A New President Who Knows Nothing About Foreign Policy?

WASHINGTON – The recent Cleveland debates featuring all 17 Republicans who want to be president revealed that within this vast array of mostly professional politicians, there are only a couple with some international affairs knowledge, and no one with real, hands on, experience.

Governors make good Presidents

For sure we have a sizable number of Governors and former Governors who are running. Here is the long list: Scott Walker from Wisconsin, John Kasich from Ohio, Chris Christie from New Jersey, Bobby Jindal from Louisiana, Jeb Bush from Florida, Jim Gilmore from Virginia, George Pataki from New York, Mike Huckabee from Arkansas. And this is good, (at least we hope so).

The conventional wisdom is that good Governors are potentially good Presidents. After all, they do most of the things that Presidents do, albeit on a smaller scale.

They are states’ CEOs. They run things. They are responsible for large budgets. They have to create coalitions. They have to prioritize and lead in order to promote the economy, business creation, employment, education, and general welfare.

No foreign affairs experience 

However, Governors have almost nothing to do with foreign and security matters. At best, some of them are involved in some limited international economic and trade issues, such as investment and export promotion.

And so, here is the picture. If any of these 17 GOP candidates gets into the White House, America will be led by a President who has practically zero experience in international and security matters. This is not good. (I should mention that Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina is a defense and security issues expert. However, his chances of getting the GOP nomination are extremely low).

In this respect, at least looking at formal credentials, Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic Party nominee, looks a lot better. She has been Secretary of State for 4 years. Prior to that, as Senator from New York, Clinton served on the prestigious Armed Services Committee.

Nobody focused on this weakness

Well, be that as it may, nobody pointed out this huge weakness of total inexperience in a crucial area. The issue of foreign affairs competence does not even come up in any analysis of the GOP candidates.

In fact, it looks as if nobody really cares about this huge shortcoming. Within the Cleveland main debate, (featuring the 10 top candidates), there was only little time devoted to foreign policy. And the few questions that were asked focused entirely on current affairs: Iran, ISIL and Putin’s Russia.

Europe and Japan, America’s key post-war allies, were not even mentioned. Nothing specific about the rise of China. Nothing about major international trade negotiations. Nothing on the impact of globalization on the US economy. Nothing about large emerging countries such as Brazil or Indonesia. Nothing about relations with the Arab world. Nothing about the future of US-Israel relations.

A new President who knows nothing about foreign policy 

So, here is the thing. Assuming a Republican victory, America may get (I hope) a competent, “let’s-get-things-done”, former or sitting Governor as Chief Executive.

But this new President, even if he is excellent on domestic issues, will be totally clueless about US foreign policy. He will have no intuitive understanding about the national interest and how best to protect it. And he will be unknown in the rest of the world.

Given all this, most likely he will depend upon the advise of experts whose judgement is often clouded by ideological agendas.

Please remember the Iraq disaster ordered by former Texas Governor George W. Bush. Bush was another state CEO who came into the White House knowing practically nothing about the world.

Because of his ignorance, he relied on the supposedly sophisticated insights of the neo-cons who had a dream about creating democracy in Iraq. And so he ordered an invasion, and spent close to US $ 1 trillion trying to make Iraq into a modern democracy. The whole enterprise was and is a gigantic failure, due mostly to gigantic bad judgment.

Who will be in charge? 

This being the case, let’s hope that the next President, lacking any substantive understanding about foreign and security affairs, will have the common sense of picking level-headed people to run the Pentagon and the State Department, and a sensible professional as National Security Adviser.

If he picks ideologues with agendas, then we are in deep trouble.




Iran Deal Gives Legitimacy to Regime

WASHINGTON – Regarding the just signed nuclear agreement with Iran, US President Barack Obama is right on one thing. This is the best deal we could get –under the circumstances. Indeed, whatever the critics may say, it is true that they are unable to come up with a better idea.

Tough sanctions

Yes, in principle, a really, really tough sanctions regime might have forced Iran into bankruptcy and therefore it would have forced the regime to abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions. But such a tough sanctions regime assumes that the whole world would enforce the restrictions, no exceptions, for an indefinite period of time. And this is clearly a fantasy. The US would never get this unanimity.

No military option

Short of sanctions, there is nothing else. No, contrary to popular belief, the mighty US Air Force does not have the capability to destroy all the hardened Iranian nuclear installations, most of them built underground or inside mountains in order to be protected from attack. The so-called “military option” whereby the US Air Force, possibly supported by Israeli bombers, would mount surprise air raids and completely destroy each and every Iranian installation was also a fantasy.

Given all this, this is probably the best that we can get. And it is what it is. Look, in the best of circumstances, this agreement will delay Iran’s nuclear weapons program. And this is to our advantage.

High political price

However, this delay comes at a very high political price. Indeed, the unintended consequence of the smiles and handshakes in Vienna is that this deal signals Iran’s formal political “rehabilitation”.

No matter what Obama says about America and the West still having major differences with Iran on broader international issues, this agreement will be presented by the Iranians as proof that they can do business with the West and that therefore they are to be trusted.

Verification?

Talking about trust, here we come to another unpleasant detail. The major weakness of this agreement is that deep down it is unverifiable and therefore unenforceable. Yes, there is plenty there about tough IAEA inspections. But, on closer look, the inspection regime has too many stages, too many committees, too many actors, too many opportunities to object, appeal and produce counter arguments. And this means that the inspections that will actually take place will find nothing.

If indeed IAEA inspectors could arrive unannounced, and inspect any facility at will, with no obstacles and no restrictions, I would think that this deal means something. But the inspections regime has been designed in a such a complicated way that it creates far too many opportunities for delays, obfuscation, deceptions and more on the part of the Iranians.

Therefore, based on Iranian past behavior, we can almost guarantee that they are already busy thinking about ways to circumvent or violate the agreement they just signed. We can rest assured that the Iranians will artfully manipulate the various stages of any inspection request to obtain delays in order to prevent the inspectors from gaining hard evidence of any misbehavior.

The best deal we could get

As I said, this is probably the best deal we could get –under the circumstances. But it is a very bad deal. A good deal would have eliminated any and all Iranian enrichment facilities and capabilities. This deal does not do that.

In the past the US was unable to prevent uranium enrichment on the part of the Iranians. This agreement puts some limits to enrichment. But it does not reverse it.

As Henry Kissinger put it a while ago, we have now moved from the era of preventing nuclear proliferation to a new era in which we are trying to manage it. As we have almost no way to exercise any real pressure against Iran, our best hope is that the Ayatollahs will observe this agreement, in good faith.

As much as I would like to, I just cannot believe that national leaders devoted to a messianic anti-Western ideology dressed up as true religion will actually behave towards us the way we would expect Great Britain or Finland to behave.

 




America Restated Its Obligation To Defend Europe – Why?

WASHINGTON – While in Germany to participate in a meeting dealing with upgrading NATO’s defenses, US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said the following about relations with Russia: “We do not seek a cold, let alone a hot war with Russia. We do not seek to make Russia an enemy…But make no mistake: we will defend our allies, the rules-based international order, and the positive future it affords us all.”

Why say this?

What is the problem with this statement? The problem is that it should not have been made. The whole world, starting with the Russians, should know extremely well that America will defend its allies. Washington must do this on the basis of the NATO Treaty that was signed on April 4, 1949 and that is still in full force.

The Treaty does not contemplate exceptions. All NATO members must intervene to defend any other signatory who is under attack. This is a binding agreement. America has never publicly questioned it.

Redundant statements invite questions

Then why restate the obvious? How would you like the US President stating publicly: “Make no mistake, in case you were wondering, I shall defend the Constitution”. Or imagine the FBI Director stating in a public forum: “Make no mistake, we shall pursue all individuals whom we believe have committed federal crimes”.

Such statements would sound odd. Wouldn’t they? They would invite questions. They would make many feel uneasy.  “Why is he saying this? How could anybody possibly question such a fundamental committment?”

There should be no doubt

Well, the same should apply to the US and its obligations stemming from the NATO Treaty, the critical security arrangement that binds America to Europe. However, If the US Secretary of Defense feels the need to restate that NATO obligations are alive and well, it means that he understands that some actually doubt the strength of America’s committment to European security. It means that in some quarters –and that may include Moscow– some are contemplating scenarios in which America may not intervene to defend its allies.

Would America act, in all circumstances?

Imagine a major cyber security attack against a small NATO state that would impair its economy. Imagine covert support to ethnic Russians in Estonia directed and funded by Moscow. This could be a form of attack that is however not “an invasion”. What would America do?

Again, if the US Secretary of Defense feels compelled to state what should be obvious to all –America shall defend its allies– then he is concerned that this supposedly clear committment is not that clear anymore.

And this is alarming.

 




Obama’s “Power Africa” Initiative Never Took Off

WASHINGTON – Anybody who knows sub-Saharan Africa will tell you that the main obstacle to additional economic growth is lack of electricity. More than 600 million Africans are not connected to the grid. And the impact of this is devastating. Just look at any satellite picture of Africa at night. What you see is a huge dark continent. No lights means no electricity; and this means no economic activities, at night and during the day.

Little generation

A relatively small number of mostly urban African citizens (around 25 or 30%)  have electricity. But supply is unreliable. Most factories, workshops, hotels, hospitals and other businesses must have back up generators that kick in during the frequent power failures. Reliance on generators, while essential, is horribly expensive. Imagine any US small factory having to run diesel generators almost every day in order to keep its machines running and meet its production targets because the local utility would send power to customers only a few hours a day.

“Power Africa”?

Because of all this, when President Obama launched his $ 14 billion “Power Africa” initiative during a trip to South Africa, (Capetown, June 30, 2013), everybody paid attention. At the time it seemed that the US administration had finally decided to concentrate limited foreign assistance funds for Africa on one big ticket issue that, when properly addressed, would have enormous “force multiplier” effects.

It was also of great interest that the US government would work in close partnership with major US corporations. So, this was not just foreign aid. This was presented as an American public and private effort aimed at boosting Africa’s economic growth potential.

Electricity is of course essential. The difference between having it and not having it is huge. Access to reliable and affordable energy would allow immense economic progress for hundreds of millions in Africa, while improving everything: manufacturing, business, education, health care, financial services, you name it.

A bad plan

Upon review, however, Power Africa had enormous structural weakness. Its big budget would result from the consolidation of the grants, loans and investment activities of a variety of US federal agencies, while setting up –from scratch– cooperation mechanisms with major private sector companies (including General Electric and Symbion Power) that were expected to fork about $ 7 billion in new power generation investments.

And this is only half the story. The multiple US partners in this huge and untested arrangement would have had to interface with a variety of African stakeholders, (central and local governments, public utilities, private companies, chambers of commerce, financial institutions, and various NGOs), in several countries.

At some point, all this would have resulted in the creation and approval of an agenda, with feasibility studies, budgets, financial arrangements, and finally allocation of resources and construction of new power plants and distribution lines.

The complexity of all this is mind-boggling. The notion that US federal bureaucracies would be able to pull this off within a reasonable time frame was a dream.

A dream

And a dream it was. So far, two years later, not much has been done. Sure enough, there have been interventions here and there. Technical assistance has been provided for this or that project.

However, almost nothing when it comes to large “greenfield” projects. Critics argue that many of the projects that Power Africa would like to list as its own in fact were already in the making when this new initiative came about, therefore Power Africa cannot take any credit for them.

Failure?

Are we talking about failure? May be not total failure. But, if there are any achievements, they are not even remotely on the scale of what was announced by President Obama back in June 2013.

Additional proof of this is that Power Africa is seldom mentioned. A recent story in The Economist (The leapfrog continent, June 6th, 2015), is entirely devoted to Africa’s electricity needs. The article describes in some detail Africa’s power generation projects, while analyzing large plans being worked on, from South Africa to Ethiopia, with a special focus on the role of renewable energy.

Irrelevance

Well, guess what, The Obama administration Power Africa initiative and its projected $ 14 billion dollars of new investments in electrical power generation is not even mentioned in this long piece entirely devoted to Africa’s energy needs. Not even mentioned. Talk about irrelevance.

And this was supposed to be the new grand plan for Africa coming from America. Some plan.

 




Kissinger And Shultz Issue Strong Warning About Iran Nuclear Deal

WASHINGTON – If you want a detailed but highly readable critique of Obama’s Iran’s nuclear deal,  I strongly encourage you to read the excellent WSJ op-ed piece (The Iran Deal and Its Consequences, April 8, 2015) written by former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz. (As a passing comment, let me observe here that the most articulate advocates of the US national interest are two, long retired, former high officials, now well into their 80s. Where is everybody else?)

Managing proliferation

The basic point made by the two authors is that, based on what is publicly available, this deal at best will restrain Iran’s nuclear capabilities, and only for a limited period of time, (10 years). It will not stop, let alone reverse, Iran’s nuclear program. It will only freeze its most dangerous components to a level that will not allow Tehran to produce enough material to make a bomb.

This is to say that US policy gradually shifted from blocking Iran’s uranium enrichment program to regulating it; so that Iran, assuming it will abide by the terms of the treaty, for a 10 year period will not have a chance to go beyond the threshold that will make it effectively a nuclear weapons state.

Compliance and verification

The Obama administration wants us to believe that restraining Iran is a major US foreign policy achievement. Kissinger and Shultz disagree. Much will depend on how this deal will be enforced, they argue. Iran has a very poor record when it comes to full disclosure and true cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors. And we are not even sure that we know exactly what is going on in so many dispersed facilities. And what if Iran has other secret installations we do not know about?

That said, do keep in mind that the deal, as far as we know, does not call for the dismantling of any nuclear facilities. It only calls for closing or re-purposing some of them. This being the case, at the very best, considering the limited duration of this agreement, even assuming full compliance, in 10 years Iran will be able to restart all its facilities and get nuclear weapons. Worst case scenario, Iran will cheat, a lot or a little; and it is not clear what the US is prepared to do, should such misbehavior occur.

From a political standpoint, let’s be clear that it would be very difficult to convince the entire international community to reimpose heavy economic sanctions in case of Iranian violations that at least some governments may be prepared to dismiss as minor.

Deal legitimizes Iran

That said, beyond compliance, it is clear that this deal will indirectly legitimize Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the Gulf region and beyond. After signing a “historic”  agreement with Washington and Europe, from pariah state Iran will be viewed by most as a legitimate player whose lawful nuclear program is now recognized by the US, the EU and other key states.

Please do keep in mind that the announced nuclear deal is silent on Iran’s misbehavior throughout the region. And so here are the political consequences. With a deal that in effect re-legitimizes its regime, Iran will continue to destabilize the Middle East, just as before, but now –and this is the crucial difference– with an indirect American blessing.

Indeed, it will be hard for President Obama to explain to the world that Iran is really trustworthy when it comes to respecting the nuclear deal, but it in fact a dangerous rogue state with bellicose intentions when it comes to the rest of its foreign policy.

Message to the Arabs: you are on your own

And this brings us to the last point made by the two co-authors. Saudi Arabia and other Arab states most likely will interpret this agreement as yet another sign of American disengagement. “No, we cannot stop Iran’s nuclear program. The best that Washington can do –dear Arab friends– is to slow it down. In effect, when it comes to major geo-political challenges in your Region –dear friends– from now on, we regret to inform you, you are on your own. Best of luck to you”.

This being the case, will Saudi Arabia buy insurance by developing nuclear capabilities at least equal to what the announced deal will allow Tehran to keep? And what will be the consequences of that? How will deterrence work in a truly unstable environment in which being irrational in the pursuit of ideological objectives is actually considered a virtue?

America should stay engaged

And so it is. Kissinger and Shultz do not recommend an outright rejection of a deal. However they issue a strong warning. Far from solving the problem, a deal with Iran creates many new problems that will require a proactive American engagement.

However, the Obama administration, now nearing its close, has given no signs that it intends to reinforce its political and military presence in the Middle East.

Translation: more troubles ahead.




April 4th Was NATO’s Anniversary

WASHINGTON – April 4th 2015 came and went. Nobody paid any attention to this date. And why should they? Well, because April 4th is the anniversary of the Treaty of Washington, the treaty that established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, universally known as NATO, or the Atlantic Alliance.

NATO’s rationale

If we look back at April 4th 1949 we can see that there were many good reasons for North America (The United States and Canada) to join a few, (fragile and virtually defenseless), European democracies in a defensive alliance. NATO’s main objective was to signal to the Soviet Union that any attempt to subjugate the part of Europe Moscow did not control (it had gobbled Eastern Europe) would have been met by serious force.

All in all NATO worked. Despite many internal disagreement on just about everything, (strategy, costs sharing, priorities, military procurement policies, and of course the role of nuclear weapons), NATO kept the peace in Europe. It was an armed, uneasy peace. But it was peace. West Germany, France and Italy were not overrun by Soviet tanks forward positioned in East Germany, and in other Warsaw Pact countries.

But then the Soviet Union and its Empire suddenly collapsed at the end of 1989. It all started with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, and it ended with the formal demise of the Soviet Union itself in December 1991. The USSR was replaced by the new Russian Federation, that is Russia minus all the Republics, from Estonia to Uzbekistan, that had been forced into the former Soviet Union.

Keep NATO after 1989

Notwithstanding the end of the 40-year-old Soviet threat, Western leaders decided that NATO should continue, in as much as it provided the best vehicle for security cooperation between North America and Europe. And NATO did not just continue, it expanded, in a major way. Bit by bit it accepted as new members (almost) all the semi-colonies of the old Soviet Union, from Estonia to Bulgaria.

Indeed, even after the end of the Cold War, there seemed to be a good political rationale behind the decision to give a “new home” to the free but still disoriented new democracies of Eastern Europe. The creation of a Western political and security connection seemed to be a good way to strengthen their new democratic foundations, while reassuring them that, whatever might have happened in Russia, as full members of the Western Club, they would be safe.

What is the purpose?

That said, a military alliance needs a shared objective. In the old days of the Cold War it was all about deterring the Soviet Union. (In fact, an old cynical NATO joke provided a different rationale. “NATO’s purpose is to keep the Soviets out, the Americans in, and the Germans down“).

But what is NATO’s purpose today? Hard to say. There have been limited operations in the Balkans, a complicated, costly and inconclusive engagement in Afghanistan. But what is NATO’s mission, really? Ask anybody in the streets of New York or Amsterdam, or Lisbon, and you will get nothing precise.

Preserve Western Civilization

I can see a good mission, and it is clearly written in the preamble to the April 4th, 1949 Treaty of Washington:

“The Parties to this Treaty reaffirm their faith in the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and their desire to live in peace with all peoples and all governments.

They are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law. [Bold added]. They seek to promote stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area.

They are resolved to unite their efforts for collective defence and for the preservation of peace and security.”

Yes, at least on paper, the mission was not (and it is not) just about “keeping the Soviets out” through the threat of American intervention in case of an armed attack against Western Europe, it was and is about safeguarding the values of our shared Western civilization “founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.”

No longer united

The NATO preamble is still there, for all to see. But I do not see that many joint efforts aimed at reinforcing the supposedly shared values of our (once revered) Western Civilization.

The fact is that, while still technically allies, Europe and America have drifted apart.

Sure enough, there are still plenty of strong connections between the two sides of the Atlantic: business, trade, culture, education, and tourism. But there is no longer a shared sense of a common heritage that we wish to preserve and uphold.

Just to name one, I suspect that “individual liberty” means vastly different things in semi-socialist Europe and in libertarian America.

Indifference

And so NATO continues, but on a very low key, and within general indifference –on both sides of the Atlantic. No wonder that April 4th 2015 came and went, without public ceremonies aimed at celebrating the most important alliance ever created and sustained in the modern era.




US Republicans Openly Against Obama’s Deal With Iran

WASHINGTON – 47 US Republican Senators wrote an open letter to the top leadership of Iran, putting them on notice that any deal they reach with Obama would have no binding value for the next US President.

Presidential deal

And this is legally correct. Indeed, President Obama is not negotiating an international treaty with Iran. All treaties need Senate ratification. And, according to the US Constitution, it has to be two-thirds of the Senate voting “yes”. But in this case, the US President, using his executive authority, is negotiating a deal with Iran that will bind America only until he is President.

This sounds crazy; but it is so. Obama can do this, all by himself, without any congressional endorsement. But a new President will not be legally bound by this deal. He or she will have the authority to rescind the executive action of his predecessor, Barack Obama.

Bad form

Look, it is appropriate to question the way in which these 47 Republican Senators chose to make their point. One could say that it is as a minimum “unusual” (in fact unprecedented) for the US Senate to somehow interfere with an ongoing international negotiations conducted by the Secretary of State on behalf of the US government through a communication with the other side.

Sadly, this letter, coming just days after Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, spoke to the US Congress after having been invited by the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives without any consultation with the White House, can lead anybody to the conclusion that the US Government is becoming or already is dysfunctional.

You have a President who wants one thing, a deal with Iran; and the US Congress that loudly and publicly protests against any such deal.

A bad deal

Well, leaving aside any further considerations about forms and decorum, the fact is that President Obama is negotiating a bad deal. As former Pentagon official, Douglas Feith, just wrote in an op-ed piece for the WSJ, the fundamental error here is to have entered a negotiation with an enemy, with the mistaken assumption that we are negotiating with a “normal” country that will act in good faith. I am not saying that the US Government is totally naive. But I am saying that it is impossible to trust Iran to act in good faith on anything whatsoever.

Deception

Let’s start from the beginning. Iran consistently declared that its nuclear program is for the development of nuclear energy. Iran has no intention whatsoever to develop nuclear weapons.

Now, this is patently false. If Iran were a “normal”, law-abiding country, it would have publicly announced to the International Atomic Energy Agency, (IAEA), its intentions to develop nuclear power. Following the letter and the spirit of the Non Proliferation Treaty, the Tehran Government would have disclosed all its plans, its facilities, its suppliers, and would have opened its entire program to international inspectors sent in by the IAEA.

Well, it is a known fact that Iran has done nothing of this sort. Its nuclear program was never fully disclosed. Some of its facilities were kept secret, and there is a pattern of denying full access and information to IAEA inspectors.

Secondly, Iran chose to enrich uranium, a good way to produce nuclear weapons  material, while it could have chosen other technologies that would have produced nuclear power without the danger of proliferation.

Uranium enrichment and ballistic missiles

Besides, Iran has a robust program aimed at developing long-range ballistic missiles. Is it really a fantasy to assume that these missiles are manufactured now because there is a plan one day to place on them nuclear warheads, this way creating a threat for the Region and countries way beyond it?

There you have it, nuclear weapons material, and delivery systems developed at the same time. All this for peaceful purposes? Really?

Ayatollahs still in charge

And then, let’s look at who is in charge in Tehran. Is this an open democracy? No, it is a peculiar theocratic state run by zealots who believe they have a mission to export their Islamic Revolution to other countries.

And we want to have “normal” negotiations with this country? And suppose we get a deal, will President Obama be able to guarantee that Iran will faithfully execute it?Does America have the means to independently verify compliance? No, it does not.

Slow down of Iran’s enrichment program

And this is only the half of it. The fact is that America is essentially negotiating the slow down of Iran’s uranium enrichment program leading to nuclear weapons. Remember that for years the international community, via UN Security Council Resolutions, ordered Iran to stop enrichment, not to slow it down.

Now Obama is negotiating how much enrichment Iran can do under the deal. And here is where wishful thinking turns into farce, and then possibly into tragedy.

Washington is essentially negotiating a deal whereby Iran will keep all the enriched uranium it has; but it will stop short of having enough for manufacturing nuclear  weapons.

Iran keeps what it has

Based on publicly available knowledge, under the terms of the deal Iran will not be forced to dismantle any facilities, or hand over any enriched uranium. Iran technically would not have any nuclear weapons, but would preserve, with Washington’s blessing, the entire apparatus it built to manufacture them.

Legalizing a nuclear threshold state

The deal would in a sense “legalize” Iran’s status as a “nuclear threshold state”. This would be a major political victory, without any concessions on Iran’s side. At any point, if and when convenient, Iran could denounce the deal and restart enrichment with the ability to develop nuclear weapons in a very short time.

End of sanctions

And, of course, you can expect that after a successful negotiation with Washington there will be enthusiastic calls for normalization across the board. This will mean the end of the sanctions, Western oil companies racing to Tehran to get contracts, and a lot more. And you can bet that once the sanctions have been lifted there will be no way to re-impose them.

So, at the end of the day a country run by revolutionary ayatollahs that keeps killing political opponents while financing Syria, Hezbollah, and other enemies of the West, gets to be “rehabilitated” just by promising that it will stop short of developing a nuclear weapon.

This is a bad idea. From beginning to end.




Prime Minister Netanyahu Should Decline Invitation To Speak To The US Congress

WASHINGTON – After the historic defeat suffered by the Democrats in the mid-term elections, President Obama has given no sign that he understands that the political climate has changed. On the contrary, he engaged almost enthusiastically in unilateral actions, (de facto amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants), while pushing a rather partisan agenda in his January 20 State of the Union Speech.

Confrontation

No conciliatory tone from the other side either. And so we are gearing up for two more wasted years of sterile political confrontations. The President cannot force the Congress to pass laws he likes; while the Congress cannot force the President to sign laws it will pass but he does not like.

Most political analysts had decided that this logjam will not be resolved; and so we might as well focus on who will be the next President of the United States. Only a new President and/or a different congressional majority emerging from the 2016 elections will change anything.

Now it got a lot worse

This picture of partisan animosity is disheartening. But now it got a lot worse. House Speaker John Boehner had the brilliant idea to invite Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to a joint session of Congress, without consulting the White House. This is this a really bad idea.

This is open disrespect, not so much for Obama, but for the office of the presidency. The President of the United States, and not the Congress, conducts US foreign policy. Inviting a foreign leader to address the Congress, with a speech that most likely will deal with Iran’s nuclear program, (while the US Government is negotiating with Tehran), terrorism and other controversial topics –all this without any consultations with the White House– is a terrible idea.

Ignore the President?

What makes it even worse is that President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu do not get along. Therefore this speech to the US Congress appears like a deliberate  attempt to get around the President, trying to create a different foreign policy consensus in America, and then force Obama to accept it.

Former Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren said, according to reports, that “It’s advisable to cancel the speech to Congress so as not to cause a rift with the American government. Much responsibility and reasoned political behavior are needed to guard interests in the White House.”

Indeed. Whichever way you look at this planned address to the US Congress, this is bad form, complete disregard for protocol, open disrespect, and bad politics.

Decline the invitation

Prime Minister Netanyahu should politely decline the invitation. The damage is unfortunately already done. But actually delivering a speech to Congress when the President will refuse to meet with Netanyahu during his stay in Washington would be far worse.

What was Speaker Boehner thinking?

In all this, I find it incredible that House Speaker Boehner, normally a level-headed person, decided to go ahead with this idiotic plan. Is public humiliation of a sitting US President a desirable political goal? We are the United States America, and not some Banana Republic.




The War On Terror And Its Consequences

WASHINGTON – In a thoughtful piece in the NYT, (The Gift That Keeps Giving, December 3, 2014), Tom Friedman takes us back to the beginnings of the “War on Terror”, and to how this one single issue totally dominated US foreign and security policies during the 8 years of George W. Bush, while it has also affected the Obama presidency, in as much as the new president tried to distance his administration from the Bush approach, (with mixed results). 

After 9/11

In hindsight, now we know what happened. Surprised and shocked by the 9/11 attacks, Washington engineered –from scratch– a new security policy labeled “War on Terror”. Launched in this major endeavor, America overdid almost everything, without in the end achieving its objective of destroying all terrorist organizations around the globe.

Profound disconnect

Now we know that the problem is in a profound disconnect between the nature of the “asymmetric” threat –small groups scattered in various countries that are potentially capable of spectacular acts of terror– and the means used to fight it –the invasion of Afghanistan and then Iraq, coupled with horrendously costly efforts aimed at totally rebuilding these societies, so that democratic institutions would inoculate them against religious fanaticism.

Of course, after having suffered the unprecedented 9/11 blows, it was perfectly alright to go after al Qaeda and its supporters, argues Friedman. But what was not alright was the disproportionate response.

Counter terror yes, invasions no

One thing is to organize counter terror missions, quite another to launch the occupation of entire countries, with all the fantastic costs associated with any attempt to modernize their institutions and their economies.

Unfortunately, it gets worse. By focusing on the “War on Terror”, the Bush administration could not deal with anything else. Indeed, by devoting most resources to this conflict, the US government did not do much to make the American economy stronger and more resilient. In the end, we over invested in “Mission Impossible” –building democracies in the Middle East– and we starved America.

We could not do anything else

The main unintended consequence of the “War on Terror ” has been far less money spent on research, on education, and infrastructure in America. If you combine this misallocation of scarce resources with the horrible impact of the 2008 financial crisis, in the end, after the long “War on Terror”, America is not that much more secure, while its economy and society are far less resilient.

More of the same in Afghanistan

And the Obama presidency, while trying to separate itself from Bush’s “all out” approach, to some extent continued along the same lines.

While Obama decided to close the Iraq chapter, (now re-opened), it continued, in fact beefed up, the old (and failed) counter-insurgency approach in Afghanistan, even though counter-insurgency could not possibly succeed, unless we postulate unlimited economic resources, and large numbers of US troops stationed there in Afghanistan, literally for decades.

We need good intelligence

Of course, terrorism is still a nasty enemy. And, after 9/11 no president wants to be caught off guard by yet another major attack.

But the problem with fighting terrorism is that what we need is mostly extremely good intelligence  –and we do not have enough of it.

Gigantic and horribly expensive military expeditions, followed by lengthy and even more expensive occupations, are just the wrong tools to combat and defeat dispersed small cells that come up and disappear with relative ease.

Irrational fears

Having said all that, even a few acts of terror get an enormous echo: think about the handful of homemade American jihadists who have recently attacked and killed people. The media demand action that will keep all US citizens safe, as if it were indeed possible to monitor, (or lock-up), each and every extremist or deranged copycat who may at some point do something really nasty.

And here is the problem. In our society we readily accept the very real risk of being killed in a car accident every time we get into an automobile. But, somehow, the extremely remote risk of becoming the victim of an act of terror is considered totally unacceptable.

Therefore we demand that the government will do anything in its powers, (and more), to prevent (extremely rare) acts of terror from happening.

Policy-makers forced to do more 

This is illogical. Nonetheless, policy-makers are requested by an anxious public to shape a coherent, reassuring and bullet-proof public policy in order to face any and all possible terror attacks.

This is impossible. Still, policy-makers need to show that they are really busy working on strategies that will solve the problem. And so they tend to err on the side of overdoing, and this includes over spending.

In the meantime, we still do not take care of our schools, and of our decaying infrastructure.

 




Sudden Vacancy At The Pentagon Highlights Policy Confusion

WASHINGTON – Former Senator Chuck Hagel, a fairly liberal Republican from Nebraska is no longer US Secretary of Defense. Several media accounts indicate that he resigned “under pressure”. Of course, the official statement says that Hagel thought it was time for him to move on, after having supervised a two year transition, etc. But the consensus is that he was asked to leave by President Barack Obama.

This does not look good

We do not know the precise points of disagreement on policy between Obama and Hagel. But this sudden vacancy at the very top of the US national security apparatus, with the US fighting some kind of war in Iraq, while figuring out next steps in tormented Afghanistan does not look good.

No strategy

America is facing difficult challenges, with no clear strategy. To make things worse, military spending is in steady decline due to the “sequester” and other imposed budgetary cuts, while US public opinion is not in favor of any new military adventures.

Many challenges

Obama wanted to end US military engagements. But new developments made this impossible. The ISIL threat that nobody saw coming changed almost everything in the Middle East. Now Iraq needs emergency help to repel the invaders, while the administration has been forced to enter the Syrian military theatre without any clear end game. At the same time, it appears that a quiet military disengagement from Afghanistan may not be possible.

Then we have Iran and its nuclear program. As of today, the word is that the negotiations will continue. But it is obvious that Tehran wants to hold on to its gains. In other words, Iran wants to retain the ability to produce nuclear weapons, if and when it would choose to do so. A hesitant and timid America has very few tools, if any, to force Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions.

Then we have the festering crisis in Eastern Ukraine, with all its unpleasant ramifications regarding a deteriorated relationship with Moscow, while America needs to reassure nervous European NATO Allies about its continuing commitment to the defense of Europe.

Last but not least there is China’s meddling in its Asian neighborhood via bogus legal claims on a few islands that would extend its territorial waters, and therefore its maritime influence.

Look, all of these are major issues that can be dealt with only by a strong, well armed and resolute America that friends and enemies alike respect.

But America, while still the dominant world military power, is not that strong anymore while most observers would question its unity and determination to achieve almost anything requiring a sustained effort.

Timid response to ISIL

If we look at ISIL, crisis number one, so far at least the response to the Islamic State invasion of Iraq has been very modest. Instead of a crushing blow, we have seen plenty of small bombings here and there that have not forced ISIL to retreat. The Islamic State’s prestige is still intact. It controls a large territory in Syria and it keeps the Baghdad government and the Kurds in the North East on the defensive.

Short of a massive bombing campaign, an effort at least 10 times  larger than what the US and its coalition partners have underway, ISIL will still be there in Northern Iraq and large parts of Syria when Obama will leave the White House in January 2017.

Intractable issues

All this amounts to saying that, no matter who will be chosen to lead the Pentagon for the next two years, America faces large and possibly intractable problems. I say intractable because there is an obvious mismatch between available resources and will on one hand and the need to convince adversaries that we mean business.

ISIL sees that we are not going after them with all we’ve got. The Taliban in Afghanistan appreciates that some US troops will stay,  but without conviction. Putin knows that he can do almost anything in Ukraine, without risking a major confrontation with America.

Tehran knows that America will never go to war with Iran in order to destroy its nuclear facilities. Therefore the mullahs can go on and on “negotiating” until final exhaustion will force Washington to accept a face-saving bad deal that in practice will allow Tehran to keep all or most of what it acquired. Finally, the leaders in Beijing understand that this risk averse America will not act in any serious way to block their creeping expansionism.

Find a new consensus on the national interest

In the final analysis, the real issue confronting America is not who will be chosen to replace Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon. The real issue is to come up with a coherent and credible national security strategy based on a true consensus on our national interest.

Sadly, this fractured country in which all policy debates are now dominated by ideological extremists who believe that working to reach a consensus equals surrender is incapable of formulating anything coherent and credible on anything at all, be it immigration, health care, entitlement reform or national security.

And, quite frankly, the hope that the next President (Hillary Clinton? Jeb Bush?) will find the magic formula to fix all this may prove to be wishful thinking.