Commentary Magazine


Topic: Royal Navy

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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Ending Piracy: We Did It Before, We Must Do It Again

The news from the piracy front is all bad. The New York Times reports:

Last week, a band of [Somalian] pirates received what is widely believed to be a record ransom — around $10 million — for a hijacked South Korean supertanker, the Samho Dream. … Some of the bigger pirate bosses in this part of Somalia have been building mini armies from the millions they receive in ransoms, and it is widely believed that much of the money from the Samho Dream will go toward more weapons. At the same time, the Shabab, the powerful Islamist insurgent group that vows to enforce strict Islamic law across Somalia, seems to be getting more deeply involved in piracy.

This is more than a nuisance. It is a serious threat to global commerce, yet it is not getting a commensurate response. The U.S. and various other nations have sent naval vessels to patrol off the coast of Somalia but with extremely limited authority. They can only shoot at or detain pirates who are actually caught in the act of hijacking a ship — which doesn’t happen often. They are not allowed to blast suspected pirate vessels or raid pirate havens onshore. Even when pirates are actually caught, most of them are released. There had been hope that Kenya would try them, but as the Times notes, ”On Tuesday, a Kenyan court ordered the release of nine piracy suspects, saying the country could not prosecute them for crimes committed outside its territory.”

There is no secret about how to fight pirates. As I pointed out in this Foreign Affairs article, the Royal Navy and the U.S. Navy successfully eradicated piracy in the 18th and 19th centuries with a combination of measures ranging from quick executions of captured pirates to attacks on pirate safe havens. We don’t have to string up pirates from the yardarm today, but what we should do is bring them back for trial in the U.S., since piracy is the original crime of “universal jurisdiction.” Failing that, we will continue to see the problem metastasize and combine with the Islamist insurgency in Somalia to create a strategic and commercial nightmare.

The news from the piracy front is all bad. The New York Times reports:

Last week, a band of [Somalian] pirates received what is widely believed to be a record ransom — around $10 million — for a hijacked South Korean supertanker, the Samho Dream. … Some of the bigger pirate bosses in this part of Somalia have been building mini armies from the millions they receive in ransoms, and it is widely believed that much of the money from the Samho Dream will go toward more weapons. At the same time, the Shabab, the powerful Islamist insurgent group that vows to enforce strict Islamic law across Somalia, seems to be getting more deeply involved in piracy.

This is more than a nuisance. It is a serious threat to global commerce, yet it is not getting a commensurate response. The U.S. and various other nations have sent naval vessels to patrol off the coast of Somalia but with extremely limited authority. They can only shoot at or detain pirates who are actually caught in the act of hijacking a ship — which doesn’t happen often. They are not allowed to blast suspected pirate vessels or raid pirate havens onshore. Even when pirates are actually caught, most of them are released. There had been hope that Kenya would try them, but as the Times notes, ”On Tuesday, a Kenyan court ordered the release of nine piracy suspects, saying the country could not prosecute them for crimes committed outside its territory.”

There is no secret about how to fight pirates. As I pointed out in this Foreign Affairs article, the Royal Navy and the U.S. Navy successfully eradicated piracy in the 18th and 19th centuries with a combination of measures ranging from quick executions of captured pirates to attacks on pirate safe havens. We don’t have to string up pirates from the yardarm today, but what we should do is bring them back for trial in the U.S., since piracy is the original crime of “universal jurisdiction.” Failing that, we will continue to see the problem metastasize and combine with the Islamist insurgency in Somalia to create a strategic and commercial nightmare.

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Challenge at Sea

At the end of August, the Royal Navy gave the UK Telegraph a rare glimpse of what’s going on today in the arcane world of the submariner, under the Northern Atlantic’s restless surface. The report includes the nugget that “British submariners … are experiencing the highest number of ‘contacts’ with Russian submarines since 1987.”

It’s no surprise that Russian attack submarines are trying to trail British ballistic-missile submarines, as the Telegraph reports. But the reference to 1987 is informative. In the annals of the Cold War, 1987 was the last year the Soviet Navy maintained the very active global profile it assumed in the early 1970s. The Royal Navy’s disclosures last month indicate that the reversal of a two-decade trend is gathering steam — and more so than was evident when Russian submarines were reported off the U.S. east coast a year ago.

The Royal Navy had 38 submarines in 1987, compared with its 12 today. The U.S. force of attack submarines — “hunter-killer” submarines — has declined in the same period, from 98 to 53, with a target number of 48 being argued by budget cutters. But numbers are only one aspect of the issue. Equally important, as suggested by the Royal Navy’s recent encounters with Russian submarines, is how our would-be rivals are behaving on the seas.

In that regard, China’s profile constitutes a steadily expanding challenge, particularly to regional stability in the Far East. Tuesday morning, a Chinese fishing vessel was challenged by the Japanese coast guard in the waters of the Senkaku Islands, a chain disputed by Beijing and Tokyo. The Chinese vessel proceeded to collide with not one but two Japanese patrol ships — something that, given the Japanese military’s exemplary tradition of seamanship, had to be deliberate and was probably sanctioned by authorities in China.

China has operated through maritime provocation and bullying in recent years, but usually with smaller nations like Vietnam and the Philippines; very rarely in confrontations with Japan. In the wake of China’s most aggressive naval exercise ever, which penetrated the Japanese islands this past spring, as well as Beijing’s securing of rights to use a North Korean port on the Sea of Japan, the latest incident looks more like part of a trend than an isolated, strategically meaningless event.

This is how maritime dominance is lost: incrementally and off the public’s radar. The U.S. Navy, as an oceangoing sea-control force, has shrunk from 568 ships and submarines in 1987 to 285 today. Our NATO allies’ navies have shrunk significantly as well, some of them by greater percentages. Among our key allies, only Japan and Australia are investing in larger and more diverse naval forces. The U.S. military, under Defense Secretary Gates, is looking at reducing further the inventory of warships — aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, submarines — that perform sea-control missions and maintain maritime dominance. Equally troubling, DoD proposes to eliminate entirely the two major U.S. commands most closely linked with NATO and maritime power in the Atlantic: Joint Forces Command and the U.S. Second Fleet. Events, on the other hand, continue to warn us against this irresponsible course. We can expect more of them.

At the end of August, the Royal Navy gave the UK Telegraph a rare glimpse of what’s going on today in the arcane world of the submariner, under the Northern Atlantic’s restless surface. The report includes the nugget that “British submariners … are experiencing the highest number of ‘contacts’ with Russian submarines since 1987.”

It’s no surprise that Russian attack submarines are trying to trail British ballistic-missile submarines, as the Telegraph reports. But the reference to 1987 is informative. In the annals of the Cold War, 1987 was the last year the Soviet Navy maintained the very active global profile it assumed in the early 1970s. The Royal Navy’s disclosures last month indicate that the reversal of a two-decade trend is gathering steam — and more so than was evident when Russian submarines were reported off the U.S. east coast a year ago.

The Royal Navy had 38 submarines in 1987, compared with its 12 today. The U.S. force of attack submarines — “hunter-killer” submarines — has declined in the same period, from 98 to 53, with a target number of 48 being argued by budget cutters. But numbers are only one aspect of the issue. Equally important, as suggested by the Royal Navy’s recent encounters with Russian submarines, is how our would-be rivals are behaving on the seas.

In that regard, China’s profile constitutes a steadily expanding challenge, particularly to regional stability in the Far East. Tuesday morning, a Chinese fishing vessel was challenged by the Japanese coast guard in the waters of the Senkaku Islands, a chain disputed by Beijing and Tokyo. The Chinese vessel proceeded to collide with not one but two Japanese patrol ships — something that, given the Japanese military’s exemplary tradition of seamanship, had to be deliberate and was probably sanctioned by authorities in China.

China has operated through maritime provocation and bullying in recent years, but usually with smaller nations like Vietnam and the Philippines; very rarely in confrontations with Japan. In the wake of China’s most aggressive naval exercise ever, which penetrated the Japanese islands this past spring, as well as Beijing’s securing of rights to use a North Korean port on the Sea of Japan, the latest incident looks more like part of a trend than an isolated, strategically meaningless event.

This is how maritime dominance is lost: incrementally and off the public’s radar. The U.S. Navy, as an oceangoing sea-control force, has shrunk from 568 ships and submarines in 1987 to 285 today. Our NATO allies’ navies have shrunk significantly as well, some of them by greater percentages. Among our key allies, only Japan and Australia are investing in larger and more diverse naval forces. The U.S. military, under Defense Secretary Gates, is looking at reducing further the inventory of warships — aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, submarines — that perform sea-control missions and maintain maritime dominance. Equally troubling, DoD proposes to eliminate entirely the two major U.S. commands most closely linked with NATO and maritime power in the Atlantic: Joint Forces Command and the U.S. Second Fleet. Events, on the other hand, continue to warn us against this irresponsible course. We can expect more of them.

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Not Your Father’s Tories

In the British general election to be held on Thursday, the latest polls show the Conservative Party in the lead. Normally, that would gladden the hearts of American conservatives, who have long regarded the Tories as their closest compatriots overseas. But this is not your father’s Conservative Party. It has been remade as a “centrist” (i.e., liberal) party by David Cameron. Nowhere is this clearer than in the area of defense. The Tories have been opportunistically attacking the Labor government for not doing enough for the troops. But what are the Tories going to do? If this Reuters report is to be believed, they will slash defense spending, which is already too low, to meet British commitments around the world:

The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think tank in London has said the most optimistic scenario would mean the Ministry of Defense could face a cut in its budget of around 11 percent in real terms over the six years to 2016/17.

The Tories claim they can make such cuts while enhancing military capabilities by slashing wasteful spending. Count me as skeptical. The British defense budget has already been cut to the bone, with the Royal Navy down to its lowest size in centuries. There is a desperate need to spend more — not less. If the Conservatives carry out this catastrophic program, it will have serious repercussions for the U.S. because we will be able to count on even less support from our closest ally. That, in turn, will mean more unilateral operations in places like Afghanistan.

In the British general election to be held on Thursday, the latest polls show the Conservative Party in the lead. Normally, that would gladden the hearts of American conservatives, who have long regarded the Tories as their closest compatriots overseas. But this is not your father’s Conservative Party. It has been remade as a “centrist” (i.e., liberal) party by David Cameron. Nowhere is this clearer than in the area of defense. The Tories have been opportunistically attacking the Labor government for not doing enough for the troops. But what are the Tories going to do? If this Reuters report is to be believed, they will slash defense spending, which is already too low, to meet British commitments around the world:

The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think tank in London has said the most optimistic scenario would mean the Ministry of Defense could face a cut in its budget of around 11 percent in real terms over the six years to 2016/17.

The Tories claim they can make such cuts while enhancing military capabilities by slashing wasteful spending. Count me as skeptical. The British defense budget has already been cut to the bone, with the Royal Navy down to its lowest size in centuries. There is a desperate need to spend more — not less. If the Conservatives carry out this catastrophic program, it will have serious repercussions for the U.S. because we will be able to count on even less support from our closest ally. That, in turn, will mean more unilateral operations in places like Afghanistan.

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Britain’s Pirate Problems

The London Times reports that the Royal Navy has been ordered by the Foreign Office not to detain pirates because doing so “may breach their human rights.” The problem, you see, is that many of these pirates operate off Somalia, and the Somalian punishment for piracy, under sharia, is the removal of heads, arms, or other appendages. Such punishment would not only be inhumane–it would potentially entitle the pirates to asylum in Britain.

Gilbert and Sullivan could hardly have done it better: poor Frederick, the Dudley Do-Right hero of Pirates of Penzance, wriggles out of his indenture to the Pirate King by aiding (however ineffectively) in his capture. The Foreign Office can’t even manage this: in response to Conservative criticism, the best Britain’s diplomats could come up with was the claim that “There are issues about human rights . . . . The main thing is to ensure any incident is resolved peacefully.” (No wonder the Iranians found it so easy to knock off the Royal Navy last year.)

The Foreign Office’s grasp of law is as feeble as its morality. Piracy is a universal crime: indeed, it is the first universal crime, older even than slave-trading. All states have a duty to punish it as harshly as their law allows. This obligation is included in many relevant international conventions, including the 1958 Geneva Convention on the High Seas, to which Britain has been party since 1960, and the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, to which Britain acceded in 1997 by act of the Labour Government.

The Foreign Office’s delusion has two parts. One is a simple error: that pirates captured on the high seas have to be returned to the nearest country for trial. The second fallacy flows from the first. It’s more subtle, but it’s typical and pathetic: that international law descended from on high, and we have to obey all of it to the letter even if the other guy–Somalia, in this case–is unwilling or unable to live up to its commitments. Nonsense: “international law” is a fancy phrase for treaties between states, or for treaties that establish institutions that arbitrate between states. If Somalia cannot control its own waters–never mind the high seas–we are released from any obligation to do anything with them.

Britain–and all the other nations participating in the various anti-piracy patrols around the world–should exercise a healthy unilateralism. A blanket declaration that all pirates will be pursued, shot if they fail to surrender, and held over for trial if they are captured would do lot of good. Putting that policy visibly into practice would do even more. And no, I don’t rule out returning pirates to Somalia for trial: I’m not a fan of sharia, but in this case, it may just have found punishments that fit the crime.

The London Times reports that the Royal Navy has been ordered by the Foreign Office not to detain pirates because doing so “may breach their human rights.” The problem, you see, is that many of these pirates operate off Somalia, and the Somalian punishment for piracy, under sharia, is the removal of heads, arms, or other appendages. Such punishment would not only be inhumane–it would potentially entitle the pirates to asylum in Britain.

Gilbert and Sullivan could hardly have done it better: poor Frederick, the Dudley Do-Right hero of Pirates of Penzance, wriggles out of his indenture to the Pirate King by aiding (however ineffectively) in his capture. The Foreign Office can’t even manage this: in response to Conservative criticism, the best Britain’s diplomats could come up with was the claim that “There are issues about human rights . . . . The main thing is to ensure any incident is resolved peacefully.” (No wonder the Iranians found it so easy to knock off the Royal Navy last year.)

The Foreign Office’s grasp of law is as feeble as its morality. Piracy is a universal crime: indeed, it is the first universal crime, older even than slave-trading. All states have a duty to punish it as harshly as their law allows. This obligation is included in many relevant international conventions, including the 1958 Geneva Convention on the High Seas, to which Britain has been party since 1960, and the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, to which Britain acceded in 1997 by act of the Labour Government.

The Foreign Office’s delusion has two parts. One is a simple error: that pirates captured on the high seas have to be returned to the nearest country for trial. The second fallacy flows from the first. It’s more subtle, but it’s typical and pathetic: that international law descended from on high, and we have to obey all of it to the letter even if the other guy–Somalia, in this case–is unwilling or unable to live up to its commitments. Nonsense: “international law” is a fancy phrase for treaties between states, or for treaties that establish institutions that arbitrate between states. If Somalia cannot control its own waters–never mind the high seas–we are released from any obligation to do anything with them.

Britain–and all the other nations participating in the various anti-piracy patrols around the world–should exercise a healthy unilateralism. A blanket declaration that all pirates will be pursued, shot if they fail to surrender, and held over for trial if they are captured would do lot of good. Putting that policy visibly into practice would do even more. And no, I don’t rule out returning pirates to Somalia for trial: I’m not a fan of sharia, but in this case, it may just have found punishments that fit the crime.

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Iranian Face-Off

On Sunday, five armed Iranian speedboats threatened three U.S. Navy warships in the Strait of Hormuz. Before turning back, the Revolutionary Guard boats dropped white boxes in the path of one of the U.S. ships, and broadcast the bridge-to-bridge message, “I am coming at you, and you will explode in a few minutes.” So, why aren’t today’s newspapers plastered with stories about five sunken terrorist boats in international waters?

In 2006, Revolutionary Guard commander Yahya Rahim Safavi said on Iranian television:

The Americans have many weaknesses. We have planned our strategy precisely on the basis of their strengths and weaknesses. When their commanders encounter a problem, they burst into tears. We did not see such spectacles in the eight years of the Iran-Iraq War.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman treated the terrorist provocation as if he were a municipal magistrate passing out a fine for a seatbelt infraction. In no uncertain terms he let the Iranians know that they had acted in a “reckless and dangerous” manner.

Last March when eight Royal Navy sailors and seven Marines from the HMS Cornwall giggled and praised their Revolutionary Guard captors, many Americans imagined that this low point for the great Royal Navy would look rather different with American sailors. Incidents such as Sunday’s give little reason for hope. We don’t know if the encounter was an aborted attack or not. But it points, yet again, to the fact that Tehran is not the rational player talk-advocates (like Mike Huckabee) suggest. Iran’s goal is escalation.

On Sunday, five armed Iranian speedboats threatened three U.S. Navy warships in the Strait of Hormuz. Before turning back, the Revolutionary Guard boats dropped white boxes in the path of one of the U.S. ships, and broadcast the bridge-to-bridge message, “I am coming at you, and you will explode in a few minutes.” So, why aren’t today’s newspapers plastered with stories about five sunken terrorist boats in international waters?

In 2006, Revolutionary Guard commander Yahya Rahim Safavi said on Iranian television:

The Americans have many weaknesses. We have planned our strategy precisely on the basis of their strengths and weaknesses. When their commanders encounter a problem, they burst into tears. We did not see such spectacles in the eight years of the Iran-Iraq War.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman treated the terrorist provocation as if he were a municipal magistrate passing out a fine for a seatbelt infraction. In no uncertain terms he let the Iranians know that they had acted in a “reckless and dangerous” manner.

Last March when eight Royal Navy sailors and seven Marines from the HMS Cornwall giggled and praised their Revolutionary Guard captors, many Americans imagined that this low point for the great Royal Navy would look rather different with American sailors. Incidents such as Sunday’s give little reason for hope. We don’t know if the encounter was an aborted attack or not. But it points, yet again, to the fact that Tehran is not the rational player talk-advocates (like Mike Huckabee) suggest. Iran’s goal is escalation.

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