Saturday, March 1, 2014

How the US should respond to a Russian invasion of Crimea

Obama has once again put himself at risk of setting red lines, only to have them backed by empty threats, by saying that "there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine." So what might those costs be? The US boycotting the upcoming G8 summit in Sochi? Lame. Freezing Russian politicians' bank accounts? Wouldn't be popular with the caviar-eating, dacha-living crowd, but still a weak response. Raising the level of alertness of NATO forces? Hmm, getting warmer, but not exactly decisive…

What's the best way of showing that America means business? Why, it's through our tried and true method of projecting power: our aircraft carriers. How about the US sends a carrier group (or at least one of our hefty carrier-like amphibious warfare ships) into the Black Sea? That would be sure to piss Putin off some, and would send a pretty strong message--considering that a US ship (or any foreign ship) that size has previously been "banned" from transiting the Bosporus Straights. But why would Turkey allow the US to access the Black Sea? For starters, the Tatar minority in the Crimea has had a long history with Turkey, shares a common religion and ethnic identities, and Turkey itself has claims to the Crimean peninsula. Any military intervention from Russia, let alone an annexation, is sure to bring back memories of ethnic cleansing of the Tatars by Russia under Stalin.

Sending a US carrier (or aircraft-carrying amphibious warfare ship) would send a heck of a message to the Russians. It would be both a strong, measured projection of power and would likely surprise Putin and raise internal Russian questions (and maybe make them reassess any further annexation plans) about the level of commitment the US has in maintaining the territorial integrity of Ukraine. And even if we didn't send in the carrier, but received public permission from Turkey to do so, that would still be a pretty historic bell-ringing.  

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Balancing in Syria: Obama and neo-containment

March Lynch and Andrew Sullivan have taken the position that the Obama White House's decision to begin arming Syria's Sunni rebels is potentially the most disastrous foreign policy decision of his Presidency. While I don't particularly like the decision, I think that this statement is rhetorical and overblown. In fact, I think this move--at this time--is shrewd and consistent with Obama's policies of neo-containment.

Without dissecting what Obama's worst foreign policy move has been, I think that this decision is more about balancing than it is about attempting to establish a definitive outcome in Syria's civil war.

Obama has struck me as something of a modern-day Truman--aiming to contain potential conflicts without aggressively pursuing policies to roll them back. The decision to intervene in Libya and remove Gaddafi's armor advantage--something that the rebels with their predominantly small arms could not successful do--through a series of airstrikes, as his troops bore down on Bengazhi, was an attempt to balance. Yes, the result of that action was that Gaddafi was ultimately ousted, but that had as much to do with French and British intentions as it did with American ones.

Even the JSOC dirty war that has expanded almost exponentially under Obama is an example of his intent to plug the dyke of Islamic radicalism without turning the tide. In light of Hizbollah's decisive contribution in the battle of the Syrian town of Qusayr and the recent report of Iran's decision to send Revolutionary Guard troops (which was likely known to the intelligence community prior to today's publication) to bolster Assad, I think Obama's decision to provide arms is quite consistent with an attempt at maintaing an equilibrium in the conflict without acting as a kingmaker.

The reason why Obama didn't try to arm the rebels earlier was because that move itself would have upset the status quo. However, as Hizbollah and Iran have upped the anty, Obama has responded in kind--without necessarily tipping the scales in favor of the hodgepodge of Salafist groups that make up the majority of the rebel's fighting force.

Ultimately, I don't see this decision as an indication that America is bound for further intervention in Syria. Instead I see it as an indication that Obama is unwilling to allow the outside actors of Hizbollah or Iran decide Syria's future anymore than he is prepared to do so himself.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Writing the narrative for Iran's 2013 Presidential election

It looks like the narrative is already being written:

Whether or not Rouhani will have success resetting some of the positions of Ahmadinejad is still to be determined, but it appears he has been embraced by many who supported the Green Revolution of 2009 as the most likely candidate of reform.

On the international stage, being already branded as the "moderate" candidate may open up doors to negotiating a way around the nuclear impasse--although it's important to remember that Rouhani was himself a leading nuclear negotiator.

However, what this makes undeniably more difficult is any preemptive attack on Iran by either Israel or the U.S. over the nuclear program. Ahmadinejad was the "maniac" and a maniac is unpredictable and dangerous. But a "moderate" is calm and someone that can be reasoned with. Once a narrative begins it's very difficult to unwind it. The Middle East got a little less hot today.

Iranian Election 2013

Here's some links to read and some coverage:

EA Live Updates

NYTimes Live Updates

Sullivan's curated tweets and graph

Short breakdown of the candidates

What we might be seeing with Rouhani and the high percentage of voters he is seemingly winning.


1551 GMT: NEWSFLASH — Hassan Rouhani Wins Presidency

In a press conference, Minister of Interior Mohammad Mostafa Najjar has confirmed that moderate candidate Hassan Rouhani has won a first-round victory in the Presidential election.
Rouhani received 18,613,329 votes.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Spectrum of Martyrdom

After reading about and seeing the gruesome attack that occurred in London earlier today I started thinking about Abu Musab al-Suri and the impact that his ideas on the evolution of global jihad has had. Al-Suri, in his treatise published in the mid 2000s and entitled, The Call for a Global Islamic Resistance, espoused a now widely disseminated strategy that at its core can be distilled as nizam, la tanzim or system, not organization. What this essentially meant was that while there would be general ideological, mechanical, and strategic advice--the why, how, and where of terror--jihad would effectively be undirected and without a more traditional command and control structure. Sure, there might be a call to avenge perceived foreign aggression and attack public events using easily made or acquired weapons, but in a perfect al-Suri world the jihadi would be homegrown and ultimately difficult, if not impossible, to track and thwart.  

Since al-Suri's writing what has emerged is the media-popularized "lone-wolf" terrorist that has found community and inspiration through the internet. On forums, youtube channels, and in publications like Inspire would-be domestic terrorists are able to interact and develop and sustain their radicalization. No training camps, guest houses, mosques, or schools are needed. 

One of the truths about terror is that an individual who is willing to die for his or her cause is extremely hard to stop and is extremely deadly if they aren't. However, while we have seen incredibly violent and horrific suicide attacks in other parts of the world, the West has been largely free of them. There are obviously some considerable exceptions here, like the 2005 London bombings, but up until recently there have been very few examples of attacks or attempted attacks carried out by homegrown Western jihadis seemingly prepared to die through their actions. But maybe that is changing.

In the Boston bombings what seemed so jarring about the post-attack reaction and behavior of the Tsarnaev brothers was that they didn't appear to have any plan for what would happen afterwards. Staying in Boston, shooting a police officer, and hijacking a car were not the acts of individuals who had thought out the course of events beyond the day of the marathon. When finally cornered by police, Tamerlan engaged the officers head on, without cover, as his brother fled. Dzhokhar, the seemingly less radical of the two, may not have been prepared to die, but his brother clearly was.

Watching today's video of the murder scene in London, both attackers again seem to have no plans to escape and in fact waited around for the police to arrive. While information on today's events is still coming out, it appears that both men supposedly rushed at or attempted to attack the armed officers. Although neither were killed, their actions could easily have resulted in their deaths.

These recent attacks were not suicide attacks, per se, yet they seem awfully close or at least within the spectrum of someone willing to die for his or her beliefs. Two instances don't make a trend, but if it is the beginning of one it will be difficult to prevent this iteration of the modern jihad.

Monday, May 13, 2013

When Opposites Distract

So, I know it's been a while.

In the newest issue of Foreign Policy there's a piece by Susan B. Glasser profiling Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, and I think it offers more confirmation on what we already know: fundamentally those who have bought in to the post-Rwandan Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine--from Samantha Power and Susan Rice to Barack Obama and David Cameron--will continue to find themselves at odds with Russia because of a core, and historic, difference in worldview.
When we met, I asked Lavrov about why the Americans kept thinking they would change his position on Syria, coming back to him again and again with new proposals that he promptly rebuffed. After a few sentences of reflection, he pulled a small white piece of paper out of his pocket. It was a quote from Alexander Gorchakov that he had brought expressly to share with me. "Foreign intervention into the domestic matters is unacceptable," he read. "It is unacceptable to use force in international relations, especially by the countries who consider themselves leaders of civilization."
Whereas R2P empowers and even demands that the international community actively prevent man-made humanitarian tragedies like the genocide in Rwanda domestic non-interference, of the type espoused by security council members Russia and China, categorically reject this concept. The fear, at least abstractly, is that what starts as an intervention about humanitarian concerns in Benghazi can end up in Moscow or Beijing. Ironically, the US has refused to be bound by international laws and regulations from the Kyoto Protocols to the ICC, mostly based on fiercely independent principles that aren't all that dissimilar to Russia's unwillingness to open herself to a potential compromise or challenge by outsiders. However, that has not stopped the United States from using its power and influence to participate and lead the interventionist charge.

Of course, while Libya was a recent example of a situation which saw R2P in action, Syria has proven to be an even more complex manifestation of the circumstances which justify this "responsibility." While Glasser's piece, titled "Minister No," hints at a long history of Russia saying "No" to Western demands, particularly in matters as principled as foreign intervention, it also paints the picture of a foreign policy structured to be pragmatic as well. Indeed, Russia's abstention on the no-fly zone in Libya, which quickly became something else entirely, may have been somewhat of a pragmatic approach to the intricacies of the Arab Spring in 2011 rather than pure ideology.

What may have happened was that Russia, through turning a blind-eye towards intervention in Libya (a state that was significantly lower in importance to her than Syria) thought that she could create a circumstance where the West might be occupied in a conflict that would give Assad enough time to quell his rebellion. In effect, allow one intervention to occur to prevent a conversation about another much more important one. If this was the case, it was obviously a severe misjudgment. Instead, the result has been that the West having now had their cookie--Libya--continues to try and nibble at Russia's cake--Syria.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The business of gangstering

As Omar says, "All in the game yo, all in the game."

The brother of President Karzai, Ahmed Wali Karazi, was killed today by a member of his bodyguard.

By most accounts, Ahmed was a gangster, but a gangster that was the man behind the curtain in Kandahar. Here is a great Harper's piece that breaks down his recent attempt to be named governor of the province.

The man was clearly not a saint, and was likely heavily involved in the drug trade and other activities undermining efforts at nation building in Afghanistan. However, he was also one of the most powerful men in the region. His death is going to leave a power vacuum that may not be easy to fill.

While the Taliban claimed to have ordered the assassination, it's unclear what the real story is behind his death. It may turn out that this was an entirely unrelated event to the political agenda of the Talibs, it may be a "domestic" type dispute, a revenge killing, or something related to his "business" dealings.

But if the Wire has taught us anything, it's that when you play the game, sometimes you get got.


Foreign Policy delves into the mystery of who killed Ahmed and why.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The changed game

Risking vitriol, insult, and frustration, I'll wade back into the Middle East Peace Process once again. 

Michael Walzer offers the specter of a bleak future for peace if significant progress is not made in the coming months. And Netanyahu's speech before Congress does not raise any hopes that it might.
[If] the Palestinians are smart, as they are these days, they won’t walk across the lines, for that raises the specter of return, and the right of return doesn’t (yet) have sufficient international support. Come September, after the UN recognizes their state, they will march inside the 1967 lines, thousands of them—from Nablus, say, into the nearby settlements and army bases, asserting their own sovereignty and territorial integrity. And what will Israel do then? Many Israeli rightists would, almost certainly, prefer a new terrorist campaign, which would put the Palestinians once again in the wrong. That is certainly possible, but it is, suddenly, less likely than peaceful protest.
Faced with this doomsday scenario--and the detentions, shootings and violence that seems inevitable with Walzer's future is indeed dooming, and damning, for Israel--avoiding the issues of peace is an impossibility for Netanyahu and his government. If peace is not tackled straight on, Israel will become a self-created prison for itself--isolated and forced to justify not merely the daily injustices that we witness today, but rather wholesale terrors against thousands that will assuredly be played out in front of the international media. The worth of a UN vote will be in the global attention it gets. And that focus will not fade if masses of Palestinians march to claim their land and are turned away under a hail of gunfire.

What Netanyahu and his supporters don't grasp is that the game and its spectators have changed. Violence cannot be hidden from T.V., twitter, youtube, even if the prying eyes of journalists can be avoided. Events across the Middle East and North Africa have proven this. If the horrors of Syria, Yemen and Libya can be transmitted out of societies much more closed than Israel's, how will the world not be able to bear witness to what violence may come out following the UN vote? How will global leaders be able to justify continued support of Israel in that environment?

I'll repeat Walzer's question: What's your plan Bibi because the Palestinains have theirs?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A couple of thoughts on Obama's speech

Here are some thoughts I've had from Obama's speech:

1) Color me underwhelmed. Not too much has really changed with this speech. Yes, Bahrain made an appearance--and the Saudis will not be happy about that--but otherwise the rhetoric was, well, rhetorical and consistent with the messaging that's come out of the Administration so far.

2) Speaking of Saudi Arabia, guess who was conspicuously absent in the speech...

3) Frankly I had hoped to see something more significant than "The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states." We all know that, and while maybe this is the biggest forum for that language--I'm not even sure about that point--he needed to go one step further. A clear line in the sand that calls for the removal of existing settlements and the permanent halt to the building of future ones was needed. Mutually agreed upon land swaps is too vague and potentially impossible.

4) Attempting to disentangle Jerusalem from the issue of borders is disingenuous--it is a key component to border issues. East Jerusalem is home to 200,000 Jews/settlers and those borders should not be separate from larger discussions.

5) Obama clearly came out against any attempts by the Palestinians to garner UN recognition for a state, but is there anything in this speech that won't have them follow through on that threat?

5a) The speech offered the Palestinians very little. With language like: "the conflict between Israelis and Arabs has cast a shadow over the region. For Israelis, it has meant living with the fear that their children could get blown up on a bus or by rockets fired at their homes, as well as the pain of knowing that other children in the region are taught to hate them. For Palestinians, it has meant suffering the humiliation of occupation, and never living in a nation of their own," Obama sets the sides up as Israelis suffer all the violence, Palestinians are taught to hate. That's demonstratively false and ignores the fact that Palestinians have suffered 4x the casualties over the last 25 years.

6) Removing Egyptian debt will be helpful, but isn't that just playing around with the billions in aid already given? Increasing trade seems to be a bigger issue--and more sustainable for future development.


Also what on earth does this mean: "The fact is, a growing number of Palestinians live west of the Jordan River. Technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself. A region undergoing profound change will lead to populism in which millions of people – not just a few leaders – must believe peace is possible."

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Balaclava Justice

There are disturbing reports coming out of Benghazi about extrajudicial killings occurring by armed gangs. I brought up the issues of revenge and what comes after Gaddafi a few days before Resolution 1973 was passed. It appears that some of the fears I expressed are coming true as members of Gaddafi's security apparatus are being targeted. Whether or not they are the only ones being targeted and who is doing the targeting remains unclear, but what is apparent is that there is a lack of the so-called "monopoly on the use of force" that is crucial in order for a society to function effectively. If there are unregulated, and unlawful, units operating outside of the law and acting out of their own grievances it will pose a considerable threat to Libya's future. This story needs to be followed and will be tell-tale of Libya's ability to function as a cohesive and lawful state moving forward.