Some of the best fear mongering of 2017…

“Chemical safety isn’t the only failure. The Transportation Security Administration, our most direct answer to the 9/11 hijackings, missed 95 percent of weapons and mock explosives smuggled through in a 2015 test, and it now faces $80 million in cuts under President Trump’s proposed budget (flight security fees would increase, but the money would go to the border wall). The biodefense sensors DHS deployed after the 2001 anthrax attacks don’t work reliably, and as Steven Brill reported in the Atlantic, nearly half of the thousands of hospitals that hold radioactive materials suitable for a dirty bomb have inadequate security.”

Maybe the threat of terrorism isn’t as grave as we make it out to be? Maybe it is all threat inflation?

You can read the article here.

The title is “I write thrillers. My research showed me how easily terrorists can strike us.”

What Trump Calls Strength, China Calls Stupidity

That is the title of James Palmer’s recent FP piece.

Here is one bit

Trump might have thought he was signaling a bold willingness to use force to his visitor, but China regards U.S. military might as early U.S. statesman Elbridge Gerry once did the prospect of standing army: “Like a standing member; an excellent assurance of domestic tranquillity, but a dangerous temptation to foreign adventure.” China’s happy to gradually extend power elsewhere, especially in its own neighborhood. But it hasn’t gone to war for 38 years, since the last spasms of the Maoist era produced a blundering invasion of Vietnam in 1979. (In that time frame, the United States has gone to war in well over a dozen countries, and Russia in close to a dozen.) Beijing views Washington’s scatter-shot, flip-flop approach to foreign policy — especially in the post-Cold War era — as destabilizing, foolish … and useful.

 

As with all of American blundering in the Middle East, China is the biggest beneficiary of the recent airstrikes in Syria. Not only does it divert attention away from the “region of the future,” it also heightens the suspicions of potential regional rivals, Russia and China. If you want to know why geopolitics has returned, the American use of force in nonstrategic areas is a start.

You can read the rest here.

 

 

Don’t escalate the fight against ISIS.

 

President Trump has identified ISIS as his highest priority and, acting accordingly, has deployed 1,000 Marines to Syria, pledged future support to Iraq, and requested an additional 5 billion dollars to help escalate the fight.

 

There are good reasons for the United States to be concerned with ISIS. At its height, some estimated that ISIS controlled approximately 35,000 thousand square miles including such major cities as Mosul, Ramdi, Falluja, and Raqqa. Outside of the Middle East they have inspired similar style caliphates, such as Boko Haram, as well as terrorist attacks against the west.

 

Yet, it is still not clear that it is in America’s interest to get furthered involved in this fight. This is because there are other groups in the region who have a stronger incentive to defeat ISIS and, by most metrics, appear to be doing just that.

 

According to IHS Conflict Monitor, ISIS lost approximately a quarter of its territory in 2016. Ramdi and Falluja were recaptured and ISIS is on the verge of losing Mosul and Raqqa. Their reduction in territory was accompanied by an estimated loss of 50,000 fighters.

 

Their financial problems are mounting as well. It has been reported that the Caliphate’s monthly revenue and oil production are down 30 percent and salaries have been cut nearly in half.

 

All of this has resulted in a lowered morale, an increase in infighting, and a rise in desertions.

 

American air strikes certainly played a role in creating this situation, yet it is probably not in America’s interest to get furthered involved in the conflict. ISIS is already battling a long list of enemies in the region that include the Assad regime, the Russian, Iraqi, Jordanian, Iranian, and Turkish governments, the Kurds, various Sunni rebel groups, Hezbollah, and basically most of the Muslim population at this point. All of these groups have different reasons for getting involved in the conflict, and at times their regional interests conflict with one another, yet all have an interest in defeating ISIS. Despite the complicated politics of the region, they have been working together to do this. To give just a few examples, Russia and Turkey have fought together in Al Bab, Iran has deployed its military to support the Assad regime and Iraqi government, and a variety of local militias which include Arabs, Syrian Christians, Turkmen, and Kurds are working together in taking back Raqqa.

 

ISIS poses the biggest threat to the region, not America. Therefore, it should be the regional forces that take the lead in defeating them, not some country on the other side of the world. Despite not always being well coordinated, this is what is happening. The Turkish, Iranian, Iraqi, and Syrian governments as well as the various local non-state entities have all made serious advances into former ISIS territory and have seriously reduced ISIS ranks. With the momentum for an ISIS defeat growing, the United States may be tempted to rush in and tip the balance, but it would be wise not to interfere. Further American involvement would reduce the incentive of the local forces to continue their fight against the organization as well as possibly producing unintended consequences. It was after all the American invasion of Iraq and the de-Ba’athification of the Baathist regime that lead to the creation of ISIS in the first place. There is no way to know how an American escalation of the fight will complicate the current conflict and with ISIS on the ropes, the United States would be wise to leave well enough alone and continue to let the local powers take the lead in defeating ISIS.

 

Brian Clark is a foreign policy researcher living in Beijing, China. He blogs about international politics at www.managinghistory.com

Still the best piece on Islamic/Arab terrorism.

Fareed Zakaria’s classic Newsweek essay, “The Politics of Rage: Why do they hate us?” is still the best discussion of the roots of Arab terrorism.

Here is one bit of this work.

America thinks of modernity as all good–and it has been almost all good for America. But for the Arab world, modernity has been one failure after another. Each path followed–socialism, secularism, nationalism–has turned into a dead end. While other countries adjusted to their failures, Arab regimes got stuck in their ways. And those that reformed economically could not bring themselves to ease up politically. The Shah of Iran, the Middle Eastern ruler who tried to move his country into the modern era fastest, reaped the most violent reaction in the Iranian revolution of 1979. But even the shah’s modernization–compared, for example, with the East Asian approach of hard work, investment and thrift–was an attempt to buy modernization with oil wealth.

 

It turns out that modernization takes more than strongmen and oil money. Importing foreign stuff–Cadillacs, Gulfstreams and McDonald’s–is easy. Importing the inner stuffings of modern society–a free market, political parties, accountability and the rule of law–is difficult and dangerous. The gulf states, for example, have gotten modernization lite, with the goods and even the workers imported from abroad. Nothing was homegrown; nothing is even now. As for politics, the gulf governments offered their people a bargain: we will bribe you with wealth, but in return let us stay in power. It was the inverse slogan of the American revolution–no taxation, but no representation either.

 

The new age of globalization has hit the Arab world in a very strange way. Its societies are open enough to be disrupted by modernity, but not so open that they can ride the wave. They see the television shows, the fast foods and the fizzy drinks. But they don’t see genuine liberalization in the society, with increased opportunities and greater openness. Globalization in the Arab world is the critic’s caricature of globalization–a slew of Western products and billboards with little else. For some in their societies it means more things to buy. For the regimes it is an unsettling, dangerous phenomenon. As a result, the people they rule can look at globalization but for the most part not touch it.

For the most part still current and instructive. Do read the entire thing here.

Paul Pillar on America in the Middle East

National Interest has a wonderful article penned by Paul Pillar titled “How Donald Trump Should Transform America’s Middle East Policy.”

He states the quite obvious that

An immense share of the blood and treasure the United States has lost overseas in the past couple of decades has been in the Middle East, an expenditure that has not brought proportionate benefits.

You can rattle off the failures easily, from the Iraq invasion to the dithering in Syria. Obama’s Pivot to Asia, which was based on an interpretation of America being over-involved in the Middle East, was a good start in addressing our poorly formulated regional policy. Yet, a significant chunk of his foreign policy legacy will be defined by his inability to disentangle America from Middle Eastern politics. This includes Libya, Yemen, Syria, ISIL, Iran, the Arab Awakening, Peace Process, etc..

What is to be done? The US still has interests in the Middle East, but they should be better defined and more limited. Moving forward, his recommendations include

…the initial principle that the new administration should observe in making policy toward the region is the Hippocratic one of first doing no harm. A second principle is to keep costs and risks commensurate with prospective gains to U.S. interests. A third is to recognize that not all problems, even heart-rending ones, are solvable, and that if they are, the United States is not always best suited to solve them. Often the interests and objectives of other players in the region are better engaged, and this sometimes means taking advantage of the balancing of conflicting interests.

Highly recommended that you read the entire thing (quickly as it will soon be gated).

 

What planet does Michael Flynn live on?

The NYT reports some of his more crazy positions and comments which include…

“…The war is on. We face a working coalition that extends from North Korea and China to Russia, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua. We are under attack, not only from nation-states directly, but also from Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, ISIS and countless other terrorist groups.”

In another, he said, “No surprise that we are facing an alliance between radical Islamists and regimes in Havana, Pyongyang, Moscow and Beijing. Both believe that history, and/or Allah, blesses their efforts, and so both want to ensure that this glorious story is carefully told.”

The actual article is titled “China Pushes Back on Michael Flynn’s ‘Radical Islamist’ Remarks.”

I’m not even sure how to answer this as it is so far removed from reality. He write as if “everyone is out to get us” which is a sign of insanity.

All this conspiracy theory nonsense is something you expect to find in the hinterlands of the internet yet this is someone actually advising our next President.

Our new Secretary of Defense will be James Mattis

It is official. President Elect Trump has confirmed that former General James Mattis will be his Secretary of Defense.

As a libertarian, I’m pretty skeptical of stocking any administration with so many former generals. I prefer civilian control of the government and some of these picks, like Mattis, are not very far removed from their military service.

Who knows what Trump is up to. He campaigned on disparaging our military leadership so I’m not sure what to make of all these reports of him courting so much former brass. But Mattis isn undoubtably a hawk.

See his suggested “blue print” for America.

He claims that the instability of the world is a consequence “…of 20 years of the United States operating unguided by strategy.” He also adds “The international system as we know it — and as we created it — is under assault from the forces of entropy that fill vacuums and corrode order when the United States is not actively engaged.”

Nothing can be further from the truth. The American strategy of the past 20 years has been some version of “engagement and expansion” which was the Clinton Doctrine of actively engaging the world and expanding democracy and markets. All three post cold war presidents had some version of this.

Mattis notes that a lack of American strategy has resulted in world where “Russia invades Ukraine, shaking the post-World War II European order. China chips away at others’ sovereignty in Asia.” I have no idea what he is talking about. In the far east we have the pivot. In eastern Europe NATO has grown, not shrunk. The recent revanchism of China and Russia are not desirable but the west has done something similar by invading Somalia (91), the former Yugoslavia, Haiti, Iraq and Afghanistan and engaging in military operations in Yemen, Somalia (2016), Pakistan, and Syria, among others.

As well, the west proudly chips away at others sovereignty with the defense of Responsibility to Protect and such institutions such as the ICC.

All of this western preoccupation with the internal politics of other countries represents a direct threat such illiberal regimes survival. I’m not defending these systems, and I certainly think that they are inferior to what we in the west offer, but exerting pressure on these regimes to liberalize results in a less stable world and a less secure America. If all this instability is the cost of making an omelet, where is the omelet?

I disagree with most of the next Secretary of Defense policy stances. He wants to tear up the Iran deal and bomb ISIS, among other hawkish policies. But the more I read about his personal narrative, the more impressed I become. The “warrior monk” apparently owns 6,000 books and doesn’t deploy without them. Despite his erudition, he still connects with his troops at a personal level. Yet, he will do more damage to American security if he continues to frame China and Russia as a threat to the American “way of life”. Instead, the biggest threat to American democracy was just elected.

 

Iran and Saudi Arabia cooperate to raise oil prices

It’s being reported that Iran and Saudi Arabia are coordinating their behavior in the oil market in order to raise state revenues. As reported in the NYT, Iran and Saudi Arabia

overcame their differences on Wednesday, with OPEC deciding to cut production next year by about 4.5 percent, or 1.2 million barrels a day. It will be the first cut in eight years.

Any cooperation between these two is amazing given their history.

The article notes quite a few potential hangups regarding their agreement, but the market has already reacted.

With the prospect of less pumping, oil prices, which began rising earlier in the day in anticipation of the deal, were up more than 8 percent, to nearly $50 a barrel.

From making the United States complicit in war crimes in Yemen to exporting fundamentalism, Saudi Arabia is not our friend.

What makes Saudi and Iran cooperation in OPEC even most ironic? The fact that Saudi Arabia has been one of the most vocal critics of the American lead Iran deal. Read a late 2013 oped written by Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz al Saud, the Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Britain. He is critical of American Iranian detente as he writes

And yet rather than challenging the Syrian and Iranian governments, some of our Western partners have refused to take much-needed action against them. The West has allowed one regime to survive and the other to continue its program for uranium enrichment, with all the consequent dangers of weaponization.

This year’s talks with Iran may dilute the West’s determination to deal with both governments. What price is “peace” though, when it is made with such regimes?

If Iran is such a treat to peace, why does Saudi Arabia work with the Shiite regime to raise Iranian oil revenue? Because states do not have “friends” but interests. It is in Saudi Arabia’s interest to outsource their security costs to the United States. But it is also in the United States interest to not be so dumb that we fall for it.

What to do in Afghanistan?

At the Daily Caller (the Heritage Foundation), Lisa Curtis calls on President-elect Trump to “fight for Afghanistan.”

She states

Shortly after the Trump administration takes office in January 2017, it will need to consider its strategy in Afghanistan, the country from which al-Qaeda launched the 9/11 attacks and where U.S. and NATO-backed Afghan forces continue to battle the Taliban 15 years after the Islamist extremist group was ousted from power.

And if we don’t then this..

would allow the Taliban to re-take large swathes of territory and facilitate the revival of al-Qaeda in the region, not to mention boosting the moral of Islamist extremists across the globe.

Before recommitting American blood and treasure to Afghanistan, two questions have to be answered.

For one, is there any real and persuasive evidence that the Taliban have global ambitions of waging jihad? If they were to reclaim power, to what extent would they help rehabilitate Al-Qaeda and pursue terrorism against the “far enemy?” Or, would the Taliban only have regional aims of implementing their austere form of Islam?

It wasn’t the Taliban that attacked us on 9/11 but Al-Qaeda. That doesn’t excuse the aid offered by the Taliban while pursuing their terrorism goal, but why get sucked into a rabbit hole if the Taliban doesn’t have any future aims of providing a safe haven for Al-Qaeda?

And two, who are we fighting the Taliban for? After 16 years of war, the United States attempt of state building has produced…what? I’m not sure how to describe the situation in Afghanistan but you couldn’t accurately describe it without mentioning the rampant corruption and persistent tribal tensions that undermine effective governing from Kabal.

 

 

 

The forever war expands to the Horn of Africa.

At least legally. The NYT has a report detailing the Obama administration inclusion of Somalia’s Al Shabab as falling under the scope of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) which was the congressional response to 9/11. It gave the President a very broad and liberal mandate to use force in the War on Terror.

The summary of the bill, found here, states:

Authorization for Use of Military Force – Authorizes the President to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations, or persons.

So on September 11, 2001, Al-Qaeda, with the support of the Taliban, carried out a terrorist attack that killed roughly 3,000 people. Congress responded by allowing the President to use force against those who orchestrated this attack. 15 years later we are bombing a tangentially related group nearly 2,500 miles away from where those who planned 9/11 were located.

This is obviously mission creep and is the unfortunate consequence of the “forever war,” or the state of affairs in which covert operations and curtailed civil liberties are the new normal.

The biggest issue I have with the pursuit of Al-Shabab is how easily the executive branch relaxes and constricts the scope of the 2001 authorization to suit its own short-term interests. Determining who is an enemy of the state is all done with no transparency nor checks outside of the administration.

As Micah Zenko state in the NYT, “It’s crazy that a piece of legislation that was grounded specifically in the experience of 9/11 is now being repurposed for close air support for regional security forces in Somalia,” said Micah Zenko, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.”

This isn’t new territory for the Obama administration. As noted in the same article, a similar style of interpretation of the 2001 AUMF was used to authorize the use of force in Libya, Iraq, Syria, and in June of 2016, to reenter Afghanistan.

Two consequences could result from this military engineering in far off lands.

1) As well documented by its critics, the victories of the war on terror have a tendency of producing new enemies. We may kill the leadership of Al Shabab but there is no way to be certain that the United States doesn’t produce more terrorist in its wake.

But 2) we have someone about to assume office who many expect to not impose any constraints on his use of power. Despite being relatively measured (at times anyway) in how he exercised the use of force abroad, President Obama has continued the behavior of the previous administration of setting very dangerous precedents of eroding legislative and judicial constraints on how he pursued the War on Terror. Precedents are especially important for a democracy as leadership changes on a regular basis. Donald Trump is inheriting a series of executive overreaches which would allow him a very liberal interpretation of who our enemies are and the precedents he sets building off of the Obama administration behavior could be very damaging for the institutional quality of American democracy.