Archive for the ‘Middle East’ Category

Settlements Are the Biggest Obstacle to Peace

Monday, March 15th, 2010

At some point I’d resolved to just ignore Chait’s writing on the Middle East, but this post really needs a rebuttal, so such is life. Chait is responding, somewhat critically, to a Wall Street Journal column regarding the latest dust-up between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government, involving the planned building of 1,600 new settlement homes in Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem:

No, the settlements aren’t “the” key obstacle to peace. But they are an obstacle to peace. And with the most moderate Palestinian leadership in the West Bank in history, provocative moves like the one Netanyahu’s government undertook appear designed to undercut progress toward a peace agreement.

The Journal is right that any realistic peace deal will have to readjust the 1967 borders. But the readjustment works both ways. And you’re never going to be able to get a stable Palestinian government that can maintain or even reach a peace agreement without some kind of claim to shared control over Jerusalem — not the pre-1967 split, but something. That’s why continued expansion in east Jerusalem is so problematic.

The point is fair enough, on some level, but it needs to be said as many times as it can be said that, yes, the settlements are the biggest obstacle to peace. And in fact, Chait seems to understand why that’s the case in admitting that the 1967 borders will have to be readjusted, a process that will already prove extrememly difficult. As Israel expands their settlements even further, it will only get more difficult, and considering that the settlements in the West Bank are constructed in such a way as to cut the Palestinian West Bank into ribbons, leaving any sort of functioning state in the territory more or less impossible to imagine.

Chait’s contention that Netanyahu appears to be intentionally undercutting the peace process is also laughable. How in the world could any rational observer of the process not know that’s exactly Netanyahu’s goal? Netanyahu has repeatedly talked down the peace process, and he’s formed a government including the most extreme right-wing elements of Israeli politics (although Kadima deserves a large share of the blame for that). I’m at a loss as to why anyone would believe for a second Netanyahu cared about the peace process, in fact, I don’t see how anyone could assume any of the major Israeli parties were serious about a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians.

The brazeness of the announcement of new development in East Jerusalem seems to have shocked Western media and policy makers, but it really shouldn’t have. Israel has been evicting Arab residents of the city for some time now to move Israelis in, and the government has barely concealed its intentions to develop even more territory in the West Bank. The only questions now are whether or not Israel is going to go ahead with a full expulsion of Arabs from East Jerusalem, and whether the US will ever muster the inclination to finally put an end to Israel’s destructive behavior before it’s truly too late.

Technorati Tags:

Dot Dot Dot: Taking Everyone’s Favorite Metaphor For Failure Out For A Spin

Monday, December 28th, 2009

By Tommy Brown

In the wake of the attempted terrorist attack on a Amsterdam-to-Detroit airliner, the WaPo’s editorial page breaks out my favorite way that the burden of failure is transferred from actual people to abstract concepts: “Connecting the dots.” From the editorial:

THE THWARTED Christmas Day airplane bombing raises three causes for alarm. First, it illustrates a screening system that remains porous enough to let a suspect board with the same explosive shoe-bomber Richard Reid attempted to use in 2001

Okay, I’ll give him that one, but it’s not exactly like it was unknown that the TSA is a complete disaster. Since 9/11, reporters and government types alike have repeatedly defeated the TSA’s security and gotten everything from box-cutters to guns to mock explosives aboard airplanes. So color me unsurprised.

Second, it exposes a terrorism bureaucracy too clumsy to catapult the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, at least to a higher level of preflight scrutiny after his father came forward with warnings that he might pose a danger.”

That may have something to do with the fact that both the no-fly list and the “extra attention” list are literally swamped with hundreds of thousands of names, ninety percent of whom seem to be on there for no apparent reason. This is thanks to a system called TIDEMART that literally runs off of a laptop in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC) and NSA data-mining run amok. Add in an element of political intimidation (scores of antiwar activists found themselves on one of the lists during the Bush Administration) and you have the recipe for a system that may be worse than not having one at all.

And his father did warn the US Embassy in Lagos that his son had been radicalized, which did get him on the increased scrutiny list. Why no more than that you ask? Well, two reasons: One, the CTC and NSA are absolutely flooded with vague warnings from all over the world that may or may not be the real deal, which basically reduces it to going with the odds-on favorite. Two, despite the fact that pretty much every CIA officer in the world using official cover poses as a Foreign Service embassy official, the striped-pants set from the State Department and the spooks from Langley are generally at each others’ throats. Then you add in the disdain that the FBI, which is responsible for domestic counterterrorism, has for the CIA (the saying is, “FBI catches bank robbers; CIA robs banks”) and it is yet again a recipe for disaster.

Expect to hear about “breaking information stovepipes” (my second favorite in terms of blaming abstract concepts) and “not just moving boxes around on a chart” when moving the boxes into an arrangement that makes a lick of sense would probably be a good idea.

Third, if it is true that the suspect received explosives training from al-Qaeda in Yemen, the incident underscores the emergence of that troubled nation as a training ground for terrorists.

This is the kind of thing that makes my blood boil. Yemen is not “emerging” as a training ground for terrorists, Al Qaeda has been there at least since bin Laden was kicked out of the Sudan and moved to Afghanistan in the Nineties. Yemen acted as sort of a regional command center for AQ Central in the Persian Gulf, given that the ruling council was in a Central Asian country on the far side of Iran.

I mean, Yemen had a direct role in 9/11. Two of the hijackers came to America from Yemen; one actually returned there and came back during preparations for the hijackings. In fact, the best example of not “connecting the dots” before 9/11 involves Yemen. It goes like this: The NSA was actually tapping the communications of the Yemen command center, and identified those two future hijackers as AQ and on their way to America. The NSA told the CTC, but the call was taken by an FBI agent seconded to the Agency, who told his CIA boss, who for reasons unknown sat on the information.

At least this explains our targeted strikes in Yemen recently..

No screening system can be foolproof, and every system must balance security against the need to allow an acceptably free flow of travel. But the system apparently failed in the case of Mr. Abdulmutallab in significant part because available technologies were not employed. The explosive PETN, pentaerythritol tetranitrate, that Mr. Abdulmutallab allegedly carried would not be found through normal X-rays or metal detectors. However, it is detectable by bomb-sniffing dogs, by “sniffer” technology that blows particles off travelers, or by swabbing passengers for traces of explosives; full-body imaging might also have been helpful.

This is a whole bunch of words that can be boiled down to this: If someone in Lagos or Amsterdam had put the guy through a bomb sniffer, this would never have happened. Period.

The episode also serves as another sobering reminder that eliminating Afghanistan as a haven for terrorist planning is necessary but not sufficient. Yemen will be “a fertile ground for the training and recruitment of Islamist militant groups for the foreseeable future,” Andrew Exum and Richard Fontaine warned in a report last month for the Center for a New American Security.

Al Qaeda is in more than eighty countries, including every Sunni-ruled country in the Middle East, multiple countries in Africa, the Philippines, you name it. In spite of the fact that no one seems to know or care about it, Operation Enduring Freedom (the initial attack on Afghanistan) also included a Philippines component, with Special Forces pursuing and eliminating members of Jamaat al-Islamyiah, an AQ offshoot. So, again, color me less than surprised.

Hopefully this will be the final kick in the ass that will spark some serious intelligence and counterterrorism reform, but Your Humble Author remains doubtful. If 9/11 couldn’t do it, what can?

Technorati Tags: , , , , ,

How I Learned To Hate The Bomb Redux: The New York Times Gets In On The Act

Sunday, December 27th, 2009

By Tommy Brown

Another give-war-a-chance Op-Ed about Iran, hitting most of the same bunk talking points I covered yesterday in my post about yet another holiday season hysteria over the ayatollahs (with as many Nazi references as you can get in).

Now, this Op-Ed wouldn’t look out of place at all any time since 2002 on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post, who have been rah-rahing a war with Iran for quite awhile now. The interesting thing is that it is the New York Times running this particular opinion piece.

This leaves Your Humble Author wondering if this is an attempt to mainstream the idea of an Iranian war with moderates and the center-left. Think back to 2002 and the hawkish stance on Iraq expounded upon by Thomas Friedman or Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaraia.

I covered most of the niggling details of an Iranian nuclear breakout and what it means to America and Israel yesterday, so let’s just hit the high points and call it a wrap:

Complete dismissal of diplomacy with a total disregard for the consequences of military action?

Tehran’s rejection of the original proposal is revealing. It shows that Iran, for domestic political reasons, cannot make even temporary concessions on its bomb program, regardless of incentives or sanctions.

Incentives and sanctions will not work, but air strikes could degrade and deter Iran’s bomb program at relatively little cost or risk, and therefore are worth a try.

Check.

Subtle potshots at Obama painting him as an appeaser in the mold of Jimmy Carter or (now officially the most overused analogy in foreign policy) Neville Chamberlain?

This would let Iran run the reactor, retain the bulk of its enriched uranium and continue to enrich more — a bargain unacceptable even to the Obama administration.

Negotiation to prevent nuclear proliferation is always preferable to military action. But in the face of failed diplomacy, eschewing force is tantamount to appeasement.

Check.

Pretending that borderline-crazy Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the real leader of Iran and not the pragmatic Supreme Ayatollah?

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad initially embraced the deal because he realized it aided Iran’s bomb program. But his domestic political opponents, whom he has tried to label as foreign agents, turned the tables by accusing him of surrendering Iran’s patrimony to the West.

Check.

Repurposed Iraq War talking points?

Iran supplies Islamist terrorist groups in violation of international embargoes. Even President Ahmadinejad’s domestic opponents support this weapons traffic. If Iran acquired a nuclear arsenal, the risks would simply be too great that it could become a neighborhood bully or provide terrorists with the ultimate weapon, an atomic bomb.

Check.

Completely destroying your own argument that a preemptive strike will constrain Iranian nuclear ambitions while acting as if it supports your case?

But history suggests that military strikes could work. Israel’s 1981 attack on the nearly finished Osirak reactor prevented Iraq’s rapid acquisition of a plutonium-based nuclear weapon and compelled it to pursue a more gradual, uranium-based bomb program. A decade later, the Persian Gulf war uncovered and enabled the destruction of that uranium initiative, which finally deterred Saddam Hussein from further pursuit of nuclear weapons (a fact that eluded American intelligence until after the 2003 invasion).

Checkmate.

Technorati Tags: , , , ,

How I Learned To Hate The Bomb: The Renewed Campaign To Spark Hysteria Over Iran

Saturday, December 26th, 2009

By Tommy Brown

First up, from Foreign Policy’s article on deterring and containing Iran:

Deterrence in the Middle East, they [policymakers and foreign policy analysts] argue, could be just as stable as it was between the United States and the USSR during the Cold War. “Israel’s massive nuclear force will deter Iran from ever contemplating using or giving away its own (hypothetical) weapon,” wrote Fareed Zakaria in the Oct. 12 edition of Newsweek. “Deterrence worked with madmen like Mao, and with thugs like Stalin, and it will work with the calculating autocrats of Tehran.”

But this historical analogy is dangerously misconceived. In reality, defusing an Israeli-Iranian nuclear standoff will be far more difficult than averting nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis. This is true even if those Iranians with their fingers on the nuclear trigger are not given to messianic doomsday thinking. Here are five factors that will make an Israeli-Iranian nuclear confrontation potentially explosive.

Before we dive into these five factors, I’ll just pause to say that comparing a nuclear Iran to the American-Soviet standoff or even comparing Cuba during the Crisis with Iran is pretty specious and silly. And so:

Communication and trust.

The October 1962 negotiations that settled the Cuban missile crisis were conducted through a fairly effective, though imperfect, communication system between the United States and Russia. There was also a limited degree of mutual trust between the two superpowers. This did not prevent confusion and suspicion, but it did facilitate the rivals’ ability to understand the other’s side and eventually resolve the crisis.

Israel and Iran, however, have no such avenues for communication. They don’t even have embassies or fast and effective back-channel contacts — and, what’s more, they mistrust each other completely. Israel has heard Iranian leaders — and not just President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — call for its destruction. Meanwhile, Iranian leaders remain prone to paranoid and conspiratorial views of the outside world, especially Israel and the United States. In any future Iranian-Israeli crisis, each side could easily misinterpret the other’s moves, leading to disaster. A proxy war conducted by Iran through Hezbollah or Hamas against Israel could quickly lead to a series of escalating threats.

This actually is a serious problem. The Cold War MAD-speak for it is “redlines,” a series of negotiated agreements between America and the Soviet Union on what provocations from the other side could cause a nuclear response. The name comes from the Red Line, the teletype device that directly linked the White House and the Kremlin, installed in the wake of several clashes with the Soviets that almost led to nuclear Armageddon.

Of course, comparing the Israel-Iran situation to the Cold War is ludicrous, the best comparison is undoubtedly the India-Pakistan nuclear standoff. Here as in a hypothetical Middle Eastern cold war, there are no redlines and no communication between Islamabad and Mumbai on this issue. And, in the author’s favor, we have come to the brink of a third India-Pakistan war that most likely would have involved nuclear exchanges twice since 9/11.

Both times, both sides were slowly pushed back from the brink by Washington. I’ll pick back up on this in a minute.

Goals.

The Soviets wanted to extend their power and spread Communism — they never pledged the annihilation of America. Iranian leaders, however, have called for Israel to be “wiped off the map of the Middle East.” After the street protests that followed the June presidential election, Iran has entered into chronic instability. In a moment of heightened tension and urgent need for popular support, an Iranian leader could escalate not only rhetoric but action.

There is a strong precedent in the Middle East of such escalation leading to war. Arab threats to destroy any Jewish state preceded a massive invasion of the new Israeli state in May 1948. In May and June 1967, Egypt’s President Gamal Abd al-Nasser loudly proclaimed his intent to “liberate Palestine” (i.e. Israel in its 1949 borders), and moved his panzer divisions to Israel’s border. The result was the Six Day War.

The revisionist history that has sprung up around the Cold War in the two decades since its end is quite fascinating. Does Krushchev banging his shoe at the United Nations and shouting “We will bury you!” count for nothing anymore?

The author of the piece is right that despite all the rantings and threats, the main goal of the Soviet Union was to extend their power and influence into the Third World under the guise of World Socialism and to stay militarily competitive with America. But the same is also true with Iran: Despite the loud, blustery threats from the ayatollahs lo these last three decades, Iran has time and again proved itself to be a ruthless and crafty player of the Great Game, certainly not an irrational actor.

The analogy to the Six Day War is baffling and somewhat deceptive. It wasn’t Nasser’s rhetoric that caused the war, it was him moving his armies to the Israeli border. And the analogy is doubly misleading because Iran has very little conventional capability, their influence in the Middle East is almost entirely based on assymetric power.

And by the way: Panzer divisions? Really? That’s about as subtle as a kick to the groin.

Command and control.

In 1962, the two superpowers possessed sophisticated command-and-control systems securing their nuclear weapons. Both also employed effective centralized decision-making systems. Neither may be the case with Iran: Its control technology will be rudimentary at first, and Tehran’s decision-making process is relatively chaotic. Within Iran’s byzantine power structure, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) mounts an army and navy of its own alongside the regular army and navy, and internal differences within the regime over nuclear diplomacy are evidence of conflicting lines of authority. Recent events suggest that the IRGC, allied with Ahmadinejad, has increasingly infringed on the authority of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As a result, no one can be certain how decisions are made and who makes them.

This one’s pretty easy. The entire nuclear program is under the control of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (the Sepha-i Pasdaran), a shadow military and secret police that reports directly to the Supreme Ayatollah Khamein’i. Simple. There is no issue with unity of command despite their recent civil unrest.

Mutual deterrence.

Both the United States and USSR had second-strike capability made credible by huge land masses. They possessed hardened missile silos scattered throughout the countryside, large air forces equipped with nuclear bombs, and missile-launching submarines. In the Middle East, Iran stretches across a vast 636,000 square miles, against Israel’s (pre-1967) 8,500 square miles of territory. This point was made by ex-president Hashemi Rafsanjani in 2001, who noted, “Israel is much smaller than Iran in land mass, and therefore far more vulnerable to nuclear attack.” If this is the way an Iranian pragmatist thinks, how are the hard-liners thinking?

In contrast, by 1962, the two superpowers implicitly recognized the logic of mutually assured destruction. And yet, they still came relatively close to war — in John F. Kennedy’s words, the risk of a nuclear conflict was “between one out of three and even.” When Iran goes nuclear, the huge disparity in size will pose a psychological obstacle for its recognition of mutual deterrence.

All things being equal, Israel’s small size would be a detriment to a mutually-assured destruction strategy. But things aren’t equal. Even if Iran obtains a handful of nuclear weapons and halfway decent missiles to shoot them at people with, Israel will be the only side that has a credible second-strike capability. Combined with the certainty of American assistance, this doesn’t seem like much of an impediment to MAD.

Even assuming the United States promises Israel a retaliatory nuclear umbrella, Iran will doubt U.S. resolve. The mullahs will be tempted to conclude that with Israel gone, the United States would see no point in destroying Iran. Given the criticism leveled today against President Harry Truman for using the bomb against Japanese civilians in World War II, what are the chances of American retaliation against Iran, especially if the Islamic Republic has not attacked the United States?

I seriously doubt the mullahs doubt American resolve when it comes to the Middle East, especially the Persian Gulf. Nuclear missiles exploding near the oil would be seriously bad for business, and if there’s one thing you can guarantee, it’s that America will respond swiftly and strongly to any perceived threat to our energy security. Not to mention, Israel is quite popular here in the States and they have a very vocal political lobby.

And the last sentence presupposes that if Israel is nuked by Iran, that America will have to nuke Iran in retaliation. We just might, but even if we don’t, American conventional power is strong enough to level the entire country in a month (despite its huge size, much of Iran is uninhabitable, and the population is clustered around urban and semi-urban areas). There isn’t a doubt in the world that America would descend upon Iran like the Wrath of God if they were to ever do something so stupid.

Crisis instability.

In view of the above dangers, if and when a grave crisis does erupt, Israel would be tempted to strike first in order to prevent an Iranian nuclear attack, which would devastate its urban core. Iran will be well aware of Israel’s calculations and, in the early years of becoming a nuclear power, will have a smaller and probably more vulnerable nuclear arsenal. This will give it, in turn, strong incentives to launch its own preemptive strike.

This will not happen as long as America has such a heavy military presence in the Middle East. Period. This favorite talking point of war hawk pundits was put to bed decisively in 2007 during the Bush Administration. They came to Washington to ask for the latest generation in nuclear bunker-busters for a strike on Iran (as well as permission to cross Iraqi airspace) and were turned down flat by Condi Rice and Bob Gates, who threatened to end the American-Israeli relationship permanently if they did go ahead and do it anyway.

Yes, you read that right. Israel wants to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program by dropping nuclear weapons on them. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

Just a few more points to wrap up:

Once Iran is a nuclear power, the Middle East is likely to enter a fast-moving process of nuclear proliferation. Until now, most Arab governments have not made an effort to match Israel’s  nuclear arsenal.

Already happening. Saudi Arabia doesn’t have all those Chinese ballistic missiles hidden out in the Empty Quarter for nothing. But the fall of Iraq has as much to do with it as Iran’s nuclear program; that’s a whole ‘nother story though.

Contrary to the wishful thinking of some analysts that the possession of nuclear weapons could make Iran more cautious, a nuclear Iran will likely be emboldened. It could press Hezbollah to be more aggressive in Lebanon, flex its muscles in the Persian Gulf, and step up its challenges against U.S. forces in the region.

Iran is pretty bold now. Things really couldn’t be going any better for them if they had tried. Their unconventional warfare power by proxy in Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, western Afghanistan and a host of other places makes them the de facto regional hegemon.

The most important point, and the one all these pro-war Iran pieces leave out, is that the critical factor in the Israeli-Iranian relationship is how the American-Iranian one  is doing. And it’s doing very very well, if you’re an ayatollah. With American forces tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan without sufficient numbers to pacify both countries, Iran has become sort of the unofficial peacekeeper in southern Iraq (where in true Iranian fashion they back every side and just wait to see who wins) and Herat in western A-stan. With a phone call they can make life very unpleasant for American soldiers in Iraq or start another Hizb’allah-Israeli conflict.

Bottom line, as long as these conditions persist America has very little influence to stop the Iranian nuclear program, but enough influence to stop Israel from attacking them preemptively, which is going to mean an enforced stalemate until something crazy happens or the strategic calculus changes drastically.

Technorati Tags: , , , , ,