completely wrong premise. He builds a false explanation based on a false fact.

Beinart is not the first to have done so. On November 29, 2009 Andrew Sullivan, in a posting titled “The Positioning of Charles Krauthammer,” charged that while he had advocated a gasoline tax in December 2008, in Krauthammer’s “latest column” on climate change, “the gas tax idea is missing.” The reason, Sullivan informed us, was that “In the end, the conservative intelligentsia is much more invested in obstructing and thereby neutering Obama and the Democrats than in solving any actual problems in front of us. It’s a game for them, and they play it with impunity.”

There was one problem with Sullivan’s analysis: the column he refers to was published not in November 2009 but in May 2008 — when George W. Bush was still president and Barack Obama hadn’t yet won the Democratic nomination. Krauthammer proceeded to eviscerate Sullivan, who had the decency to issue an abject apology and correction. I wonder if Beinart will show the same decency, having made the same error.

I have some advice for liberals in general, but most especially for those who formerly edited the New Republic. First, learn to read dates on essays and columns before you attack them. Second, don’t impugn a person’s motives when your charges can so easily be shown to be false. And third, if you decide to target an individual and engage in a public debate, you might think about choosing someone other than Charles Krauthammer. Otherwise you will be made to look like fools.

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Flotilla Thriller

This summer promises events that will thoroughly eclipse the diplomatic flurry over the recent Gaza flotilla. What few would have expected is the maritime character of the drama to which we have to look forward. And in a manner reminiscent of some seemingly minor operational decisions during the Cold War, Obama’s response to the challenge will be the most important security signal sent by his administration to date.

The distant drumbeat of the impending climax has been sounding for some time; Iran and Hezbollah have repeatedly threatened shipping in, respectively, the Strait of Hormuz and the waters off Lebanon and Israel, near the northern approach to the Suez Canal. Hezbollah’s most recent threat was issued in May, shortly before the deadly flotilla incident. Both Iran and Hezbollah are actively preparing to make good on their threats. This is not a theoretical menace. A complacent dismissal of their activities would be very dangerous.

Moreover, they are about to get help from — and take direct advantage of — the chaotic maritime situation brewing with the follow-on flotillas now in planning. Avram Rimon at Examiner.com had a good summary of them this weekend: they include a Gaza flotilla sponsored by German Jews; a counter-flotilla of Israelis hoping to bring aid to Cyprus, the Turkish Kurds, and Armenia (the latter under a Turkish blockade for more than 16 years); the Turkish flotilla for which Tayyip Erdogan has promised his own presence and a naval escort; and the flotilla being mounted by Iran, which is scheduled to leave Iran for Gaza on June 18.

The U.S. can do one of two things about these proliferating flotillas. We can organize NATO overtly to monitor and control eruptions in the Eastern Mediterranean, or we can simply leave it all for Israel to handle. Doing the latter will guarantee the early involvement of Hezbollah and Hamas in enlarging the scope of this maritime challenge. A hands-off approach by the Western nations makes it more likely that the terrorists, along with Iran and Turkey, will seek to precipitate crises — which may involve innocent commercial shipping — and press situational advantages. On the other hand, a declaration that the U.S. and NATO will prevent destabilizing eruptions, accompanied by obvious readiness to impose order if necessary, would be a salutary and effective signal. None of this need be done in a bellicose manner: quiet but unyielding is the appropriate demeanor.

Turkey’s involvement in the recent flotilla should already have resulted in a moment of reckoning with its NATO allies, if only behind closed doors. The West’s lackadaisical approach to its core alliance is on borrowed time. If the impending parade of flotillas produces only disorganized posturing from NATO, while allowing Israel’s enemies to create havoc at sea and score propaganda points against Israel, the next challenge is likely to emerge almost automatically in the Persian Gulf. Iran has threatened to begin stopping ships in the Strait of Hormuz if the inspection clause of the June 9 UN sanctions is actually applied against Iran-bound cargo. Tehran’s willingness to carry through on this will depend on the U.S. posture, which governs what the Iranians think they can get away with.

A strong stance in the Eastern Mediterranean is the lowest-cost, highest-payoff method of deterring Iran from the outset. Maintaining stability at sea and control of the world’s key chokepoints is an American naval task so basic we rarely think about it, but the impact from breaches of that order is immediate and far-reaching. Doing nothing is courting crisis; we should be working to head this one off at the pass. That approach would be far less costly than reacting to a series of crises.

This summer promises events that will thoroughly eclipse the diplomatic flurry over the recent Gaza flotilla. What few would have expected is the maritime character of the drama to which we have to look forward. And in a manner reminiscent of some seemingly minor operational decisions during the Cold War, Obama’s response to the challenge will be the most important security signal sent by his administration to date.

The distant drumbeat of the impending climax has been sounding for some time; Iran and Hezbollah have repeatedly threatened shipping in, respectively, the Strait of Hormuz and the waters off Lebanon and Israel, near the northern approach to the Suez Canal. Hezbollah’s most recent threat was issued in May, shortly before the deadly flotilla incident. Both Iran and Hezbollah are actively preparing to make good on their threats. This is not a theoretical menace. A complacent dismissal of their activities would be very dangerous.

Moreover, they are about to get help from — and take direct advantage of — the chaotic maritime situation brewing with the follow-on flotillas now in planning. Avram Rimon at Examiner.com had a good summary of them this weekend: they include a Gaza flotilla sponsored by German Jews; a counter-flotilla of Israelis hoping to bring aid to Cyprus, the Turkish Kurds, and Armenia (the latter under a Turkish blockade for more than 16 years); the Turkish flotilla for which Tayyip Erdogan has promised his own presence and a naval escort; and the flotilla being mounted by Iran, which is scheduled to leave Iran for Gaza on June 18.

The U.S. can do one of two things about these proliferating flotillas. We can organize NATO overtly to monitor and control eruptions in the Eastern Mediterranean, or we can simply leave it all for Israel to handle. Doing the latter will guarantee the early involvement of Hezbollah and Hamas in enlarging the scope of this maritime challenge. A hands-off approach by the Western nations makes it more likely that the terrorists, along with Iran and Turkey, will seek to precipitate crises — which may involve innocent commercial shipping — and press situational advantages. On the other hand, a declaration that the U.S. and NATO will prevent destabilizing eruptions, accompanied by obvious readiness to impose order if necessary, would be a salutary and effective signal. None of this need be done in a bellicose manner: quiet but unyielding is the appropriate demeanor.

Turkey’s involvement in the recent flotilla should already have resulted in a moment of reckoning with its NATO allies, if only behind closed doors. The West’s lackadaisical approach to its core alliance is on borrowed time. If the impending parade of flotillas produces only disorganized posturing from NATO, while allowing Israel’s enemies to create havoc at sea and score propaganda points against Israel, the next challenge is likely to emerge almost automatically in the Persian Gulf. Iran has threatened to begin stopping ships in the Strait of Hormuz if the inspection clause of the June 9 UN sanctions is actually applied against Iran-bound cargo. Tehran’s willingness to carry through on this will depend on the U.S. posture, which governs what the Iranians think they can get away with.

A strong stance in the Eastern Mediterranean is the lowest-cost, highest-payoff method of deterring Iran from the outset. Maintaining stability at sea and control of the world’s key chokepoints is an American naval task so basic we rarely think about it, but the impact from breaches of that order is immediate and far-reaching. Doing nothing is courting crisis; we should be working to head this one off at the pass. That approach would be far less costly than reacting to a series of crises.

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Weak Leak

If it’s remotely possible, let’s inject some sanity into the oil leak that’s stopped the world from spinning. In 1991, as Saddam Hussein’s forces retreated from Kuwait, they dumped 8 million barrels of oil into the Persian Gulf. That still stands as the biggest oil spill in history. So, what were the lasting catastrophic effects? According to this New York Times article, written just two years later, there were none:

The vast amount of oil that Iraqi occupation forces in Kuwait dumped into the Persian Gulf during the 1991 war did little long-term damage, international researchers say. …

“Given the phenomenal quantities of oil that were spilled into the Gulf, the results were rather cheering,” Chidi Ibe, of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission at Unesco, said in a statement today.

Coral reefs studied in early 1992 “appeared to be in good condition,” while fisheries showed “few unequivocal oil pollution effects attributable solely to the 1991 oil spills,” the study found.

Even if you take the highest estimates, the current spill would have to last for nearly a year before it did that kind of nonexistent ecological damage.

If it’s remotely possible, let’s inject some sanity into the oil leak that’s stopped the world from spinning. In 1991, as Saddam Hussein’s forces retreated from Kuwait, they dumped 8 million barrels of oil into the Persian Gulf. That still stands as the biggest oil spill in history. So, what were the lasting catastrophic effects? According to this New York Times article, written just two years later, there were none:

The vast amount of oil that Iraqi occupation forces in Kuwait dumped into the Persian Gulf during the 1991 war did little long-term damage, international researchers say. …

“Given the phenomenal quantities of oil that were spilled into the Gulf, the results were rather cheering,” Chidi Ibe, of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission at Unesco, said in a statement today.

Coral reefs studied in early 1992 “appeared to be in good condition,” while fisheries showed “few unequivocal oil pollution effects attributable solely to the 1991 oil spills,” the study found.

Even if you take the highest estimates, the current spill would have to last for nearly a year before it did that kind of nonexistent ecological damage.

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Hezbollah’s Maritime Threat

As Hezbollah’s Nasrallah issues new threats to commercial shipping in the Levant, it’s worth recalling the events of July 2006. During the conflict that summer with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Israel’s INS Hanit, a Saar-V class corvette, was hit by an anti-ship missile launched by Hezbollah from the Lebanese coast. Haaretz reported that a Cambodian-flagged freighter was hit by another missile in the same July 14 attack. The freighter sank afterward; its Egyptian crewmen were rescued from the Mediterranean, but four Israelis were killed in the attack on Hanit.

Austin Bay, who writes frequently on defense matters, posted this excellent analysis of the shipping attacks at his blog. The missiles Hezbollah used were a Chinese-designed C802 cruise missile, which Iran has produced for a number of years as the “Noor” missile, and the Iranian “Kosar” version of the Chinese C701 missile.

No question remains as to whether Iran has supplied anti-ship missiles to Hezbollah. The only question is whether Hezbollah is now being supplied with Iran’s newer anti-ship missiles. China and Iran launched a production facility in March 2010 for the “Nasr” missile, Iran’s version of the Chinese C704, a newer cruise missile with a passive homing capability. Iran’s navy fired the Nasr missile in its Persian Gulf exercise in April, a move similar to the introduction of the Kosar missile in the major naval exercise in April of 2006. Three months after that 2006 exercise, Hezbollah used the Kosar off the coast of Lebanon.

Israeli warships can defend themselves against Hezbollah’s cruise missiles. Hanit’s failure to do so was attributed to the constraints of an Israeli forces operating policy, which had been put in place to prevent unintentional firing on friendly aircraft.

But merchantmen have no defense against such weapons. Nasrallah’s threat is far from empty, as Hezbollah has already proved. The coastal region off Lebanon and Israel, through which ships approach the Suez Canal, is one of the busiest in the world. The likelihood is very real that the U.S. will find it necessary to take action if Hezbollah starts launching missiles at commercial ships. It bears noting that whether that task is approached passively (e.g., with defensive escort) or through active counterattack on Hezbollah’s positions ashore, the weapon systems suitable for the problem are the Aegis warships and aircraft carriers Defense Secretary Gates wants fewer of. No less-capable platform can handle the mission.

As Hezbollah’s Nasrallah issues new threats to commercial shipping in the Levant, it’s worth recalling the events of July 2006. During the conflict that summer with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Israel’s INS Hanit, a Saar-V class corvette, was hit by an anti-ship missile launched by Hezbollah from the Lebanese coast. Haaretz reported that a Cambodian-flagged freighter was hit by another missile in the same July 14 attack. The freighter sank afterward; its Egyptian crewmen were rescued from the Mediterranean, but four Israelis were killed in the attack on Hanit.

Austin Bay, who writes frequently on defense matters, posted this excellent analysis of the shipping attacks at his blog. The missiles Hezbollah used were a Chinese-designed C802 cruise missile, which Iran has produced for a number of years as the “Noor” missile, and the Iranian “Kosar” version of the Chinese C701 missile.

No question remains as to whether Iran has supplied anti-ship missiles to Hezbollah. The only question is whether Hezbollah is now being supplied with Iran’s newer anti-ship missiles. China and Iran launched a production facility in March 2010 for the “Nasr” missile, Iran’s version of the Chinese C704, a newer cruise missile with a passive homing capability. Iran’s navy fired the Nasr missile in its Persian Gulf exercise in April, a move similar to the introduction of the Kosar missile in the major naval exercise in April of 2006. Three months after that 2006 exercise, Hezbollah used the Kosar off the coast of Lebanon.

Israeli warships can defend themselves against Hezbollah’s cruise missiles. Hanit’s failure to do so was attributed to the constraints of an Israeli forces operating policy, which had been put in place to prevent unintentional firing on friendly aircraft.

But merchantmen have no defense against such weapons. Nasrallah’s threat is far from empty, as Hezbollah has already proved. The coastal region off Lebanon and Israel, through which ships approach the Suez Canal, is one of the busiest in the world. The likelihood is very real that the U.S. will find it necessary to take action if Hezbollah starts launching missiles at commercial ships. It bears noting that whether that task is approached passively (e.g., with defensive escort) or through active counterattack on Hezbollah’s positions ashore, the weapon systems suitable for the problem are the Aegis warships and aircraft carriers Defense Secretary Gates wants fewer of. No less-capable platform can handle the mission.

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Still Mirandizing

Well, as I suspected would be the case, we did Mirandize the Times Square bomber. We are told he has chosen to talk, but what if he didn’t? Would we have been content to let him clam up as the Christmas Day bomber did for five weeks?  And, of course, we are preparing him to be tried in a federal courtroom. We have learned, however, that he may not be the lone wolf (and certainly not the aggrieved ObamaCare critic Mayor Bloomberg stupidly suggested he might be):

Shahzad, a recently naturalized U.S. citizen living in Connecticut., was taken off an airliner bound for the Persian Gulf sheikhdom of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates about 53 hours after the attempted bombing, authorities said.

Asked if Shahzad had implicated himself under questioning by federal agents, Holder said, “He has done that.” He said Shahzad “has provided useful information to authorities.”

Shahzad was initially questioned under a public safety exception to the Miranda rule and was cooperative, FBI Deputy Director John Pistole said at the news conference. He said Shahzad was later read his Miranda rights and “continued talking.”

Although Shahzad was arrested after the plane he had boarded returned to the departure gate, Holder said there was no risk that he would get away. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said authorities could have ordered the plane to return to the airport if it had taken off.

Concerned that he got on an airplane and wasn’t on the no-fly list? Well, Eric Holder says everything worked fine: “There was never any danger of losing him.”

Although we are treating Shahzad as an ordinary criminal, it appears he’s part of an international plot:

In Pakistan, an intelligence official said authorities arrested at least two people in the southern port city of Karachi in connection with the Times Square bombing attempt. The official, who is not authorized to speak on the record, identified one of those arrested as Tausif Ahmed, who was picked up in a busy commercial neighborhood called Gulshan-e-Iqbal.

Again, we return to the question: is the criminal-justice model really appropriate for such enemies? At some point, the American people and Congress will decide that the administration’s tactics are ludicrously ill-suited to the war we are fighting.

Well, as I suspected would be the case, we did Mirandize the Times Square bomber. We are told he has chosen to talk, but what if he didn’t? Would we have been content to let him clam up as the Christmas Day bomber did for five weeks?  And, of course, we are preparing him to be tried in a federal courtroom. We have learned, however, that he may not be the lone wolf (and certainly not the aggrieved ObamaCare critic Mayor Bloomberg stupidly suggested he might be):

Shahzad, a recently naturalized U.S. citizen living in Connecticut., was taken off an airliner bound for the Persian Gulf sheikhdom of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates about 53 hours after the attempted bombing, authorities said.

Asked if Shahzad had implicated himself under questioning by federal agents, Holder said, “He has done that.” He said Shahzad “has provided useful information to authorities.”

Shahzad was initially questioned under a public safety exception to the Miranda rule and was cooperative, FBI Deputy Director John Pistole said at the news conference. He said Shahzad was later read his Miranda rights and “continued talking.”

Although Shahzad was arrested after the plane he had boarded returned to the departure gate, Holder said there was no risk that he would get away. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said authorities could have ordered the plane to return to the airport if it had taken off.

Concerned that he got on an airplane and wasn’t on the no-fly list? Well, Eric Holder says everything worked fine: “There was never any danger of losing him.”

Although we are treating Shahzad as an ordinary criminal, it appears he’s part of an international plot:

In Pakistan, an intelligence official said authorities arrested at least two people in the southern port city of Karachi in connection with the Times Square bombing attempt. The official, who is not authorized to speak on the record, identified one of those arrested as Tausif Ahmed, who was picked up in a busy commercial neighborhood called Gulshan-e-Iqbal.

Again, we return to the question: is the criminal-justice model really appropriate for such enemies? At some point, the American people and Congress will decide that the administration’s tactics are ludicrously ill-suited to the war we are fighting.

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Gulf States and a Nuclear Iran

Having just returned from the Persian Gulf region (the Arabian Gulf to the Arabs), I can echo the points made by John Bolton in this Wall Street Journal op-ed. Bolton suggests that sanctions have no chance of working and that, absent military action, Iran will go nuclear. That certainly is in line with the general view in the Gulf, where they can see up close how porous all attempts to sanction Iran have been. Indeed, the Gulf states most worried about the Iranian nuclear program also actively trade with Iran. They are starting to hedge their bets, too. Qatar, for example, which hosts a giant American military installation, sent representatives to watch recent Iranian war games.

There is a lot of support, albeit beneath the surface, for American military action against Iran, which, in the Gulfies’ view, could deal a decisive setback to the “Persians.” An Israeli strike, on the other hand, they fear, would not inflict much damage and would only allow the mullahs to rally the Arab street behind them. They are also “deathly afraid” (in the words of one American ambassador) that the U.S. will sell them out by reaching a deal with Iran.

With the growing likelihood of a nuclear Iran, talk has turned to containment, with Gulf states demanding more sophisticated air defenses from the U.S. and even talking about somehow turning the Gulf Cooperation Council into a NATO-like alliance to contain Iran. The Obama administration is clearly planning for a nuclear Iran by preparing to extend the American nuclear umbrella to regional allies. But the local leaders that we talked to (I traveled with a delegation from the Council on Foreign Relations.) made clear that they would place little faith in an American guarantee. They want a Sunni bomb to offset the Shiite bomb, which means that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey would be likely to build their own nuke to counter Iran’s. Thus, at a minimum, the Iranian nuclear program could set off a serious proliferation problem — and that’s without considering the possibility that Iran will share its technology with Syria and other allies.

What is the Obama administration going to do about all this? I agree with Bolton: U.S. airstrikes on Iran are out of the question (unless Iran were to attack shipping in the Persian Gulf, but probably not even then). Instead, the administration is pursuing toothless resolutions at the UN and making ridiculous gestures like revealing the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and trying to negotiate to make the Middle East a “nuclear-free zone.” The more of this that our Arab allies see, the less confidence they will have in American protection. That, in turn, will cause them to either pursue accommodation with Iran or build their own nuclear arsenal. Maybe both. And that makes the world a much more dangerous place.

Having just returned from the Persian Gulf region (the Arabian Gulf to the Arabs), I can echo the points made by John Bolton in this Wall Street Journal op-ed. Bolton suggests that sanctions have no chance of working and that, absent military action, Iran will go nuclear. That certainly is in line with the general view in the Gulf, where they can see up close how porous all attempts to sanction Iran have been. Indeed, the Gulf states most worried about the Iranian nuclear program also actively trade with Iran. They are starting to hedge their bets, too. Qatar, for example, which hosts a giant American military installation, sent representatives to watch recent Iranian war games.

There is a lot of support, albeit beneath the surface, for American military action against Iran, which, in the Gulfies’ view, could deal a decisive setback to the “Persians.” An Israeli strike, on the other hand, they fear, would not inflict much damage and would only allow the mullahs to rally the Arab street behind them. They are also “deathly afraid” (in the words of one American ambassador) that the U.S. will sell them out by reaching a deal with Iran.

With the growing likelihood of a nuclear Iran, talk has turned to containment, with Gulf states demanding more sophisticated air defenses from the U.S. and even talking about somehow turning the Gulf Cooperation Council into a NATO-like alliance to contain Iran. The Obama administration is clearly planning for a nuclear Iran by preparing to extend the American nuclear umbrella to regional allies. But the local leaders that we talked to (I traveled with a delegation from the Council on Foreign Relations.) made clear that they would place little faith in an American guarantee. They want a Sunni bomb to offset the Shiite bomb, which means that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey would be likely to build their own nuke to counter Iran’s. Thus, at a minimum, the Iranian nuclear program could set off a serious proliferation problem — and that’s without considering the possibility that Iran will share its technology with Syria and other allies.

What is the Obama administration going to do about all this? I agree with Bolton: U.S. airstrikes on Iran are out of the question (unless Iran were to attack shipping in the Persian Gulf, but probably not even then). Instead, the administration is pursuing toothless resolutions at the UN and making ridiculous gestures like revealing the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and trying to negotiate to make the Middle East a “nuclear-free zone.” The more of this that our Arab allies see, the less confidence they will have in American protection. That, in turn, will cause them to either pursue accommodation with Iran or build their own nuclear arsenal. Maybe both. And that makes the world a much more dangerous place.

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