Saturday, March 27, 2021


Reviving Iran nuclear deal not a question of who goes first, U.S. official says

(Reuters) - Who might take the first step to resume compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is not an issue for the United States, a U.S. official said on Friday, suggesting greater flexibility on the part of Washington.

“That’s not the issue, who goes first,” the official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

“Like, we are going to go at 8, they are going to go at 10? Or they go at 8, we go at 10? That’s not the issue,” the official said. “The issue is do we agree on what steps are going to be taken mutually.”

The Biden administration has been seeking to engage Iran in talks about both sides resuming compliance with the deal, under which U.S. and other economic sanctions on Tehran were removed in return for curbs on Iran’s nuclear program to make it harder to develop a nuclear weapon -- an ambition Tehran denies.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, withdrew from the deal in 2018 and reimposed U.S. sanctions, prompting Iran, after waiting more than a year, to violate some of the pact’s nuclear restrictions in retaliation.

The United States and Iran have yet to agree even to meet about reviving the deal and are communicating indirectly via European nations, Western officials have said.

The odds of their making progress to revive the deal before Iran holds a presidential election in June have dwindled after Tehran opted to take a tougher stance before returning to talks, officials have said.

In a speech on Sunday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said Washington must ease sanctions before Tehran would resume compliance.

The U.S. official sought to dispel what he said was an erroneous view that the United States insists on Iran’s full compliance before Washington would take any steps to resume its own commitments.

He also said it was not the U.S. stance that Tehran must take a first step to comply before Washington would take a step.

“It is absolutely not our position that Iran has to come into full compliance before we do anything,” the official said.

“As for, if we agree on mutual steps, like we’ll do X, they do Y, the issue of sequence will not be the issue. I don’t know who would go first. I mean we could – it could be simultaneous,” he said. “There’s a thousand iterations but ... I can tell you now, if this breaks down, it’s not going to be because of that.”

He added: “We will be pragmatic about that.”

Writing in Foreign Affairs magazine last year when he was a presidential candidate, Biden said: “Tehran must return to strict compliance with the deal. If it does so, I would rejoin the agreement.”

That language, echoed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other officials since Biden took office on Jan. 20, has been widely taken to mean Iran had to make the first move to comply.

The U.S. official, however, disputed this.

“It doesn’t say when,” the official said. “It is not a statement about sequence.”

Robert Einhorn, a nonproliferation expert at the Brookings Institution think tank, said he had not understood Biden’s Foreign Affairs article to mean Iran necessarily had to go first, “although it could certainly be read that way.”

“Several other formulations administration officials have used -- such as ‘the U.S. will return to compliance if Iran does the same’ -- seem quite neutral on sequence and don’t suggest to me that Iran must go first,” Einhorn said.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Donald Trump Has a Coherent, Realist Foreign Policy

Oh, Donald, bless your heart! You keep on saying those wild and crazy things, the media keeps on snickering, and you just keep on blustering. A grateful nation thanks you. If you weren’t around, we’d probably have to talk about Ted Cruz instead, and that would be no fun at all.
But my editors here at Foreign Policy have asked me to get serious and write about what U.S. foreign policy would look like if the White House should ever sprout an enormous gold sign reading, “TRUMP.” This has not been a simple assignment, because there is a Trump for every possible policy position.
Where to start?
Well, if Donald Trump becomes president, we might have a nuclear war — or, then again, we might not. On the one hand, Trump tells us, “It’s a very scary nuclear world. Biggest problem, to me, in the world, is nuclear, and proliferation.” On the other hand, if Japan and South Korea decide to develop their own nuclear weapons, that’s probably fine, and we “may very well be better off.” On the third hand, “nuclear should be off the table,” when it comes to a potential U.S. first use of nuclear weapons. On the fourth hand, you never know: We might need to use nukes inside Europe, which would not be so sad because “Europe is a big place” and can easily afford to lose a few small nations to radioactive fallout.
Anyhoo. Let’s discuss NATO, which, admittedly, is not a very interesting subject. Trump “would support NATO,” but because he too feels that it is not interesting, he “would not care that much” whether or not Ukraine joins the alliance. “I don’t mind NATO per se,” he explains; it’s just “obsolete” and full of free-riders “ripping off the United State.” But que sera, sera! If getting rid of freeloaders “breaks up NATO, it breaks up NATO.” Still, perhaps the treaty organization can be “reconstituted” and “modernized.” He adds, “We need to either transition into terror, or we need something else, because we have to get countries together.” I don’t think Trump meant that NATO should transition into a terrorist organization — on the “fight fire with fire” principle — but who can say?
Moving right along: Under President Trump, the United States would show the terrorists who’s boss by bringing back waterboarding and “a hell of a lot worse.” He would also “bomb the hell out of ISIS,” and if that doesn’t do the trick, he would go after the wives and children of Islamic State fighters, because “with the terrorists, you have to take out their families.” Ordering the U.S. military to use torture or deliberately target civilians would, of course, be illegal, but the military would gladly obey any order coming from President Trump: “I’m a leader. I’ve always been a leader.… If I say do it, they’re going to do it.” On the fifth or sixth hand, maybe not: Trump swears that he’ll be “bound by laws, just like all Americans.”
Regardless, under President Trump, the U.S. military would be very strong, but it would never be used, unless we do use it. Right now, Trump confides, the U.S. military is “a disaster,” decimated and weak. When the White House is rebranded as the smallest of the world’s many Trump Towers, this will no longer be true; after a few waves of the Trumpian magic wand, which can cut budgets and expand programs at the same time, the military will be “so big, so powerful, so strong” that no one will dare mess with it. But the military will have to be satisfied with being big, powerful, and strong right here in the United States, because unless host states such as Japan and South Korea cough up a lot more cash, President Trump will be withdrawing U.S. troops from their overseas bases.
Besides, who cares? According to Trump, more or less every U.S. military intervention from Vietnam on has been a flop. Vietnam? A “disaster,” says his campaign. Iraq War? “Big, fat mistake.” Libya? “Total mess.” As for the Islamic State, Trump says “the generals” tell him it might take “20,000 to 30,000 troops” to “knock the hell out of ISIS,” but they ain’t gonna be American troops: instead, “People from that part of the world” will have to “put up the troops.… I wouldn’t ever put up 20,000 or 30,000.
All right, enough. I could go on: Trump offers nearly endless fodder for media mockery. But I don’t want to keep poking fun at the Republican front-runner.
For one thing, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s like making fun of George W. Bush’s weird malapropisms: “They have miscalculated me as a leader.” It’s just too damn easy.
For another thing, there’s hardly a global shortage of anti-Trump tirades coming from the Fourth Estate. NBC’s Andrea Mitchell declares Trump is “completely uneducated about any part of the world.” The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson calls Trump’s “ignorance of government policy … breathtaking.” Tara Setmayer of CNN says Trump is “wholly unqualified” to be president, while the New York Times editorial board finds Trump “disturbing” and “shockingly ignorant.”

None of this does Trump any harm. On the contrary: Every time someone in the Media Elite pokes fun at Donald Trump, it inspires six bad-tempered middle Americans to vote for him.
None of this does Trump any harm. On the contrary: Every time someone in the Media Elite pokes fun at Donald Trump, it inspires six bad-tempered middle Americans to vote for him. And every time someone in the Media Elite utters a pompous condemnation of Trump’s ignorance and folly, 17 more angry Trump voters are created. If Trump becomes president, guys, it’s gonna be your fault. And finally: Though it pains me to say it, Donald Trump is crazy like a fox. Despite the braggadocio, the bullying, and the bluster — despite the contradictions, misstatements, and near-total absence of actual facts — Trump is, to a great extent, nonetheless articulating a coherent vision of international relations and America’s role in the world.
David Sanger and Maggie Haberman capture it well in a summary of their lengthy New York Times interview with Trump: “In Mr. Trump’s worldview, the United States has become a diluted power, and the main mechanism by which he would re-establish its central role in the world is economic bargaining. He approached almost every current international conflict through the prism of a negotiation, even when he was imprecise about the strategic goals he sought.” The United States, Trump believes, has been “disrespected, mocked, and ripped off for many, many years by people that were smarter, shrewder, tougher. We were the big bully, but we were not smartly led. And we were … the big stupid bully, and we were systematically ripped off by everybody.”
Trump hasn’t the slightest objection to being perceived as a bully, but he doesn’t want to be ripped off. Thus, he says, he’d be willing to stop buying oil from the Saudis if they don’t get serious about fighting the Islamic State; limit China’s access to U.S. markets if Beijing continues its expansionist policies in the South China Sea; and discard America’s traditional alliance — from NATO to the Pacific — partners if they won’t pull their own weight.
To those who criticize his apparent contradictions, his vagueness about his ultimate strategic objectives, or his willingness to make public threats, he offers a simple and Machiavellian response: “We need unpredictability.” To Trump, an effective negotiator plays his cards close to his chest: He doesn’t let anyone know his true bottom line, and he always preserves his ability to make a credible bluff. (Here it is, from the transcript of his conversation with the New York Times: “You know, if I win, I don’t want to be in a position where I’ve said I would or I wouldn’t [use force to resolve a particular dispute].… I wouldn’t want to say. I wouldn’t want them to know what my real thinking is.”)
Trump has little time for either neoconservatives or liberal interventionists; he thinks they allow their belief in American virtue to blind them to both America’s core interests and the limits of American power. He has even less time for multilateralist diplomats: They’re too willing to compromise, trading away American interests in exchange for platitudes about friendship and cooperation. And he has no time at all for those who consider long-standing U.S. alliances sacrosanct. To Trump, U.S. alliances, like potential business partners in a real-estate transaction, should always be asked: “What have you done for me lately?”
In his inimitable way, Trump is offering a powerful challenge to many of the core assumptions of Washington’s bipartisan foreign-policy elite. And if mainstream Democrats and Republicans want to counter Trump’s appeal, they need to get serious about explaining why his vision of the world isn’t appropriate — and they need to do so without merely falling back on tired clichés.
The clichés roll easily off the tongue: U.S. alliances and partnerships are vital. NATO is a critical component of U.S. security. Forward-deployed troops in Japan and South Korea are vital to assurance and deterrence. We need to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia. And so on. How do we know these things? Because in Washington, everyone who’s anyone knows these things.
But this is pure intellectual and ideological laziness. Without more specificity, these truisms of the Washington foreign-policy elite are just pablum. Why, exactly, does the United States need to keep troops in Japan, or Germany, or Kuwait? Would the sky really fall if the United States had fewer forward-deployed troops? What contingencies are we preparing for? Who and what are we deterring, and how do we know if it’s working? Who are we trying to reassure? What are the financial and opportunity costs? Do the defense treaties and overseas bases that emerged after World War II still serve U.S. interests? Which interests? How? Does a U.S. alliance with the Saudis truly offer more benefits than costs? What bad things would happen if we shifted course, taking a less compromising stance toward “allies” who don’t offer much in return?
Questions like these are legitimate and important, and it’s reasonable for ordinary Americans to be dissatisfied by politicians and pundits who make no real effort to offer answers.
Trump’s vision of the world — and his conception of statecraft — isn’t one I much like, but it reflects a fairly coherent theory of international relations. It’s realist, transactional, and Machiavellian — and it demands a serious, thoughtful, and nondefensive response.
If those of us in the foreign-policy community can’t be bothered to offer one, a “TRUMP” sign on the White House may, in the end, be no better than we deserve.

Pardon Our Election

Analysts around the world, not to mention average folks everywhere, are scratching their heads over the U.S. presidential election campaign that is among the most bizarre in America’s history. But the mind-blowing nature of some of the developments in the contest for the White House is likely masking an even bigger twist that looms once the election actually occurs in November.
Of all the campaign season’s peculiarities, none gets more coverage than the fever-dream weirdness of the rise of Donald Trump. As I have traveled around the world the past few months, I have been struck by the universal interest in this cartoonish, polarizing figure. But why? Is he a symptom of the decline of American society? A figment of our television-addled collective imagination? A sinister, neo-fascist selling hatred instead of real solutions? An inexperienced buffoon who is an embarrassment to the country of Washington, Jefferson, and, well, almost any other American?
Of course, he isn’t just one of these things. He is all of them. And the fact that a sizable chunk of Americans are willing to support him and actually cast votes to put him in the most powerful job in the world (the global reach and influence of Taylor Swift notwithstanding) is, to most of us, just ridiculous. Unfathomable. Impossible to defend and awkward for Americans to try to explain to friends from abroad—since it requires admitting deep failings in American society, our economy, our educational system, and a failure of our leaders to address those problems for decades.

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That honor goes to the remarkable run of the Socialist septuagenarian senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders. The notion that a Socialist — not to mention a Jewish socialist who looks and sounds like your cranky grandpa — has won almost as many primaries and caucuses as the unstoppable, foregone conclusion, Democratic Party-establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton, is stunning. (With Sanders’ win in the Wyoming caucuses, his total primary and caucus victories are 17, closing in on Clinton’s 19.) The fact that he is the candidate of choice with the young when he likely wears suits that are older than many of his supporters, is equally fascinating.
Sanders is almost certainly the most successful outsider candidate in any American political party primary process since perhaps Barry Goldwater, who won the Republican nomination in 1964. (Obama supporters will suggest that their man was a huge outsider in the 2008 election. He was certainly a long shot. But his politics and how he presented himself — not to mention how he governed as president — were strictly mainstream. His academic credentials and path to the presidency were more traditional than that of Uncle Bernie.)
Foreign leaders who felt whipsawed by the ham-fisted, interventionist presidency of George W. Bush and the leading-from-behind, often bewildered and incoherent foreign policy of Barack Obama (which is how it is widely viewed, despite his articulate explanations and rationalizations) might be excused if the 2016 campaign has them considering writing off the United States as a credible international leader permanently. Trump and Sanders are bizarre choices for America in domestic political terms but when it comes to foreign policy they are demonstrably incompetent, unprepared, and really indefensible choices to be commander in chief. (Ted Cruz, the alternative to Trump, is arguably worse than Trump on many levels. The fact that he and Trump are the two viable choices of the Grand Old Party may soon lead to calls for the revitalization of the Whig Party — which the Republicans effectively replaced in the U.S. political order back with the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860.)
Foreign leaders — and anyone watching this election from overseas — must think the United States is now somehow locked in a pattern of swinging from one unprepared foreign policy wild card to another.

But you see, that’s where the twist comes. Trump is not going to be the next president of the United States.
But you see, that’s where the twist comes. Trump is not going to be the next president of the United States. He may not even be the Republican nominee (though if you were betting, you’d have to bet he would be given his delegate lead). But his negative ratings in the polls are through the roof (the latest AP-GfK poll shows his unfavorability rating at 69 percent and nearly two thirds of Americans say they wouldn’t vote for him). He is almost certain to offend more people between now and November if, as he has a tendency to, he opens his mouth and words come out. And polling data like that found at Real Clear Politics suggests he will not do well against either potential Democratic opponent — with Hillary Clinton showing a double-digit lead over him nationally and Sanders showing an even greater lead, of over 16 percent, over the floppy haired reality-TV star. Sanders has done amazingly well. But he will lose to the immensely popular Hillary Clinton in New York and in many other upcoming contests. And in the ones she loses because of proportional distribution of delegates she will still pick up key supporters and maintain her lead. Clinton will be the Democratic nominee. And then, facing Trump or Cruz or some “establishment” candidate put up at the Republican convention in Cleveland this summer (who is likely to be opposed by a pissed-off Trump in a third-party candidacy that would blow up any GOP chances of winning), she is going to win.
And a President Hillary Rodham Clinton, for all the historic newness associated with America having its first and long-overdue female president, is likely to embrace a foreign policy that is the most traditional of any president in this century. (Indeed, her presidency may in fact be even more traditional than that of her husband given that he was navigating the unique, confusing environment of the immediate post-Cold War world.) Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and as a senator has showed a commitment to American leadership around the world, strong national defense, and active involvement in the international system that America helped set up in the wake of World War II. (This is a view supported in the accounts of her colleagues, for example, like former Secretaries of Defense Bob Gates and Leon Panetta, and former CIA Director David Petraeus.) She is well known for a temperate management style that earned her widespread support within the State Department when she ran it, a history of both listening and being deeply prepared, and working well with both career diplomats and military officers.
For these reasons, it is not unreasonable to assume that the manic, funhouse-mirror qualities that have made campaign 2016 so memorable and, at times, deeply disturbing are likely to be followed in 2017 by America returning to the most traditionalist, solid, dependable, foreign policy it has seen since the administration of George H.W. Bush and the fall of the Soviet Union. That should be no surprise. Clinton would be the first trained foreign policy professional to become president since the elder Bush and the first secretary of state to become president since James Buchanan (continuing a tradition that was started with men like Jefferson, Madison, and John Quincy Adams).
Which means that all this campaign craziness is likely to produce something that few in the world may expect today: sanity and the kind of sound U.S. leadership upon which the world and the people of the United States have come to depend.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Opening a New Front Against ISIS in Libya

The Pentagon is ramping up intelligence-gathering in Libya as the Obama administration draws up plans to open a third front in the war against the Islamic State. This significant escalation is being planned without a meaningful debate in Congress about the merits and risks of a military campaign that is expected to include airstrikes and raids by elite American troops.
That is deeply troubling. A new military intervention in Libya would represent a significant progression of a war that could easily spread to other countries on the continent. It is being planned as the American military burrows more deeply into battlegrounds in Syria and Iraq, where American ground troops are being asked to play an increasingly hands-on role in the fight.
Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters on Friday that military officials were “looking to take decisive military action” against the Islamic State, or ISIS, in Libya, where Western officials estimate the terrorist group has roughly 3,000 fighters.
Administration officials say the campaign in Libya could begin in a matter of weeks. They anticipate it would be conducted with the help of a handful of European allies, including Britain, France and Italy. The planning is unfolding amid political chaos in Libya, which continues to reel from the aftermath of the 2011 civil war that ended with the killing of the country’s longtime dictator, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. In recent months the United Nations has struggled to persuade two groups of Libyan officials who claim to be the country’s rightful leaders to band together. On Monday, the parliament that is recognized by the international community rejected a unity government proposal brokered by the United Nations.
The political strife and infighting among rival militias created an opening for the Islamic State in Libya in 2014. The extremist group now controls the coastal city of Surt, which lies between the country’s two largest cities, Tripoli and Benghazi. General Dunford told reporters that striking the cells of Islamic State fighters in Libya would “put a firewall” between that front and sympathizers of the group elsewhere in North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa.
That is a reasonable goal. But military officials have yet to make a persuasive case that it is achievable. Even if the Pentagon and its allies were to manage to strike Islamic State targets successfully, it remains uncertain that they would have a reliable ground force to hold the terrain. There’s good reason to believe that airstrikes would create the temptation to deploy ground troops to gather intelligence and provide technical support to rebel forces as they have in Iraq and Syria.
On the same day General Dunford discussed the plans for Libya, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said the Pentagon was redoubling efforts to assist local forces in Iraq and Syria. “We’re looking for opportunities to do more, and there will be boots on the ground — I want to be clear about that — but it’s a strategic question, whether you are enabling local forces to take and hold, rather than trying to substitute for them,” he told CNBC in an interview.
There seems to be little interest in Congress to authorize the campaign against the Islamic State, which is predicated, preposterously, on the 2001 law passed to take action against the culprits of the Sept. 11 attacks. The prospect of a new front in the war should spur lawmakers to revisit the issue.
The White House has said it would be nice, but not necessary, for Congress to pass a new authorization for the use of military force. That stance has allowed Congress — which has primary responsibility under the Constitution to declare war — to sidestep an important war vote.

True, and False, Meanings of U.S. Leadership

A recent column by David Ignatius contains an important insight about how different countries perceive their roles in countering the extremist group known as ISIS. Ignatius observed a table-top war game at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies. The game scenario involved ISIS seizing control of a province in southern Syria and conducting cross-border attacks that inflict casualties on the armed forces of both Israel and Jordan. The teams playing the roles of the Israeli and Jordanian governments both acted with restraint, hoping not to be drawn deeply into the Syrian war. The Israeli team retaliated for ISIS killing its soldiers but did not initiate any major military operations. The Jordanian team was looking for the Syrian regime and its Russian backer to use force to eject ISIS from its new position in southern Syria.
The Israeli team was led by a retired general who previously headed the planning staff of the Israel Defense Forces. Ignatius confirmed with a later visit to Israeli military headquarters that the game accurately reflected how Israel's actual military leaders currently view the war in Syria. He cites a senior Israeli military official as saying that if Israel wanted to launch a major ground offensive against ISIS forces in southern Syria (as well as ISIS-connected militants in the Sinai Peninsula), it could wipe out the ISIS forces in three or four hours. “But,” the official continued, “what would happen the day after? Right now, we think it will be worse.” That is a terse but correct statement of the key question and main problem involved in any ideas at the present time about escalating the use of force in an effort to destroy ISIS.
When it comes to how most Israeli officials talk about the U.S. role, however, they say something different. According to Ignatius, “They argue that the United States is a superpower, and that if it wants to maintain leadership in the region, it must lead the fight to roll back the Islamic State.”
That's not leadership; it would be, among other things, a free rider problem.
It's not just the Israelis and Jordanians who are thinking along such lines. Although U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter says, “I have personally reached out to the ministers of defense in over forty countries around the world to ask them to contribute to enhancing the fight against ISIL,” the New York Times reports that “the United States has had little success in persuading allies to provide more troops.”
It is quite rational and unsurprising for other countries to behave as they have on this issue, both because of the long-term prospects for ineffectiveness that the Israeli official noted and as a matter of burden-shifting. As Ignatius puts it, “Most players still want to hold America's coat while the United States does the bulk of the fighting.” It may be in the interest of those players for the roles to be apportioned that way; it certainly is not in the interests of the United States for the roles to be apportioned that way. And the question about what happens the day after applies to the United States as it would to Israel or any other party that might intervene.

All of this is related to warped but nonetheless commonly expressed views within the United States about what constitutes U.S. leadership abroad, in the Middle East or anywhere else. Too often what is labeled as leadership is really more like followership, in that it gets measured in terms of what other, coat-holding governments would like the United States to do. Also too often, leadership is equated with sounding bellicose or doing tough-looking, kinetic things such as escalating the use of military force.
The warped views of U.S. global leadership do not correspond to what generally is understood to constitute leadership in other contexts, such as a corporation or other organization. In those places, for the boss to do everything himself or herself is not seen as leadership but rather as a sign of inability to exercise leadership. True leadership instead involves persuading everybody in an enterprise that they are part of a common effort with important goals, and motivating them to work together to do their parts of the job. Maybe Secretary Carter is not demonstrating effective leadership in his failure to get other countries to contribute more in fighting ISIS, or maybe the interests of those countries just make it difficult for even the most skillful leader to make much headway on that front. But it should not be a matter of the United States doing it all. Sometimes a leader does have to get ahead of what other players are doing, but as a way of pointing them in the right direction and inspiring them to act as well, not as an alternative to their acting.
Underlying all of this as far as the ISIS problem is concerned is the question of whom the group most threatens. As measured by generation of refugees, destabilization of one's region, and potential for direct physical harm, the United States has less reason to feel threatened than do many other countries, including the coat-holders.

Why is Israel so cautious on the Islamic State? A recent war game explains why.

Let’s say Islamic State fighters attack an Israeli military patrol along the Syrian border. They try unsuccessfully to kidnap an Israeli soldier, and they kill four others. A Jordanian border post is hit, too, and the Islamic State proclaims it has control of Daraa province in southern Syria.
This simulation exercise was run by Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) as part of its annual conference. The outcome illustrated the paradoxical reality of the conflict against the Islamic State: Israel and Jordan act with caution and restraint, hoping to avoid being drawn deeper into the chaotic Syrian war, even as the United States escalates its involvement.How do Israel and other key players respond? In a war game played here last week, they retaliated, but cautiously. The players representing Israel and Jordan wanted to avoid a pitched battle against the terrorists — they looked to the United States for leadership.
“We all believe that keeping Israel out of the conflict is important,” said Brig. Gen. Assaf Orion, a retired officer who served as head of the Israel Defense Forces’ planning staff. He led the Israeli team in the simulation. In the war game, Israel retaliated for the killing of its soldiers but avoided major military operations.
Jordan, too, wanted to avoid escalation. The players representing Jordan didn’t want to send their own troops into Syria. They worried about refugees and terrorist sleeper cells inside Jordan. They hoped that the combined military power of Russia and the Syrian regime could suppress the conflict and evict the Islamic State from its foothold in southern Syria. They looked for U.S. leadership but weren’t sure it was dependable.
Which left the United States. Gen. John Allen, the retired Marine who until recently coordinated the U.S.-led coalition’s strategy against the Islamic State, played the American hand. The United States viewed Israeli and Jordanian security as a vital national interest, he said, and would send its warplanes to retaliate for any attacks on its allies. U.S. military involvement, in the simulation and in reality, is increasing — partly by default of others.
If you don’t like this simulated version of the war, you may like real life even less. There’s growing consensus that the Islamic State poses a severe threat to regional and even international order; one senior former Israeli official described the conflict with the caliphate as “World War III.” But most players still want to hold America’s coat while the United States does the bulk of the fighting.
A visit to Israeli military headquarters here confirmed that the war game was an accurate reflection of how Israeli military leaders see the conflict. Rather than attacking Islamic State forces along its northern and eastern borders, Israel pursues a policy of deterrence, containment and even quiet liaison, said a senior Israeli military official. He noted that if Israel wanted to mount an all-out ground attack on Islamic State forces in southern Syria and the Sinai Peninsula, it could wipe them out in three or four hours. “But what would happen the day after?” asked this Israeli military official. “Right now, we think it will be worse. So we try to deter them.”
The Israelis don’t want to disturb a hornet’s nest in taking on the Islamic State. Is a similarly measured option available to the United States? Most Israeli officials say no. They argue that the United States is a superpower, and that if it wants to maintain leadership in the region, it must lead the fight to roll back the Islamic State.
The theme of the INSS conference was that the rules of the game are changing in the Middle East. States are fragmenting; a self-proclaimed caliphate has taken deep roots in Syria and Iraq and now has a presence in many more countries around the world; a rising, still-revolutionary Iran is using proxy forces to destabilize nearly every Arab state; the old order embodied by the secular dynasties of the Mubaraks, Assads and Gadd afis is shattered.
Israelis disagree among themselves about nearly every political topic, but on the strategic picture, there is basic agreement: As the state system splinters in the Middle East, the instability in this region will be chronic, and it will persist for many years. Escaping this conflict will be impossible. So think carefully how you want to fight a war in what the senior Israeli military official called “the center of a centrifuge.”

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Mission Improbable

When it comes to fighting terror, America’s leaders have offered nothing but wildly unrealistic strategies destined to fail. And Obama's plan to defeat the Islamic State is no different.

Two weeks ago, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel attempted to clarify the United States' military objectives against the militant organization the Islamic State (IS). He noted: "We will do everything possible that we can do to destroy their capacity to inflict harm on our people and Western values and our interests."
That expansive and unachievable aspiration was limited slightly last week when, on the eve of the anniversary of 9/11, U.S. President Barack Obama announced: "Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL." Then, on Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough significantly re-raised the bar of the ultimate objective when he stated: "Success looks like an ISIL that no longer threatens our friends in the region, no longer threatens the United States. An ISIL that can't accumulate followers, or threaten Muslims in Syria, Iran, Iraq, or otherwise." This suggests that some degree of confusion within the administration remains.
I recently wrote about the U.S. predilection for mission creep in military interventions. The companion to, and enabling factor for, mission creep is end state confusion and delusion. The military definesan end state as: "The set of required conditions that defines achievement of the commander's objectives." This broadly expressed vision presented by the president and senior officials should be clearly defined to ensure a unity of effort among the relevant government agencies in order to promote a synchronization of efforts and to clarify the risks associated with the campaign. Without a reasonable vision for what a strategy is supposed to achieve, it is almost certain to fail.
Sadly, if one behavior characterizes America's post-9/11 counterterrorism strategies, it is political leaders presenting totally unrealistic and implausible end states. Most troubling of all, even after a president states such goals, and it is not achieved, there has been no accountability for their failures. Moreover, there is little skepticism among policymakers or the media when the subsequent unobtainable end state is announced, the latest being Obama's objective to "ultimately destroy ISIL." And speaking at CENTCOM on Wednesday, Obama emphasized that "we mean what we say" when it comes to destroying or defeating terrorism, but when it comes to threats like IS the evidence suggests the opposite is true. When confronting threats like IS, however, rather than being honest and pragmatic about countering the threat of terrorism, political leaders have been misleading and maximalist.
Let's start with the initial military enemy in the global war on terrorism -- the Taliban. On Oct. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush offered the leadership of the Afghan government a "second chance" -- a dealwhereby the U.S. military offensive in Kabul would be halted if they surrendered Osama bin Laden. The Taliban refused, and although itoffered to turn bin Laden over to a third country, Bush rejected the counteroffer and the Taliban were toppled in December 2001. However, they soon reconstituted themselves around their historical strongholds in southern Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan.
Nevertheless, starting in the fall of 2002, Bush claimed repeatedly that: "The Taliban's ability to brutalize the Afghan people and to harbor and support terrorists has been virtually eliminated." By September 2005, Bush felt comfortable declaring: "As a result of the United States military, Taliban no longer is in existence. And the people of Afghanistan are now free." This assertion was demonstrably false when Bush first stated it, and is even further from the truth today. The Taliban's numbers are estimated to be between 20,000 and 60,000, comprised of members of varying commitment, and its leaders remain safely in Quetta, Pakistan. According to journalist Dexter Filkins, the Taliban has also established parallel government and judicial structures, or "shadow governments," in all 34 Afghan provinces except for Kabul.
For the past ten years, according to the University of Maryland's Global Terrorism Database, the Taliban has also been the single greatest perpetrator of terrorism. In 2013, it was responsible for the most terrorist attacks around the world (641), which killed the most people (2,340), according to State Department. (In second place was IS itself, with 401 attacks that killed 1,725 people.) The Pentagon's latest bi-annual Afghanistan progress report highlights the Taliban's unpopularity and casualty rate, and how they are "unable to turn limited tactical successes into strategic or operational gains." But minimizing the Taliban's reach within Afghanistan was never America's stated objective -- it was the outright defeat of the movement. And, in no way, has the Taliban been defeated, nor is its defeat imminent.
What about the terrorist organization directly responsible for conducting 9/11? In its national counterterrorism strategies, the Bush administration provided that its ultimate objective was "to disrupt and destroy terrorist organizations of global reach"(2002), and "defeat global terrorism" (2006). 
As Bushannounced in September 2006: "We will defeat the Taliban, we will defeat al Qaeda."
As Bush announced in September 2006: "We will defeat the Taliban, we will defeat al Qaeda." The Obama administration has adhered to this comprehensive end state. In June 2011, the White House released its own National Strategy for Counterterrorism, which stated in its first paragraph a top national security priorities of "disrupting, dismantling, and eventually defeating al-Qa'ida (sic) and its affiliates and adherents." In April 2012, then-White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennandeclared: "We're not going to rest until al Qaeda the organization is destroyed and is eliminated from areas in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Africa and other areas. We're determined to do that."
By the U.S. government's own data, these strategic objectives have all failed, despite lots of airstrikes and sustained support for local security forces. Of the four al Qaeda-affiliated groups for which the State Department has provided estimates of strength over the past five years, the only one to decrease in strength was al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. All others are estimated to still have the same number of fighters as they did in 2009.
Strength of al-Qaeda Affiliates

al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula
several thousand
several thousand
few thousand
al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb
less than 1,000
less than 1,000
less than 1,000
less than 1,000
less than 1,000
al Qaeda in Iraq
several thousand
several thousand
several thousand
several thousand
Source: U.S. Department of State Country Reports on Terrorism 2009-2013.
Given that two administrations have failed to achieve their end states of defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda and its affiliated organizations, we should be extremely doubtful of the Obama administration's strategic objective of destroying IS or its ability to threaten the United States or any of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims. Furthermore, it is difficult to ascertain what the Obama administration has learned from the total failure to eliminate the Taliban and al Qaeda and all affiliates. Based upon White House statements, it appears that its sole lesson from the post-9/11 era is to avoid massive ground invasions, and to emulate the policies from Yemen and Somalia, which again, according to U.S. government data, have not worked.
On Friday, Pentagon spokesperson Rear Admiral John Kirby was asked how IS would be destroyed, beyond airstrikes and supporting partners on the ground. He replied: "It also is going to take the ultimate destruction of their ideology." If this is truly the ultimate pathway for IS's destruction, then it was strange that it did not appear anywhere in President Obama's strategy speech. Furthermore, altering the interpretation that others hold of a religious ideology is something that governments are really bad at. Indeed, this has to be the least successful U.S. counterterrorism line of effort over the past 13 years. In nearly every major policy speech or oversight hearing, Bush and Obama officials have repeatedly emphasized their belief of what Islam really is (peaceful and compassionate), and what it is not (violent and oppressive).
It is unclear who their attempts to discredit extremist Islam are intended to reach, but they have not succeeded in minimizing the appeal that the ideology holds for domestic and foreign jihadist fighters. Within the Muslim world, the views of al Qaeda are extremelyunfavorable, and concerns about Islamic extremism have grown over the past ten years. Yet, the number of individuals willing to fight and die on behalf of that ideology has not subsequently diminished. Seth Jones at the RAND Corporation recently found that over the past four years there was a 60 percent increase in the number of radical Islamic groups while the number of extremist fighters more than doubled. This suggests that if ideology is the "center of gravity" as the Pentagon spokesperson contended, then the United States will never be able to destroy it, nor IS itself.
In my totally idiosyncratic (and informal) survey of U.S. government employees and military officers over the past two weeks, I have not communicated with one person who thinks that IS will be "destroyed," using the military definition: "A condition of a target so damaged that it can neither function as intended nor be restored to a usable condition." The overwhelming response has been one of eye rolling, followed by a sympathetic "well, he had to say that." Moreover, most Americans feel the same way. According to a recent Wall Street Journalsurvey, 68 percent of the American people do not have confidence that the United States will achieve the goals outlined in Obama's speech, even while 71 percent support airstrikes in Iraq, and 65 percent support them in Syria. Therefore, the United States is eagerly and collectively marching towards a destination that it knows it will never reach.
Why did Obama claim that the United States can destroy a militant army of 10,000 to 30,000 members, when few people in or out of government believe that this aspirational end state can be achieved? Obviously, it is a simpler message that sounds super tough. Like his predecessor, Obama chose to articulate a wildly unachievable end state, rather than show the political courage to say the truth: the United States will attempt to diminish the threat that IS poses to U.S. personnel in the region to the greatest extent possible based upon the political will and resources that the United States and countries in the region are willing to commit. The only thing to be certain of when IS is not destroyed is that nobody will be held accountable, and another terrorist enemy will be put on the destruction list.